There are few trickier portions of scripture for a Baptist, or anyone that believes in salvation through faith, than the second chapter of James. Many take it, or at least use it to justify (no pun intended), that salvation is by faith and works. But if James were able to hear it in his earthly body, he’d roll in his grave. This is not at all James’ intent with his words.
Do James and Paul somehow conflict? The Bible says that God does not lie, so He would not present two conflictions. And the Christian knows the Book is infallible. How then do we look at Paul, who clearly outlines over and over salvation through faith alone, and harmonize him with James, who states that we are justified by works?
First, before we even get to chapter two, James in the very first verse of his letter call himself a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus was his half-brother, yet he calls himself Christ’s servant. What would a servant of Christ believe? Jesus’ words, of course. Jesus tells us that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life…He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. In another instance: When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible. Jesus tells us men cannot save themselves, but it is only through belief not just in, but ON God.
Some think of James as a late work that conflicted Paul. But actually, most scholars date it in the forties A.D. – before most of Paul’s writings. There is no mention of any Jew-Gentile conflict. It is addressed to the twelve tribes (1:1). The Greek word for “synagogue” is used for the church (“assembly”, what church actually is). Furthermore, if James were conflicting Paul’s teachings, circumcision would have come up, since it is the common work added to faith that Paul had to deal with. But no mention of circumcision anywhere.
We know this because Paul and James address totally different things, the differences in which will constitute the remainder of this essay.
James sees two kinds of faith: a saving faith and a professing faith. He believes, and the rest of scripture confirms, that true faith will be seen in post-conversion works. That is, when a person places their faith in Christ, their sanctification experience will lead to a life that shows they are one of God’s children. Many Jews had believed that works saved, and some had an extreme reaction by believing that works had no part in the salvation experience. Salvation does not need works, but faith demands works (so too does God from His children). The Greek text suggests that James poses the question, “Does THAT faith save him?” in verse 14. That faith being the faith without works that he mentions earlier in the verse. James goes on to answer in the negative; a profession of faith means nothing. Only a true faith does. And true faith produces works.
Paul and James use “justification” in different contexts. We think of justification as being God’s act of declaring all believers righteous- Paul’s usage of the word. But there is another definition of the word, used in the Old Testament and the gospel. It is that of demonstrating or showing something to be righteous.
“Against thee, thee only, have I sinned , and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest , and be clear when thou judgest.” –Psalm 51:4
David speaks to God here, Who obviously does not need to be declared righteous. Rather, God demonstrates that He is righteous.
“But wisdom is justified of all her children.” –Luke 7:35
Wisdom, too, is already righteous, and already in possession here. Her children show that wisdom is righteous by their actions.
“God forbid: yea, let God be true, but every man a liar; as it is written, That thou mightest be justified in thy sayings, and mightest overcome when thou art judged.” –Romans 3:4
This again speaks of God, telling us that God is truthful so that through His words He is shown to be righteous. James uses “justification” in the same manner here. Works are not for declaring us righteous, but to demonstrate that we are righteous through the blood of Christ.
Though both Paul and James use Abraham as an example, different events are used by the two writers. Paul says Abraham was declared righteous when he trusted God (Genesis 15:6). James says that Abraham demonstrated his righteousness (already attained by his trust in God in chapter 15) when he was willing to offer up Isaac (Genesis 22:9).
We are beginning to see how James’ words fit in with the gospel that Jesus and the apostles taught, rather than contradict it. Faith without works is dead (vv. 17, 20, 26). This is true. What good is our faith on Earth if it doesn’t produce something? James uses the analogy of a body without the spirit. What does the spirit (little “s”) do? It energizes the body. So too do works energize our faith. Look at the real kicker in this chapter, verse 24: Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. We are justified, that is, demonstrated righteous (as we discussed before), by our works, not just by saying we have faith. This is how someone can show their faith by their works (v. 18). It must begin with faith.
You might be thinking it is convenient to make this distinction between the two types of justification. Let’s continue then. Paul, when he speaks of works and faith, speaks of the works of the law. He plainly says that one is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith (Romans 3:28). “But I’m not following that law.” Paul writes to the problems of the time, but the principle still applies. Whatever good works men want to add to faith is wrong. James writes about works of love that follow faith (v. 16).
Finally, Paul and James have two different audiences for two different subjects that were leading to two different problems. Paul writes to oppose Judaizers who taught that works of the law (namely circumcision, at the time) must be added to faith. (Now days Pentecostals, Catholics and Orthodox among others add works to salvation.) He proved to his Gentile audiences that no extra works were needed. James wrote opposing professing, nominal Christians. He proved to them that faith must manifest itself in works of love – that simply saying one has faith means nothing.
So we find that Paul and James were not contradicting each other, but rather they fighting different incorrect ideas. Faith must go hand-in-hand with works – but not for salvation. Salvation – true conversion – must and will lead to works. Faith declares us righteous, and works demonstrate us righteous. It is easy to take verses like these out of context, but it is imperative that we find what they truly mean. It can mean the difference between Heaven and Hell.