A study on James 2:18-26 – Faith Working With Deeds

INTRODUCTION

The book of James is considered one of the most strict and legalistic books in the Bible. It is full of commands for Christians to live a Godly life. The book has a history of being either thrown out entirely or misunderstood.  Luther essentially took James out of the Bible as far as he was concerned since he thought it didn’t hold up to Pauls’ concept of Justification by faith.[1] Many people also consider it a hard read and a convicting read for many people since it is full of hard hitting truths such as controlling ones tongue and the often misunderstood justification shown by works. James 2:18-26 is the passage most people point to when creating the argument for justification by works, and is going to be the focus of this exegesis.

In James 2:18-26 there are many aspects of this passage, which often are seen as contradicting the rest of scripture, but these tend to come from misunderstanding of the passages. In many ways, this passage is one where understanding the Greek is incredibly important to the context and in many situations the text conveys the meaning James intended to get across but lack the voice of the author. This lack of voice is one of the reasons James is considered a very heavy book whereas if people knew there were actually jokes within the texts it would lighten the mood of the text. A perfect example of this happens in verse 26.

Most translation render the last clause as ‘that faith without works is useless.’ But ‘useless’ (a;;ryh;) is a compound word formed from a; + e’’ryon epyov (“not” + “work”). The only way to bring out the plan on words in English is to say something like ‘faith without works doesn’t work,” which is just a little freer than most functionally equivalent translations. But formally equivalent translations could never say “faith without works is not-work,” because no one would understand it. So English versions invariably mask the original pun.[2]

The very fact that a joke takes place in this section is completely lost on most readers of the text and instead most people find this an area with a tense or heavy mood when in fact James uses a pun to make conclude his argument regarding faith and works. While the letter as a whole is not filled with jokes and comedic relief, there are many other areas where having an understanding of the Greek will put the passage as a whole into context.

CONTEXT

One of the most famous quotes regarding context is simply “a text without a context for a pretext for a prooftext.” This may not be more relevant anywhere in scripture as it is in the book of James. Before we can understand the context of 2:18-26, it is important to understand the context of the book of James it is important to understand the timing, the audience and even who James is. While the author is known as James, the author is not specifically identified in the book, church tradition, and the general consensus among scholars is that James, the half brother of Jesus is the author.[3] This would be fitting based on the context of the book he wrote which was full of references which Jews would be the most likely to understand.

In his five chapters James refers or alludes to twenty-two books of the Old Testament. “By doing this James obviates the need for any formal statement of inspiration; he merely assumes it.” This reflects that James was steeped in the Old Testament and was writing to a Jewish audience equally familiar with the Old Testament. But since the epistle had a wide audience, it also suggests the importance of the Old Testament for the church.[4]

When understanding the background of the author and the audience it helps to build upon our understanding of what the text would have meant to the audience.

Historical-Cultural Context

When looking at the historical cultural context it is important to realize the audience is James was writing to. We have established the audience would have understood the Old Testament scriptures and this makes sense since we know James was writing to the twelve tribes scattered all over the world (1:1). In doing this, James “does not identify a specific location of the readers, but it suggests a Jewish-Christian audience outside of Palestine.”[5] With this in mind the readers would have known the Old Testament scriptures, and this also is another hint that the early church gathered together and read the Old Testament and occasionally letters from the Apostles as this one likely would have been read when they came together.

It is important to understand what would happen when the early church (and thereby James’ audience) would gather. Most of the time the early church would gather in the home of some person in the congregation either on a Sabbath or in observance of things such as the Lord’s Supper which was regularly observed. The observance of the Lord’s supper became a prominent event and Peter-Ben Smit argues “provides a helpful matrix for the interpretation of James, taking into account the close relationship between meal-community and community-as- such in the first-century Mediterranean world.”[6] By considering the audience being one which gathered on a regular basis in someone’s house to meet together as a member of the local church, it can be helpful to understand how the audience would be rather close knit.

