For a long time I struggled with the second chapter of the letter of James. I had great difficulty reconciling what James was saying with the rest of Scripture. I would listen intently to any preacher who was expositing this chapter of James for an explanation but their answers never seemed to satisfy me regarding the seemingly irreconcilable views James taught.
I know that I was not alone in this quandary as I’ve often heard the declaration that when it comes to the issue of justification, “James contradicts Paul.”
The most vocal proponents of James’ alleged doctrine that faith and works are required for justification are known as the works-righteousness crowd. (Think: Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and Roman Catholics.)
Whenever the subject of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone comes up, these groups immediately run to James chapter two as their proof-text that you must do your part in conjunction with God’s part in order to bring about your redemption.
And granted, they do make a convincing argument, for it appears that’s precisely what James is saying. However, the opposing argument (faith alone through grace alone) can be made with equal tenacity based on a plethora of Paul’s teaching.
In relation to the totality of all of Scripture, this polemic goes beyond just Paul and James, but the gist of the debate can be summed up most succinctly by the following two verses:
“You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” – James 2:24
“For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” – Romans 3:28
These two axioms really only leave us with three possible options:
A). James is teaching that salvation is by faith and works (and conversely, so is Paul).
B). Paul is teaching salvation is by faith apart from works (and conversely, so is James).
C). The two men contradict one another and thus, the Bible contradicts itself.
For those of us who understand that “C” is not a viable option, we’re only left with options “A” and “B.” So, to determine which is the correct interpretation we must resort to the old practice of letting Scripture interpret Scripture.
In this post I will attempt to prove—in eight points—that not only do James and Paul agree that salvation is by faith apart from works (i.e. alone), but that if James is actually teaching that your obedience to the law and/or your practicing of good works contributes to your salvation, then he would not only be contradicting Paul, but he would also be contradicting himself!
Point 1: Context matters.
The most important component of proper biblical interpretation is context. If you get the context of James’ letter wrong, then you will not be able to understand what he’s saying regarding faith and works, and you will inevitably misconstrue the point of his letter. And as with any reading of Scripture, what matters is the author’s original intent.
When taken as a whole—not extracted from the letter to stand alone and on its own—we see that James chapter two is comparing a dead faith with that of a living faith. He’s contrasting an empty profession of faith versus a true, born again, regeneration which is then evidenced by outward signs, namely good works (see James 2:14, 2:17, 2:20, 2:24, 2:26).
James White adds:
“James is not discussing how one is made righteous before God, how one finds forgiveness of sins. The whole book is not written to unbelievers, nor is it its purpose to discuss how unbelievers are made believers. Instead, James’ book is primarily moral and ethical in nature. It is an exhortation to Christian living, directed solely to people who already name the name of Christ.”
Any attempt to build a theology on the letter of James (or any book of the Bible for that matter) without first understanding the context of that particular book means you’ve already begun building on a faulty foundation and your conclusion will not be what the original author intended.
Point 2: Does James agree with Paul elsewhere in James’ own writings?
In James 1:17-18, he writes that “we were brought forth by the excellence of God’s will, as every perfect gift comes from God.” James is speaking to those who are already Christians, and in these verses he shows us two things of great importance: 1). God is sovereign over His creation, even over the conversion of the sinner and 2). Every perfect gift comes from God.
1). God is sovereign over His creation in the miracle of conversion (an act where God takes a dead man and makes him alive). Believers have been “brought forth,” not by our might, power, or will, but by God’s power, sovereign ability, and will. If we could work towards accomplishing our own conversion/salvation then it becomes an act of the will of our flesh and our will, and it is no longer an act solely of God’s will (and consequently we rob God of His glory).
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! For He says to Moses, “I WILL HAVE MERCY ON WHOM I HAVE MERCY, AND I WILL HAVE COMPASSION ON WHOM I HAVE COMPASSION.” So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.
Additionally, if we could work towards earning our salvation then grace would no longer be grace.
But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.
2). When you receive what you’ve worked for, then you’ve earned it. When you receive something that you haven’t worked for that’s called a gift, and that’s why in Scripture grace is never referred to as a wage, but it is often referred to as a “gift.”
Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.
But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many. The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification. For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.
What is a more perfect gift from God than eternal life?
