by Al Maxey

Issue #552 ------- October 19, 2012
The worst evil of all is to leave the
ranks of the living before one dies.

Seneca the Younger (5 B.C. - 65 A.D.)

Dead Body and Faith
Reflective Study of James 2:26

The glorious Good News brought to us from the Father by the Son is that we are saved by the grace of God through faith in the free gift of His beloved Son, who redeemed us from the curse of sin by taking that sin upon Himself and then offering Himself as the once-for-all perfect atoning sacrifice on the cross. In Him we have been redeemed; His blood covers us and continually cleanses us of all sin; we are secure in His loving embrace. We receive this gift in simple faith, and we then daily display our love and gratitude for this gift in our attitudes and actions. With the help of the indwelling Spirit, we are increasingly transformed into the image of Jesus, bearing spiritual fruit in our lives as we journey toward the promise of that eternal dwelling in the new heavens and earth. We are saved not by any meritorious act on our part -- the dead cannot enliven and raise themselves -- but solely by His grace. We now live because He loves us; we now serve because we love Him.

Although it is not within us to enliven ourselves (this is the work of God's Spirit), it is within us (again, with the help of His indwelling Spirit) to enliven our faith in evidentiary acts of love and gratitude. It is one thing to believe (have faith) in God, and what He freely offers by virtue of His Son's sacrifice, it is quite another to display the reality of that belief (faith). James informs us that even the demons believe (have faith) in God, trembling at the very thought, yet that belief does not, in and of itself, save them (James 2:19). John pointed out that many of the Jewish rulers "believed (had faith) in Him, but because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue, for they loved praise from men more than praise from God" (John 12:42-43). It is one thing to say you have faith, it is quite another to show it. The former, devoid of the latter, is faith devoid of life. James declared, "Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead" (James 2:17). I like the way The Message words some of what James says in this chapter: "Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? ... Isn't it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense? ... Use your heads! Do you suppose for a minute that you can cut faith and works in two and not end up with a corpse on your hands?"

James summed up his argument in this chapter with this statement: "As the body is dead when there is no breath left in it, so faith divorced from deeds is lifeless as a corpse" (James 2:26, New English Bible). A body devoid of breath is inanimate; it does nothing; it lies there lifeless. In the same way, faith devoid of any evidentiary action on the part of the one professing said faith, is inanimate; it does nothing; it lies there lifeless. A body that will not breathe accomplishes nothing; neither does a faith that will not show itself. Neither is alive; both are dead. James, to illustrate his point, tells us how both Abraham and Rahab demonstrated the vitality of their faith: showing it to be alive by their actions. Although it was not their actions that justified them (they were justified by their faith, as Paul points out in Romans 4), nevertheless their actions visibly validated the genuineness of their faith, demonstrating their spiritual resolve to actively live by faith, rather than just giving empty lip-service to it.

There are some disciples, however, who have a problem with the statement in James 2:26 (as worded in several versions and translations). The problem lies in the use of the word "spirit." The New International Version, for example, reads, "As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead." Other major translations also employ the word "spirit" in this passage (KJV, NASB, RSV, ESV, HCSB, ASV). Although this is not necessarily an incorrect rendering, it can be a somewhat misleading one. The Greek word used by James in the text is pneuma, which, although it can be translated "spirit," and often is, it primarily signifies "breath." The use of the word "spirit," unfortunately, conveys to the minds of many today the Platonic concept of some immaterial, immortal being trapped within a physical body that is freed to greater life at the moment of physical death. Thus, for those who have embraced this pagan doctrine, a body without the spirit means to them a dead body from which the "immortal soul" has "flown off to heaven" (or hell). Needless to say, such a doctrine, in my view, is about as far from biblical truth as one can get (for those who would like to hear my study on this topic in greater depth, in a classroom setting, may I recommend my two CD set The Nature of Man and His Eternal Destiny, which consists of 20 MP3 audio files of my Sunday morning classes, as well as 25 in-depth papers supplementing the 20 classes).

