Faith, Works, Souls, and Bodies – A Hylomorphic Look at James 2:26



In the Free Grace vs. Lordship Salvation debate particular focus is paid to James chapter two. Here James makes a number of troubling statements for those who favor a strict “faith alone” stance, and one of them has to do with James’s analogy of the body. In 2:26 he states,

For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

Free Grace proponent Zane Hodges exlpains this verse this way:

James therefore wishes his readers to know that works are in fact the vitalizing “spirit” which keeps one’s faith alive in the same way that the human spirit keeps the human body alive (2:26). Whenever a Christian ceases to act on his faith, that faith atrophies and becomes little more than a creedal corpse. . . . {fn. Nicol is absolutely correct when he writes: “James’s point is not that faith without works is not faith; as faith he does not criticize it, but merely stresses that faith does not fulfill its purpose when it is not accompanied by works.”} . . . The dangers of a dead faith are real. But these dangers do not include hell.

Free Grace folks often maintain that the dead faith James speaks of cannot result in loss of salvation because (1) faith is the sole condition for salvation, and (2) even as a dead body is still a body, dead faith is still faith. The problem is that James’s point in this section is prefaced by the question he asks a couple verses earlier

If someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?

In case his point was not clear, a couple verses later he concludes:

 Faith apart from works is useless.

The opposing camp (Lordship Salvation) views this passage as indicating that true faith always causes good works, and so lack of works indicates a fake faith. John MacArthur writes,

Righteous behavior is an inevitable result of spiritual life. Faith that fails to produce such behavior is dead. . . .

But how does this square with Paul’s assertion in Romans 3:28 or in chapter 4 where he makes the same point using the same biblical example, Abraham, that James uses? As  MacArthur admits,

The most serious problem these verses pose is the question of what v. 24 means: “You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone.”

It will not do to simply pick either James or Paul as representing “the clear teaching” and interpret the other as “the unclear teaching” in its light, for results in question-begging. Worse, it implies that an actual conflict exists between the two.

Human Nature

Complicating matters is that James’s analogy between body/spirit and faith/works can be taken in very different ways depending on one’s view of the human person. If, for example, one believes that humans are souls temporarily dwelling in bodies (like “earth suits”), then James might appears to be saying that faith must have works added to it to save. It is this assumption that I think needs to be challenged – not just to rescue sola fide, but to more precisely define it.

While a common one, this view of human nature is not the only option, nor is it the best one. Unlike strict forms of material-immaterial dualism, Christianity does not denigrate the material while raising up the immaterial as does, say, Gnosticism. This is seen in the bookends of the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ –  his incarnation and resurrection. In both the perfect immaterial being joined to the material, thus respecting both. So we need to be careful not to make too much of the (legitimate) distinction between body and soul. (For purposes of simplicity I will not distinguish spirit from soul).


A better view in consideration of the Christian data is Hylomorphism (aka hylemorphism from Greek hyle, meaning “matter” and morphe, meaning “form”). This is the view that humans are material and immaterial substances (body and soul) joined into a single “compound”. Here the soul is not just an immaterial thing that happens to be located inside a material body. Rather the soul is the form of the body – what makes the body what it isEdward Feser explains it this way:

The view holds both that the soul is the substantial form of the living human body . . .  and that it is unique among the             forms of material things in being subsistent, that is, capable of surviving beyond the death of the body.

This position (that of Aristotle and Aquinas) pretty much rocks. I won’t argue for it here, though, as I am just considering its implications for James’s statement.

Soul Without Body

On this hylomorphic view, humans, then, are soul-bodies. The human soul is naturally associated with the body and vice versa. When we point to a human person we are not simply picking out the particular collection of matter that makes up that one person. We are pointing to an embodied soul. (This is why in the resurrection it does not matter where the matter comes from – the body is the same because its matter is informed by the same soul. So, no – saved cannibals will not have to share with their victims!).

Although there are two distinct principles making it up, the human person is properly called one thing. However, although the soul-body is one thing, the two can be separated – just as a limb can be removed from a body. Further, a human soul in this separated state can survive separation from the body as an incomplete substance. This is because its immaterial operations (intellect / will) do not require matter to function (unlike, say, an eye, or the immaterial form of an animal or plant).

Body Without Soul

The reverse, however, is not true. Once a soul separates from its body, the human body no longer exists. That is, the remaining matter is no longer a human body. This idea takes a bit of explanation, and I think an analogous example will help. Although it is somewhat misleading to use shape to explain this notion of form, it’s a good starting place because sometimes that’s about all form is (in cases of, well, shapes).

