“For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.”
Is a person justified, i.e., made righteous or saved, by good works or by faith alone? No one argues whether or not good works are important in and of themselves—they are the behaviors that define the Christian life! The argument is over whether or not they have any redemptive and saving quality to them. James 2:14-26 provides much of the kindling in this heated debate by stating that “faith without works is dead” or useless (2:17, 20, 26) and that a person is “justified by works and not faith alone” (2:24). Paul, on the other hand, leaves no doubt in his reader’s minds that salvation is a gift from God given by grace and accepted through faith. He highlights the fact that salvation is not acquired “as a result of works, that no one should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9; see also Romans 3:28; 10:9, 13; 2 Timothy 3:15; Titus 2:11; 3:5).
Are Paul and James at odds theologically?—of course not! Paul is discussing the manner in which a person comes to faith—saving faith precedes work; James, on the other hand, is discussing how genuinely saved persons behave—works are a proof of faith. Both Paul and James use Abraham to support their arguments (2:23 and Romans 4:3; Genesis 15:6). Paul argues that Abraham put his faith in Jehovah God—the only one who is capable of justifying the ungodly—and that his belief was sufficient enough to be rewarded with righteousness. James, on the other hand, uses Abraham’s willingness to obey God and sacrifice his son, Isaac (Genesis 22:2), as evidence that the righteousness he had received from God was genuine. Note that Abraham’s act of obedience (Genesis 22:2) comes after his belief in Jehovah produced righteousness (Genesis 15:6). Paul’s emphasis is on the Giver of righteousness while James is on what righteousness should produce: good and charitable deeds, as Abraham and Rahab illustrate.
Paul and James are not only looking at righteousness from a different perspective, they are also looking differently at faith. James is confronting people who see faith as one dimensional; a belief in an aspect of God: “You believe that God is one.” Good for you; so do demons (2:19). Society is inundated with people who believe in “god” but see him as or allow him to become secondary to their more mundane interests. Such faith is useless (2:20). Paul, on the other hand, describes faith as James wants his readers to understand it: an explicit oral and open commitment to Christ as Lord; a heartfelt belief in his death, burial, and resurrection that results in righteousness, i.e., salvation (Romans 10:9-10). Such faith will endure tribulation (1:2-6), pursue righteousness and help families who have lost their providers (1:27), make available a place of worship that is free of favoritism (2:1-13), and clothe and feed one’s neighbors (2:14-15).
Paul and James also use the word, justify or declare righteous, differently. Paul uses the word to describe what God, through faith, does to the repentant sinner—he makes them righteous (Romans 4:5; 8:33; 5:1; Galatians 3:24). James uses the word to describe what the believer’s work evidences—their work shows or proves their righteous standing before God (2:21, 24, 25). By faith, an unbeliever is made righteous; by works, a believer is shown to be righteous. Works are to faith what breath is to our bodies (2:26). One cannot exist without the other. This is James’s point. “I will show you my faith by my works” (2:18). Works are a natural corollary of faith—they are the breath of faith.
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