Those who embrace the Platonic view of the nature of man, however, delight in the wording of James 2:26 in the above mentioned versions of the Bible, for, on the surface, it does seem to endorse their view (based upon how these people typically understand the term "spirit" -- i.e., "immortal soul"). Guy N. Woods insists that the term pneuma "refers, in this instance, to the immortal nature of man" [A Commentary on the Epistle of James, p. 151]. "The body is the animal frame of man which houses the spirit: the immortal nature" [ibid]. "The spirit (the immortal nature) is eternal and therefore not subject to dissolution or decay" [ibid, p. 152]. If, on the other hand, the Greek word pneuma is allowed to signify "breath," which is its primary meaning, the passage conveys a much different message to our minds. Notice how the following versions render the text of James 2:26.

  1. Contemporary English Version -- Anyone who doesn't breathe is dead, and faith that doesn't do anything is just as dead!

  2. New English Bible -- As the body is dead when there is no breath left in it, so faith divorced from deeds is lifeless as a corpse.

  3. New American Bible -- Be assured, then, that faith without works is as dead as a body without breath.

  4. New Living Translation -- Just as the body is dead without breath, so also faith is dead without good works.

  5. God's Word Translation -- A body that doesn't breathe is dead. In the same way, faith that does nothing is dead.

  6. Worldwide English NT -- A body is dead if it does not breathe. In the same way, believing is dead if it does not do anything good.

It is my conviction, based upon the consistent teaching about the nature of man throughout Scripture, that this is the far better rendering, and certainly better represents the truth James sought to convey. I am certainly not alone in that belief. Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, in The Expositor's Greek Testament, suggests "breath" is the preferred translation of the word pneuma [vol. 4, p. 29]. Another noted Greek scholar, Dr. A. T. Robertson, translates the phrase: "apart from breath." He goes on to observe, "It is not easy to tell when one is dead, but the absence of a sign of breath on a glass before the mouth and nose is proof of death." He adds that James' illustration here is a "startling picture of dead faith in our churches and church members with only a name to live, as in Rev. 3:2" [Word Pictures in the New Testament, e-Sword]. "There is no reason for thinking that James intends to give pneuma the meaning 'spirit' and not 'breath'" [R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistle of James, p. 598]. Lenski continues: "Absence proves deadness: absence of breath, deadness of the body; absence of works, deadness of the faith" [ibid]. Dr. John Gill (1697-1771), an English pastor and biblical scholar, and "the first Baptist to write a complete systematic theology and the first to write a verse-by-verse commentary of the entire Bible," had this to say about what James wrote: "This simile is made use of to illustrate what the apostle had asserted in James 2:17, that a body, when the breath is gone out of it, is dead, and without motion, and useless; ... the body without breath is a carcass" [Exposition of the Entire Bible, e-Sword]. Matthew Henry (1662-1714), in his classic Commentary on the Whole Bible, observes, "As the body without the breath is dead, so is faith without works: ... works are the companions of faith, as breathing is of life" [e-Sword].

The obvious point of the passage is: just as breath brings animation to my body, so do godly acts bring animation to my faith. Just as the former reflects flesh-life, so do the latter reflect faith-life. "Unless our faith is of that kind which will produce holy living, it has no more of the characteristics of true religion than a dead body has of a living man" [Albert Barnes, Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. "If faith produces no fruit of good living, that fact proves that it is dead, that it has no power, and that it is of no value" [ibid]. "James compares faith without works to a body without breath. ... We are to understand the body-breath relationship in terms of Jewish Christian anthropology. That is, the separation of the two does not produce a type of release for the 'spirit' (as in Orphic-philosophical thought which spoke of the body as a tomb or prison), but rather results in a dead corpse. The Greek dualistic thought would not comport well with what James has been arguing. The source behind James' analogy here may be Gen. 2:7. Pneuma carries with it the OT idea of 'life-giving breath.' A body without breath is dead. ... As breath enables a body to live, likewise works produce a living faith" [Ralph P. Martin, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 48: James, p. 98].

James seeks to move the disciple of Christ from lifeless passivity to lively activity. To those who say they have faith, James simply issues the challenge: show it. If it is truly vital it will be visible. "I will show you my faith by what I do" (James 2:18). James comments on this further in the next chapter: "Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom" (James 3:13). Too many Christians appear more as corpses propped in pews inside a building than active, vibrant disciples with a functioning faith visible to their communities. Our faith must come alive, and that doesn't happen when it is hidden away from view. In other words, it must be active. "That faith which lies only in the cold assent of the intellect to a system of divinity is more like a lifeless corpse than a living man" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 21, James, p. 39]. "A person may boast that he possesses faith, but if the evidence of good works is lacking, such faith is spurious, hypocritical, valueless. Genuine faith is never without good works. For just as the body without breath is dead, so faith without works is dead" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible, The NT, vol. 2, p. 506]. "James is teaching that faith without works is simply a cold orthodoxy, lacking spiritual vibrancy. James' concern is more practical than theological. The real issue for these believers is the absence or presence of a freshness, vitality and energy in their faith. When a Christian engages in practical deeds to benefit others, James says faith comes alive" [John F. Hart, How To Energize Our Faith].

