Can a person be saved by faith, without any works at all? This question is asked frequently, and it is important to know the biblical answer.
Not only is it true that a person can be saved by faith without works of any kind, but it is the only way that anyone can ever be saved. Consider some of the clear statements by God concerning this important matter.
But what about the second chapter of James: "Faith without works is dead?"
James 2:17 says, "Thus also, faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead." And verse 21 adds, "Was not Abraham our father justified [considered or declared righteous] by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?"
I'm always delighted to examine this portion of James with anyone who is sincerely seeking to know the truth. James is very clear about why he is writing and to whom he is writing.
To whom is James writing? What point is he attempting to make?
The questions asked in verses 14–17 are the key to understanding this entire passage.
It is important to notice several two points here.
First, James is addressing fellow believers. He calls them "my brethren" in verse 14. He goes on to speak of "a brother or sister" who comes for help — a clear indication that he is speaking of a relational matter between believers.
Second, the issue of the entire passage is what does it profit? What does what profit? What profit is there in doing nothing for needy believers but offering pious platitudes when one could do something concrete to relieve those needs? Such an illustration is analogous to faith without works. Such faith is dead.
The question then is, what is meant by faith being dead? The word dead in this passage comes from a Greek word meaning unfruitful, barren or nonproductive. Some assume "faith without works" means that true faith is not present. However, dead here does not mean nonexistent. The discussion centers around the fruitfulness (or lack of fruitfulness) of a faith that does not produce works. The passage does not define saving faith; instead it describes the condition of a faith that is not accompanied by good works.
For instance, if I told you that the battery in my car is dead, I wouldn't mean that I didn't have a battery (nonexistent); I would mean that it was not producing power. The battery would be under the hood where it is supposed to be, but would be in a temporary condition of being useless and ineffective to start the engine. So it is in James: the "dead" faith is a non-producing faith, a barren, unfruitful faith — but faith, nonetheless.
Abraham offering Isaac: What does it demonstrate?
James uses Abraham as an illustration of faith and works being joined together to produce the perfected, complete, mature faith.
Was James speaking of Abraham having faith or of his faith being matured? How can we tell? Well, first of all, we consider the immediate context. Verse 22 clearly states that "by works his faith was made perfect," meaning perfected or completed. Nothing in the passage suggests that when Abraham offered up Isaac his faith was initiated at that moment in his life.
We also consider the testimony of the rest of Scripture on the same topic. James 2:23 quotes Genesis 15:6 which says, Abraham "believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness." Note that when God accounted Abraham's faith as righteousness, Isaac had not yet been born. Yet James 2:21 states that Abraham was "justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar" — perhaps as much as 15 years after God declared Abraham righteous by faith alone. Do we have a contradiction here? No, not when we consider all of the Scripture's testimony on this.
Was James Illustrating Abraham's Faith Before Men or Before God?
Again we ask, "How can we tell?" We discover the answer to this question in the same way we discovered the answer to the previous question, by considering the context and other verses that touch on the same subject.
Remember two points about the passage: the proper relationship between believers who are in need and those who could help alleviate that need (James 2:14–16) and "dead faith" speaks of the barren, non-producing faith of a believer instead of whether or not the "brother" has faith in the first place.
Turning to other Scripture, it is clear that Abraham's justification before God was by faith alone, and his justification before men was by faith demonstrated by good works. Romans 4:1–5 is the key:
Before God we are justified by faith alone; before men we are justified by faith and works. James makes an important point:
Without works, is it possible to show one's faith before others? Of course not. And that is the point. The "brother" in James 2:14 did not show faith by works, but Abraham and Rahab (James 2:21, 25) demonstrated their faith by their works. But prior to the demonstration before men was the faith before God. The passage does not teach that by the works of Abraham and Rahab their faith came into existence. No, their faith was present and recognized by God before it was ever demonstrated by their works.
Scripturally speaking, works should follow saving faith. Ephesians 2:10 and Titus 3:8 are clear on this:
The biblical pattern is faith in Christ for justification before God (eternal salvation), and works before men for effective fruitfulness and testimony.