The Apostle James wrote:
Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? (James 2:21-25)
These verses have confused many Protestants who have initially found James to be in contradiction with the Apostle Paul who said:
Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law. (Romans 3:28)
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1)
knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. (Galatians 2:16)
But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for “the just shall live by faith.” (Galatians 3:11)
Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. (Galatians 3:24)
What do we make of this apparent contradiction between Paul and James? First of all, James admits that it was because of Abraham’s faith that God declared him righteous. James and Paul both cite the same passage Genesis 15:6 to make their points:
For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” (Romans 4:3)
just as Abraham “believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” (Galatians 3:6)
And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. (James 2:23)
James is saying the same thing as Paul, but he is clarifying that Abraham’s works demonstrated that he had saving faith. Abraham’s obedience corresponded to his faith in God. James informs us how works are an important part of saving faith, that a man is justified by works, not faith only. It is not just any type of faith, but a particular kind of faith that saves: “faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:6)
In Ephesians 2:8-10, Paul describes how salvation is not of works, but by faith in Christ which brings us into God’s grace which works in us and through us. He describes how saving faith is always followed with and characterized by good works.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
Once again, Paul says that, “when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:4-5) and God “saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began” (2 Timothy 1:9). Yet Paul again describes this “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6) and how “love works no ill toward his neighbor” (Romans 13:10) in several passages such as the following:
remembering without ceasing your work of faith, labor of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the sight of our God and Father (1 Thessalonians 1:3).
Wherefore also we pray always for you, that our God would count you worthy of this calling, and fulfil all the good pleasure of his goodness, and the work of faith with power (2 Thessalonians 1:11).
who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works. (Titus 2:14)
James is saying the same thing as Paul that by works faith is made perfect. Some have mistakenly used the New Testament discussions on these topics to suggest that obedience is not required for salvation. The ESV does no violence to the text, but does challenge some people’s ideas of Sola Fide (by faith alone) when it says, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). Thus, we may say Sola Fide only if we have in mind a particular type of faith, not just any kind of faith, but faith characterized by works of righteousness. James explains:
What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?
For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. (James 2:14-20,26)
James is not saying that Abraham was saved by works or that we can work our way to heaven, but that he was considered righteous because the type of faith he had produced good works. Abraham’s faith would have been dead and incomplete if he did not offer up Isaac his son when God told him to do so.
Notice that Abraham and Rehab were also listed in Hebrews 11 in addition to James’ epistle as those who had faith. James is simply describing two sides of the same coin. James shows that because they had faith, they acted; likewise the epistle to the Hebrews shows that their actions demonstrated their faith. By faith, Abraham and Rehab did something. By faith, Abraham obeyed God (Hebrews 11:8), and by faith, Rehab “received the spies with peace” (Hebrews 11:31). Rehab is commended in both epistles for doing something which was according to her belief in God.
This is the Gospel Jesus preached also. Speaking to the Jews who wanted to kill Him, Jesus called to their attention the works of Abraham. Though these pious Jews had faith in God, it was not the kind of saving faith characterized by the good and obedient works of Abraham. Jesus said, “If ye were Abraham’s children, ye would do the works of Abraham” (John 8:39). The Lord also said, “But why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46). Jesus gives us the picture of the terrifying reality coming for those who believed God (they had faith), but are damned on the basis of what their works.
Then one said to Him, “Lord, are there few who are saved?”
And He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the Master of the house has risen up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open for us,’ and He will answer and say to you, ‘I do not know you, where you are from,’ then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets.’ But He will say, ‘I tell you I do not know you, where you are from. Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity.’ (Luke 13:23-27)
If we have true saving faith, then we will have good works as evidence of that faith. Any other kind of faith is a dead faith and is not a saving faith. The Scriptures are clear that we will be judged according to what we do.
Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.” (Acts 10:34,35)
And thinkest thou this, O man, that judgest them which do such things, and doest the same, that thou shalt escape the judgment of God? Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance? But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God; Who will render to every man according to his deeds:
To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life: But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that does evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile; But glory, honor, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile: For there is no respect of persons with God. (Romans 2:3-11)
They profess that they know God; but in works they deny him, being abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate. (Titus 1:16)
Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy. And if ye call on the Father, who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man’s work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear: (1 Peter 1:16,17)
And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. (Revelation 20:12,13)
And behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give to every one according to his work. (Revelation 22:12)
Though we are not saved by our works, our works of righteousness characterize saving faith. There is no difficulty in harmonizing Paul and James because they are saying the same thing, presenting two sides of the same coin. If we have faith, we will act; likewise, our actions will show if we have faith.