Five Probing Questions about Faith
This wasn’t the first time Carl and Frank discussed the Bible.
“It’s simple, Carl. Baptism is a work. It’s something you’re doing. Read Ephesians 2:8. Anyone can see that salvation is a gift from God. Right there, it says that salvation is not of works. It can’t be any plainer.”
Carl smiled with kind eyes. “Frank, we’ve been friends a long time. You know as well as I do that the works in Ephesians 2:8 are things we can boast about. I agree. Salvation doesn’t come by anything we do for ourselves. But there’s a difference between doing works of our own making and God’s works. No one can be saved without obeying God. Without obedience to God’s works, we are spiritually dead. Just like James 2:26 says.”
“I knew you’d bring that one up again. I talked to my pastor, and he explained that James was talking to already-saved people. So you can’t really use that verse. Romans 4:1-5 proves that we are saved without works to start with. Sure ... we have to show we are spiritually alive after we’re saved by doing good works. But that’s all James is saying.”
Does this Conversation Sound Familiar?
Perhaps you’ve had a similar conversation with your friends.
What about Frank’s claim? Is the faith James writes about limited to simply doing good works as a Christian? Or can we discover a deeper, richer understanding of the connection between obedience and saving faith?
In James 2:14-26, James asks five probing questions about faith to help us think more clearly about what it means to believe and obey God.
Is There a Difference Between a Sinner’s Faith and a Christian’s Faith?
The idea that pre-conversion faith and post-conversion faith are inherently different is false.
Genuine faith involves trust and obedience before and after conversion. The obedient acts or works that flow from faith differ for sinners and saints, but faith’s nature is the same. Saving faith involves belief, trust, and obedience (Heb. 11:1, 6).
Romans 4 and James 2 educate non-Christians and Christians alike regarding the essence of God-pleasing faith. These passages, both inspired by the Holy Spirit, do not conflict with each other.
In Romans 4, Paul affirms that works can never be a substitute for faith—as if a man can make God obligated to bless him. Sinners are in no position to hold anything over God.
In James 2, James shows that genuine faith is *active*—obedient. Works alone never save, but words alone do not save either. If you truly believe God’s word, you should do whatever he requires at any time.
The sinner’s faith should show itself to be genuine by obeying the teaching of Jesus Christ (e.g., repenting of sins and being baptized [cf. Lk. 13:3; Mt. 28:19; Rom. 6:17]).
On the other hand, the saved person’s faith is demonstrated in Christian charity, morality, impartiality, humility, worship, and evangelism (cf. Eph. 2:10; 1 Thes. 1:3).
In his own life, James had to ask himself some hard questions. Would he admit that his brother was the Son of God? Would he acknowledge his wrongs (cf. Jn. 7:5)?
Obviously, he faced the truth (cf. Acts 1:14). Consider his five probing questions about faith.
What Does It Profit?
At the beginning of James 2:14 and at the end of v.16, James asks, “What does it profit?” He wrote:
What doth it profit, my brethren, if a man say he hath faith, but have not works? can that faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked and in lack of daily food, and one of you say unto them, “Go in peace, be ye warmed and filled”; and yet ye give them not the things needful to the body; what doth it profit? (ASV)
Probing the nature of faith, James presents some real-world hypotheticals about faith. His question-and-answer format invites us to think through these issues.
He asked, “What does it profit?” “Profit” (Greek
ophelos) communicates here the idea of “an advantage derived from something … what good does it do? Js 2:16” (BDAG, 743).
What spiritual benefit is to be found in mere faith talk? Or we could ask: “What benefit follows from ‘accepting Jesus’ while rejecting what he requires?”
None! The Savior himself asked: “And why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?” (Lk. 6:46).
Can That Faith Save Him?
Note the second question about faith:
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? (v. 14, ESV).
First, consider how this question about faith is translated. The ASV and NASBB render this question as the ESV does: “Can that faith save him?” The NIV has: “Can such faith save them?”
