The following is a question regarding James 2:20, and John MacArthur’s answer.
Please explain James 2:20, “…that faith without works is dead.”
“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.