When James writes about dead faith in James 2:14-26, many people think he is referring to faith that does not exist. But this is not the message of James. What is dead faith? It is useless faith. It is faith that does exist, but is not accomplishing what God wants or desires for it. Despite what many teach, dead faith is NOT non-existent faith any more than a dead body is a non-existent body.
I have written elsewhere on James 2:14-26 and the often-heard statement that “even the demons believe” (James 2:16). To properly understand James 2:14-26, it is also important to understand three key terms in the passage.
Three Key Terms in James 2:14-26
The three terms are faith, save, and dead. These three key terms in James 2:14-26 help bring clarity to this much-debated text.
The word faith is defined as the belief, conviction, or persuasion that something is true (see Faith).
The word save is defined as “deliver” (see Salvation). It does NOT refer to gaining forgiveness of sins so we can escape hell and go to heaven when we die. It instead refers to some sort of deliverance, usually from some sort of temporal calamity, such as sickness, enemies, physical death, etc.
And the word dead means to be separated from the life, purpose, or goal which God planned or intended (see Death).
With these three terms in mind, the troublesome text of James 2:14-26 becomes much clearer.
The Context of James 2:14-26
The context of James 2 also helps us understand what James is saying.
The immediately preceding context is that the church is showing favoritism to some of the wealthier members. The rich receive more attention and better seats at fellowship meals than do the poor (James 2:1-13).
Following this, James continues to address how the poor and needy in the church are treated. James says that when it comes to helping the poor and needy in their community, faith is not enough. It is not enough to tell someone that you believe God can clothe them and provide for their needs. It is not enough to promise someone that you will pray for them.
Such faith in God, while real and genuine, does absolutely nothing to clothe the poor or feed the hungry (James 2:15-16).
What good is it, James asks, if you tell the poor that you believe God will clothe them, and you tell the hungry that you have faith in God to feed them, but you yourself don’t do anything to feed or clothe them?
Will your faith do anything to feed or clothe the poor and hungry? No, it won’t.
If you are genuinely concerned about the poor and hungry in your midst, it is fine to believe that God can do something about it, if you also believe that God is going to do something about it through you.
Faith, by itself, is worthless when it comes to helping the poor.
Note that James is not saying anything whatsoever about faith in Jesus for eternal life.
This is not the point of this passage. He is talking about how our faith in God to feed the hungry and clothe the poor should lead us to feed the hungry and clothe the poor.
If you believe God can meet these needs, but you yourself do nothing to meet them, then your faith is dead and worthless. This does not mean that your faith does not exist. It does exist. But your faith is separated from its intended purpose.
God wants our faith in Him to spur us to step out and do things that turn our faith into action.
When we pray for something, God then wants us to seek to become the answer to our own prayers.
When we tell God that we believe He can do something, He turns to us and says that He will do it through us if we step out in faith and let Him. Faith in God is not us “letting go and letting God” but is us “stepping up and taking action” trusting that God will work in and through us to accomplish His work in this world.
So what is DEAD faith in James 2:16, 26?
So the word dead in James 2:16, 26 is a symbolic way of referring to faith that is not accompanied or empowered by works.
Dead faith is real faith. It does exist.
But dead faith is nothing more than faith that is by itself (James 2:17). All James is saying is that if the Christian life is going to be powerful and effective, both faith and works are needed. To save our relationship with other Christians and to accomplish God’s work in this world, both faith and works are needed (See Dillow, Reign of the Servant Kings, 187-194; Zane Hodges, Dead Faith: What is it? (Dallas: Redencion Viva, 1987); John Hart, “How to Energize Our Faith: Reconsidering the Meaning of James 2:14-26,” JOTGES (Spring, 1999).
At the end of this section, James illustrates this point by equating faith and works with the body and the spirit (James 2:26). Just as a body without the spirit is dead, so also, faith without works is dead.
When a person’s spirit leaves their body, does this mean that the body does not exist, or that it never existed? No, of course not. The body is still there, even after the spirit departs. But the body is no longer accomplishing the purpose and goal which God intended for it.
So also with faith and works. If a person has faith, but they do not have works, this does not mean that their faith does not exist, or that it never existed. No, the faith is still there, even though the works are not.
But in such a situation, faith is not accomplishing the purpose and goal which God intended for it. The faith is dead. The absence of works is not allowing the faith to carry out God’s plan and purposes in the world. This is the meaning of James 2:14-26.
James 2:14-26 has nothing to do with eternal life
I cannot emphasize enough that James 2 has nothing whatsoever to do with the gaining, keeping, or proving of eternal life.
James 2:14-26 is not teaching that if a person fails to have good works, then this proves that they do not have eternal life. The question of eternal life is not in view at all.
Instead, James is telling us that rather than just pray for someone, or bless someone, or tell someone that God can provide for their needs, it is we who should answer our own prayers, seek to be a blessing to them, and provide for the needs out of our own pocket or pantry.
Only in this way does our faith get put into practice and fulfill the plans and goals of God.
So what is dead faith? Dead faith is NOT non-existent faith. Dead faith very much exists.
People who have dead faith truly do have actual and real faith. But their faith is inactive and useless. It is not accomplishing what God wants their faith to accomplish in this life.
So do you believe God can help others? Great! Now go out and do something about it, and actually help those whom God places in your life.
Understanding the Gospel requires us to properly understand the key words and terms of the Gospel. Take my course, "The Gospel Dictionary" to learn about the 52 key words of the Gospel, and hundreds of Bible passages that use these words.
This course costs $297, but when you join the Discipleship group, you can to take the entire course for free.