Reflective Study of James 2:26
The glorious Good News brought to us from the Father by the Son is that we are saved by the grace of God through faith in the free gift of His beloved Son, who redeemed us from the curse of sin by taking that sin upon Himself and then offering Himself as the once-for-all perfect atoning sacrifice on the cross. In Him we have been redeemed; His blood covers us and continually cleanses us of all sin; we are secure in His loving embrace. We receive this gift in simple faith, and we then daily display our love and gratitude for this gift in our attitudes and actions. With the help of the indwelling Spirit, we are increasingly transformed into the image of Jesus, bearing spiritual fruit in our lives as we journey toward the promise of that eternal dwelling in the new heavens and earth. We are saved not by any meritorious act on our part -- the dead cannot enliven and raise themselves -- but solely by His grace. We now live because He loves us; we now serve because we love Him.
Although it is not within us to enliven ourselves (this is the work of God's Spirit), it is within us (again, with the help of His indwelling Spirit) to enliven our faith in evidentiary acts of love and gratitude. It is one thing to believe(have faith) in God, and what He freely offers by virtue of His Son's sacrifice, it is quite another to display the reality of that belief (faith). James informs us that even the demons believe (have faith) in God, trembling at the very thought, yet that belief does not, in and of itself, save them (James 2:19). John pointed out that many of the Jewish rulers "believed (had faith) in Him, but because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue, for they loved praise from men more than praise from God" (John 12:42-43). It is one thing to say you have faith, it is quite another to show it. The former, devoid of the latter, is faith devoid of life. James declared, "Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead" (James 2:17). I like the way The Message words some of what James says in this chapter: "Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? ... Isn't it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense? ... Use your heads! Do you suppose for a minute that you can cut faith and works in two and not end up with a corpse on your hands?"
James summed up his argument in this chapter with this statement: "As the body is dead when there is no breath left in it, so faith divorced from deeds is lifeless as a corpse" (James 2:26, New English Bible). A body devoid of breath is inanimate; it does nothing; it lies there lifeless. In the same way, faith devoid of any evidentiary action on the part of the one professing said faith, is inanimate; it does nothing; it lies there lifeless. A body that will not breathe accomplishes nothing; neither does a faith that will not show itself. Neither is alive; both are dead. James, to illustrate his point, tells us how both Abraham and Rahab demonstrated the vitality of their faith: showing it to be alive by their actions. Although it was not their actions that justified them (they were justified by their faith, as Paul points out in Romans 4), nevertheless their actions visibly validated the genuineness of their faith, demonstrating their spiritual resolve to actively live by faith, rather than just giving empty lip-service to it.
There are some disciples, however, who have a problem with the statement in James 2:26 (as worded in several versions and translations). The problem lies in the use of the word "spirit." The New International Version, for example, reads, "As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead." Other major translations also employ the word "spirit" in this passage (KJV, NASB, RSV, ESV, HCSB, ASV). Although this is not necessarily an incorrect rendering, it can be a somewhat misleading one. The Greek word used by James in the text is pneuma, which, although it can be translated "spirit," and often is, it primarily signifies "breath." The use of the word "spirit," unfortunately, conveys to the minds of many today the Platonic concept of some immaterial, immortal being trapped within a physical body that is freed to greater life at the moment of physical death. Thus, for those who have embraced this pagan doctrine, a body without the spirit means to them a dead body from which the "immortal soul" has "flown off to heaven" (or hell). Needless to say, such a doctrine, in my view, is about as far from biblical truth as one can get (for those who would like to hear my study on this topic in greater depth, in a classroom setting, may I recommend my two CD set The Nature of Man and His Eternal Destiny, which consists of 20 MP3 audio files of my Sunday morning classes, as well as 25 in-depth papers supplementing the 20 classes).
Those who embrace the Platonic view of the nature of man, however, delight in the wording of James 2:26 in the above mentioned versions of the Bible, for, on the surface, it does seem to endorse their view (based upon how these people typically understand the term "spirit" -- i.e., "immortal soul"). Guy N. Woods insists that the term pneuma "refers, in this instance, to the immortal nature of man" [A Commentary on the Epistle of James, p. 151]. "The body is the animal frame of man which houses the spirit: the immortal nature" [ibid]. "The spirit (the immortal nature) is eternal and therefore not subject to dissolution or decay" [ibid, p. 152]. If, on the other hand, the Greek word pneuma is allowed to signify "breath," which is its primary meaning, the passage conveys a much different message to our minds. Notice how the following versions render the text of James 2:26.
