How do we understand James 2:18 "I will show my faith by my works"?

Dear Dr. Sungenis,

I do not understand James 2:18.

Douay-Rheims Bible

[18] But some man will say: Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without works; and I will shew thee, by works, my faith.

What does James mean in verse 18? Protestants use this verse to show that James is talking about two different kinds of faith (saving faith alone that is proved by works and non-saving faith alone that is not proved by works). I know they are wrong, but I, myself, cannot explain this verse.
Thank you for your help,

Your brother in Christ,


R. Sungenis: Will, I will try to explain James 2:18 in a more direct way for you.

First, let’s get a proper translation of vr. 18 from the Greek: “But someone will say, You have faith and I have works. Show me your faith without works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”

Obviously, there are two positions: (1) one person has faith with no works and he is apparently not justified, and (2) a person who has faith and works who is apparently justified.

The sticky point is that person #2 is said to “show his faith by his works,” so that the works are not understood as independent from the faith, but actually “show” the faith.

So the next question is: how does work “show” faith? Well, let’s answer that by dealing with the negative first. The way that works do not show faith is when someone does a good work without believing in Christ. For example, there are many moralistic people who perform good works to other human beings, but are atheists. Obviously, their works are not “showing” their faith.

Hence, works can only “show” faith if the work is done in the name of the faith, or more precisely, in the name Jesus Christ or the Christian faith. If the Christian person does a good work in the name of Jesus Christ, he does so because his Christian faith requires him to do so. He does not have an option to do good works. In other words, to have “faith” in God means that we believe what God has told us about our obligations both to love Him and our neighbor, the two greatest commandments. (Incidentally, this is also why James mentions in vr. 8 the “royal law, to love one’s neighbor as oneself.” It is required to love one’s neighbor, otherwise, as he says in vr. 13, one “will be judged without mercy”).

Hence, if we perform our good works because, as Christians we want to follow the dictates of the Christian faith, we are “showing” our faith by doing our good works. Our faith in God requires us to work, hence, we perform work to display the faith we have in God.

You will notice, however, that doing works to show our faith does not mean that we are qualifying the faith as “saving faith,” since James never uses that phrase in his epistle.

The proper way to phrase it is that “faith by itself” (vr. 14), or “faith alone” (vr. 24) cannot justify, not that works qualify faith so that faith alone can justify. Rather, James insists that BOTH faith and works, working together, will justify a man, not that a qualified faith will justify a man.

Although the two position are close, the fact that Protestants use the “saving faith” phraseology precisely because they want to reject the idea that works need to be added to faith for justification (for they believe that justification is faith alone in the “alien righteousness of Christ” – a position that is not taught in Scripture) is the very reason we must reject their “saving faith” formulation.

The bottom line is this: Just because works “show” faith, that does not mean that faith alone justifies. It only means that works “show” that someone has faith (and only if the work is done in the name of the Christian faith).

If faith were really “alone,” no works would be required at any level. We must insist of the Protestant that, if he is going to claim that faith is “alone” in justification, then no works can enter into the discussion, not even to qualify the faith. The minute he insists that works can be used qualify the faith, then faith is not alone, and thus he should cease using the “faith alone” phraseology. He cannot speak out of both sides of his mouth. Either faith is alone or it isn’t.

Luther believed in the pure “faith alone” doctrine, that is, a faith that was not dependent on works in any way, shape or form. The reason he wanted to eliminate works is that if one tries to qualify his faith by the kind of works he does, then he will always wonder whether his works were good enough to qualify his faith, and thus he is back to the very problem Luther was trying to escape, that is, having to judge his works as good enough to meet God’s standards of righteousness. This is precisely why Luther, before he had is “faith alone” revelation, used to whip himself with chains – so that his works would be good enough (so he thought).

Luther certainly would have rejected the idea that works should be used to qualify faith as “saving faith,” for he knew that such a position would be more Catholic than Lutheran. This is precisely why he wanted to jettison the book of James. He didn’t want to have James insisting that faith and works worked together in any way.

It was only the later Lutherans, under Philip Melanchthon, who rejected Luther’s pure “faith alone” doctrine and began to integrate James back into the picture. They thought they did so by claiming that James was merely speaking about qualifying faith by works, but once they did so they came right back to the Catholic position, yet they camouflaged it by using different phraseology than what was used in Catholic doctrine. But they were really only fooling themselves. As a Protestant, one cannot use works to qualify faith, since one can never know whether his works were sufficient to do the job of qualifying.

In effect, pure Lutheranism only survived in Luther’s generation. No Protestant since Luther has ever really believed in the original “faith alone” doctrine, but they keep using the phrase to make it appear as if they are distant from Catholic doctrine, and few have caught on to it.

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