(Jas. 2:14-26) Is salvation by faith or works?

CLAIM: Paul quotes Genesis 15:6, and he explains that this passage about Abraham explains faith alone (Gal. 3:6). But James quotes Genesis 15:6, and he concludes that this supports faith and works (Jas. 2:23). Kreeft and Tacelli write, “The Protestant doctrine of sola fide, salvation by faith alone, is not taught in Scripture. In fact, it is explicitly contradicted in Scripture. James 2:24 says that ‘a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.’”[1] Does this passage support justification by works?

RESPONSE: The Bible repeatedly refers to salvation being by grace through faith—apart from works. Paul writes, “We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Rom. 3:28). He writes to the Galatians, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly” (Gal. 2:21). Elsewhere he writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). Based on these passages—and many more just like them—James appears to be a flat contradiction.

However, this apparent contradiction can be harmonized when we realize that James is speaking to an entirely different situation than Paul. As Douglas Moo writes, “The appearance of a conflict is created because they give two key words, ‘faith’ and ‘justify’, different meanings and because their arguments are advanced against different errors.”[2]

First, James is speaking to licentious and greedy believers—not legalists. Throughout his epistle, James emphasizes good deeds (Jas. 1:22-25) specifically for the poor and needy (Jas. 1:27; 2:15-16; 4:4; 5:1-6). Paul, on the other hand, was writing to legalistic Christians in his epistle to the Galatians (Gal. 2:16; 3:2; 5:1-4).

Second, James is writing about justification before men—not God. James writes, “You see that faith was working with his works…” (Jas. 2:22), and later writes, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jas. 2:24). James is emphasizing how believers can tell if one another are true believers (“You see…”). While God knows the heart (1 Chron. 28:9; Ps. 44:21; Jer. 17:9-10; Heb. 4:13), we can’t always see if someone has saving faith. Therefore, our method of ascertaining if someone is truly a believer is to look at their deeds, as the rest of the NT authors affirm (Titus 1:16; 3 Jn. 10). Of course, good deeds do not cause someone to be a true believer, but they do show that someone is a true believer.

While both Paul and James use the same term for “justified” (dikaioō), James uses it to demonstrate our righteous standing and Paul uses it for declaring our righteous standing. Jesus used “justify” (dikaioō) in this sense in Luke 7:35, where he said, “Yet wisdom is vindicated by all her children.” While this is not the usual meaning,[3] it fits with the context of James 2, where it is the reader who sees the faith of Abraham.

Third, James is critiquing mental ascent—not true trust in Christ. In verse 19, James summarizes the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4. This was a core doctrinal statement repeated by Jewish people twice a day. Yet he compares this sort of faith (i.e. mere mental ascent) with the faith of demons! Demons know that God exists, but they do not trust him. In the same way, when someone merely agrees to certain propositional truths without personal trust, they are not practicing true biblical faith. C.L. Mitton wrote, “It is a good thing to possess an accurate theology, but it is unsatisfactory unless that good theology also possesses us.”[4]

Fourth, it is also possible that James was not reacting to Paul’s teaching, but those who were distorting Paul’s teaching. Paul affirmed the importance of good works in the life of the believer just as much as James (Eph. 2:10; Rom. 13:12; Eph. 5:11; Titus 1:16; 2:7, 14; 3:8). However, apparently Paul’s opponents were twisting his teaching to argue that he was promoting sin and licentiousness (Rom. 3:8; 6:1-2), and James may have been writing to clear up this distortion—just as Paul did on many occasions. Of course, Paul agreed that faith should result in love for others: “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). Therefore, James wasn’t arguing with Paul, but instead with those who were distorting Paul’s message.

Fifth, the chronology of Abraham’s life argues against this view. Abraham was originally justified by faith alone in Genesis 15:6 (“Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness”). However, some 20 years later, this faith was tested on Mount Moriah (Gen. 22:1). This wasn’t to justify Abraham, but to test and bless Abraham. In the context, the angel of the Lord says, “Because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 indeed I will greatly bless you” (Gen. 22:16-17). Note, here, that blessing was at stake—not justification.

We can summarize the key differences in this way:

Is it Faith or Works?[5]

Paul’s Passage (Gal. 3:6-18)

James’ Passage (Jas. 2:14-26)

Justification before God

Justification before humans
The root of justification

The fruit of justification

Declaration of our righteousness in Christ

Demonstration of our righteousness in Christ
Justification by faith

Justification for works

Faith as producer of works

Works as the proof of faith
Written to legalists

Written to licentious

Written to answer the question of how a believer is justified before God

Written to answer the question of how a believer can demonstrate or show his justification
Works are done to earn acceptance

Works are done as a result of acceptance

 

Other interpreters understand this entire section to refer to the bema seat of Christ, where we are rewarded for our works. While we do not hold this view, it is worth mentioning for its merits:

First, the Greek term for “save” has a broad meaning. The term “save” (sozo) can mean rescue from the penalty of sin (justification), but also rescue from the power of sin (sanctification) or even the presence of sin (glorification). For instance, in James 1:21, we read, “In humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls,” and James 5:20 states, “He who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” This doesn’t mean saved from hell, but from a life of sin. Moo writes, “While save (sōzō) sometimes describes the initial entrance of a person into God’s kingdom (‘conversion’), it often denotes the final deliverance from sin, death and judgment in the last day… When James says, then, that the faith some people claim to have cannot save, he probably means that it will be of no profit at the time of God’s righteous judgment.”[6]

Second, James sees this phony faith as without profit. The term “use” in 2:14 is literally “profit” (ophelos; cf. Mt. 16:26; 1 Cor. 15:32). Moo comments, “Not only do the empty words of this ‘believer’ do no good for these others; they bring no spiritual ‘profit’ to himself either.”[7]

Third, the context of this passage is bracketed by the bema seat judgment. Immediately before this passage, we read, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment” (Jas. 2:12-13). Then immediately after this passage, we read, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment” (Jas. 3:2). If the context refers to spiritual rewards, then it would make sense of James’ statements that this faith does not “profit” us (Jas. 2:14).

[1] Kreeft, Peter, and Ronald K. Tacelli. Handbook of Catholic Apologetics: Reasoned Answers to Questions of Faith. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2009. 453.

[2] Moo, D. J. (1985). James: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 16, p. 103). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[3] Moo doesn’t hold to this interpretation because of the dominant use of dikaioō in the NT and LXX referring to a legal verdict. Moo, D. J. (1985). James: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 16, p. 113). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[4] C. L. Mitton, The Epistle of James (Marshall, Morgan & Scott/Eerdmans, 1966). Cited in Moo, D. J. (1985). James: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 16, p. 111). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[5] This chart was adapted from Geisler, Norman L., and Thomas A. Howe. When Critics Ask: a Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties. Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1992. 528.

[6] Moo, D. J. (1985). James: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 16, p. 104). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[7] Moo, D. J. (1985). James: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 16, pp. 106–107). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.