Faith Without Works is Dead: Exegetical Look at James 2:18-26 – The Context

Author’s Note: This is the second post in a series on James 2:18-26. You can read the first post here.



The letter of James was the earliest written epistle in the New Testament. Most scholars agree, although there are some arguments against this consensus, that it was written in the early to middle 40s A.D.[1] James was writing to Jewish believers who were spread across the Diaspora as a result of persecution. It was a time of economic hardship, not only for the church in Jerusalem, but for the whole region.[2] The wealthy took advantage of them (James 5:4-6) and took them to court (James 2:6); and “they scorned their faith (James 2:7).”[3]

James was writing from Jerusalem where he was the leader of the church, and most likely he felt a responsibility to write to these believers in the Diaspora. He wrote to encourage them (James 5:7-11) and to remind them of the importance of “maintaining their piety” in the face of their trials (James 1:2-4,120.[4]

In the midst of this, most importantly, he writes to them about the Christian life on faith and works. It is also considered the most controversial teaching in the New Testament. Some have argued that James teaches “lordship salvation,” or “works based salvation.” Others say that there is a synergism within his teachings on faith and works. In the last two decades there has been a new “paradigm” in Jewish soteriology that is called “covenant nomism.”[5]

Covenant nomism is based upon the Jewish covenant of being the chosen people of God, and as the chosen people they must respond with works; a sort of agreement between God and man. This is obviously contrary to what the rest of the New Testament teaches. So scholars try to harmonize what James teaches, justification at the judgment, and what Paul teaches about justification.[6] Harmonizing the two teachings are not that easy and the final outcome is one that takes into account all of the New Testament on justification. Dr. Moo says it best, “Faith alone brings one into relationship with God in Christ—but true faith inevitably generates the works that God will take into account in his final decision about the fate of men and women.”[7]

James 2:18-26 finds itself nestled within a textual context that is like loosely formulated homilies. Some scholars say that the letter lacks any real theology. This is part of the reason why the letter was not widely accepted by the church in the early centuries. However, James is written for a specific purpose and his lack of mention of certain Christian doctrines is not an indication that the letter lacks any real theology. On theology, regarding the letter of James, Dr. Moo writes:

Furthermore, we must not minimize the contributions that James does make to certain specific topics of Christian theology. In addition to the obvious importance of his teaching about faith and works in their relationship to the believer’s final salvation, James also contributes significantly to our understanding of God, temptation, prayer, the law, wisdom, and eschatology. To be sure, all these arise in a practical context. But it will be a sad day for the church when such “practical divinity” is not considered “theology.” Therefore, while the brevity and specific purposes of the letter prevent us from sketching a “theology of James,” we are able to note briefly the contributions James makes to certain specific theological topics.[8]

The textual context reveals this sentiment. James writes about how to face trials (1:1-18); responding to God’s Word (1:19-27); avoiding partiality (2:1-13); producing good works (2:14-26); controlling the tongue (3:1-12); false and true wisdom (3:13-18); renouncing worldliness (4:1-12); renouncing arrogance (4:13-5:6); and demonstrating endurance (5:7-20).

We will take a look at the analysis of the text in tomorrow’s post.

[1] D A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, ©2005), 627.

[2] Douglas J. Moo The Letter of James. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos, 2000, 23.

[3] Ibid., 23.

[4] Ibid., 23

[5] Ibid., 42.

[6] Ibid., 42.

[7] Ibid., 42.

[8] Ibid., 28.


About Peter van Brussel

Peter is the Director of For His Glory Prison Ministry. Peter holds a BA in Pastoral Studies from Southwestern College, a MA in Theological Studies, and a M.Div. from Liberty University. Peter is married to Niki, and has two children. He has been saved by grace and seeks to share the Gospel with those who have been forgotten.
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