James 2:14, NIV: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?”
James 2:14, ESV: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?”
James 2:14, KJV: “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?”
James 2:14, NLT: “What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone?”
James 2:14, CSB: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Can such faith save him?”
What does James 2:14 mean?
This verse begins a controversial passage, one often misunderstood. Here, James will begin to make the case that genuine faith in Christ results in genuine change in the actions of believers. On the surface, it’s really not such a radical idea. Human beings tend to act on what we truly believe. Those who believe God is right and good and powerful will most naturally obey Him. Those who believe God has called them to meet the needs of others will most naturally look for ways to do that.
The controversy comes with what appears, at first glance, to be a contradiction with the teachings of Paul and the other New Testament writers. Paul says in Ephesians 2:8–9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” James’s question in this verse seems to be questioning whether or not a person can be saved without works.
That, however, is not what James is asking. It’s crucial to note that, in the original Greek, James uses the phrase hē pistis for “that faith.” The word hē is important, because it narrows the scope of what James is referring to. In this case, it points back to what was said in the phrase just before. James specifies a person who “says he has faith but does not have works.” James then questions whether or not that faith—one which does not result in good works—can save. This is why most translations translate this as “this faith,” or “such faith.”
It will become clear in the following verses that James’s point complements what Paul says. James never suggests that we are saved by our works. This verse does not question the saving value of faith. Rather, it questions the saving value of “so-called-faith,” or a mere belief which doesn’t produce good works. James’s criticism is specifically aimed at a belief in God which does not cause a changed life.
It’s essential to see the full context of what James has to say here. He is not questioning all definitions of “faith.” He is not disputing that faith alone saves. He is not claiming that works save. James is most definitely saying that a faith which saves, by its very nature, is something which produces works. As later verses will show, works are evidence of salvation, not the source of it.
Two critical verses for understanding this point are James 2:19 and James 2:26. There James clearly describes how mere mental “belief” is not the same as saving faith, and that a faith without works is as dead as a body without breath.
Genuine saving faith in God leads to good and loving actions: ”works.” In chapter 1, James discussed the importance of acting on the words of God, not merely hearing them. Favoritism to the rich over the poor demonstrates a lack of faith. In fact, this is a sin. Following up on these ideas, James insists that ”faith” which doesn’t result in good works is dead. Such belief is merely intellectual agreement. It is not trust, or true, biblical saving faith. James doesn’t deny that belief in God is essential to salvation, nor does he claim that works are necessary to obtain salvation. Rather, he makes the case that works are to faith what the breath is to the body: a sign of life. A ”faith” without works is like a body without breath: dead.