John MacArthur on James 2:20.

The following is a question regarding James 2:20, and John MacArthur’s answer.

Question

Please explain James 2:20, “…that faith without works is dead.”

Answer

“But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?” What does this mean: “Faith without works is dead”? Does this mean that to be saved we have to do works? Well let’s find out.

Back up, verse 14. We have got to get the context. “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him?”

Now what he is saying, James, that’s why Marten Luther said that the Book of James was a right strawy [something of little value] epistle, he didn’t like it, because it kind of fouled up his doctrine of justification by faith. But that is only because he didn’t study it in deep detail to see what was really being said.

What does the Bible teach about salvation? Abraham was justified by works? Romans four, is that what it says? “Abraham was justified by what…? “Faith.” Abraham was not justified by works. Romans chapter three says, “No man is justified by works. By the deeds of the law shall…” what? “No flesh be justified,” none. There is no way that we can be justified. In Romans 3:28, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.” Salvation is by faith, not by works. Galatians chapter three tells us the same thing, that you cannot be justified by works, you cannot be saved by what you do, in terms of deeds. He says, “…they that are of faith,” Galatians 3:9, “are blessed with faithful Abraham.” It’s all a matter of faith. The man that is justified, he says in verse 11, “But no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, … The just shall live by faith.” Now the Bible teaches that you are saved by faith, well you say that what in the world is James saying?

Can faith save him? James is looking at this from the stand point of evaluation. He is looking at a man who says, “I have faith!” And he is saying, all right if you have true saving faith then I ought to see some evidence of it, right? “By their fruits you shall…” what? “…know them.”

He is simply saying, if your faith is genuine then it’s going to manifest itself. “If any man be in Christ he is a new creation, old thing are passed away and behold all things become…” what? “…new.” There is going to be a manifestation. And so he says, what kind of faith have you got my friend, I don’t see any evidence?

For example, he says, “If a brother or sister be naked and destitute of daily food and one of you who claims to have saving faith says depart in peace be warm and filled.” Just what he needs. Condolence. Hope you feel better, hope you find some food. But you don’t give him the things needful to the body, what kind of faith is that? If you’re really saved it’s going to be a working kind of salvation that will bear fruit. That’s all he’s saying. So, in verse seventeen, “…so faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead, because it’s alone.” So it’s a dead faith not a living faith. If “a man may say, thou hast faith, and I have works; show me your faith without your works, and I’ll show you my faith by my works.” And he contrasts two kinds of faith.

One kind of faith is the faith that doesn’t have any works and it is dead faith and the other faith is the faith that produces something and its living faith. One saves and one doesn’t. That’s what he is saying, “Oh,” but he says “I believe, I believe,” “Yeah,” he says, “The devils believe and they tremble.” It’s not enough to believe unless that believing results in an act of commitment to Christ that results in a changed life that bears fruit. That’s his whole point.

5 thoughts on “John MacArthur on James 2:20.

  1. Most excellent explanation! The last bit nicely sums it up: “It’s not enough to believe unless that believing results in an act of commitment to Christ that results in a changed life that bears fruit. That’s his whole point.”

    And the need for people to understand this passage is why I was deeply puzzled a couple of years back when the “pastor” of my previous church, in preaching through the book of James, didn’t even include this passage in his outline – much less in his sermons.

  2. For example, he says, “If a brother or sister be naked and destitute of daily food and one of you who claims to have saving faith says depart in peace be warm and filled.” Just what he needs. Condolence. Hope you feel better, hope you find some food.

    Indeed. And don’t we just love to say that very thing, only in a more spiritual way–“I won’t help you–but I’ll pray for you!”

    If we read James 2 carefully, we find that it is not enough just to have faith–since, as James says, there is a faith that does not save (James 2:14).

    What a stern word of warning to the “easy-believer”.

  3. Romans 4:5: “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.”

    James 2:24: “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.”

    Saved by faith? (Romans) or saved by works? (James). The short answer is “saved by God.” But faith is the MEANS of our justification. Justification is the act of God, Who, by grace, declares sinners who have believed on Jesus Christ, to be righteous. Faith is also the “method” of justification.

    There is a type of “justification” which is seen as being before “before” men: Luke 7:35: “But wisdom is justified of all her children.” All “wisdom” is wise from the beginning – but not all “wisdom” is recognized as wise until men see the results – the outcome of wisdom’s children after they followed her way.

    The Holy Spirit uses Abraham in Romans to show righteousness imputed by belief. The Holy Spirit uses Abraham in James to show that belief becomes apparent in action – in obedience – in active obedience. James 2:21: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?”

    The Holy Spirit uses Genesis 15 in Romans. The Holy Spirit uses Genesis Genesis 22 in James. Would Isaac, or Abraham’s servants, have believed God’s promise if Abraham had not obeyed God by intending to kill Isaac? Justification – in God’s accounting – happens by faith. Justification – in man’s outward observation – is evidenced by works. Have you met someone who is hungry & cold? Faith or belief doesn’t feed them or clothe them. The Holy Spirit in James goes past the outward profession and shows a complete (perfect) picture of what has really happened on the inside.

  4. “It’s not enough to believe unless that believing results in an act of commitment to Christ that results in a changed life that bears fruit. That’s his whole point.”

    I think Mac subtly sneaks in something that isn’t here. If we read James 2 in light of James 1:6-8, we see that James is not saying “It’s not enough to believe” – he is saying that such faith is no faith at all! He is calling them hypocrites who do not truly have saving faith.

    Mac’s wording makes it seem as if soemthing needs to be added to simple faith in the Gospel in order for a man to be justified before God. Sola Fide is exactly that: Faith ALONE.

    Those men in James 2 do not have faith at all. They are faithless, for that is what James 1:6-8 is essentially telling us:

    Works without faith are dead – useless, hypocritical, empty, cursed by God.

    -h.

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