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Remember, in James 1:17-18 he calls our being “brought forth” (salvation) a gift, just as Paul so often does in his writings.
James clearly shows us that he is not referring to saving faith in James chapter two, but instead he’s putting a mere profession of faith on trial when he says in verse fourteen:
What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?
It is crucial for us to understand the definition or context of “that faith” because it is foundational to everything James builds upon thereafter.
Verse 2:14 illustrates that the subject’s profession of faith is alone, specifically, that it is not accompanied by proof.
Furthermore, James says, “But” (meaning that there’s a problem), “he has no works.” This means the man displays a continual absence of works. In the life of this man who professes faith in Christ, he has a lifestyle that bears no fruit of being truly born again (1 John 3:7-10).
Equally important to note, James asks, “If someone says he has faith” (“But” there’s no proof of that faith evidenced by a lifestyle which continually lacks works), then “can that faith save him?”
James is being very specific when he asks if someone says he has faith, if that faith (that he claims to have) can save him.
There will be many on the Last Day who profess with their mouths to know Christ, even calling Him Lord, but they are not His and they will be cast into Hell. They all have a profession of faith, but that faith was unable to save them because Christ was not the author of that faith (Hebrews 12:2). For if He had been, then He would have known them and not rejected them (Matthew 7:21-23).
Point 4: An interesting comparison.
In verses 2:15-17, James compares words of compassion with acts of compassion.
If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.
When James penned this he was not going off on a tangent. It’s no coincidence that James would include this illustration of caring for the needs of others in the middle of his message on faith and works because the context of James’ letter is dead faith versus living faith.
Empty words of compassion—like empty professions of faith—are dead, and reveals that the absence of compassionate acts is a sign of a false compassion. Conversely, when actual acts (works) are present—which come after the initial compassion—then this is the best evidence of a genuine compassion.
The feeling of compassion comes first which leads to (and is evidenced by) the acting out of that compassion by helping those in need. In regards to genuine salvation, the foundation of faith comes first which leads to (and is evidenced by) the acting out of that faith.
James is showing that compassion without action (works) is the same as faith without action (works). What use are either of these? What use is there in saying that you have compassion yet there’s never any proof that you have the compassion you claim? What use is there in saying that you have faith, but there’s never any proof that you have the faith you claim?
Committing acts of charity doesn’t cause you to become compassionate; your compassion causes you to practice charity. Likewise, committing good works doesn’t give you faith unto salvation, nor remove your sin, nor impute God’s righteousness to you; it’s your genuine faith that leads you to salvation which leads to the practice of good works.
The acts of compassion (charity) are born out of a true and living compassion, just as the acts of works are born out of a true and living faith. This is why we’re never told to have repentance that’s consistent with our acts, but we are told that we should have acts that are consistent with repentance.
Matthew 3:8 and Luke 3:8
Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance.
. . . repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance.
Point 5: Head faith vs heart faith.
In James 2:19-20, we see that the person James is talking about has correct doctrine (head knowledge) but he does not have saving faith. If he did, then there would be external evidences of conversion, not just a cognitive grasp of sound biblical orthodoxy. Even an Atheist can be trained to regurgitate correct doctrine, but that mere head knowledge (just like with the demons exampled in this verse) will not save him on the Day of Judgment.
Point 6: How was Abraham actually justified?
In verse 2:21, James says that “Abraham was justified by works,” and he points toward Abraham’s offering up of Isaac as Abraham’s “work.”
This, says the works-righteousness groups, “proves” that our faith and works—working together—brings about our justification.
If we isolate this text, then yes, we can easily ascribe to it that James was teaching works are necessary for one’s salvation. However, this was not the point James was trying to make, and it’s fairly easy to prove it.
Firstly, if James was preaching in verse 21 the necessity of works in the bringing about of our salvation, then he immediately contradicted himself in verse 23 when he quoted Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
No works; no law; just faith.
If faith plus works was necessary for justification, then James did himself no service by quoting Genesis 15:6. It just so happens that this verse from Genesis was also quoted by Paul (the one James’ is supposedly contradicting) in order to prove that Abraham was not justified by works:
For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.”
