What does James 2:20 mean?
ESV: Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?
NIV: You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?
NASB: But are you willing to acknowledge, you foolish person, that faith without works is useless?
CSB: Senseless person! Are you willing to learn that faith without works is useless?
NLT: How foolish! Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless?
KJV: But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?
Verse Commentary:
In prior verses, James has attempted to make a clear distinction between a so-called-"faith" and a truly saving faith. False faith is one which results in no good works. The works do not save us, and there is no sense in which James requires works for salvation. But, he points out that even demons have a sort of "faith," by believing that God exists. Faith which saves is faith which results in action.

James is not arguing that faith doesn't matter. Nor is he denying that through faith alone we are saved by God's grace (Ephesians 2:8–9). He is simply noting that the "faith which saves" is something more than an opinion. Instead, James is arguing for exactly what Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:10: That the God who saved us by His grace through faith—and not in any sense through works—planned all along for His believing children to do good works, "that we should walk in them." That's what true believers do.

With this short verse, James prepares to make his final arguments that genuine faith always results in good works. He asserts in rather blunt terms that those who disagree are foolish. He asks his hypothetical, foolish "someone," the source of the challenge of verse 18, if he wants to be shown or see evidence that faith without works is a useless, dead faith.
Verse Context:
James 2:14–26 makes the case that how one acts—their ''works''—are a sign of the kind of ''faith'' they possess. So-called-''faith'' which doesn't lead a person to participate in good works is not a saving faith; it is a dead thing. It is pointless and meaningless to believe, or ''wish,'' a poverty-stricken person to be well, if such an opinion leads to no action. In exactly the same way, James insists that it is not enough to mentally agree about certain facts of God. If what a person believes about God does not lead them to act accordingly, then their ''faith'' is not saving faith. It is merely opinion. James never says that faith is not essential for salvation. He never claims works are required to obtain or keep salvation. He is, however, crystal clear that truly saving faith cannot be separated from the evidence of good works.
Chapter Summary:
Genuine saving faith in God leads to good and loving actions: ''works.'' In chapter 1, James discussed the importance of acting on the words of God, not merely hearing them. Favoritism to the rich over the poor demonstrates a lack of faith. In fact, this is a sin. Following up on these ideas, James insists that ''faith'' which doesn't result in good works is dead. Such belief is merely intellectual agreement. It is not trust, or true, biblical saving faith. James doesn't deny that belief in God is essential to salvation, nor does he claim that works are necessary to obtain salvation. Rather, he makes the case that works are to faith what the breath is to the body: a sign of life. A ''faith'' without works is like a body without breath: dead.
Chapter Context:
In chapter 1, James taught that a saving belief in God changes how a Christian looks at trials in their lives. It affects where they turn for help, and who they credit for good. Believers hear the Word and do it. In this chapter, James insists that our faith in God should keep us from showing favoritism to the rich and powerful on earth and should provoke us to love our poor neighbors as ourselves. He also makes the case that so-called-''faith'' which does not result in works, is not saving faith, at all. Despite controversy, this does not clash with Paul's view of salvation by grace alone. James refers to good works as an expected outcome of salvation, not the source of it. In the following chapters, he will continue to show what a life of genuine faith looks like.
Book Summary:
The book of James is about specifically understanding what saving faith looks like. How does faith in Christ reveal itself in a believer's life? What choices does real trust in God lead us to make? Those are the questions James answers. Most scholars believe the writer was Jesus' half-brother, a son born to Joseph and Mary after Jesus' birth. James may not have come to believe Jesus was the Messiah until after the resurrection. Eventually, though, he became one of the leaders of the Christian church in Jerusalem. This is possibly the earliest-written of all the New Testament books, around AD 40–50. James addresses his letter to Jewish Christians scattered around the known world.
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