James 2:14, 17:
14. What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him?…17 Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.”
This verse, Muslims say, contradicts Ephesians 2: 8-9, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9. Not of works, lest any man should boast.”
Also Titus 3:5, “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost;”
Before addressing this claim, I’d like to point out that this very James, whom Muslims try to use to justify their belief, condemns Islam. According to James, in the very chapter 2, verse 1, “Jesus is Lord”; which condemns Islam for denying the Lordship of Jesus (Qur’an 3:64; 5:73,116…). James continues to condemn Islam in 2:9 by saying, “But if you show prejudice, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as violators”. Islam commands Muslims, not to befriend Jews and Christians (Qur’an 3:28, 5:51) and calling them, the worse of creatures (Qur’an 98:6). Thus, Islam and Muslims stand condemned by James. So how could Muslims use the very Apostle’s writing to support their religion? It’s not like he support Islam in any way.
Nevertheless, let’s address their claim and refute it once and for all. What Muslims fail to understand is that there are two kinds of salvations recorded in the Bible:
¾ Salvation (Greek: Soteria); eternal salvation.
This kind of salvation can only be attained by faith in Jesus Christ that He died as sacrifice for our sins as Ephesians 2:8-9 states.
Romans 1:16; 10:9
1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek…10:9 That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.
Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.
¾ Salvation; being saved from enemies, adversities, troubles etc…
This is the kind of salvation James is referring to; not the one for eternal salvation. Sometimes it is translated as “rescue” or “deliver”. We will analyse the whole context of James in a while to prove my point but let’s see some passages that support my point first:
1 Woe to you who destroy, but you weren’t destroyed; and who betray, but nobody betrayed you! When you have finished destroying, you will be destroyed; and when you have finished betrayal, you will be betrayed. 2 Yahweh, be gracious to us. We have waited for you. Be our strength every morning, our salvation also in the time of trouble.– Isaiah 33:1-2
Call on me in the day of trouble. I will deliver (save) you, and you will honor me. – Psalm 50:15
Hannah prayed, and said: “My heart exults in Yahweh! My horn is exalted in Yahweh. My mouth is enlarged over my enemies, because I rejoice in your salvation. – 1Samuel 2:1
6 Jonathan said to the young man who bore his armor, “Come, let us go over to the garrison of these uncircumcised. It may be that Yahweh will work for us; for there is no restraint on Yahweh to save by many or by few.” 7 His armor bearer said to him, “Do all that is in your heart. Turn and, behold, I am with you according to your heart.” 8 Then Jonathan said, “Behold, we will pass over to the men, and we will reveal ourselves to them. 9 If they say thus to us, ‘Wait until we come to you!’ then we will stand still in our place, and will not go up to them. 10 But if they say this, ‘Come up to us!’ then we will go up; for Yahweh has delivered them into our hand. This shall be the sign to us.” 11 Both of them revealed themselves to the garrison of the Philistines: and the Philistines said, “Behold, the Hebrews are coming out of the holes where they had hidden themselves!” 12 The men of the garrison answered Jonathan and his armor bearer, and said, “Come up to us, and we will show you something!” Jonathan said to his armor bearer, “Come up after me; for Yahweh has delivered them into the hand of Israel.” 13 Jonathan climbed up on his hands and on his feet, and his armor bearer after him: and they fell before Jonathan; and his armor bearer killed them after him. 14 That first slaughter, which Jonathan and his armor bearer made, was about twenty men, within as it were half a furrow’s length in an acre of land. 15 There was a trembling in the camp, in the field, and among all the people; the garrison, and the raiders, also trembled; and the earth quaked, so there was an exceedingly great trembling. 16 The watchmen of Saul in Gibeah of Benjamin looked; and behold, the multitude melted away and scattered. 17 Then Saul said to the people who were with him, “Count now, and see who is missing from us.” When they had counted, behold, Jonathan and his armor bearer were not there…39 For, as Yahweh lives, who saves Israel, though it is in Jonathan my son, he shall surely die.” But there was not a man among all the people who answered him. 40 Then he said to all Israel, “You be on one side, and I and Jonathan my son will be on the other side.” The people said to Saul, “Do what seems good to you.” 41 Therefore Saul said to Yahweh, the God of Israel, “Show the right.” Jonathan and Saul were chosen, but the people escaped. 42 Saul said, “Cast lots between me and Jonathan my son.” Jonathan was selected. 43 Then Saul said to Jonathan, “Tell me what you have done!” Jonathan told him, and said, “I certainly did taste a little honey with the end of the rod that was in my hand; and behold, I must die.” 44 Saul said, “God do so and more also; for you shall surely die, Jonathan.” 45 The people said to Saul, “Shall Jonathan die, who has worked this great salvation in Israel? Far from it! As Yahweh lives, there shall not one hair of his head fall to the ground; for he has worked with God today!” So the people rescued Jonathan, that he didn’t die. 1Samuel 14:6-16, 39-45
As we see, the context of salvation in these passages is being saved (rescues, delivered) from troubles or from enemies, not eternal salvation as in Ephesians 2:8-9.