Paul quotes Genesis 15:6 again in the very same chapter of Romans, verses 19-25:
Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform. Therefore IT WAS ALSO CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS. Now not for his sake only was it written that it was credited to him, but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification.
Paul once again quoted Genesis 15:6 in his letter to the Galatian Church (in Galatians 3:5-7):
So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Even so Abraham BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS. Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham.
All of these references by Paul of Genesis 15:6 were in proclamation and defense of the biblical pillar that a man is justified apart from the works of the law.
Secondly, Abraham’s “work” of offering up Isaac happened long after his belief in God (faith) was credited to him as righteousness. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac was the fruit (proof) not the root (origin) of his faith.
So when James says in verse 21, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?” he could not possibly have been teaching that Abraham’s offering of Isaac was what justified him because he was already declared righteous before this event ever took place. And not only was Abraham declared righteous before offering up Isaac, but Abraham was declared righteous even before Isaac was born. So Abraham couldn’t have been justified by faith and works because the object of that “work” (his son Isaac) hadn’t even been born yet.
Thirdly, not only was Abraham declared righteous long before Isaac was born, but Abraham was declared righteous hundreds of years before the law was given to Moses. In fact, Abraham was already dead before Moses was born. Since the law came down from God to Moses, Abraham couldn’t have been justified by his faith and the observance of the law, for the law had not been given till long after Abraham died.
Those who employ James’ verse on Abraham as an example of works being necessary to facilitate our salvation are invoking someone who could not have done what they are saying he did (and demanding that we do) since his justification came before his work was performed and before the law was given.
Another way of illustrating what James is saying is if we imagine that our faith is like a tree and our works are like the fruit of that tree. Then we can better understand that it’s our fruit/works that proves what kind of tree/faith we have.
Jesus not only said in John 15:8 that our fruit would prove that we are His disciples (not that our fruit cooperates with our faith in making us His disciples—the fruit follows/comes after our faith in Christ), but He also urged us to judge a tree by its fruit (judge a man by his works) in Matthew 7:15-20 so that by judging that fruit we’d know what kind of tree we’re dealing with.
So when James says in verse 22, that “faith was perfected,” again, he is not saying that faith and works were somehow working in tandem to bring about our being declared righteous, he was showing that our good works proves our genuine faith. You cannot have a genuine faith that never produces works anymore than you can have a genuine apple tree that never produces apples (the apples produced by the tree perfects the tree). A tree can be called an apple tree, but without the bearing of its fruit it is good for nothing but to be cast into the fire (John 15:6).
Never forget that in order for us to even bear the fruit that God had prepared beforehand for us to bear (Ephesians 2:10) we must first be abiding in Him and He in us (John 15:1-6). The bearing of fruit comes after the abiding in Christ, not as part of the means by which we abide in Christ, otherwise we’re putting the cart before the horse.
You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you.
For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.
You will obtain greater clarity of this illustration if you simply substitute the word faith with tree and the word works with fruit. Also apply this to James 2:24 and James 2:26.
Indeed the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; so every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Point 8: If James contradicts Paul, then James also contradicts himself.
My final point will hopefully put to rest all further arguments about what James was saying in the second chapter of his letter.
In Acts 15:1-29 we have a window into the Jeruslam council in which James and Paul are in agreement (along with the council) against the Judiazers. Who were the Judiazers? The Judiazers were a nefarious group in the first century who were preaching that faith and law/works were required for salvation, exactly like those today who teach that faith and law/works are required for salvation (and try using James chapter two as a proof-text).
The Judiazers were who Paul was talking about in his letter to the Church in Galatia. Some men within that church were introducing another gospel: a gospel that consisted of faith in Jesus Christ and required circumcision and adherence to the law. This is exactly what works-righteousness groups teach today except they’ve exchanged circumcision for baptism (or a myriad of other requirements). It’s the same road to anathema, just with different scenery.
If James believed that law and works were required to merit favor with God in addition to grace and faith (as Roman Catholics, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses believe) then James would have opposed Paul at this council, and conversely, he would have sided with the Judiazers. However, James concurred with Paul, not the Judiazers.
Additionally, James agreed with Peter (as well as Paul) at this council when Peter suggested that they not burden the new believers with the requirements of the law by “placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear.” Yet this is the very yoke Rome, Salt Lake City, and Brooklyn place on the necks of their people all the while calling it “Christianity.”
