06 James 2:14-20 Do James and Paul agree? - Bible Study | WednesdayintheWord.com

James 2:14-26 is the “problem” passage of the book of James where it looks like James and Paul disagree.


  • In chapter 1, James said to consider it joy when we face trials because trials test our faith. The process of testing our faith brings us to maturity and makes us into the kind of people we should be.
  • So far in chapter 2, he has argued that if we really believe the gospel we would show no partiality based on external factors. I should show no partiality based on external factors because we all need the same savior, the same Lord and the same grace and mercy.


James and Paul appear to contradict each other because they use the same vocabulary.  They both talk about faith, works and justification, and they both appeal to Abraham to support their claim.

But they use the same language in very different contexts.  They are addressing different problems and answering different questions.

In Galatians, Paul addressed the question raised by the theology of the Judaizers. Must I keep the law in order to be saved?  Do my outward acts of obedience gain me any favor with God?  Paul strongly asserts that our works have no value in bringing us into a right relationship with God.  Our outward acts of obedience can not earn us salvation.

In James, the apostle answers a different question.  James asserts that after establishing a right relationship with God, works will necessarily follow because genuine saving faith changes both what we believe and how we act. James is focusing on the question:  “What does real saving faith look like?”  Essentially, he’s saying, I agree we are saved by faith alone.  But let’s make sure you understand what faith alone really means.  Let’s make sure you know the difference between pseudo-faith and genuine saving faith.

He is NOT asking the question what use is it if a person claims to have faith and still sins on occasion.  The question is NOT will I ever sin again after believing the gospel?  IF that’s the question, all of us are in trouble.

The question is what if I claim to have faith and nothing in my life, nothing in my attitudes, nothing in my values, nothing in the way I speak or the way I treat people or the way I respond to trials changes?  What then, is that faith?  James says no, that is not faith.


James gives 4 illustrations of genuine saving faith, both positive (what saving faith is) and negative (what saving faith is not), concluding each with a summary statement.

PassageIllustrationTypeTowardSummary Statement
James 2:14-17poorly dressed, hungry ChristiannegativeothersJames 2:17
James 2:18-20demons with correct theologynegativeGodJames 2:20
James 2:21-24AbrahampositiveGodJames 2:24
James 2:25-26RahabpositiveothersJames 2:26
  • The far context is trials the test the genuineness of our faith. 
  • The immediate context (2:12-13) is mercy triumphs over judgment. 
  • The gospel sets me free from guilt and the tyranny of sin.  But it is also a kind of “law” in that if I believe it I am obligated to change.
  • That raises the question in James 2:14.
  • James is NOT asking the question: What use is it if a person says he has faith and he still sins on occasion? 
  • The question these illustrations answer is: What if I claim to have faith and the overall pattern, character and direction of my life contradicts the gospel? 

First Illustration

14What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. – James 2:14-17

  • James’ argument is more complex than what use is a faith that doesn’t feed the poor? If only faith were that easy! 
  • “Brother or sister” (2:15) implies a fellow believer.
  • James establishes a situation where you have the knowledge and the means to help a fellow believer, someone you know.
  • The point of his analogy is not about how believers should respond to poverty in their midst.  The point of his analogy is the disconnect between what I say and what I do.
  • He concludes, not only does this kind of “faith” make no difference on the outside, on the inside it is dead. It makes no difference inside either.
  • My words say, I want you to be warmed and filled, but what I actually do is leave you cold and hungry.  Just as you would look at this example and say my words were meaningless, so we would look at a claim to faith that doesn’t change your life as useless. The point is what good is what I say if my actions deny that I believe it is true.

Second Illustration

18But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe–and shudder! 20Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? – James 2:18-20

  • James is answering an objection: But someone will say, ‘We express our faith differently.  If my faith looks different than yours, how can you say I don’t have it?’
  • James responds faith and works are not independent things, which could exist separately. 
  • A person with genuine saving faith will not continue to pursue a sinful, rebellious lifestyle.
  • Believing that God is one and He exists is not enough.  It’s possible to fill our heads with a knowledge of the Bible without bowing in humble submission to what it says. 
  • Consider the demons: Knowledge for knowledge sake is worthless. 
  • Faith that is invisible — faith that changes nothing about me — is a useless faith because it is in fact no faith at all.

Please listen to the podcast for more detail and explanation.

Next: 07 James 2:21-26 Do James and Paul agree, Part 2

Previous: 05 James 2:1-13 What is on the inside counts

Series: James: The Gospel in Shoe Leather

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