Lastly as far as the historical context is concerned is the time of writing. Scholars generally consider the book of James to have been written as one of the first of the New Testament books to be written, even if it was not one of the first accepted into canon. James was martyred in AD 63 according to the Jewish historian Josephus and therefore the book must have been written prior to AD 63. Assuming the author is the brother of Jesus, the letter must have been written after the death of Jesus since it is known that Jesus’ brothers did not believe Jesus until after his death on the cross. Also, since the letter doesn’t include any reference to many of the topics which would have happened during the Jerusalem council it seems it would have been written prior to AD 49 and likely around AD 45.[7]

Literary Context

The book of James doesn’t fit neatly into any one specific genre of literature. It is a letter that was written to a wide audience and could be considered a circular by those standards, but it goes beyond just a circular with its correlation to wisdom literature of the Old Testament, especially when you consider how many references to the Old Testament are present. It doesn’t fit nicely into any one category, and therefore, “it may be best to understand James as a literary circular letter with affinities to protreptic literature influence by Jewish wisdom literature.”[8] To help clarify this, it is important to see how this impacts the writing style. While it doesn’t fit neatly into one style, it can be best to look at his letter as uncommon to the rest of scripture in that “his letter sets forth a protreptic discourse, a form of wisdom that not only includes exhortation but also focuses on a consistent form of behavior, defining its more teaching in terms of a specific profession of life.”[9] It may be the only book in the Bible which looks almost entirely at the behavior a Christian ought to manifest.

As far as the way the book is laid out, the structure is starts as a letter, but unlike other letters the topic shifts and then comes back to the original topics. This is one of the reasons James has been seen as a wisdom literature book. But the book is laid out in such a way that each theme is introduced and then James comes back and makes his argument for each of the themes. This is why, the best way to look at the structure of James is “in terms of a more linear structure in which chap. 1 serves as an introduction of major themes but demurs from identifying a chiasm therein. First, following the introduction of major themes in chap 1., the first major unit in the body of the letter (2:1-26) describes the nature of saving faith.”[10] It is this nature of saving faith upon which the text of the exegesis rests.

ANALYSIS OF TEXT

First Periscope: 2:18a

The subject of the first section is someone who is talking about what is saving them from heaven. In this section it introduces the topic comparing faith and works. To introduce the comparison, different translations go one of two ways, they either say that someone will say or a man will say, and then the NLT uses the concept of someone arguing the point they are about to make. The other main difference in this section between translations is the word translated either works or deeds. Either one has the connotation of a task done. Most of the translations therefore imply this is a saying that was relatively common, and the point of it would be to compare how someone is justified before God. The idea here is to compare faith and works. Therefore, the important words here are faith and deeds or works. In the book of James, the word used for faith is pi;stiß, and for works is e’’rgon. Both of them are used consistently throughout James so anytime works (or deeds) is used it is the same Greek word and the same with faith.[11]

Second Periscope 2:18b

In the second periscope the emphasis becomes on how we show the faith. Here James is issuing a challenge to his audience to show one’s faith. In order to accomplish the task James sends a challenge to those who would emphasize faith over accomplishing good deeds. The first part that all translations include is James’ challenge to show faith without works. Without doing anything one is challenged to show a saving faith. One important part in the rest of the challenge is how James includes how he will show his faith. The means James’ will show his faith by works or deeds he accomplishes. The key here is how he is showing the faith that he has by what he does whereas the others are tasked to show their faith without doing anything.

Third Periscope 2:19

In this periscope, everything centers around the word believe. Depending on the Greek text used, there are either one or two words that are translated believe. pioten;;;;eiß is used for the first instance translated believe while pioten;;;;onsin is the term used in the second instance for the manuscripts that are different.[12] In other manuscripts it is the word pisten;w.[13] Either way they both can be translated believe with meanings ranging from an intellectual evaluation to committing to something or trusting something and finally as a religious commitment.[14] This leads to a James challenging his readers about what specifically it is they believe. For while the rest of scripture shows that faith alone (or belief alone) is required for salvation, the key is in what is believed. The demons certainly believe in God, but their belief does not lead to good works being accomplished. However a saving faith would then be able to be contrasted to the belief of demons by the actions resulting from the faith as shown in the previous verse.

Fourth Periscope 2:20

In verse 20 we see the start of a new section of thought regarding faith and works. This section is addressed specifically to those who think their faith without works is what is going to qualify them to enter heaven. Similarly to the demon mentioned previously, they believe, but they believe the wrong thing. This leads James to call them out on their foolishness. Various translations have different ways of bringing the point across. James essentially asks the audience who believes in faith without works whether or not they even desire to know the truth. Almost every translation brings across the point that it is up to the audience whether they even want to know. In the NLT they declare the idea foolish and ask whether the reader can see the next point, that faith without works is useless. The object or concept in question in this section is the idea that faith without works is useless, or dead and in one translation barren.