Down, But Not Out
A Study of Divorce & Remarriage
in Light of God's Healing Grace

(A 193 page book by Al Maxey)
Also Available on KINDLE

One Bread, One Body
An Examination of Eucharistic
Expectation, Evolution & Extremism

(A 230 page book by Al Maxey)
Also Available on KINDLE

Immersed By One Spirit
Rethinking the Purpose and Place of
Baptism in NT Theology and Practice

(A 304 page book by Al Maxey)
Also Available on KINDLE

Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Maryland:

I am a brother-in-Christ studying spiritual leadership theory in a post-graduate program at Walden University. I perceive that my research will probably bring me in touch with many of your writings. In fact, I just recently purchased your book Immersed By One Spirit, and now plan to buy your book Down, But Not Out for my wife to put on her Kindle. Thank you for your contribution to "rightly dividing the Word of Truth."

From a Minister in New Jersey:

Please send me your new two CD set on The Nature of Man and His Eternal Destiny. I look forward to the benefit of your research on this topic. I still keep up with your Reflections, even though I have not responded much lately. We are in the process of closing down our congregation here and selling the property. A number of other congregations of all denominations are also declining in number. In fact, I just got off the telephone with the minister of another nearby Church of Christ that is also struggling to stay alive. Please keep up the good work you are doing.

From a Reader in Texas:

My wife and I have been readers of yours for several years and we just wanted to thank you for your great insight and leadership. Also, please find enclosed a check for your CD set The Nature of Man and His Eternal Destiny. Thanks, and may God bless you.

From a Reader in Alabama:

Enclosed is my check for the two CDs on The Nature of Man and His Eternal Destiny. My dear wife died from cancer about a year ago, and since then I have wondered about the questions you apparently have discussed at length in your class, and which you have recorded on these CDs. I look forward to listening to what you have to say.

From a Reader in Florida:

Please send us your CD -- A Study of Revelation. We are presently beginning our study of Revelation at the ----- Church of Christ, and we are interested in your insights on this book. Our check is enclosed. Thank you!

From an Elder in Iowa:

I have read your Reflections articles since I first heard of you in 2008. I've been searching your Archives for an article I thought I remembered you had written about taking the Scriptures literally or figuratively, and when each was appropriate. Can I find that article now? Not on your life! Could you please let me know where in your Archives that article is located? I would really appreciate it, as I think it would help me discuss this issue with someone here. Thanks in advance for your help.

From a Minister in Georgia:

I just read your latest Reflections titled "Paul's Anticipated Departure." One thing you did not deal with is the story of the rich man and Lazarus. I would like your thoughts on that, and how that relates to your conclusion that there is no conscious existence between death and the resurrection. Thanks.

From a Reader in Canada:

I have just mailed you a check for your CD set on The Nature of Man and His Eternal Destiny. I have always had so many questions about this. Scripture says that the wages of sin is death. So, how does one get an "eternal living hell" out of that?! Also, I know that when the resurrection comes I will be changed and united with Jesus, but until He comes for me I am sleeping in the dust of the ground. Time has no meaning for me. I'm dead. When I go to a funeral, regardless of the religious stripe, I just cringe when they say that this person is in a much happier place. When I am "sleeping" in the grave, I am neither happy nor sad. I am dead. I am really looking forward to your material on this, as you are still the one person I trust to read the Scriptures and let them speak to you instead of trying to speak for them. God bless you!

From a Reader in Alabama:

There you go again ("Paul's Anticipated Departure"), and for what purpose?! What was Paul talking about when he said that he knew a man (himself) who was caught up into the third heaven, whether in the body or out of the body, he did not know (2 Cor. 12:1-4)? You do a lot of good, Al, but I cannot understand why you insist on your hammering about the spirit of man. Since when did a pagan's belief about something (that man has a spirit that exists separate from his physical body) nullify the possibility of that being true? A rather stupid argument on your part.