Now let’s analyze James’s account of salvation whether or not he was talking about “eternal” salvation or salvation as being saved from problems, enemies…
James 2:14, 17
14 What good is it, my brothers, if a man says he has faith, but has no works? Can faith save him?… 17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead in itself.
“Faith without works, is dead”
What does that mean? Works as “good works”? No! Notice, James didn’t say, “Good works” nor “works of righteousness” but “works”.
Consider the story of Jonathan above, he had faith in God, that He can save him from his enemies; but nothing would have happened if he did not act on his faith. His action is what James calls “works” here, not his “good deeds”; because the story of Jonathan has nothing to do with “good deeds” for his deliverance from his enemies. It’s his “actions” of his faith on God to deliver/save him.
Even for the “eternal salvation”, without your action [i.e. work, which is “confessing” the Lordship of Jesus, you can’t be saved]. Yes, salvation is free, but you have to believe and confess it with your mouth (Romans 10:9-10); that’s an action you have to make. That has nothing to do with your “own” good deeds, as in what you do, but your action (work) in what has been done for you.
This is what James meant by “faith without works (actions) is dead”
Let’s see one of many examples of this in the account of the miracles of Jesus.
21 And, behold, a woman, which was diseased with an issue of blood twelve years, came behind him, and touched the hem of his garment: 21. For she said within herself if I may but touch his garment, I shall be whole.
What’s happening here is a display of faith with works (actions).
Her faith spoke that, “if she can only but touch the hem of Jesus’ garment she will be whole”.
Her faith would have been unfruitful if she didn’t act [i.e. touch] on it. She had to come and touch the hem of Jesus’ garment in order for her to receive her miracle; otherwise she wouldn’t have been made whole.
The touching of Jesus’ garment is “her work” (action) that fulfilled her faith. That’s how she got her miracle, by touching the hem of Jesus’ garment. She got healed, not because of her “good works”, but her “work” of faith.
But be YE DOERS of the word, and NOT HEARERS ONLY, deceiving your own selves. – James 1:22, KJV
This is what led us to James 2. James is telling us to act (work) on what we believe. Just like Paul said, “But having the same spirit of faith, according to that which is written, “I believed, and therefore I spoke. WE ALSO BELIEVE, and therefore also WE SPEAK” – 2Corinthians 4:13
Speaking our belief is our work or action here. That’s what James 2:14, 17, meant by faith with works.
Let’s go back to the story of the woman again. After the woman received her miracle, what did Jesus said? He said, “…thy faith hath made thee whole…” (Matthew 9:22). He didn’t say, “Your faith has brought you to heaven?”
This is what He said when He talked about eternal salvation:
I said therefore to you that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am he, you will die in your sins. – John 8:24
16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. 17 For God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through him. 18 He who believes in him is not judged. He who doesn’t believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God. –John 3:16-18
There’s no mention of good works in these passages in order for one to be saved.
Now, James 2 in its context:
14 What good is it, my brothers, if a man says he has faith, but has no works? Can faith save him?
15 And IF a brother or sister is naked and in lack of daily food,
16 and one of you tells them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled”; and yet you DIDN’T GIVE THEM them the things the body needs, WHAT GOOD IS IT?
17 EVEN SO faith, if it has no works, is dead in itself.
Can you see how works is connected with faith here? In other words, James is saying, “It is useless for you to just comfort with your words (faith), WITHOUT DOING (works) what you say” – “Practice what you preach” is the best translation for this.
That’s “the works” he is referring to, to do or act on your belief. This has nothing to do with eternal salvation as Muslims try to imply. Giving to the needy is the action/work of faith in this passage.
This is how John put it,
3:17 But whoever has the world’s possessions and sees his fellow Christian in need and shuts off his compassion against him, how can the love of God reside in such a person? 3:18 My little children, let’s not love in word only, or with the tongue only, but IN DEED and truth.” – 1 John 3:17-18
This is the faith with works James is talking about: not in word only but in deed. Practicing what we preach! This has nothing to do with eternal salvation.
But Muslims could bring up Verse 21 that says, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?”
Exactly, Abraham acted on what God told him to do; thus his faith in God was justified by his action [i.e. works]. Meaning God trusted him because he did what He asked him to do. This has nothing to do with his eternal salvation though.
James 2:23 says, “And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham BELIEVED God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.”
The imputation of righteousness to Abraham was based on his belief, not his works!
So we see that, James 2:14, 17 do not contradict Ephesians 2:8-9 at all; it’s only Muslims’ misunderstanding and distortion of James.
Let James himself conclude all this:
Just few verses before James 2:14, 17, James said this about good deeds:
9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin, being convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law, and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not commit murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. – James 2:9-11
Oh Muslims, do you think you have obeyed all the laws? If you haven’t, then James has just condemned you.
19 Brothers, if any among you wanders from the truth and someone turns him back, 20 let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. – James 5:19-20
Here is where James talks about eternal salvation and he did not mention anything about good works, but warns those who wander from the truth (which is the Gospel of Christ salvation), so I call on you O Muslims, to repent and receive your salvation today.