Fifth Periscope 2:21

This section has Abraham as the object of the rest of the section. Referencing Abraham, James say he was justified by works when he offered Isaac on the altar. It is important to not that two concepts detail are used to describe Abraham. First is the term “our father” which in one translation also uses the phrase “our ancestor.” The next descriptive phrase is how Abraham was justified. The NKJV uses “justified by works”, the NIV uses “considered righteous for what he did” and the Message uses “made right by works” to describe the action of Abraham of placing Isaac on the altar. This is one of the phrases which has a wide range of ways used to describe the Greek. The Greek word that is being translated here is dikaio;w,[15] which ends up being translated as ‘considered righteous’, ‘justified’ ‘shown to be in the right,’ ‘declared righteous.’ This is what has led to much confusion and the BBE may make the most clearest rendering of this verse, while not being very formally equivalent, when it says “Was not the righteousness of Abraham our Father judged by his works.”

The action being used as the justification for Abraham is the sacrifice of Isaac on the alter when God intervened to provide the ram. However, only the Message clarifies that the Altar is a sacrificial altar, the majority of translations assume the reader knows the story of Abraham and the sacrificial altar much as James would assume his readers to understand his references to the rest of the Old Testament.

Sixth Periscope 2:22

This section builds off of the story of Abraham. Once again James uses a rhetorical question when he asks his audience whether they see his point. He wants to build on the point that faith was working, and thence was the reason Abraham was justified, with the actions Abraham completed. The differences in translations are be summarized by describing exactly how it is that faith and works are related. In the NKJV uses the term perfected while the NIV uses complete to describe how Abraham’s faith and deeds acted together. On the other hand, the Message says they are yoked partners and that faith expresses itself in works. Regardless of the various translations, they all bring across the same point, that faith and works are working together to provide the basis for saving faith.

Seventh Periscope 2:23

This section focuses on scripture being fulfilled. The parts of scripture that were fulfilled through the two previous sections relate to Abraham believing God, Abraham’s belief being credited to Abraham as righteousness, and being called a friend of God. It is in this section we see James showing that through the actions worked out because of the faith of Abraham the rest scripture was be fulfilled. The differences in the scriptures relate back to how the words used to describe the justification or righteousness of Abraham’s believing God and that being accounted in the NKJV or Credited in the NIV while the Message describes this by saying Abraham believed and was set right and that the mesh of faith and work got Abraham to be called God’s Friend while most versions say “And he was called God’s friend (NIV) or the friend of God.”

Eight Periscope 2:24

Verse 24 brings this entire passage back to the point James is trying to make. Using a similar method to describe the subject as in verse 22 to describe seeing the truth. And once again the key is tying in the concept of being justified by works and not just faith. To describe this, most translations use justified, or counted righteous and then goes ton to say it is not by faith alone. This once again repeats the theme of this section of verses where there is emphasis on the works that are accomplished to prove ones faith. A key to make note of is that in none of the translations does it say without faith, it is key to understand that faith is an essential component in this section still.

Ninth Periscope 2:25

This section goes back to providing evidence for the point James that works are necessary for faith. He does this by bringing in Rahab the harlot. Once again it references the Old Testament which a Jewish audience would have understood immediately. The subject of the section is Rahab and her justification. Similarly to the story of Abraham James just used, the emphasis is on what she did. Specifically she received the messengers and then sent them out a different way. By saving the spies she put her faith in the God of Israel and the Jewish audience would have been familiar with this store. Most translations introduce Rahab through the the idea of being justified or considered righteous, but the Message only says “The same with Rahab” and then goes on to describe her actions saying that is what counted with God”.  Once again the focus is on the actions that were done by Rahab and how those actions were an example of her faith.

Tenth Periscope 2:26a

Here James is almost at the pinnacle of the argument. After having established the evidence from the Old Testament which would be used to provide the evidence for his position, he then uses one last example his audience would have been familiar with to provide one last comparison to the concept of faith without works. The example is that of life and specifically the body and the spirit. In this example, James is providing a contrast to compare life with faith. Faith here would represent the body and works the Spirit of God. The audience would have understood the implications of this theory. Specifically, in Jewish culture, “mankind has breath, or spirit, because it has been given by God’s Spirit; when a person died the spirit is returned to God. Life and death therefore are represented in the Bible as a giving and a withdrawing of God’s breath, or spirit.”[16]

Eleventh Periscope 2:26b

At last the conclusion of James’ argument has been reached. In a direct comparison to the last piece of evidence is this section. Here James gives the information that faith can be related to the body and works to the spirit. The conclusion simply comes now to the idea that a body without the spirit would be dead, faith without works is likewise dead. As previously mentioned, the conclusion comes in the form of a pun which is missed by all English translations but can be noted in the Greek text. It lessens the harshness in the tone while at the same time creating a tone more easily remembered by his audience.

