The following article is an excerpt from the book, The True Grace of God.
“What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 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? 17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
18 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. 19 You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe — and tremble! 20 But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22 Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? 23 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. 24 You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.” (James 2:14-24)
Most have struggled to understand what James means to say in this passage. On the surface, James here seems to be contradicting what Paul taught concerning justification by faith alone. Paul said: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.” (Rom 3:28). Here James seems to say the exact opposite: “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” Paul used Abraham to demonstrate that we are not justified by works: “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” (Rom 4:2,3). James, on the other hand, also uses Abraham as an example, but says: “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.”
Martin Luther, unable to reconcile James’ words with the truth of Justification by faith alone, concluded that James contradicted the rest of Scripture and therefore should not be included in the Bible. However, I believe that this seeming contradiction can be resolved when we understand that Paul and James were addressing two different audiences. Paul, presenting the gospel, emphasizes that justification is by faith alone, whereas James is confronting those who profess to already have faith, but the lack of good works in their lives indicated that they did not have the real faith – the dynamic faith – the faith of Jesus. Whereas Paul was presenting the way of salvation, James was confronting the empty profession of faith among those who claimed to be Christians but were self-deceived. Paul and James were explaining different sides of the same coin. Paul said: “faith that saves is faith alone,” whereas James insists: “faith that saves is never alone.”
Paul, just as James, repeatedly warned against being deluded into thinking one has saving faith when their conduct indicated otherwise. Paul said: “Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? — unless indeed you are disqualified.” (2Cor 13:5 cf.1Cor 15:2; Eph 5:3-6; 1Cor 6:9-11; Gal 5:19). Paul also speaks of a faith that works:
“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love.” (Gal 5:6)
Any grace teaching which says that since you are under grace you can do anything you want, or do nothing if that is what you want, is not presenting the whole council of God and is turning the grace of God into licentiousness.
In what sense could we say, as James does, that we are justified by works and not by faith alone? Paul said that Abraham was justified by faith alone without works, while James says that he was justified by works when he offered up Isaac. How do we reconcile these two statements? It is important to take into account that Abraham was justified by faith before God the moment he believed God, and not 20 years later when he offered up Isaac. When God promised Abraham that he would have a son, it says that at that moment he was justified:
“Then He brought him outside and said, ‘Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.’ And He said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.” 6 And he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.” (Gen 15:5,6)
On the other hand, there is no mention in Scripture that Abraham was justified when he offered up Isaac. I believe the best way to reconcile this apparent conflict is to understand that Paul is speaking from God’s perspective, whereas James is speaking from man’s perspective. God knows who has the true faith, justifying them by faith alone. Man, however, can only see the outward evidence of that faith, and therefore that justification is not recognized and attributed to us by others apart from seeing some outward demonstration of it.
Paul makes it clear in Romans 4:2 that he is speaking of justifying faith as seen by God and not by man. James, on the other hand says: “You say you have faith in God and have been justified? Show me. Give me some outward evidence of your faith and justification. What you profess may be true, but if it is true, where is the evidence?” There is no conflict whatsoever. Paul speaks from God’s perspective, just as we see in Genesis 15, whereas James speaks from man’s perspective. As Jesus said: “By their fruits you will know them.” (Matt 7:20).
Just as Abraham was justified by faith before God, but not until later was he seen as just before men when he offered up his son Isaac, thereby demonstrating that his faith was real - so also was the case with Rahab the harlot who James also presents as an example:
“Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? 26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” (James 2:25,26)
Rahab had heard all the stories of the deliverance of the children of Israel from Egypt; the crossing of the Red Sea; the mana from heaven and how the Lord had given them victory in battle. By the time the spies arrived in Jericho she no doubt had already believed, and in God’s eyes she was already justified. But this faith and justification wasn’t demonstrated for others to see until she received the spies.
This is a truth that needs to be emphasized within the grace movement. Faith that justifies and saves is faith alone, but faith that justifies is never alone. Grace teachers rightly warn of dead works done in the flesh, but they also need to warn of dead faith which doesn’t result in works. Grace does not simply save and justify us – grace works.