James wrote, “But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?” (James 2:20, NKJV). In what context did he make this well-known statement?
James is concerned because some of Jesus’ followers are showing “partiality” (vs 1, ESV). “For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly,” he explains, “and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing,” and dishonors the poor man, are you not showing partiality? (vs 2-4). By showing favoritism, James argues, they are not fulling God’s law of love (vs 8-10).
In vs 14, he appears to change the subject, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” One might even think James has transitioned from speaking about how the horizontal relationship (how Jesus’ followers treat other humans), to the vertical (Jesus’ followers’ obedience to God). However, the very next passage links James’ statement about faith and works (vs 14) with his previous protest against the sin of partiality (vs 1-13). The key phrase that links the two portions of the letter is “poorly clothed” (compare 2:2 with 2:15). For James, to have “faith” without “works” is like seeing “a [‘poorly clothed’] brother or sister” and, rather than provide “the things needed for the body,” merely saying, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled” (vs 15-18). The motivation for why a disciple of Jesus might deny help to a fellow human in need is explained in James 2:1-13—partiality.
James illustrates his point—that “faith without works is dead”—by referring to Abraham and Rehab. “Abraham believed God,” and this was evident in the fact that “he offered up his son Isaac on the altar” according to God’s command (vs 20-24). “And in the same way was not also Rehab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?” (vs 25). Rehab, who was not even a professed worshipper of Yahweh, exemplified faith in the true God by helping people who were foreigners to her.
Thus, for James, “faith without works” (vs 20, NKJV) is another way of saying that a person is “holding the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” while showing “partiality” (vs 1). This is a useless faith. It is a lifeless faith. It is a damaging faith. It is a loveless faith. It is actually not faith at all.