Most Christian traditions that trace their theologies and doctrines from the Protestant Reformation are known for their convictions that the truths of the Christian faith are found in Sola Scriptura, or Scripture alone, and that we are justified sola fide, or by “faith alone.” Ironically, the expression “faith alone” only appears once in the Bible—in James 2:24—where it is rejected as a description of how we are justified.
The Bible’s rejection of this phrase is a burr under the saddle for Protestants, for if they wanted to use terms the way the Bible does, then they would have to give up their chief slogan—the one which defines the whole movement.
When Catholics point out this problem, Protestants often try to do damage control by attacking the kind of faith being discussed in James 2, by saying it is somehow inferior or bad faith.
The way some attempt to do this is by pejoratively labeling the faith James speaks of as “dead faith.” Using the phrase in verses 17 and 26, they treat “faith without works is dead” as if it were a definition and say, “If faith does not produce works then it is dead faith. It is dead faith that James says won’t save us.”
But this argument does not work. A reading of the passage clearly shows that James is not using the phrase as a definition. He is not defining the term “dead faith.” In fact, the term “dead faith” does not appear in the text. He is stating a fact, not offering a definition.
One way we know this is because James offers proof for his assertion, not documentation for his definition. He does this by first citing how useless it is to wish someone well without actually helping them, illustrating this by pointing to the cases of Abraham and Rahab. He then forthrightly states: “Do you want to be shown … that faith apart from works is barren?” (v. 20).
The “dead faith” interpretation flies apart at the seams, however, when we simply try it out by substituting the phrase “dead faith” wherever the text mentions faith.
People would be boasting of having dead faith (vv. 14). James would be making the ridiculously redundant statement that dead faith without works is dead faith (vv. 17, 26) and offering to prove that dead faith is barren (v. 20). He would be offering to show people his dead faith by his works (v. 18)! In verse 19, James would be commending people (“you do well”) for having dead faith (v. 19).
James would be telling us that Abraham’s dead faith was active with his works, that Abraham’s dead faith was made complete by his works (v. 22), and that Abraham believed God with dead faith, which was then reckoned to him as righteousness and resulted in his being the friend of God (v. 23).
Another attempt to impugn the faith in this passage does not involve treating “faith without works is dead” as a definition but seizes on the statement that “Even the demons believe—and shudder” (v. 19). Faith and belief are the same word and concept in Greek (we simply lack a verb for “to faith” in English, so we use “to believe” instead). So people ask, “What kind of faith do demons have?” “Only mere intellectual assent,” Protestants answer. “They intellectually assent to the truths of theology, but this is as far as their faith goes.”
This understanding of the faith James is speaking of as mere intellectual assent is much closer to the truth, but it still creates problems with the text—in fact, it creates many of the same ones.
For a start, people would be boasting of having mere intellectual assent (v. 14). James would be offering to show others his mere intellectual assent by his works (v. 18). He would be commending people for having mere intellectual assent (v. 19). He would be saying that Abraham’s mere intellectual assent was active along with his works (v. 22).
Finally, he would be saying that Abraham had mere intellectual assent in God’s promise and that this resulted in him being reckoned righteous and made the friend of God—the opposite point he made concerning demons having faith and the opposite of the point of this passage, which is to show that mere intellectual assent is barren (v. 23).
The “mere intellectual assent” solution fails, just as the “dead faith” solution did. In fact, any solution is going to fail that tries to impugn the faith James is talking about and says it is some kind of bad or inferior faith. This can be seen just by going through the passage and substituting “bad faith” and “inferior faith” wherever faith is mentioned (something the reader can do for himself).
One must conclude that James does not see anything wrong with the kind of faith he is talking about. The faith isn’t the problem; the fact that the faith is alone is the problem. To understand what kind of faith James has in mind, one must avoid the temptation to read something bad into it.
This is where the “mere intellectual assent” solution went wrong. Its advocates correctly identified verse 19 as the key to understanding the kind of faith under discussion. It is intellectual assent. The problems were created by adding the term “mere” in order to make it sound bad. Leave “mere” off and the problems vanish; the passage makes perfect sense.
Someone can indeed go around boasting that he intellectually assents to God’s truth (v. 14), prompting James’s need to show that intellectual assent without works is dead and barren (vv. 17, 20, 26). James could indeed offer to show his intellectual assent by his works (v. 18) and he could commend a person for having intellectual assent (v. 19a), while saying that even the demons have it but it doesn’t stop them from shuddering at the prospect of God’s wrath (v. 19b).
James can speak of how Abraham’s intellectual assent was active with and completed by his works (v. 22). And he can draw his conclusion in verses 24 that man is not justified by intellectual assent alone. What James is saying is that intellectual assent is a good thing (“you do well,” v. 19a), just not a complete thing if you want to be saved (vv. 14, 17, 20, 24, 26).
One could say that a person is justified by faith alone if one meant what Catholics have historically called formed faith—faith formed by charity (cf. Gal.5:6)—but not by intellectual faith alone.
In any event, if one wishes to use the language the Bible uses, one would say that one is justified by faith apart from “works of the Law” (Rom. 3:28), but not by “faith alone,” apart from works (Jas. 2:24).