Recently I’ve been reading Robert H. Gundry’s Commentary on James (HT: Jeff@Scripture Zealot). I’ve crossed paths with Gundry before on this blog (cf. my post on Matthew’s “narrative” account of the infant Christ), but this is my first time reading his work first hand.
By and large, Gundry presents his own literal translation of the text as an introduction to each section of his commentary. It seems to be fairly straightforward stuff, but I was struck by his approach to James 2:20, in which he presents a twist in his translation:
“But do you want to know, O empty human being, that faith apart from works is workless?” (emphasis mine)
By way of comparison, for the word translated as “workless”, the majority of modern translations use either “useless” (NIV, ESV, GW, GNT, HCSB, NASB, NLT), “dead” (KJV, NKJV) or “barren” (ASV, RSV, NRSV). REB uses “futile”. N.T. Wright uses “lifeless” in his new translation effort, while The Message likens it to “a corpse”.
Gundry states that his translation “advances a wordplay that means workless faith isn’t just faith apart from works. It’s also faith that doesn’t work salvation in a person.” To work salvation recalls the admonition in Philippians 2:12 to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” We are, of course, saved (“justified”) sola fide, but the process of working out salvation in our lives, i.e. “sanctification”, produces barren branches (cf. John 15:1-6) in the absence of faith-born works. That is, it doesn’t work.