- Contemporary English Version -- Anyone who doesn't breathe is dead, and faith that doesn't do anything is just as dead!
- New English Bible -- As the body is dead when there is no breath left in it, so faith divorced from deeds is lifeless as a corpse.
- New American Bible -- Be assured, then, that faith without works is as dead as a body without breath.
- New Living Translation -- Just as the body is dead without breath, so also faith is dead without good works.
- God's Word Translation -- A body that doesn't breathe is dead. In the same way, faith that does nothing is dead.
- Worldwide English NT -- A body is dead if it does not breathe. In the same way, believing is dead if it does not do anything good.
It is my conviction, based upon the consistent teaching about the nature of man throughout Scripture, that this is the far better rendering, and certainly better represents the truth James sought to convey. I am certainly not alone in that belief. Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, in The Expositor's Greek Testament, suggests "breath" is the preferred translation of the word pneuma [vol. 4, p. 29]. Another noted Greek scholar, Dr. A. T. Robertson, translates the phrase: "apart from breath." He goes on to observe, "It is not easy to tell when one is dead, but the absence of a sign of breath on a glass before the mouth and nose is proof of death." He adds that James' illustration here is a "startling picture of dead faith in our churches and church members with only a name to live, as in Rev. 3:2" [Word Pictures in the New Testament, e-Sword]. "There is no reason for thinking that James intends to give pneuma the meaning 'spirit' and not 'breath'" [R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistle of James, p. 598]. Lenski continues: "Absence proves deadness: absence of breath, deadness of the body; absence of works, deadness of the faith" [ibid]. Dr. John Gill (1697-1771), an English pastor and biblical scholar, and "the first Baptist to write a complete systematic theology and the first to write a verse-by-verse commentary of the entire Bible," had this to say about what James wrote: "This simile is made use of to illustrate what the apostle had asserted in James 2:17, that a body, when the breath is gone out of it, is dead, and without motion, and useless; ... the body without breath is a carcass" [Exposition of the Entire Bible, e-Sword]. Matthew Henry (1662-1714), in his classic Commentary on the Whole Bible, observes, "As the body without the breath is dead, so is faith without works: ... works are the companions of faith, as breathing is of life" [e-Sword].
The obvious point of the passage is: just as breath brings animation to my body, so do godly acts bring animation to my faith. Just as the former reflects flesh-life, so do the latter reflect faith-life. "Unless our faith is of that kind which will produce holy living, it has no more of the characteristics of true religion than a dead body has of a living man" [Albert Barnes, Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. "If faith produces no fruit of good living, that fact proves that it is dead, that it has no power, and that it is of no value" [ibid]. "James compares faith without works to a body without breath. ... We are to understand the body-breath relationship in terms of Jewish Christian anthropology. That is, the separation of the two does not produce a type of release for the 'spirit' (as in Orphic-philosophical thought which spoke of the body as a tomb or prison), but rather results in a dead corpse. The Greek dualistic thought would not comport well with what James has been arguing. The source behind James' analogy here may be Gen. 2:7. Pneuma carries with it the OT idea of 'life-giving breath.' A body without breath is dead. ... As breath enables a body to live, likewise works produce a living faith" [Ralph P. Martin, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 48: James, p. 98].
James seeks to move the disciple of Christ from lifeless passivity to lively activity. To those who say they have faith, James simply issues the challenge: show it. If it is truly vital it will be visible. "I will show you my faith by what I do" (James 2:18). James comments on this further in the next chapter: "Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom" (James 3:13). Too many Christians appear more as corpses propped in pews inside a building than active, vibrant disciples with a functioning faith visible to their communities. Our faith must come alive, and that doesn't happen when it is hidden away from view. In other words, it must be active. "That faith which lies only in the cold assent of the intellect to a system of divinity is more like a lifeless corpse than a living man" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 21, James, p. 39]. "A person may boast that he possesses faith, but if the evidence of good works is lacking, such faith is spurious, hypocritical, valueless. Genuine faith is never without good works. For just as the body without breath is dead, so faith without works is dead" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible, The NT, vol. 2, p. 506]. "James is teaching that faith without works is simply a cold orthodoxy, lacking spiritual vibrancy. James' concern is more practical than theological. The real issue for these believers is the absence or presence of a freshness, vitality and energy in their faith. When a Christian engages in practical deeds to benefit others, James says faith comes alive" [John F. Hart, How To Energize Our Faith].