Observe the subtle difference found in the KJV: “Can faith save him?” The KJV does not translate the article, but the Greek text behind the KJV has the article (i.e., the word “the”).
So, the differences noted in the versions above are not based on different Greek texts. This is a question about how this verse should be translated. The KJV leaves “the” untranslated.
The Greek New Testament employs the article differently from how English speakers communicate.
For example, Matthew 8:4 says, “And Jesus said to him….” The article often precedes proper names, and it does in Matthew 8:4. But it would make for an unnatural rendering to say “the Jesus.” So we must be careful before charging the KJV with a fault because it sometimes fails to translate the article. I doubt any English version translates every occurrence of the Greek definite article.
In James 2:14, however, the article plays a specific role that needs recognition in translation. “Can that faith save him?” represents the meaning of James’s question better than “Can faith save him?”
Faith can save a person. That is not in question. What is under consideration in verse 14 is a kind of faith — faith without works. “Can that faith save him?” Absolutely not!
This usage of the definite article is sometimes called “the article of previous reference” (Wallace 219; Rogers 558; Vlachos 87). In this question about saving faith, James refers back to a faith previously defined for discussion: a workless faith. Such faith cannot save a person. Thus, James 2:14 is more clearly rendered in English by: “Can that faith [i.e., referred to in vv. 12-13] save him?”
Second, this is a question about salvation. James asks, “Can that faith save him?”
James proves that faith requires work by its very nature. His point applies to anyone. And so, James concludes his discussion in vv. 14-16 by saying, “Even so faith, if it have not works, is dead in itself” (v. 17, ASV).
Didn’t Works justify Abraham and Rahab?
Let’s evaluate the third and fourth questions together because they complement each other and intensify the point that faith plus works results in justification.
Wasn’t Abraham justified by works (v. 21)?
Yes! James says so in verses 22-23 by appealing to the facts. In stating that Abraham’s faith was an obedient faith (cf. Heb. 11:8-10, 17-19), James notes,
“You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected” (v. 22, NASB).
He then applies this teaching to everyone: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (v. 24).
James is talking about the kind of faith that justifies a person in God’s sight. To suggest that James’s teaching only applies to those already justified (i.e., saved) is absurd.
Rahab’s justification reaffirms the point. Was she not “justified by works?” Yes, and James asserts she was justified “in the same way” (v. 25).
James concludes: “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead” (v. 26).
We have considered four probing questions about faith, namely some rhetorical questions.
What is the profit of dead faith? Nothing. Can that faith save him? No. Were not Abraham and Rahab justified by their works? Yes. But the fifth question is open.
Do We Want to Know the Truth?
Faith without works is dead, but an unanswered question lies in the heart of this discussion. “Do we really want to know the truth?”
James says, “But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless” (v. 20, NASB).
Do you want the truth? Do you want the facts? “[W]ilt thou know” (KJV)? This is the question that everyone must answer.
The nature of saving faith has been settled. Faith and its works result in justification. Do we want to see the evidence that shows saving faith works?
After asking the question, James directs us to the Scriptures. Without a doubt, Abraham was justified by his works. He was not justified by self-created works that somehow put God in debt to him. That’s impossible (Rom. 4:1-5).
By grace, God saved Abraham based on the man’s faith. What kind of faith? A dead faith or a genuine faith that motivated him to obey God? Of course, it was the latter.
This unassailable conclusion means the popular idea of salvation by faith alone is worthless and dead.
Do we want to know the truth about the nature of saving faith? That is James’s open-ended, probing question we must answer.
And it is an essential question for both sinners and saints (cf. Eph. 2:10; 1 Thes. 1:3; Tit. 2:14; Jas. 1:27).
- (BDAG) Danker, Frederick W., Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich. 2000. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Rogers Jr., Cleon L. and Cleon L. Rogers III. 1998. The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
- Vlachos, Chris A. 2013. Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament: James. Nashville: Broadman & Holman.
- Wallace, Daniel B. 1996. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.