If there is one thing that is true about salvation, it is this: we are saved, not by any "good" works we can perform, or any "righteousness" that is of ourselves. Were are saved solely by God's grace, through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. This theme is repeated throughout the New Testament:
Romans 3:20, 28--Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin...therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.
Galatians 2:16--Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.
Galatians 3:11--But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith.
Ephesians 2:8-9--For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.
Isaiah 64:6--But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.
Titus 3:5--Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost
How could our works save us? As if any pittance we could perform could "earn" us a spot at the Great Dinner with our Lord! We owed an eternal debt to an Almighty God, and we think we can earn His favor by doing a handful of good deeds? They would carry with them the stench of our humanness, as they would be done, not out of love and debt, but out of a desire for something, specifically being saved from a fiery eternity in Hell.
So, knowing this, we come upon the words of James, the passage that made Martin Luther want to "throw Jimmy in the oven".
James 2:14-24 (KJV)--"What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only."
It seems as though this particular section of Scripture is saying "faith *PLUS* works equals salvation". And one could easily stake their claim on "faith plus works" by simply quoting this portion of Scripture. After all, is this not God's word? Are we not children of God? If so, then we have an obligation to believe what the Bible says. And if this was the only Scripture we had, we would be obligated to believe that we are saved by faith *PLUS* works. But we have the aforementioned verses, and others, which at the very least intimate, if they do not simply come out and say, that we are not saved by works, but simply by faith in Jesus Christ.
So, what do we do with this passage from James? Are we saved by faith, are we saved by works, or are we saved by faith plus works? I would posit a fourth possibility, that we are saved by faith that *produces* works.
James 2:14 (KJV)--"What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?" This is one of the keys to understanding this passage, and it depends on which translation you use. The KJV says "can faith save him?" But a better reading would be "can THAT faith save him?" As it says in the NJJV, NASB, RV, AV. Even going all the way back to the Geneva Bible, which predates the KJV by 12 years, "faith" (Gr., ń pistis) is translated as "that faith" or something similar. Notice the "ń" (a form of "ó") before "pistis". That is an article indicating that the writer is not simply taking about any type of faith, but a particular type of faith. This particular faith, one without works-can this type of faith save a man? A rhetorical question expecting an answer of "no". So a faith without works cannot save a man, correct? Yes, correct. That is what the text says.sd3
Now, James writes the next 3 verses as a "for example". James 2:15-17 (NASB)--"If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,' yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? In the same way, faith also, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself." He's describing what we see a lot today. Somebody in the church needs help. They go to their brother or sister in Christ, asking for assistance. But instead of helping, the brother or sister says, "I'll pray for ya". Which is code for "I really don't want to do anything, but I have to sound spitiual". We are called to love one another, but if that love does not lead to helping a person in need, what good is it? Likewise, what good is faith if it does not produce good works?
Then James says, on the other hand, James 2:18 (NASB)-"But someone may well say, 'You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.'" He describes two different types of faith. A faith without works, one that cannot be seen, one that is just...there. One that the person says they have. A faith that is dead. And then he describes a faith that can be seen by all, and which the person does not even need to tell the world that he possesses. A example of "actions speak louder than words".
He describes the first kind of faith, which I call "demonic faith". James 2:19-20 (NASB)--"You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to acknowledge, you foolish person, that faith without works is useless?" You believe in God? Great! So does Satan! The demons believe God exists. The demons believe Jesus exists. The demons even believe that Jesus died on the cross and rose again on behalf of all who would believe in Him. And they fear. They shudder. And what good does it do them? It is useless, dead.
Now we get to the passage that so many people have so much trouble with. There are so many passages in the New Testament that tell us that we are saved by faith, that we are not saved by works, that our works are useless, that we have been set free from the Law of works, etc. And yet James says here that we are justified by works. The only place in the New Testament that says this, and so many people will chuck Paul, John and the rest of the New Testament out the window and stake their eternal soul on this one verse that (seemingly) contradicts all that. But does it? Does this verse throw "justification by faith" out the window and lay a new yoke upon our shoulders to carry its burden, those of us who have been "set free from the Law of sin and death"?
No. No, it does not
Rather, it shows us the type of faith that justifies us. James 2:21-22 (NASB)--"Was our father Abraham not justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected". Now wait a minute! This is a biblical contradiction, isn't it? After all, Romans 4:2-3 says "For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about; but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness'" So which is it? Was Abraham justified by works, or was he *NOT* justified by works? Well, the answer is....yes.
Notice what he says in verse 22. "Faith was working with his works." The phrase "working with" is the Greek word "synergeo", which means "to work together, help in work, be partner in labor, to put forth power together with and thereby to assist" (syn, "together" with ergeo, "work"). It is used 4 other times in the New Testament (Mark 16:20, Romans 8:28, 1st Corinthians 16:16 and 2nd Corinthians 6:1). The reason James uses this word here is this: faith and works do not operate separately from each other. They work hand in hand, thereby perfecting the other. You have faith without works? No good. You have works without faith? Still no good. You have a faith which spurs you on to do good works, and they work together? THAT is saving faith. That is a faith that justifies.
You see, what James is doing is contrasting useless, demonic faith with real, effectual faith. In verses 19-20, he describes a faith that simply believes something is real, but has no impact upon a person's life and will not save them. Here, he is describing a faith which moves a man to obey God no matter the consequences. James is not contradicting Paul, he is expanding on the matter of "justification by faith" laid out by Paul. He is saying we are justified by the kind of faith that believes God, acts like He is telling the truth, and obeys. Can that faith save him? Absolutely. Therefore, James 2:23 (NASB)--"and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, 'And Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness' and he was called a friend of God." Abraham's actions, based in faith, moved him to do what God called him to do, thereby fulfilling the Scripture.
Then he finishes this passage by saying James 2:24 (NASB)--"You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone." Notice something. James does not say that a man is not justified by faith. He says that a man is not justified by faith *ALONE*. He is not justified by simply believing a list of facts--"the demons also believe and shudder." A man is justified by a faith that leads to action, a new life, new desires, and a never-before known obedience to God. "If you love Me, keep my commandments" (John 14:15)
Works are an essential part of our salvation. We are not justified by alone faith. We are also not justified by alone works. We are justified by a faith that produces works, as these work together to make the other perfect. The stronger our faith, the more we will want to work. The more we work, and see the faithfulness of God, the stronger our faith becomes. They are two sides of the same coin