So the question is, if this isn't what James meant by "faith without works is dead", then just what does it mean?
There's a trap here waiting for us in this verse because when we read "faith" we tend to immediately equate that faith with the faith you have in Christ specifically. But it turns out there's no good reason to make that particular leap. We have a whole bunch of verses in the NT which explain that we are to "believe in" (as it's commonly expressed in English translations) Jesus Christ. The following is a slew of verses as examples:
John 1:12, John 3:14-18, John 3:36, John 5:24, John 11:25, John 20:31, John 6:29, Mark 16:16, Acts 13:39, Rom 10:9, Rom 3:22, 1Cor 1:21, 1John 5:13, Acts 16:31, Rom 10-9
In these verses, the word that we could translate as "have faith in" is the Greek word "pisteuo" which means "to rely on." Note that this word is a VERB. In most English translations, however, it's written as "believe in" which is also correct, but slightly more ambiguous. Also note that you could "have faith in" a lot of different things for a lot of different reasons and the same words would communicate that idea. A skydiver "has faith in" his parachute, for example.
Also notice that in the previous post we dismantled Don Johnson's view that Paul meant something different when he used the word "ergon" than when James used the same word. Well, my argument here is based also on slightly different meanings of our English word "faith" but before you think that I'm making the same mistake as Mr. Johnson, understand that the Greek word behind the idea of "having faith in" (as in John 3:16, for example) is NOT the same Greek word as James uses in James 2:17. That's a huge difference in my approach… in other words, I actually have good reason to believe that James 2:17 is not referring to our having believed in Christ of salvation. A different word is used with a different meaning. In James Chapter 2, the Greek word for "faith" is "pistis", not "pisteuo" and it's a noun, not a verb. Yes, the two words are related, but their meanings are different. "Pistis" refers to the 'content' of one's belief. You might say it's the "stuff" that you believe or know. What you believe, what you know, in other words. But notice how vague that is. James doesn't need to be speaking of our belief in Christ (admittedly, that is part of what we believe, so the word "pistis" certainly would include that particular belief). But, by no means is "faith" here limited to any particular belief. It's a very broad category. So when you think about this verse, replace "faith" with "the stuff you believe."
Now, what about works? Well, again, this is the same word that Paul used… "ergon", which means to work, toil, effort, deed, labor. Simple enough, right?
But what about "dead"? That's the Greek word "nekros" which does mean "dead" but also has the connotation of "useless" or "worthless". And if you look at James 2:14, James asks:
"What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?"
"Profit" here in the Greek is the word "ophelos" which means "gain" or "advantage". Do you see the contrast here? Something that's "useless" provides no gain or advantage. It is without gain or advantage. And in fact in some English translations, when James expresses the same idea again in verse 20, the word "nekros" is translated "useless."
Now read the verse again:
"The stuff you believe, if not accompanied by effort, provides no advantage."
Now, let's bring this down to Earth and see how we can apply it:
I you know and believe it's a good idea to wear a seat belt while driving in a car, but you don't wear your seat belt, what advantage is that knowledge (that belief, you might say) to you? It's useless, isn't it? If you believe that you should lock your front door at night, but you do not, what advantage has that belief provided you? Nothing.
Now okay, so James isn't talking about seat belts or front doors. I get that. He is talking about the things that the believers whom he's addressing believe, and whether they actually put that belief to good use. For example, they ought to believe that they should "do unto others as they would have them do unto them." But if they don't actually DO IT, that belief, that knowledge, is useless. They might believe that they should avoid sinning. But if they don't avoid sinning, what good is that belief to them? None. And wouldn't you know it, but this is exactly the sort of example he gives in verse 15:
"If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?"
See, it's got absolutely no connection with salvation by faith in Christ. It has only to do with applying what you've been taught, applying what you know.
But what about that last part of verse 14 where James says "Can that faith save him?"
Well, the question is, save him from what? Hell? Is James talking about salvation from Hell? The word "save" doesn't always have to refer to salvation from Hell. There are other things we can be 'saved' from and the word is used elsewhere in the New Testament where it clearly does not mean salvation from Hell. In this case, James is referring to a believer's sanctification… the process of becoming spiritually mature after salvation from Hell. This is sometimes referred to as "second tense" salvation. James' audience, after all, are already believers. They are already saved from Hell. We know this in part because of James' continual reference to his audience as "beloved brethren."
So, the popular understanding of James 2:17 and 2:20 is, well, a misunderstanding. In no way does James mean that faith in Christ is not enough to save us, and that we have to add our works to seal the deal. That Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons use these verses in this way ought to clue us in to the error here.