Monday, January 30, 2012

σωζω as "spiritual profit" in James 2:14

Many words in our modern English language are loaded with cultural baggage. There are catch phrases, cliches, swear words and one liners from movies and commercials which carry more meaning and cultural punch than would first appear on the surface. Perhaps this can be said with any language and cultural context. The Christian cultural environment is no different in its use of cliches, and catch phrases. Though innocent enough on the surface, statements like, salvation, sanctification, works, grace, faith, and judgment are packed full of meaning and loaded with significance to most any Christian conversant in the rudiments of theology. This is simply a characteristic of how language works. If we did not know and understand the basic meanings connected with phrases, words and sentences, we would not be able to communicate with each other at all. But this basic tenant of language can have its drawbacks as well. As an experiment, walk into a Church and ask a dozen people or so what the word "salvation" means to them. I am sure there wοuld be many varied responses, but most likely all the answers would have a basic meaning stitching them all together, this is referred to as a word's "semantic range." Due to this fact of language, it is very common for us as readers, to bring meaning into a context that was not intended by the writer. The same can be true even during a conversation, and is often the cause of arguments and disagreements, especially between married couples. This is why it is necessary to become a good listener and pay careful attention to the context of what is being said or written. The same is true when reading and interpreting the Bible, except the difficulties compound due to the age of the writings, and the fact that it was written in another language and culture.

Salvation [σωτηρια]

To illustrate this point, I would like to look at a Greek word used in the New Testament to refer to "salvation;" σωτηρια. When hearing this word, I think of verses like John 4:22, "You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation [σωτηρια] is from the Jews" (ESV), or Romans 1:16, " For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation [σωτηρια] to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (ESV). But σωτηρια has a far broader semantic range than merely salvation from hell or salvation from some type of danger. It can also take the simple meaning of "doing well," or, "to be healthy." Luke, the author of Acts, used σωτηρια in this way when describing Paul's shipwreck. Paul spoke to his fellow passengers; "Therefore I urge you to take some food. For it will give you strength [σωτηρια], for not a hair is to perish from the head of any of you” (Acts 17:34, ESV). Many used σωτηρια to refer to ones health in a general fashion in Roman antiquity. The papyri, which are original documents preserved on papyri, give a picture of how language was used in antiquity, within the context of every day life. So, the papyri can shed valuable light on the language of the New Testament. Consider this personal letter, dating to the second century, concerning a Roman soldier stationed in Italy, corresponding with his father living in the Fayum in Egypt;
Apion to Epimachus his father and lord heartiest greetings. First of all I pray that you are in health and continually prosper and fare well with my sister and her daughter and my brother. I thank the lord Serapis that when I was in danger at sea he saved [σωζω] me. Straightway when I entered Misenum I received my traveling money from Caesar, three gold pieces. And I am well. I beg you therefore, my lord father, write me a few lines, first regarding your health [σωτηρια], secondly regarding that of my brother and sister, thirdly that I may kiss your hand, because you have brought me up well, and on this account I hope to be quickly promoted, if the gods will. Give many greetings to Capito, and to my brother and sister, and to Serenilla, and my friends. I send you a little portrait of myself at the hands of Euctemon. And my (military) name is Antonius Maximus, I pray for your good health. (Milligan, 90-92)
It can be clearly seen from this letter that σωτηρια was meant to convey the meaning of health. Or perhaps Apion was inquiring more generally to his fathers well being. Either way, the Christian theological term "salvation" and all of its baggage does not factor into the author's use of the word here. The same can be said concerning Paul's use of σωτηρια, to refer to his passengers well being in Acts 27:34 above.

To be Saved [σωζω]  

Closely tied to the word σωτηρια in meaning and usage is its verbal counterpart σωζω. This verb is used many times in the New Testament to refer to "being saved" from sin and hell. I think of John 3:17, "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved [σωζω] through him" (ESV). Another verse which conveys the same meaning is Ephesians 2:8-9, "For by grace you have been saved [σωζω] through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast" (ESV). But just like its noun counter part, σωζω also carries the meaning of "health" or "well being." Consider the woman with an ulcer whom Jesus healed,
And behold, a woman who had suffered from a discharge of blood for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment, for she said to herself, “If I only touch his garment, I will be made well [σωζω].” Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well [σωζω]. (Matthew 9:20-22, ESV). 
Also consider this curious usage by John, when referring to Lazarus waking from sleep, "The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover [σωζω]” (John 11:12, ESV). Once again, just as in the examples given above for σωτηρια, the verb σωζω can also carry the general meaning of health, well being or, as in the case of Lazarus, even wakeful normality.

σωζω as "spiritual profit" in James 2:14

How does one know which meaning was intended by the author? The context is the driving factor, it narrows the semantic range down to the specific idea which the author wished to convey. The importance of understanding context can clearly be seen in the theologically loaded second chapter of the letter of James. Much of the reason James chapter two is so controversial is the connection between faith and works in 2:14, "What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save [σωζω] him?" (ESV). At first glance, the Christian tendency is to read the phrase "Can that faith save him" as giving a quality to the faith involved within salvation (Zuck, 425-427). In other words, a faith that does not have works does not save (Zuck, 427). Many theologians over the centuries have viewed this verse as very problematic, when compared to verses like Ephesians 2:8-9 which strictly separate faith and works in their involvement in salvation. Because of this tension Martin Luther referred to James as "a right strawy epistle" (MacDonald, 2215). However, this meaning only comes into view in James 2:14 because of the theological loaded word "saved" [σωζω] used in connection with faith. But is this James' intended meaning here? I do not think so. A quick comparison with the previous phrase in the same verse gives a clue as to what I think is going on here. James begins the verse "what good is it?" I think he is talking about the "usefulness" of having a faith that does nothing. A look at the whole of chapter two reveals that practical outpouring of works is what is in view here, not eternal salvation from hell. James uses this same phrase "what good is it?" in 2:16, "and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?" (emphasis mine, ESV). The other meaning of "health" or "well being" for σωζω, could be James' intended use of the word in this context. If this is the case then James 2:14 would read something like this; ""What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith spiritually profit him?" I do not mean spiritual profit in the way of salvation from hell, but in the way of practical out pouring of works. This meaning fits well with the context of works and faith in James chapter two and falls within the semantic range of the verb σωζω. Of course this would remove any tension between faith and works in salvation, and the qualification of faith with works. Perhaps Martin Luther would have looked at this letter differently?

Bauer, Walter, Fredrick William Danker, W. F. Arndt, and F. W. Gingrich. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001.

MacDonald, William. Believer's Bible Commentary. Edited by Art Farstad. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995.

Milligan, George. Selections from the Greek Papyri. Cambridge: University Press, 1912.

Zuck, Roy B. A Biblical Theology of the New Testament. electronic ed. Chicago: Moody Press, 1994.


  1. There are several translational possibilities here which could render the sense of the passage. One could also say "Can that faith practically profit him?" As a friend of mine pointed out, a parallel passage could be 1 Corinthians 3:13-15. But I am not sure that judgment is in focus at all here (as in 1 cor 3:13-15), merely the practical usefulness of faith without works.

  2. Perhaps we can paraphrase it as "Does he have a healthy faith?"

  3. Yes! Very good, yours is a clearer translation and fits better with the use of the verb, in connection with health and well being I mean.