(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). Roman Catholic apologists 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] To their credit, James does write, “A man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jas. 2:24). Does this passage contradict justification by faith alone?

RESPONSE: The Bible repeatedly refers to salvation as 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, “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” (Eph. 2:8-9).

James’ statement can be harmonized when we realize that James is speaking to an entirely different situation than Paul. 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] A number of observations can be made in this regard:

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

Second, James is writing about justification before PEOPLE—not before 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 recognize someone’s faith (“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 faith. One of the best ways to ascertain someone’s faith 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 can show if someone is a true believer. This approach is confirmed later in the letter when James writes, “Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom” (Jas. 3:13). How can we discern wisdom? James’ answer is clear, “Good deeds.” Likewise, how can we discern if a person is justified? Again, James’ answer springs from the sociological level—not the theological level: “Good works.”

While both Paul and James use the term “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 when he said, “Yet wisdom is vindicated by all her children” (Lk. 7:35; cf. Mt. 11:19; Lk. 16:15). While this is not the usual meaning,[3] it surely fits with the context of James 2.

Third, James focuses on the “use” of their faith (v.14, 16, 20). This doesn’t refer to salvation from hell, but sanctification and ministry on Earth. If they don’t combine faith with action, their faith will atrophy and die. Moreover, their faith will not have any impact on others. 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.”[4]

Fourth, James is confronting a lifeless or “dead” faith (v.17, 26). James doesn’t say that the believer is dead, but rather, that his faith is dead. If they refuse to act on their faith, their spiritual growth will come to a halt. This is similar to the burden of the letter, where James urges his readers to be “doers of the word” (Jas. 1:22).

Fifth, 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, Paul’s opponents apparently twisted 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 himself 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.

Sixth, James’ reference to Abraham argues against the idea that we are justified by works. Abraham was originally justified by faith alone in Genesis 15:6 (“[Abraham] believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness”). However, some 40 years later, his 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 told him, “Because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you” (Gen. 22:16-17). Here, Abraham’s blessing was at stake—not his 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

Written to legalists

Written to licentious
What is the use of dead works?

What is the use of dead faith?

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

For a verse-by-verse exegesis of this passage, see “Introduction to James.”

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

[2] Douglas J. Moo, James: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 16, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 103.

[3] Moo doesn’t hold to this interpretation because of the dominant use of dikaioō in the NT and LXX refer to a legal verdict. Douglas J. Moo, James: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 16, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 113.

[4] Douglas J. Moo, James: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 16, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 106-107.

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