A common objection raised against Christianity by Muslims, as well as other non-Christian cults, is that of the role of works in the life of a Christian. Islam teaches a works-centered salvation based on keeping the traditional five pillars of Islam as well as thousands of other rules and regulations known as sharia.
Many like to say that the Bible is contradictory. Specifically with regard to the role of works, many assume Paul and James contradict one another. Paul proclaims we are saved by faith alone and not by works, whereas James seems to indicate the requirement for works, for 'faith without works is dead.' Does James contradict Paul. The study below compares both Paul and James to prove they actually compliment one another, rather than contradict.
WHAT KIND OF FAITH?
Rom. 4:1 What then shall we say that Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh, has discovered regarding this matter? 2 For if Abraham was declared righteous by the works of the law, he has something to boast about—but not before God. 3 For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his pay is not credited due to grace but due to obligation. 5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in the one who declares the ungodly righteous, his faith is credited as righteousness.
Rom. 4:6 So even David himself speaks regarding the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:
7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered;
8 blessed is the one against whom the Lord will never count sin.”
Paul in Romans teaches that we are saved on the basis of our faith alone and not by any works we might do to earn our salvation:
Rom. 3:20 Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
Rom. 3:24 being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,
Rom. 3:28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.
Rom. 4:2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.
Rom. 5:1 Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
To compare the view of Paul to that of James, let's look at what James has to say on this subject in chapter 2.
James 2:14 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.
James 2:18 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 2:25 Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?
James 2:26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
What is James saying? Saved by works? (v. 14 KJV, NKJV = can faith save him?) Are works needed to complete what faith started?
James 2:26 is a favorite verse of the cults. Mormon view: We are saved by grace through faith, but works keep us saved. Bruce McConkie, Mormon apostle, writes in Mormon Doctrine: “Remission of sins comes in the first instance by repentance and baptism, but it is retained by continued good works.”
Cults take scripture out of context. James must be read in context: with itself, with the rest of scripture. Context: Scripture interpreting Scripture. But cults are not the only ones who fail to understand the point James is trying to make. Martin Luther, father of Reformation, (95 theses against indulgences in the Catholic church—Wittenburg) thought James contradicted Paul’s teaching of justification by faith alone. To Luther, justification by faith alone was “the doctrine on which the church stands or falls.” Luther said of James: “mangles the Scriptures and thereby opposes Paul and all Scripture.” Luther called James “an epistle of straw, to be relegated to the end of the Bible” and said James should not be regarded with the same respect and authority as the more central NT documents.
Muslims, skeptics and atheists like to use James as an example of the Bible contradicting itself. Paul seems to say in Rom. 4:1-8 that Abraham was justified by faith and not works. James, however, seems to say that Abraham was justified by works. How can this be reconciled? Is there a contradiction?
JUSTIFIED BY FAITH
Scripture is clear that we are justified, or declared righteous before God, on the basis of faith alone.
Galatians 2:16 -- yet we know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified. 21 I do not set aside God’s grace, because if righteousness could come through the law, then Christ died for nothing!
Gal. 3:1 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? 2 This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?
Gal. 3:11 But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for “the just shall live by faith.” (quote from Hab. 2:4)
Gal. 3:24 Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.
Gal 5:4 You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law;
Eph. 2:8-9 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.
Titus 3:5 not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us,
Titus 3:7 that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
CLEARLY, Scripture teaches that we are justified on the basis of our faith in Christ, not by any effort of our own. On the surface, this seems to contradict James.
WHAT KIND OF WORKS?
LET’S TAKE A CLOSER LOOK AT JAMES
James will make the point that true, saving faith will be proven as genuine, and the evidence will be good works.
James will not argue, as some believe, that one is saved on the basis of works (Luther), but that works will flow as a natural result from one who places his complete trust in God.
Although it will appear James contradicts Paul (faith vs. works), as we study we will see that this is not so. As one scholar (Douglas Moo) notes, “James and Paul, when properly interpreted in their own contexts, are not opposed to one another. They give the appearance of a conflict because they are writing from very different vantage points in order to combat very different problems.”
The letter of James
Written to Jewish believers; “to the twelve tribes scattered abroad” (1:1)
James focuses on being a “doer of the word, and not a hearer only – 1:22 “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only”
James responds to a phenomenon of the time known as antinomianism – anti=against, nomos=law – those who thought the law had no place in the life of a believer. That is, they could do whatever they wanted, sort of like a “if it feels good, do it” mentality.