So, suppose you had a triangular piece of paper (true triangles are two-dimensional of course – just go with me on this). If you tore the paper to pieces the paper would remain, but the triangle would be gone. The material did not change – all the paper is still there, but the form of the triangle is gone. Because that particular triangle existed in that particular paper, it ceased to exist once it “separated” from the paper.

In much the same way, a human body ceases to be a human body when its immaterial aspect separates from it. Because form informs matter to make something what it is, when the form is gone so is the thing – even if its material remains. This is why grass can become cows, which can become meat, which can become me.


When the soul separates from the body, we call it death. At death, only the human soul remains in existence – the body is now just chemicals and minerals in the shape (i.e., “composition”) of a human body. It is only properly called “human” analogously now, because it will continue to look like a human until it loses its shape (i.e., “decomposition”).

Dead Faith(?)

So what does this tell us about James’s statement that “as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead”? Here I think the hylomorphic view helps shed some light on two extremes that are in error.

The Lordship Salvation view implies that true faith is one which results in works. This is taken by the Free Grace camp as indicating that works must be added to faith in order for salvation to occur. But, they will say, this contradicts Paul’s statements on faith being the only condition for salvation. Thus it sounds like legalism.

The Free Grace view implies that faith can be cut off completely from works and still save. This is taken by the Lordship group as contradicting  James’s statements that faith without works is useless for salvation. Plus it sounds like licentiousness.

I think that what both views get right is that faith is what saves, not works – but that there is something about faith and works that are connected. At least they should be. What hylomorphism does at this point is show why both extremes seem to say so many true things while remaining opposed.

Faith can exist without works just as a body can exist without the soul. Yes (contra Lordship Salvation), it’s still a real body – but (contra Free Grace), it’s not what it’s “supposed to be” anymore. A body is not a proper human body without the soul, and the soul is an incomplete human without the body. Saving faith is incomplete without works, but not because genuine faith requires works to be added to it in order to become salvific. Rather, faith needs works to be whole because the union of faith and works forms one thing: saving faith.

Seen this way also helps another difficult passage in James – the one about the demons believing (2:19). The intellectual assent to the truth is not saving faith, but not because works need to be added to it (demons could do good works and would remain demons). Rather, what the demons have simply is not saving faith which is itself more than assent.


Applying the hylomorphic view to the question of what constitutes living and dead faith does not necessarily settle every question, but I think it gets us a lot closer to a solution. Plus it provides a more solid anthropology to base the solution upon – one that the moderate views in this debate seem to gravitate towards. (Such a view also helps explain a number of other faith relationships in the New Testament.)


6 thoughts on “Faith, Works, Souls, and Bodies – A Hylomorphic Look at James 2:26

  1. Doug, can you clarify the distinction you are drawing between “genuine faith” and “saving faith”?

  2. Nope. 🙂

    I was trying to use some of the lingo in the debate but I must not have been clear. Here it means the same thing as saving faith, but *I* am not contrasting it with “fake” faith as do some in the debate.

  3. Doug, on the issue of hylomorphism in regards to the passage in James, I’m not sure how the hylomorphic view helps the Free Grace camp. Earlier in the article, you mention:

    “The reverse, however, is not true. Once a soul separates from its body, the human body no longer exists. That is, the remaining matter is no longer a human body.”

    Toward the end, you wrote:

    “Faith can exist without works just as a body can exist without the soul. Yes (contra Lordship Salvation), it’s still a real body – but (contra Free Grace), it’s not what it’s ‘supposed to be’ anymore.”

    Would this not be inconsistent with the first part of the article? Since the human body no longer “exists” when the body is separated from the soul, the body that remains would no longer be a “real body” in the sense of a “real human body.” It would be considered a “real body” in a different sense. Would not a new, ontological substance be the result of a body being separated from the soul? In other words, the resulting “real body” would not merely no longer be what it’s “supposed to be,” but it would not even be considered, ontologically speaking, a human body.

    As a result, if the analogy is applied to the issue of faith and works in which faith corresponds to matter (body) while works correspond to form (soul), then if the the form is not present (works), then neither is the matter (faith) that corresponds with its particular form. Formless matter is nothing (non-existence). Therefore, the resulting “dead” faith, if it is to be considered something or part of something (a substance), would this not yield a completely different substance as compared with the body that is part of the human substance? And if the faith that results is of a completely different substance, then the resulting faith would no longer be a “saving faith.” It would be something else entirely.

    … just thinking out loud 🙂

  4. I was mostly trying to think out loud too – I am not sure how far hylomorphism can be read into it, but yes I do think much of what you pointed out would be implied. I was using matter and body equivocally here (like the paper). The body still is a body, it’s just not a human body. I was not trying to help Free Grace out, I was trying to contrast it. So I guess that worked. 🙂

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