What is the meaning of “faith without works is dead”?
In the second chapter of James’ letter, He writes:
Notice in v.20 James declares that a life of faith absent good works is “useless.” He then cites the example of Abraham. Abraham was declared righteous by faith in chapter 15 of Genesis, but he did no good work in keeping with his faith until chapter 22, when he attempted to sacrifice his son Isaac as God required.
We know that Abraham was saved by his faith alone in chapter 15 (as Paul confirms in Romans 4), and yet James says Abraham needed to perform the good works of chapter 22 before scripture was “fulfilled" in his life. James’ point is subtle and easy to miss, but Abraham’s example helps to ground and guide our interpretation. Whatever James is saying about faith and works must be consistent with what we know to be true for Abraham.
What do we know about Abraham? Was he declared to be righteous by doing good works? No, for Paul says:
Therefore, we know James was not saying that Abraham was made righteous by his good works. He was righteous by his faith alone.
Furthermore, Abraham was declared righteous in chapter 15. Are we to conclude that Abraham was somehow less “saved" prior to his good works in chapter 22? In other words, is James saying that until Abraham did good works his confession of faith was invalid or inadequate?
Once again, the answer must be no, because Paul quotes from Genesis 15 in Romans 4 when he says that Abraham was righteous by faith. Consequently, Abraham was no less righteous in Genesis 15 than he was in Genesis 22. So now we know that Abraham was saved by faith alone well before he did good works, so what was James’ point in referencing Abrahams good works
His point was that until Abraham did the good works that his faith expected, Abraham had yet to fulfill his purpose in being made righteous by God. In the years between Genesis 15 and Genesis 22, Abraham made many mistakes and acted in ways that were contrary to his faith. He lied about his wife and agreed to marry a concubine to make an heir. These were not actions consistent with faith.
James says in v.23 that scripture was “fulfilled" when Abraham obeyed God in Genesis 22. James means that God’s declaration that Abraham was righteous in Genesis 15 was fulfilled in his actions in Genesis 22. What was already true in Heaven in Genesis 15 (i.e., that Abraham was justified by faith) became evident on earth in Genesis 22 when Abraham acted in righteous ways.
James’ message to the believer is that we are saved for the purpose of doing good works, but if we fail to pursue good works, our faith is useless to God and to us. That faith is no less real, and therefore we are no less saved, but we will not have fulfilled (i.e., lived up to) the righteousness we have been given by our faith in Jesus Christ.
That’s the meaning of v.22 when James says that faith is “perfected” by our works. In this context, perfected means to fulfill its purpose in our life. God has granted us faith in His Son so that we would be saved and so that we might bring Him glory by our good works, as Jesus says:
When we do the good works expected of us, we perfect or fulfill the purpose of our faith in God’s plan. When we fail to accomplish the good works God intends, our faith still saves us yet it is useless otherwise. Earlier in James 2 the writer says:
Once again, James acknowledges the presence of faith in the believer. He says that faith is by itself, not invalid or absent. Nevertheless, James says it is “dead” because it exists without works which denies faith its purpose in glorifying God. In this context the word dead means faith that is like a corpse in that it lacks activity or energy.
James does not mean that the faith is false or nonexistent. Once again, whatever is true for Abraham must be true for us. Was Abraham’s faith nonexistent prior to his good works in Genesis 22? No, and therefore we must make the same conclusion concerning the believer today who has placed faith in Christ but has not yet perfected his faith (i.e., produced the good works expected by God).
That is James’ chief concern for the church, that believers would live according to their faith so as to produce good works. Earlier in the chapter, James had chastised the church for failing to show charity to fellow believers:
In v.14 James asks if a faith that does not produce good works can “save” a person? In this context, the word save doesn’t mean yield salvation. We know this because to interpret it otherwise would suggest that good works play a role in our salvation, which the Bible clearly and repeated states is not true.
Therefore, we must consider alternate meanings for the word “saved” in this context. The Greek word (sozo) has a range of meaning to include salvation but also other earthly forms of saving like being healed or being rescued. In this context, James is alluding to the judgment that believers face for their works. Believers are saved by faith alone from the penalty of their sin, but we are judged according to our works for eternal rewards (see 1Cor 3). So James asks can a life of faith without good works “save” or preserve the believer from the poor outcome that awaits him at the Judgment Seat of Christ?
Therefore, the phrase “faith without works is dead” refers to a believer living without a desire to accomplish good works for God. Such a person is still saved by their faith, just as Abraham was, but their faith is useless to God in that it produces no glory for Him. In that sense the faith is “dead’ because it is inactive and without purpose.
For a complete explanation of the book of James, please consult our entire James study, which is available here for free here.