From a Reader in California:

I appreciate what you wrote in your article "Paul's Anticipated Departure," as I have tried for many years to come up with a theology of death and destiny that satisfies all my questions. It was one of the final sermons I preached at the conclusion of 30+ years of preaching, yet I never, in my own mind, reached a satisfactory conclusion on the subject. A conversation with Edward Fudge helped me tremendously, but not conclusively. As always, I love your Reflections articles, and look forward to them each week. Also, I wanted to let you know that your article over at New Wineskins magazine -- Chaplain at an Execution -- is excellent. Having been a police chaplain in my past, I know how difficult your decision must have been, but I'm glad you did what you did.

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

I just finished reading your article in the October issue of New Wineskins in which you talked about your experience serving as the chaplain for an execution in New Mexico, and I was really moved! I have said many times that not one of us is so righteous as not to need God's grace, and not one of us is so evil as to be denied it. You lived that out! Thank you!

From a Minister in Alabama:

Thank you for sharing your experience as the chaplain at the execution of Terry Clark. Isn't God's grace amazing!! I have had the privilege of preaching the wonderful gospel of God for over half a century (I am now 80 years of age). May our awesome God continue to bless and use you and yours in spreading the truth of His love for all, especially sinners like me.

From a Reader in Tennessee:

Thank you for that article in New Wineskins ("Chaplain at an Execution"). God's grace is AMAZING!!

From My Son (Tim) in North Carolina:

Dad, I think "Chaplain at an Execution" is the best article you've written! You're ministry with Terry Clark was a great lesson for me throughout the years on how God can love and accept anyone, regardless of what they have done!

From a Reader in Florida:

I just read "Chaplain at an Execution." WOW!! What an amazing way to show the love of God. I pray for those "Christians" who opposed your decision. May they come to know the love and mercy of the One they profess to worship. You have shown us what true love and forgiveness really mean. Thank you!

From My Mother in New Mexico:

Al, that day (Nov. 6, 2001) is one I won't forget ... ever. Terry Clark was a relative of some dear friends of ours. When I read your article, I cried. The television interview you gave on the evening news immediately after the execution was awesome (an overworked word, I know, but it was awesome). Your parents are very proud of you!

From a Reader in Ohio:
(who served as a deacon here in 2001)

Your article in New Wineskins brought back such strong feelings! I remember this like it was yesterday. I could not hold back the tears as I read it. Thank you for reminding us all that we serve a loving and forgiving God. I shudder to think about what the current state of Terry's soul would be had it not been for your intervention by God's grace. You did the right thing.

From a Reader in Tennessee:

I understand why serving as the chaplain at Terry Clark's execution was one of the most difficult decisions of your ministry. But, you made the right decision; you followed the call of God. Well-written and poignant!

From a Reader in Georgia:

What an incredible commentary on God's great grace! And what an example you have set by ministering to someone who seemed beyond redemption. May God continue to bless you as you minister to those of us who need to be reminded of God's Amazing Grace!!

From a Reader in Connecticut:

Al, what a riveting story you shared in New Wineskins. How did you do it?! So many rant and rave about how they'd like to be there and "pull the switch" on such a predator. However, as you can bear witness, saying it and actually being there only an arm's length away at the moment of death is a very different thing, especially when that man has confessed his sin and begged God for forgiveness. With your vivid account, I could almost hear the rattle of chains, as he was led into the death chamber, and smell the sterile scent of chemicals that must have permeated the air. What do you say when you look into a man's eyes as he is only seconds away from standing before almighty God?! Al, your years of combat war service to our nation in Vietnam, and your service in the spiritual warfare of this life, are commendable. Few men are made of such metal. Your strength to minister to a man who knows God has forgiven him, but who yet must bear the consequences of his crime, is what distinguishes you as an example of the true meaning of "servant of God." I am proud to call you a personal friend. But, more importantly: a brother in Christ.

If you would like to be removed from or added to this
mailing list, contact me and I will immediately comply.
If you are challenged by these Reflections, then feel
free to send them on to others and encourage them
to write for a free subscription. These articles may all
be purchased on CD. Check the ARCHIVES for
details and past issues of these weekly Reflections: