James 2:14–26

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James 2:14-26: Justification by Works

John Hepp, Jr.

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by Works

John Hepp, Jr.

is the key passage in the Bible for justification by works. Look at
the phrases I have bolded in verses 21, 24, and 25. Each one speaks
of a person being “justified” or “considered
righteous” (Greek
by works. I quote and paraphrase James 2:14-26 in four paragraphs,
adding comments throughout and at the end.

A. Without Works the Faith One Claims is
Worthless, 2:14-17




 14* What
good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but
has no deeds? Can such faith save him?
 14 I
address fellow Jews who profess to believe in Jesus Messiah.
What do you think of Person A, who says he believes in Jesus but
does not obey Him? Can the belief he professes make him right
with God?
“Brothers” can—but does not always—refer
to true believers. In Acts 22:1 Paul used it for fellow Jews who
were trying to kill him. “Can such faith save him?”
assumes the answer No. “Such” represents the Greek
article, which identifies this “faith” as the faith
just claimed by Person A. Other suitable translations would be
“that faith,” “that kind of faith,” or
“his faith.”
 15 Suppose
a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food.
 15-16 His
belief is no better than the empty words used to encourage a
fellow believer who is freezing and starving. Such words, unless
they are accompanied by clothes or food, are useless.

 16 If one
of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well
fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good
is it?

 17 In the
same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is

 17 So is
belief in Messiah useless if there is no obedience with it.

B. Without Works Faith Cannot be Demonstrated,




 18 But
someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show
me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what
I do.

 18 As just
stated, Person A professes to believe but has not obeyed
Messiah. Person B challenges A to prove his belief without
such evidence. B, in contrast, has such evidence of his own

 18-19 NIV,
assuming that Person B wants to separate faith from works,
concludes his words in the middle of v. 18. My interpretation
assumes that Person B begins with irony and continues at least
through v. 19.

 19 You
believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe
that—and shudder.
 19 A
has an orthodox Jewish creed. So do demons. But orthodoxy does
not save demons—nor anyone else.

C. Abraham…Rahab as Scriptural Examples of
Justification by Works, 2:20-25




 20 You
foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is
 20 For
person A here is proof from Scripture that belief without
obedience as evidence is no good.
 20 Some
who limit Person B’s words to v. 18a assume that he is the
“foolish man.” I think that man is A.
 21 Was

not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he
did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?

 21 The
first example is Abraham, the forefather of all Jews. Late
in life God approved him because in obedience to God he put
his promised son on an altar to sacrifice him.
 21 This
Greek question assumes a Yes answer. I have made it a statement.
NIV’s phrase “was considered righteous” and my
verb “approved” represent Greek edikaiothe,
which KJV translates “was justified.”
 22 You see
that his faith and his actions were working together, and his
faith was made complete by what he did.
Abraham’s belief did not remain hidden but matured through
such acts of obedience.
 22 “His
faith was made complete” (“Faith was perfected,”

NASB). The Greek verb, which I have given as “matured,”
is literally “carried to the end.”

 23 And the
scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed
God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he
was called God’s friend.
 23 Years
before, his belief had been counted as a proper standing
before God. Now it had matured into character that God highly

 24 You see
that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith

 24 A
person is declared right not only when he believes in
God—but also by many acts that show he is transformed.

 25 In the
same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered
for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies
and sent them off in a different direction?

 25 Just as
in Abraham’s case, the Canaanite prostitute Rahab was
declared right
for her action. She did not just secretly
believe but aided God’s cause at her own risk.

D. Summary, 2:26




 26 As the
body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

Supposedly believing in Messiah without acting on it is no better
than having a body without breath.

Added Comment on Two Categories of

The Greek noun for
justification (dikaiosis) is seldom used in the New Testament.
However, the verb for justify (dikaioo) is used often. The
verb does not mean “make righteous” but “declare to
be righteous.” That is clear in the apostle Paul’s first
use of it in Romans: “It is not those who hear the law who are
righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who
will be declared righteous” (Rom. 2:13). Note that
this is a future justification (“will be”).

In James 2:14-26 dikaioo
occurs in verses 21, 24, and 25. In two of them (21, 25) the NIV
translates it “consider righteous.” In all three
verses the King James Version translates it “justify,” as
it usually does elsewhere (e.g., Rom. 3:28; 4:2, 5; 5:1, 9; 8:30).

The doctrine of
justification, however, does not depend on the use of a term like
dikaiosis or dikaioo. A statement or action of
approval can be justification without calling it that. Thus, James
argues for two categories of justification based on God’s
responses to Abraham and Rahab. Here we will call those categories
(1) original justification and (2) subsequent justification.

1. Original
justification is complete at the first moment of faith in Messiah.
At this point the newborn believer has no good works to show. Yet,
God counts as righteous this person “who does not work but
trusts God who justifies the wicked” (Rom. 4:5; see 4:2-5,
3:20, 26, 28). He is declared righteous because the righteousness of
Messiah is “imputed” to his account.

2. Subsequent
justification is based on the good works that show the reality of
faith. These are works of obedience to Messiah Jesus. They justify
the believer in the sense of vindicating him, proving that he belongs
to God and His Son. This evidence begins immediately after
conversion and continues as true faith matures. Therefore,
subsequent justification will occur many times for each believer.

Only God can see the faith bringing the original
justification. But both men and God can see the works that spring
from faith. Paul’s writings usually emphasize original
justification; however, see Romans 2:13 (quoted above); 8:2-5; and
Galatians 5:5-6 (cf. 1 Cor. 13:2-3). James 2 definitely refers to

Can a person have original justification without
subsequent justification? Only if he first believes at the same
moment when he is dying. For though it is true that faith alone
saves, saving faith never remains alone.

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References for James 2:14-26
Justification by Works

Acts 22:1
1“Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense.”

Added Comment on Two Categories of Justification
KJV, Romans 3:28
28Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.

KJV, Romans 4:2, 5

2For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God.
5But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.

KJV, Romans 5:1
1Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ:

KJV, Romans 8:30
30Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.

Romans 4:2-5
2If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about–but not before God.  3What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
4Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation.  5However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.

Romans 3:20, 26, 28
20Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.

26he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
28For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.

Romans 8:2-5
2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.  3For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, 4in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.
5Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.

Galatians 5:5-6

5But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope.  6For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

1 Corinthians 13:2-3
2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  3If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

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