Last updated on November 8th, 2019
The meaning of James 2:14, and James in general, tends to be misunderstood often. In particular, the understanding of works. Let’s read the verse.
A question I ask and hope to encourage you all with today is where are your works? One of the great beauties of our Christian faith is how much it’s about what good we do for others. It’s when we all do good for each other, we can all enjoy good things in life. What’s striking about what James said in verse 14, is that he appears to tie works to saving faith. We can have life through our faith in Christ. But without works, it appears according to what James states in verse 17, it’s dead.
We see a strong importance placed in acting on our faith. Let’s dig a little deeper into the context of James 2:14 to better understand it’s meaning.
James 2:14 Commentary
In the last few verses prior to verse 14, James talks about fulfilling the royal law. He defines it according to scripture to mean loving yourself as you love your neighbor. He notes instances of what amounts to being a transgressor of the law. Specifically, he mentions showing partiality, committing adultery, and murder. As a result, he expresses that judgment will be merciless to the one who has shown no mercy. Then he writes in verse 12-13, “12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy [m]triumphs over judgment.”
James expresses that there will e no merciless judgment for those who show no mercy. This is right directly before the verse that he questions if a faith can save someone with no works? I encourage you to ponder that. But let’s look at the meaning of the word mercy in the Greek.
The Greek Word for mercy is eleos. It means “of uncertain affinity; compassion (human or divine, especially active)”. So to understand the verse with the meaning of this word, it appears to be expressing, those who show no compassion towards others, judgment will show no compassion towards them. You might be thinking when you read that, what kind of compassion? The verse after James 2:14 gives us a clue.
James 2:15-17 states, “15 If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, [o]be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? 17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is [p]dead, being by itself.”
How many of us if one of our Christian brothers or sisters were hungry and without much clothing would we help give them what they need? Or would we just tell them be warmed and filled while quietly thinking, “you got yourself into this, so I pray you find a way to deal with this on your own.” Giving help to our fellow Christian brothers or sisters we see in need is what works is being understood as here. James 2:17 seems to make our service to our brothers and sisters in need bigger than just something we’re instructed to do. It’s tied to our faith having any life at all, and thus having any salvation for us at all.
The Meaning of James 2:14
You might be thinking, wait a second, I thought we weren’t saved by works? That’s right. We’re not saved by works of the law, which were specific instructions the Jews had to uphold. Apostle Paul is careful to specify that whenever he mentions what kind of works do not justify a person. Romans 3:28 states, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.”
Here it could be argued works isn’t referring to the Law, but what James describes as the Royal Law, “loving yourself as you love your neighbor”. The same instructions Jesus gave in the gospels. Matthew 22:39 states, “39 The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” What James emphasizes reflects many other writings in scripture that seem to encourage our actions in that direction. The collection gifts that are collected in 1 Corinthians 16:1 were given to the poor. That’s according to Greek meaning of the word used for collection, which is logeia. In Acts 2, one of the first things converted Christians did was gather their possessions together, sell them, and sharing everything together with whatever need anyone had. Acts 2:45 “45 and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.”
This is a serious question you have to consider. If we see so much talk of faith being dead, faith that saves, judgment showing no mercy tied with works in this passage, what does that mean? What I hope I’m getting you to see is that God’s desire of us to act out our compassion to one another in our faith is more than just an instruction. It appears to be a critical part of our connection with God, and perhaps even our salvation.
He uses the example of Abraham being justified by both his faith and his works through taking his son Issac to the altar. He expressed that as a result, Abraham’s faith was perfected, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Reckoned in this case means to pass to one’s account. It counted as righteousness for Abraham, and James wrote that he was called a friend of God. In addition, James used the example of Rahab receiving the messengers and sending them out the other way as her being justified by works.
James closes this chapter by stating, “26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” The Greek word used for dead is Nekros, which in this verse means without life. Hebrews 11:4-29 is a great illustration of faith being tied to action in obedience to God. I encourage you all to read it.
How amazing is it that God made giving food, giving clothes, and giving whatever our hands can extend to our Christian family in need, all a part of being alive in faith? That appears to me to be the true meaning of James 2:14
Hope you enjoyed this James 2:14 commentary.
Peace to you all in Christ.