Antinomianism: The conviction that believers are freed from the demands of God’s law by depending upon God’s grace for their salvation (thus anti “against” + nomos “law”). Although the word “antinomian” is not found in Scripture, Scripture’s own history tells of the struggle to maintain balance between law and grace—between an appreciation of God’s merciful and unconditional response toward God’s people on the one hand, and their obliged and obedient response to God’s law on the other.
Someone practicing antinomianism might take the attitude “it doesn’t matter what I do or don’t do; I am saved by grace and my sins are forgiven.” They tend to use God’s grace as a license for sin (something Paul will confront in the next two chapters of Romans!)
(Moo): James condemns any form of Christianity that drifts into a sterile, actionless “orthodoxy” (verbal profession only). Faith, not what we do, is fundamental in establishing a relationship with God. But faith, James insists, must be given content. Genuine faith, he insists, always and inevitably produces evidence of its existence in a life of righteous living. Biblical faith cannot exist apart from acts of obedience to God. We will develop this point further as we look at the scripture itself.
On the other hand, in Romans Paul gives us a doctrinal foundation for our justification as righteous before God on the basis of our faith alone, in order to show that Jews, who were self-righteous in keeping The Law, were just as much in need of the saving grace of God as Gentiles were; the works of the law could not save them. We are all sinners, Jew and Gentile alike, and all in danger of God’s judgment. Thematic verses for Romans:
Rom. 1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.”
POINT 1 – TRUE FAITH BY DEFINITION
2:14 - What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? (NKJV)
This seems to be in complete contradiction to the verses read previously in Paul’s letters to the Galatians, Romans, Ephesians, and Titus. James seems to imply that faith alone is not enough; works are also required.
Note the contrast between what one “says” and what one “does.”
An important distinction; the key to this entire section. James is contrasting what one “says” with what one “does” to drive home a point which will become clear.
Verse 14: Can faith save him? (KJV, NKJV): This is a rhetorical question, a question which does not require an answer because the answer is obvious. The construction of the Greek here suggests that the expected answer is “no”, faith alone cannot save.
The KJV rendering of “can faith save him?” is an inaccurate translation. The word “faith” in the Greek has a definite article h; with it… “the faith”.. which implies the faith under discussion is the same faith used previously. “Faith” refers back to the same word “faith” used previously; i.e. someone who “says” they have faith but does not have works as evidence of that faith. (Moo) This “faith” is what a man who does not have works claims to have. James’ main point is that this “faith” is, in biblical terms, no faith at all.
A more proper rendering of this verse (NASB, NLT, NET) is “Can that kind of faith save him?”
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.
Here is an illustration of someone who says something, but does nothing to back up his or her words. He says “Be filled” but fails to provide food to eat, or says “be warm” but fails to provide clothing or a blanket for warmth, his words are empty and meaningless. In the same way, one who “says” he has faith, but does not put his words into action, is simply uttering meaningless words.
(Moo) James is not really contrasting faith and works, as if these were two alternative opinions in one’s approach to God. He is, rather, contrasting a faith that, because it is inherently defective, produces no works and a faith that, because it is genuine, does result in action.
POINT 2 – TRUE FAITH BY EXAMPLE
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.
James illustrates what saving faith is by first using the literary device of an imaginary conversation. The conversation is a contrast between someone who says but can’t back it up with action (show me your faith without your works) and someone who says, and can back up what he says with evidence (I will show you my faith by my works). The point again is that only where works are seen is true, saving faith present.
19 You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! (NKJV)
The imaginary conversation continues. The literal translation of this verse reads, “You yourself believe that God is one. You do well.”
This is a direct reference back to the Shema in Deut. 6:4 - “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one!” Recall that James is writing to a Jewish audience who no doubt knew the Shema, since it was taught from birth.
Note the emphasis. In the Greek construction, the “you” is emphasized - su pisteuies - to make a point. James is saying You yourself know that there is but one God. The implication is that mere knowledge of God’s existence is no faith at all. Even the demons know that much. Intellectual knowledge, or a mere verbal profession, of God’s existence is not saving faith. To bring it into our context, when we meet someone who says, “I believe in God” do not assume that person has saving faith. Saving faith takes more than a simple verbal acknowledgement.
20 But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? (NKJV)
A better translation would render this verse, “But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?”
