Faith without Works Is Impossible

I’m not completely sure, but I am pretty sure that the first two scriptures I ever memorized came from the Book of James. James 1:5 (“if any of you lack wisdom. . . .”) is the standard starting point for the Joseph Smith story. And James 2:20 (“faith without works is dead”) was the standard retort (for a Mormon growing up in a Southern Baptist town) to the claim that we were “saved by faith.”

James was, in other words, my first experience using the New Testament as a collection of proof texts rather than a collection of letters and documents that were designed to mean real things to actual people–and not to help me win debates with Baptists.

Who were these people? That is actually a hard one. We can say with some certainty that the  General Epistle of James was written by James, or by someone else of that name. Except his name would not really have been James, which is the English version of the Latin Iacobus, which is the closest the Romans could come to the Greek Ἰάκωβος, which was based on the Hebrew יַעֲקֹב, which was pronounced Ya’akov. So James is really Jacob. And there were six of them in the New Testament.

Nobody is quite sure which Jacob wrote our letter, but the smart money, I think, is on James the Brother of Jesus, who, in the earliest days of the Church appears to have been the most respected figure in the Jesus movement. This, of course, presents the problem of where the Brother of Jesus learned Greek. But we have that problem with pretty much all of the Jacobs. Which means that the text we have probably came much later and may (or may not) have been based on something known to have been written (or said) by one of the Jacobs in the New Testament.

James was one of the last texts accepted into the New Testament canon. But accepted it was, and we should all be glad of that, as it gives us one of the clearest statements we have, outside of the words of Jesus himself, of what it means to be a “Christian,” and, while not quite as useful as the show-stopping proof text I imagined in my youth, the Epistle of James has quite a bit to say about things like faith, works, and getting to heaven.

We have to be careful, though, not to bring our Pauline assumptions to the words of James. Otherwise, we get seeming contradictions like:

Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. (Galatians 2:16)

Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? (James 2:18-20)

But here’s the deal. When Paul talks about “works” he means something like “the rituals of the Law of Moses” and he means things like temple sacrifices, getting circumcised, not eating bacon, etc. For Paul, works is a shorthand way to say “obedience.” And when he talks smack about works, he is saying something like “salvation is not a transaction; it is not a reward that you earn; it is a gift of grace by a God who loves you.” 

James, though, means something completely different when he talks about works. He isn’t talking about obeying the Law. He is talking about helping other people. We don’t have to tease this out of the text; James tells us precisely what he means by “works”:

If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain. Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world. (James 1: 26-27)

“Works,” for James, means doing things for other people. And it means not gossiping about them and slandering them and elevating ourselves by making them look small. It means treating people with dignity and ministering to their physical needs. And, as James will discuss in later chapters, it means controlling our natural impulses to use other people to satisfy our own desires for sex, wealth, and power. None of this has anything to do with foreskins.

More importantly: James is not using the idea of works to refute the idea of God’s grace. He is not trying to turn salvation into a reward. And he is not offering a transactional understanding of “faith.”

What he is offering us is a definitional understanding of faith. He is telling us that faith requires certain actions because performing those actions is what “faith” means. Passive belief (of the sort that even the devils have) is simply not the same thing as faith. Faith means taking Jesus at his word, and that means doing stuff for other people.

There are no carrots or sticks in what James tells us. He doesn’t say, “faith without works won’t get you into heaven,” or “unless you visit sick people you will go to hell.” That’s not how it works. That’s not how Jesus said it works. The Kingdom of God is not a transaction; it is a consequence.

Heaven is not a place that we go; it is an environment that we create. And we create it through our relationships with other people. We we cannot build the Kingdom of God without engaging in what James calls “true religion”–speaking well of others, ministering to people in their needs, controlling our impulses to use people to satisfy our own desires–because building relationships with others based on true religion is what the “Kingdom of God” means.


  1. Martin Luther once called the book of James an “epistle of straw”. But he came around to an interpretation that may not be far off from your reading (and mine):

    “We say that justification is effective without works, not that faith is without works. For that faith which lacks fruit is not an efficacious but a feigned faith. ‘Without works’ is ambiguous, then. For that reason this argument settles nothing. It is one thing that faith justifies without works; it is another thing that faith exists without works. [LW 34: 175-176]. ”

    Thanks for articulating it better than I could.

