Maybe you’ve seen the following acronym displayed in your local church or online:
FAITH – Forsaking All I Trust Him.
It’s a clever and helpful way to remind ourselves that salvation only comes through faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross, not by any merit of our own. Romans 3:28 is quite explicit about this truth as well: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”
However, as we read further along in the New Testament, we discover a man named James that seems to have a different opinion on faith as it relates to salvation and justification. He says, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:34).
What gives, James? Do you dare to challenge the great Apostle Paul?
In all seriousness, what is going on here? We know that the Scriptures are infallible and without error so why does it seem that two of its authors are teaching contradictory theologies? Let’s take a closer look.
Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Romans 4:5 echoes this sentiment as well, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.”
No amount of effort places us in the good graces of the Father. We could never measure up to the requirements of a perfect, sinless life. Only Jesus was capable of doing this. Faith is the means by which we are justified. The important question that needs to be asked is this: What does salvific faith look like? What is it? Let’s see if James has the answer.
James 2:14 says, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” Later in chapter 2, he proclaims that “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
James is describing what salvific faith looks like. He gives several examples that demonstrate the type of faith that justifies the ungodly before God. If a carpenter was to tell his employee that a hammer was needed to complete a certain job, but brought him one in which the head easily slides off the handle, what purpose would it serve?
The hammer (faith) is the appropriate tool for the job (justification), but unless it functions and “acts” like a hammer, it’s just a piece of wood and a metal block. A hammer that does not drive a nail, is no hammer at all. Faith that does not showcase itself through “godly deeds” is equivalent to the faith of the demons—it’s broken. Justification cannot occur without the faith that produces good works.
Both Paul and James agree that man is sinful and incapable of saving himself (Romans 3:23, James 3:2). Our works are not enough to earn us salvation. We cannot be justified by doing good.
Throughout Paul’s epistles, he lists sinful actions that Christians are not to participate in. If he believed faith was the only important thing, why correct and chastise fellow believers for their behavior? It’s simple. He agrees with James. Works are important. They aren’t the basis of salvation but they are the evidence of it.
The approach that Paul and James each took in their letters was very different. The context in which they were writing had their own unique purposes. Paul was addressing legalism—adherence to the law for salvation. James was addressing license—taking advantage of grace by not being “conformed to the image of Christ.” Neither philosophies bring salvation.
Conclusion: The teachings of Paul and James are complementary, not contradictory.