Here James is engaged in a word play in the original language to make his point. He uses two Greek words which sound very close to one another and take on the idea of something “not working.” The Greek word for action or deed is ergon, while the word for something “useless” is argos. Faith with no ergon is argos, or “faith that doesn’t work, doesn’t work.” Let’s unpack this.
When we speak of someone sitting about doing nothing, we say that person is not working, he is not busy but instead is idle. But we can also speak of something that is “broken” as not working, as in “my stereo doesn’t work, it’s useless. These two different meanings of the phrase “does not work” is what James is playing on. Faith that does not work (is idle, not active) does not work (it is useless, broken).
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.
The example of Abraham has caused much confusion, especially among the cults, because James seems to be implying that faith alone is not enough for justification, but that works justify us as well. Let’s take a closer look at Abraham.
James implies that the act of sacrificing Isaac on the altar was a work of justification; that this act justified Abraham before God. Let’s look at that event.
Gen. 22:1 Some time after these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am!” Abraham replied. 2 God said, “Take your son—your only son, whom you love, Isaac—and go to the land of Moriah! Offer him up there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I will indicate to you.”
Gen. 22:9 When they came to the place God had told him about, Abraham built the altar there and arranged the wood on it. Next he tied up his son Isaac and placed him on the altar on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand, took the knife, and prepared to slaughter his son. 11 But the LORD’s angel called to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am!” he answered. 12 “Do not harm the boy!” the angel said. “Do not do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God because you did not withhold your son, your only son, from me.”
James seems to be telling us in verse 2:21 that it was at this point that Abraham’s faith was fulfilled and he was considered righteous before God. Is this so?
Gen. 15:1 After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward.” 2 But Abram said, “Lord GOD, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 Then Abram said, “Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir!” 4 And behold, the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “This one shall not be your heir, but one who will come from your own body shall be your heir.” 5 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.
We see then that in Gen. 15, while Abraham was still childless, he believed God and was declared righteous, or justified by his faith alone. Several years later (perhaps as many as 30 years, scholars disagree on Isaac’s age) did Abraham “do the works” of sacrificing Isaac on the altar. Abraham’s willingness to offer Isaac as a sacrifice was a “good work” flowing out of a pre-existing faith in God, and it was his faith alone (Gen. 15) that made him righteous.
We see this same pattern of faith, followed by action, in the portion of the Bible which has come to be known as the “faithful hall of fame” in Hebrews 11.
Heb. 11:7 By faith Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household,
Heb. 11:8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance.
Heb. 11:17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac,
Heb. 11:24 By faith Moses, when he became of age, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, 25 choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin,
Heb. 11:30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they were encircled for seven days.
Heb. 11:31 By faith the harlot Rahab did not perish with those who did not believe, when she had received the spies with peace.
Example after example of those who had faith in God, and then acted in accordance with that faith.
We are familiar with Ephesians 2:8-9, which reads: “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.” Most people stop reading there and fail to read the next verse: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”
26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.
Summary: There is no discrepancy between Paul and James.
By “faith” Paul means “trusting in Christ.”
But James means “verbal profession” when he uses “faith.”
By “justified” Paul means “declared righteous before God.”
James uses the word “justified” to mean “proven as genuine before others.”
Paul argues that one can only be saved from sin through trusting in Christ as Savior; one can never earn salvation by being good.
James argues that merely professing to have faith will not save a person. The kind of faith that saves a person results in a changed life – in works that demonstrate the saving faith.
Nobody is able to get to the top floor of a large building by simply believing that the elevator can get her there. She must believe in the elevator (i.e. trust it) enough to step in it and allow it to get her there. Saving faith (belief, trust) is always accompanied by action.
Are you following the example of Abraham who believed and trusted God, and then acted as if God was going to fulfill his promises?
Do you need to begin putting your faith into action?
Is your faith alive? Do you even desire to live your faith in a practical way? Do you have “saving faith” or has you faith to this point been merely “lip service”?
Matt. 25:31 “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. 33 And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on His right hand, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35 for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; 36 I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’
Matt. 25:37 “Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? 38 When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? 39 Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ 40 And the King will answer and say to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’
Matt. 25:41 “Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: 42 for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; 43 I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’
Matt. 25:44 “Then they also will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’ 45 Then He will answer them, saying, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ 46 And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
John Courson: “You know you’re truly born again when you find yourself obeying God. We’re not saved by obedience. But our obedience proves we’re saved, for true faith works.”
John Walvoord: Spiritual works are the evidence, not the energizer, of sincere faith.