James teaches: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). Paul teaches: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28). These are two seemingly diametrically opposed statements. Which one is correct? Do they contradict each other? Can they be reconciled?
Paul, throughout his New Testament epistles, repeatedly teaches a consistent message about salvation by grace through faith in Jesus, and not by works. To the Ephesians, Paul teaches, “For by grace you have been saved 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” (Ephesians 2:8-9). To the Romans, Paul says we “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). And “if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise, grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:6).
According to Paul, we can’t be saved by both works and grace. It has to be by grace, or else grace would no longer be grace. Considering that grace, in biblical context and definition, means unmerited favor from God—a free gift—Paul’s logic makes complete sense. You can’t earn a gift: “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in[a] him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness…” (Romans 4:4-5).
Was Paul the only apostle who taught that salvation is by grace through faith and not by works? Maybe Paul had gone rogue and the majority of the New Testament (written by Paul) is just nonsense.
Fortunately, the apostles are in agreement in their teaching and witness of the Gospel. In Acts chapter fifteen, there was a major controversy in the church at Jerusalem about whether it was necessary for Gentiles to keep the Law of Moses (Acts 15:5). After much debate, the matter was settled by the mouth of Peter, “We believe we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they (the Gentiles) will.” Is it by grace or by works? Paul says grace. Peter says grace.
What about the apostle John? The Gospel of John was written “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). Belief is never coupled with works when John shares the Gospel. The message is clear from John: “Whoever believes is not condemned…” (John 3:18) According to John, “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” John says grace.
We must approach the book of James understanding that we have abundant scriptural evidence for salvation by grace through faith, and that the apostles agree with this in their teaching. In embracing the book of James as God’s Word, one should seek to arrive at an understanding of its teachings in a way that reconciles with the rest of scripture. So now let’s tackle James chapter two and wrestle to understand its conclusion “that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).
There is more than one way that the term justified can be applied and understood. Let’s take a couple dictionary definitions of the word and see how the context of James and Romans might render different uses of the same term.
Freed (a human) of the guilt and penalty attached to sin by God
Demonstrated or proved to be just, right, or valid.
There is no doubt Paul is using justification in the sense of God freeing us from the guilt and penalty attached to our sin. In Paul’s sense of the term, we are “justified:” declared not guilty before God, freed from the condemnation of Hell, declared righteous before God. Paul makes it clear that justification before God for our salvation is a gift of grace to be received by faith.
When taking the entire context of James chapter two into account, it seems James is using justification in the sense of a demonstration before others of the validity of one’s faith. In James chapter two, one is “justified” by his works in the sense that one’s works prove one’s faith valid. James shows his faith before men by his works (James 2:18).
We must also take into account how the terms “faith” and “belief” are applied in Romans chapters three and four versus James chapter two. In Romans, it is evident, when Paul uses the term “faith,” he assumes a kind of faith that yields life transformation: a whole-hearted trust in Jesus in which one is born again in Spirit. When Paul mentions salvation by grace through faith, he assumes it will be accompanied by a life that is evidence of that salvation. Paul says, “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:2).
James, on the other hand, makes mention of a shallow belief, an intellectual assent to the facts of God's existence: “even the demons believe.” (James 2:19). Perhaps there were those among James’ hearers who claimed “belief” but lacked deep-rooted faith in the Gospel—faith that would yield transformation in mind (Romans 12:1), heart (Ezekiel 36:26), conscience (Hebrews 10:22) and soul (1 Peter 1:22). A belief like the belief of demons will not save, James argues. The source of true conversion is rooted in a belief in the Gospel (Eph. 1:13) that is accompanied by regeneration of the soul by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:6), who produces evidence of that conversion by working throughout the life of the believer (Gal 2:20; Phil 1:6, 1 Peter 1:2) to bear fruit for God (John 15:8). We are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9), but evidence of that faith will be manifest in a life of good works—by the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit—and to the glory of God.
