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Chuck McKnight, AiG–U.S., provides an overview of this controversial topic and shows why a person is saved by grace through faith alone.
A man is justified by works, and not by faith only. (James 2:24)
A man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ. (Galatians 2:16)
Today’s big question: are we justified by works or faith?
From a cursory reading of these verses, it might appear that James and Paul taught opposing doctrines. In fact, such seemingly contradictory teaching has even caused some theologians to question the canonicity of the Epistle of James. While this subject merits more discussion than space here allows, we will try to summarize the key points involved.
As with all Scripture, we must be careful to both examine the context and understand the terms used. The word justify means “declare righteous,” not “make righteous.” Justification is not salvation. Salvation is by grace, through faith (Ephesians 2:8). That which justifies is that which proves one has already been made righteous.
So James was saying that works are evidence of salvation. If there are no works, then it is not a true faith. This false faith to which James refers cannot save because it is dead (James 2:14,17). This is perfectly in accordance with the teachings of Jesus that “every good tree bears good fruit” (Matthew 7:17) and “every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 7:19).
Furthermore, the context reveals that James and Paul referenced two different types of works. Paul combatted a legalistic works-righteousness. Over and over, he specifically countered “the works of the law.” This type of work is done as an attempt to become righteous apart from faith in the Messiah. Such a self-righteous effort will never “declare” the righteousness that comes by grace alone.
James, however, fought against the other extreme—those who claim faith but never demonstrate that faith through their works. These are the people about whom John wrote, “He who says, ‘I know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:4). That’s not to say that true believers will never disobey, but those who consistently disregard God’s commands demonstrate their own lack of repentance.
To summarize, Paul spoke against the works of the law without salvation, while James affirmed the works of faith with salvation. They presented two sides of the same truth. There is no contradiction.
It is interesting to note that James and Paul both used Abraham as an example to show how faith and works relate. Paul showed that Abraham was not justified by works of the law but was counted righteous because of his belief (Romans 4:2–3). James showed how Abraham’s belief unto righteousness was later proven by his works of faith (James 2:21–23).
Today’s big idea: works of the law cannot justify, but works of faith demonstrate true belief.
What to pray: seek God’s will and ask Him to help you keep His commands.