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.
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.
|ESV||Can that faith save him?|
|NASB||Can that faith save him?|
|CSB||Can such faith save him?|
|NET||Can this kind of faith save him?|
|NIV||Can such faith save them?|
|LEB||That faith is not able to save him, is it?|
|MSG||Does 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.
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