  2. Thanks for pointing out that split between Paul and James when they are referring to works. Now that you point it out, it is apparent, but I guess the same word gets us thinking inside of a box.
    Paul very much is saying “These checklist things from the Law of Moses are not going to save you.” and James is saying “Giving up Law of Moses checklist’s isn’t going to save you, you have to do something”. I think that both Paul and James do a great job explaining how what is important is who we become.

  3. Thank you, Michael! Very helpful, clear explanation.

  4. it's a series of tubes says:

    This is good stuff. Also, jader, great summary quotes. I’m stealing those.

  5. Dark Traveler says:

    Thanks for this post. I feel like a light has turned on for me. I believe too many people in the Mormon church confuse “works” with obedience and a checklist. At least that was my understanding until reading your post. I have an entire new way to study faith and works. Thank you!

  6. The scripture in James “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.” was always one of my favorite. It seems kind of sassy to me. I also love how you describe the dissonance between Peter and James and explain why it isn’t really a contradiction.

    I did have a question . . . it is probably a dumb question. Where do you think “saving ordinances” fit in with this view? I’m going to be honest, I really have no idea. But it feels like a chapter explaining how you can be saved (faith that prompts works) would also need to mention ordinances since they are essential for our salvation??

    Anyway, this post was really uplifting. Thanks!

  7. Faith doesn’t *require* certain actions but it *motivates* certain actions. A bedridden stroke victim unable to talk can have great faith.

  8. Aussie Mormon says:

    Em: You need to be wearing shoes to get into a fancy restaurant, but it’s not wearing the shoes that gets you in.

  9. @Em, I believe that the saving ordinances are a subset of Faith. I believe that James is telling Christians “Hey, you’ve expressed your faith by getting the saving ordinances. That’s great, but those aren’t doing any good if you see a hungry and naked person and you pass them by without feeding and clothing them.”
    And James isn’t saying that Faith or saving ordinances aren’t necessary, he’s pointing out they don’t count towards anything (they’re as good as dead) if you aren’t actually helping people when you are in a position to help them.
    James is trying to tell people how to really have faith.

  10. While I agree the post, I have problems with the implication that you must have faith in order to do Jamesian good works. Lots of people do good works without Christian faith. Also, I don’t like the implied suggestion that you should do good works to receive a higher celestial reward. What ever happened to doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do?

  11. Re saving ordinances, Mosiah 18:8-10 is my foundational testimony. My very loose translation: “Now that you have heard the gospel and desire to live according to Jesus’s teachings, what do you have against making a covenant with God as a witness of your willingness to serve God and your fellow travelers on earth.”
    My covenants are with God, not with the church.

  12. @rogerdhansen: We Mormons like to make lists of things we have to do to get into heaven. But Jesus simplified it. Those who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit prisoners, etc., are on his right hand, even if they didn’t know that their good deeds were good deeds performed for the Savior. He doesn’t say that if you get sealed in the temple, you’ll go to the celestial kingdom, or if you keep the Word of Wisdom, or if you pay tithing. He says you should treat other people well, especially those in need.

  13. Geoff - Aus says:

    Nice to have someone explain how I understand the gospel. Thanks

  14. “We Mormons like to make lists of things we have to do to get into heaven. But Jesus simplified it”

    Wait, didn’t he also say… those who were baptized. Those who multiplied their money. Those who sold everything they had and followed him, those who loved him, those who kept his commandments, those who repented, those who did not commit adultery, those who turned the other cheek, those who lended money when asked by those who need to borrow, those who loved their enemies and blessed them, those who prayed, those who refrained from unrighteous judgement, those who didn’t parade holy things before others who weren’t worthy of it, those who went out to teach and convert others, those who honored their parents, those who were cautious of false teachings, those who don’t covet, those who forgive, those who are married and become one, those who aren’t obsessed about ruling parties and their unjust economic systems (render unto Caesar), those who love one another as he does, those who await and prepare for his coming, those who partake of his sacrament, those who will teach others (feed sheep), those who engage in missionary work to preach the gospel, etc….

    Hang on, this is starting to look something like a list?

    And if I didn’t know any better, it’s a list that pretty well mirrors things that get talked about in General Conference for… I don’t know… my entire life and the entire life of my parents, and their parents before them.

  15. Michael Austin, thank you for sharing.

    I think it’s easier to see the harmony in what Paul and James are talking about when you take his argument in Galatians to its conclusion in chapters 5 and 6. That’s why starting from Gal. 5:14 you have “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another. This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh….”

    And then Paul goes on to enumerate the Works of the Flesh and the Fruits of the Spirit, i.e. the things that you will do/won’t do if you have saving faith.

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