Understood when reconciled with all of scripture, we see that our works cannot free us from the guilt and penalty attached to our sin. Works cannot justify us in that sense. Only the grace of God can save us by our faith in Jesus.
Rather, according to James chapter two and other places in scripture, we see that our works (fruit) are evidence for our faith. “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (John 15:8). Seeing that 1) salvation is by grace through faith, 2) the gift and calling of God is irrevocable, and 3) every tree that does not bear fruit will be cast into the fire (Matthew 7:19), we can conclude that those saved by grace will by necessity produce fruit (works). The saved bear fruit by abiding in Christ: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). In the end, if there is no fruit, there probably wasn't any salvation to begin with. Jesus gives his sheep eternal life, and yet he is sure to point out that his sheep will follow him (John 10:27-28), a result of saving faith.
Saved people will manifest fruits of the Holy Spirit, which indwells them. Though Christians still struggle in the flesh with sin (Romans 7), Christ in them ought to be manifest, starting with the fruit of love (Gal 5:22; 2 Cor. 13:5). James sees problems in the congregation. According to James chapter two, they are showing favoritism and seem to be neglecting acts of love, mercy, and compassion toward each other. Their behavior was demonstrating a lack of the fruits of God's Holy Spirit, which Spirit ought to have been in them if they were truly saved: “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (Romans 8:9). James wanted the congregation to be doers of the Word, and not simply hearers (James 1:22). If they were hearers of the Word only and not doers, then they had a faith that was dead and useless, James argues. God is love. If you are God’s, where is your love one for another? This is James’ argument.
In their respective arguments for justification, both Paul and James refer to Abraham. When Paul mentions Abraham in his argument for justification by faith, he refers to the moment Abraham believed, when “it was counted to him as righteousness.” Abraham was justified by faith the instant he believed in the promise God declared. We, too, are justified the moment we believe in the Gospel. Paul also denies the notion that works could ever justify man (declare them not guilty) before God: “If Abraham was justified by works, he would have something to boast about, but not before God” (Romans 4:2).
In contrast to Paul, James zeros in on a moment in Abraham's life at least thirty years after the promise was given. Abraham's justification, received decades earlier by faith, was evidenced by his act of obedience towards God in offering his son, Isaac. In a like manner, if someone today claims to be thirty years in Christ, one would expect there would be evidence of that faith in the life of that believer—somewhere along the way acts of obedience toward God in regard to the standard of teaching given and a proclamation of the Gospel reflected in the overall life of such a believer.
Works don't save us, but rather demonstrate before others that we have been saved by grace through faith. It must be cautioned that an improper reading of James, not understood within the context of what the rest of the New Testament teaches about the Gospel and justification, has caused many to stumble, falsely relying on works for salvation instead of trusting in Jesus alone by faith. Jesus, as does Paul, teaches that there is only condemnation for those who rely on their works for justification before God (Matthew 7:21-23, Gal. 3:10)
There are unregenerate people (those not born again by the Spirit of God) who seek assurance of salvation through their works. Though their works may appear good, they lack belief in the Gospel, which alone is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16). They also lack a proclamation of the true Gospel in their lives, evidence for true salvation. This is tragic. Like the fig tree Jesus found with no fruit and cursed (Matthew 21:18), such will be the end of those who claim to be Christ's and yet rely on their own works for salvation: "all who rely on works of the law are under a curse" (Gal. 3:10). Works of the unregenerate are dead in the sight of God (Hebrews 9:14), like women's menstrual rags (Isaiah 64:6).
It must be emphasized that only through the meritorious work of Christ can we find assurance for salvation. We are “justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:24-25). If it were at all by our works we are saved, even in part, grace would no longer be grace (Romans 11:6). Christians produce good works, which is evidence for our salvation. But Jesus is the author and finisher of our faith, and in Jesus alone (not our works) we trust and believe.