googlef87758e9b6df9bec.html A Sure Word: James 2:14: Can Faith Save?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

James 2:14: Can Faith Save?

Τί τὸ ὄφελος, ἀδελφοί μου, ἐὰν πίστιν λέγῃ τις ἔχειν, ἔργα δὲ μὴ ἔχῃ; μὴ δύναται ἡ πίστις σῶσαι αὐτόν;
James 2:14

I am indebted to Dr. Wallace for his chapter on the use of the Greek article in his book, “Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics.” That single chapter is worth the price of the book alone. It has opened my eyes and helped me move past the mundane “definite/indefinite” view of Greek nouns. This much debated verse from James has been cast in a whole new light for me.

The KJV translates this verse as: “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?” The controversy lies in the the second half of the verse (14b). At first hearing, it sounds as though James is saying that faith alone cannot save anyone. As much as I enjoy the majesty of language in the KJV, I must admit it often is somewhat lacking as a translation. In this case, I object to the KJV's treatment of the article in v.14b.

You will notice in 14a, the word πίστις (pistis, “faith”) is anarthrous (that is, it lacks an article). In 14b, the word now has an article (“the faith”). It is my opinion that this is an “anaphoric” use of the article which refers the reader back to the same word in 14a. Thus, 14a refers to “faith” and 14b refers back to the same “faith.” Let me offer a paraphrase:

“What is the profit, my brothers, if someone should claim to have 'faith' but does not have works? This kind of 'faith' is not able to save him, is it?”

Other translations do a better job of capturing this meaning:

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? (NIV)

What use is it my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? (NASB)

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? (NLT)

What doth it profit, my brethren, if a man say he hath faith, but have not works? can that faith save him? (ASV)

Considering the context of the entire chapter, we can in see that James is not referring to a genuine, saving faith. Beginning in 14a, we see instead that he is referring to a particular kind of faith – a psuedo-faith which some claim to have so that they might earn the respect of others (James 2:1). The shallowness of their faith is demonstrated by their works. They love to associate with the wealthy members of the congregation but they despise the poor.

John talked about this same attitude in his letter 1 John 3:17-18. “But whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him? My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth.” Also in 1 John 4:20, “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?”

The message of James is not at odds with any other part of the Bible. We are saved by faith and James affirms this. Saving faith is evidenced by our works. James condemns those people who claim to have faith but are betrayed by their works. Theirs is a faith of social expedience. James correctly asks, “can this kind of faith save”?


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