Biblical Languages,  New Testament

Faith is Not Enough To Save Someone

In the King James Version, James 2:14 reads, “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?” This verse was quoted to me in high school by a Mormon who was arguing that faith alone is not what saves an individual. According to my Mormon friend, and others who perhaps read the KJV, James 2:14 teaches that faith alone cannot save an individual.

photo of hands holding faith

Some readers will be initially discouraged to hear that the Greek language makes the point even more strongly. In Greek, the phrase, “Can faith save him?” is μὴ δύναται ἡ πίστις σῶσαι αὐτόν. The presence of the μὴ particle assumes a negative reply. This means that when we read the question, we are supposed to know that the answer is “Of course not.” In other words, James has telegraphed the answer to the question—faith is not enough to save.

However—and this is a big however—there are two additional considerations we must make before we throw in our lot with the Catholics, Mormons, or anyone else who teaches justification by works. Context and Greek grammar lend a clarifying aid in understanding this verse.

The Grammar of James 2:14 and the Kind of Faith Involved

A quick perusal of English translations shows that the KJV and NKJV are unique in translating the verse, “Can faith save him?” Here are how other English translations render this phrase.

ESVCan that faith save him?
NASBCan that faith save him?
CSBCan such faith save him?
NETCan this kind of faith save him?
NIVCan such faith save them?
LEBThat faith is not able to save him, is it?
MSGDoes merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it?

Whereas the KJV and NKJV make it seem like a general statement about faith is being made, all other English translations are identifying a specific kind of faith that does not save.

The Greek grammar is on the side of the more modern English translations. In Greek, the word for faith has the article “the” (ἡ πίστις), which points to the specific kind of faith being discussed, not the generic concept of faith. So, for James, it is not a question of whether generic faith can save, but whether the specific kind of faith being discussed can save an individual—and his answer to that is no! That kind of faith cannot save.

The Context of James 2:14

The context of James 2:14 affirms that James is talking about a specific kind of faith. The first part of the verse says, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?” This phrase indicates that the “faith” we are talking about in the next part of James 2:14 is a particular faith which has been claimed, but is in reality nonexistent.

James then expands on this point by providing an illustration in vv. 15–17. His point is simple. Faith which does not produce works is faith that is dead (i.e., not genuine). This has led to the oft-quoted maxim in Protestant circles that although we are saved by faith, not by works; true faith always works.

In James 2:18, James emphasizes that faith is demonstrated by works (although they remain distinct). He then uses Abraham and Rahab as premier examples of genuine faith which produced works. Abraham (2:21-24) is one of the heroes of the Jewish populace, and James relies on his example to show that faith resulted in works. Similarly, James appeals to Rahab (2:25-26), which involved a Gentile conversion story. Her life demonstrated true faith by receiving the spies, hiding them, and helping them the best way she could.

Some might think that James contradicts the Apostle Paul here. Afterall, Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:8-9). According to Paul, salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone. We put our faith in Christ alone for salvation. We do not earn or work toward that reality in any way. But in the very next verse Paul agrees with James, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (v. 10). Good works are the result of true and genuine saving faith.

In sum, is faith sufficient to save someone? Well, not according to the King James Version. However, the Greek grammar and context help us understand that the faith James is talking about in James 2:14 is a vocalized-but-not-internalized kind of faith. Such faith is not genuine faith, and thus that kind of faith cannot save. However, James (and all biblical authors) would agree that it is faith alone that saves an individual.

Photo: Envato Elements

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs The Bible Sojourner podcast and Youtube channel.


  • Dante

    Is the translation difference between the (N)KJV and modern translations stem a grammatical difference mirrored by the Alexandrian/Byzantine families? Or is it simply based on a translation choice by the KJV translators?

    I ask mostly because I just taught a class last week to a small group which was a primer on the KJV-only debate and I know that beyond the differences between the Alexandrian/Byzantine text, there are also issues rooted in the KJV translators operating according to the rules of classical Greek instead of the then largely-unknown Koine Greek, and I’m curious which, if any, is at play here.

  • Joseph Steel

    This is an error that many make because of the poor ministry they have received. The simplest way to clear their understanding of the matter is to reveal that Christ Jesus Himself… Meaning His person… Is the faith that a Christian receives when he or she is born-again of God.

    Christ Jesus is the reality of faith… And when we receive Him, we receive the faith that has overcome this world, Satan, sin, and death.

    Understandably, it is difficult to warp our heads around a person being our faith as this is not the common way of our natural human thinking/reasoning… But this is what biblical scripture presents to us… Christ Jesus is the faith that we receive when we are born-again of God.

    It is Christ Jesus who abides in us as faith, and who operates in us as faith… His person is this faith.

    And this being the case… All that He is and has accomplished is contained in Him as this faith within us… This is why, when we grow in Christ Jesus, we are continuously gaining as our possession all that He is… Which then spontaneously produces a living that expresses Him.

    You often hear Christians declare that they want to be like Jesus… But this is because of a lack of proper understanding of just what the reality of being a Christian actually is… It is not to be like Christ Jesus, but to actually be Him, in life and nature… Meaning… We have His life (Him as our life) and we therefore have the nature that His life contains… And as we live our earthly life… We can live out this life and nature of Christ.

    And inherent in the life of Jesus is His faith.

    This is the root of the economy of God for the salvation of man… For a Christian to live is Christ.

    And no, it doesn’t mean that we become a kind of programmed robot… It means that there is a mysterious translation of Christ to man and man to Christ that takes place… We retain our humanity… But it is glorified with divinity… The mingling of oil and flour… The Spirit of God and humanity.

    In the greater/wider community of Christianity, this rudimentary biblical teaching is hidden under all sorts of erroneous teachings that promote natural human effort and hide the simplicity of the way of God’s salvation for us.

    It is Christ in us that is the hope of glory… Therefore… The more Christ we have in us, the more our pursuit of the hope of glory is carried out.

    Well, your article is good in that it begins to touch on this matter… But there is much more that is needed to be spoken on for the proper building up of the one church.


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