APPLICATION

This section of scripture is one which tends to be thought of as though it provides a contradiction between Paul and James and their concepts of how one is justified. However, “both Paul and James agree on the nature of justification. Paul, using the expression in its technical sense, emphasizes the means whereby God justifies. James, using the term in the more popular way, emphasizes the evidence that an individual has, in fact, been justified by faith.”[17] It would seem James is tired of people claiming to believe in God yet not living a life which would match their claims and seeks to address this issue through his letter. This passage ought to convict the reader to live their faith in a way in which the individual believes the promises of God and acts accordingly. Faith must be accompanied by works and are the mark of real saving faith.

CONCLUSION

Ultimately we see this section making the point that good deeds and will come naturally from one’s belief in Christ. “If there are no good works, there has been neither real faith nor justification. We find support for this contention in the fact that justification is intimately linked with union with Christ. If we have become one with Christ, then we will not live according to the flesh, but rather by the Spirit.”[18] Once James is understood in its fullness with regards to the audience, it is easy to see how those who dismiss James as a “strawy epistle” such as Luther do so in error. James can be seen to complement Paul and the rest of Scripture instead of contradicting it as many suppose. Therefore we can see that an understanding of Greek lends to a better understanding of scripture and should be studied more so Christians can better understand the context and what it means to believe in Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Anders, Max & Thomas Lea. Holman New Testament Commentary: Hebrews & James. Nashville: Holman Reference. 1999.

Blomberg, Craig, A Handbook for New Testament Exegesis. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. 2010.

Charles, Homer Giblin. “The Letter of James: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary.” Theological Studies 58, no. 2 (06, 1997): 350-2, http://search.proquest.com/docview/212692025?accountid=12085.

Douglas, J.D. The Greek English Interlinear New Testament. Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers. 1990.

Elwell, Walter. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. 2001

Erickson, Millard. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Books. 1998.

Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology. Chicago: Moody Publishers. 2008.

Friberg, Timothy, Barbara Friberg, & Nova Miller. Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament. Victoria: Trafford. 2005.

Goodrick, Edward & John Kohlenberger III. The Storngest NIV Exhaustive Concordance. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 1999.

Kostenberger, Andreas. The Cradle, The Cross and the Crown. Nashville: B&H Publishing. 2009.

Smit, Peter-Ben. “A Symposiastic Background to James?” New Testament Studies 58, no. 1 (01, 2012): 105-22, http://search.proquest.com/docview/920021167?accountid=12085.

Towns, Elmer. Theology for Today. Mason: Cengage Learning. 2002.


[1] Kostenberger, Andreas. The Cradle, The Cross and the Crown. Nashville: B&H Publishing. 2009. 701.

[2] Blomberg, Craig, A Handbook for New Testament Exegesis. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. 2010. 44.

[3] Anders, Max & Thomas Lea. Holman New Testament Commentary: Hebrews & James. Nashville: Holman Reference. 1999. 251.

[4] Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology. Chicago: Moody Publishers. 2008. 102.

[5] Anders, Max & Thomas Lea. Holman New Testament Commentary: Hebrews & James. Nashville: Holman Reference. 1999. 252.

[6] Smit, Peter-Ben. “A Symposiastic Background to James?” New Testament Studies 58, no. 1 (01, 2012): 105-22, http://search.proquest.com/docview/920021167?accountid=12085.

[7] Kostenberger, Andreas. The Cradle, The Cross and the Crown. Nashville: B&H Publishing. 2009. 711-712.

[8] Kostenberger, Andreas. The Cradle, The Cross and the Crown. Nashville: B&H Publishing. 2009. 715.

[9] Charles, Homer Giblin. “The Letter of James: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary.” Theological Studies 58, no. 2 (06, 1997): 350-2, http://search.proquest.com/docview/212692025?accountid=12085.

[10] Kostenberger, Andreas. The Cradle, The Cross and the Crown. Nashville: B&H Publishing. 2009. 716

[11] Goodrick, Edward & John Kohlenberger III. The Storngest NIV Exhaustive Concordance. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 1999. 270, 376, 1553, 1583.

[12] Douglas, J.D. The Greek English Interlinear New Testament. Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers. 1990. 799.

[13] Goodrick, Edward & John Kohlenberger III. The Storngest NIV Exhaustive Concordance. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 1999. 129,1583.

[14] Friberg, Timothy, Barbara Friberg, & Nova Miller. Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament. Victoria: Trafford. 2005. 314.

[15] 960, 1542.

[16] Elwell, Walter. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. 2001. 1134.

[17] Towns, Elmer. Theology for Today. Mason: Cengage Learning. 2002. 459.

[18] Erickson, Millard. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Books. 1998. 973.


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