The kind of faith that saves
In the book of Romans, the Apostle Paul's entire theme is the Gospel. He makes it abundantly clear that no one comes to God by works, but through faith (see Romans 4:4, 5 as just one example of this). In contrast, James, in his epistle, is seeking to define the nature of true saving faith. Making a claim to genuine faith is not enough. It is not the mere profession of faith that saves but the possession of it. The kind of faith that saves is a faith that is alive and not dead, and will of necessity produce works. If the faith professed does not produce works, then the faith was not genuine, and therefore will not save. Faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is not alone.
Here's a lengthy quotation from James White's book "The God Who Justifies" pp. 333-336 (technically speaking, the blog format here does not seem to allow for Greek words to be written as such, so they have been written in English):
James 2:14 - What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Can this kind of faith save him? (NET)
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 it is, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have deeds? Is the faith able to save him? (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Letter of James, 236)
The text of the verse presents no difficult variants, and its translation is not questioned in the main. However, one vitally important syntactical issue must be addressed, that being the translation of the last phrase and in particular the presence of the definite article before the word faith. As this is the opening statement of James thesis for 2:14-26, we need to take special care in our understanding of what he intends to communicate.
What good is it, my brothers... Literally, what benefit or gain is there? The phrase is repeated in 2:16. The question is rhetorical. There is no benefit or substance to the claim being made, anymore than there is in 16. The NET takes the plural masculine as a generic plural for the entire Christian congregation ("brothers and sisters"), recognizing that the words of James apply equally to men and women.
if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Literally the text reads, "says" rather than "claims," but the NET translation is very accurate, retaining the infinitival form, "to have." James presents a hypothetical question. Is there any benefit or use in the claim of a person to be in possession of faith, (placed first in the clause for emphasis) when that same person is not in possession of deeds. Two immediate issues confront us:
First, the subjunctive (says, claims) will be expanded upon by James throughout the section. It is plainly his intention to contrast the mere claim existing only in the realm of words with the true possession of real faith that is demonstrated by something more than mere speaking. Hence the accuracy of the NETs claims, for this carries more forcefully in English the idea of empty profession than merely says. This translation will be seen to fully fit James application in the next two verses.
Next, what is the correct translation of deeds? Obviously both deeds and works fit the original meaning. Johnson comments,
The translation of erga as deeds attempts to represent more accurately the point as well as to avoid precipitous or inaccurate comparisons with Paul. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Letter of James (1995), 237.
A person seeking to equate Paul's context with James' context will object to such a translation. And as we have already seen, Paul's normative use of deeds is actually perfectly in line with James! Paul often speaks of deeds done in righteousness that flow from a changed heart. Indeed, Paul teaches that we are saved by grace through faith unto good works (Eph. 2:8-10). He insists that it is God's purpose that we should walk in or live in doing good works. Yet, we also know he says that no one is declared righteous before him by works of the law (Rom. 3:20) and that God credits righteousness apart from works (Rom. 4:6). So it is primarily in Paul that we see the same Greek term being used in more than one sense. Since the confusion generated by this passage is due to the errant assertion that James is addressing the same context that Paul addresses in Paul's decrying of works, choosing, with Johnson and the NIV, to use the term deeds makes perfect sense, and the wisdom of the translation will be borne out throughout the exegesis of the text.
has no deeds... We should not assume that this means the person is morally neutral. No one is. Instead, this person has no actions by which to demonstrate the existence of the reality of the claimed faith. He or she has nothing in the realm of the demonstratable that is consistent with the Christian claim, I believe.
Can this kind of faith save him? The phrase begins with the negative (-), indicating the expected answer is negative, "No, that kind of faith cannot save." Here the issue of the translation of faith comes into play. The KJV and NKJV render the phrase without reference to the definite article, "Can faith save him?" The Textus Receptus, however, reads identically to the NA27 in having the article before faith. Most translations recognize this as the anaphoric use of the article, pointing back to the previous appearance of the same term (i.e., to the faith that has no works). Hence the NASB reads that faith, the NIV such faith, the NET, this kind of faith, ASV, that faith, NLT, that kind of faith, etc. Yet some, including the NRSV, leave the article untranslated.
Daniel B. Wallace lists this as an example of the anaphoric use of the article. He commented on this passage, after rendering it "this kind of faith,"
The author introduces his topic: faith without works. He then follows it with a question, asking whether this kind of faith is able to save. The use of the article both points back to a certain kind of faith as defined by the author and is used to particularize an abstract noun.
Against the vast bulk of commentators, Hodges argues that the article is not anaphoric, since otherwise the particular faith in the following verses would also have to refer back to such a workless faith. He translates the text simply as "Faith cannot save him, can it?" Although it may be true that the article with faith in vv 17, 18, 20, 22, and 26 is anaphoric, the antecedent needs to be examined in its own immediate context. In particular, the author examines two kinds of faith in 2:14-26, defining a non-working faith as a non-saving faith and a productive faith as one that saves. Both James and Paul would agree, I believe, with the statement: "Faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is not alone." Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics - Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, (Galaxie Software) 1999, 219.
The passage then makes a firm statement: a faith that exists only in words (one that is "claimed") but has no evidence of its existence in actions (deeds) is a faith that cannot save. It is non-salvific. It lacks the ability to save. As such the question can profitably be asked, "Does it follow that a faith that exists both in word and in deed can, in fact, save?" The answer would seem to be yes, it can and does in James understanding of the gospel. It should be remembered, the Protestant doctrine of sola fide has never meant "faith in isolation" but instead "faith alone without the addition of human works of merit." James is not addressing such a concept of faith here: his assertion is that this kind of words-only, deedless faith simply cannot save.
James White, "The God Who Justifies" pp. 333-336