Peter also said at the same council (in the presence of Paul and James) that our “hearts are cleansed by faith,” and that “we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 15:9, 15:11).
If works and law were also necessary for salvation then this would have been a crucial time for James to mention it. However, James does no such thing. Instead he agrees with Peter, Paul, and the rest of the brethren.
These Apostles and elders in the Jerusalem council (which included James) then sent a letter with Paul and Barnabas to lay no greater burden on the new gentile believers than a few exhortations (Acts 15:22-29). Exhortations—not in order to attain salvation, because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified (Romans 3:20, Galatians 3:11)—but exhortations that they “will do well” (Acts 15:29).
These exhortations to fellow believers (those already born again) are not unlike Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesian believers in Ephesians 5:1 through Ephesians 6:19. In both cases these exhortations were given to believers to encourage them in doing well and to prevent offense to their Jewish brothers and sisters. In both examples these exhortations were given to fellow believers as a guide to encourage them in the faith, not as a guide to unbelievers to direct them on how to attain justification.
If James was preaching that faith plus works were necessary for forgiveness of sins in chapter two of James, then he undermined and contradicted his own position on the matter during the Jerusalem council as recorded in Acts chapter fifteen.
Summary and Conclusion
Here’s the crux of the issue: Roman Catholics, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that James is saying that it’s faith and works—working together—that brings about salvation. Christians, however, believe that James was not preaching faith plus works equals salvation, but that he was contrasting the difference between a living, active faith and a dead, empty faith and that good works is a byproduct of a true, living, and active biblical faith.
How can the examples James cited for Abraham’s works have cooperated with Abraham’s faith to bring about his justification if he was already declared righteous before the works were done? Abraham’s works were done after he already had righteousness credited to him. Abraham already had God’s righteous imputed to him long before he was circumcised, long before Isaac was born, and long before the law was given to Moses.
If the works-righteousness interpretation of James chapter two is correct, then what work and what adherence to the law did Abraham perform and follow in order to become righteous and to be a recipient of God’s promises? The answer is woven throughout all of holy writ: He had faith in the living God!
And in Hebrews 11:17-19, we see that Abraham was already a recipient of God’s promises:
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son; it was he to whom it was said, “IN ISAAC YOUR DESCENDANTS SHALL BE CALLED.” He considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead, from which he also received him back as a type.
Only one of these interpretations of James chapter two can be true, and the eternal destiny of your soul hinges on the accurate interpretation. Either the Catholics, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses have it right, or biblical Christianity has it right. They both cannot be correct.
If our guide is to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture (and not church tradition, ongoing revelation, new light, etc.), then James chapter two simply cannot be read as a formula for salvation. James’ response to the Judiazers’ “gospel” of works as recorded in Acts chapter fifteen leaves no room for his intentions in James chapter two to be interpreted any way other than what he intended it to be: as a contrast between a dead faith and a living faith.
Mike Gendron writes:
Paul is dealing with the nature of justification and James is dealing with the nature of faith. James is asking professing Christians, who have not shown any evidence for their new life in Christ, to “show me your faith” (James 2:18). . . . Since faith can not be seen, the best way to prove one’s faith is to be “doers of the word and not merely hearers” (James 1:22). . . . Faith alone justifies but faith that justifies is never alone.
The biblical Christian view of James’ letter is the only correct interpretation. All other views—which render Christ’s sacrifice insufficient because according to those views we still need to do our part to add to God’s finished work on the cross—are merely the “other gospels” Paul warned us about in his letter to the Galatian Church.
The Judiazers in the Galatian Church were teaching faith + works = salvation.
The Roman Catholics teach faith + works = salvation.
The Mormons teach faith + works = salvation.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses teach faith + works = salvation.
The Judiazers of Galatia were accursed for preaching another gospel because they preached a formula of faith + works = salvation. Do we honestly think that what was anathema in the first century is now “Christianity” in the twenty-first century?
The accursed Judiazers were the precursors of today’s works-righteousness religions and they prove—as Solomon said—that there’s nothing new under the sun.
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
A man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.
For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.” Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.
He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being made justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.