What About James? (Are We Really Justified by Works?)

Whenever you preach the 100% pure gospel of God’s grace, someone will inevitably ask, “What about James?” The gospel of grace that Paul preached declares that we are saved by faith alone. But James said that faith is not enough, that we need works as well. Consider the following sound bites from these two great apostles:

Paul: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Eph 2:8-9)

James: “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” (Jas 2:14)

Paul says “faith, not works,” but James says “I will show you my faith by my works” (Jas 2:18). That’s a little confusing. Paul declares that righteousness “comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Rms 3:22). But James says that merely believing is not enough:

“You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!” (Jas 2:19)

And just so we wouldn’t be in any doubt about where he stands on this issue of works, James ends with this:

“You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.” (Jas 2:24, NKJV)

Paul or James? Who’s right?

How are we to reconcile Paul with James? They seem to disagree with one another. One says “faith alone” while the other says “faith plus works.” This inconsistency has caused many believers to scratch their heads and none moreso than Martin Luther. Luther was famously disgusted with the book of James. His solution to the faith versus works problem was to cut James out of the New Testament! In his own translation of the Bible, Luther put James in an Appendix. No James, no problem!

It’s never a good idea to ignore or remove a scripture that we do not understand – let alone an entire book! But what are we to make of James in light of the finished work of the cross? Clearly both Paul and James are preaching good stuff, otherwise they would not be in the Bible together. So any apparent conflict between their messages must arise from a poor understanding on our part.

As we will see in this short study, both James and Paul were preaching pure, undiluted grace. James does not “go further” than Paul. Neither does he detract from the message of grace. Yet there is no doubt that he is calling for our faith to be seen in what we do.

What are the works James is referring to?

James 2 is possibly the most abused chapter in the entire Bible. Those who preach works will use this chapter to tell you that “you must balance grace with works.” Of course they won’t come out and say it in so few words. Instead, they will say things like, “Christ has done his part, now we must do our part.” Or they might say, “you were saved to do good works” before quoting Ephesians 2:10:

“For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

At this point everybody in the meeting will be nodding their heads because the preacher just quoted something Paul wrote that supports what James wrote, so it must be works after all. I knew this unmerited favor thing was too good to be true. I knew there had to be a catch. Well that’s okay, because I’m more than happy to work for Christ.

And before you know it the whole church will be running back to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, feasting on the forbidden fruit and trying to impress Jesus with their good works! Instead of resting in Him, they will be working hard for Him.

But before you start trying to out-work Martha, just pause for a second and think this through. Yes, good works are a normal part of the Christian life. But if you believe you must perform for God to be justified or made righteous or acceptable, then you have set aside grace and come back under law. And you know that’s bad right?

Under grace or under law?

There is a lot of confusion today about what it means to live under grace and what it means to live under law. But 50 years ago, in his classic book The Normal Christian Life, Watchman Nee gave this brilliantly simple explanation:

“Grace means that God does something for me; law means that I do something for God.”

The essence of the law is that God requires something from me. The essence of grace is that God provides that which is required. Before the cross people lived under the strict demands of the law. Only one person ever succeeded in fulfilling all these requirements, and He did it all on our behalf. On the cross, Jesus paid the full and complete penalty for our sin setting us free from the curse of the law. Now we live under a new covenant of grace underwritten by God’s own precious blood.

The great tragedy of our time is that while most people know they are cursed if they try to live under the law, many are trying to do exactly that! With sincere hearts they have bought into a lie that says we must perform for Jesus or die trying. They pray, “God help me do the things you want me to do” as if relationship could be reduced to a list of tasks God wants done. People who live like this have put their faith in a perverted gospel and are in danger of setting aside grace. Their identity is not in Christ, but in the things they do for Christ.

Grace and works don’t mix

The truth is that you can’t balance God’s grace with anything we do. Grace is unbalanceable. Jesus went through unimaginable suffering on the cross in order that we might be redeemed from the condemnation of the law. To act as if we could somehow make ourselves righteous in our own strength is to reject as insufficient His perfect sacrifice and insult the Spirit of grace. As Jesus warned the Laodiceans, when you try to earn what He freely offers, it doesn’t please Him, it makes Him sick. Let’s be clear – the works of the flesh nullify grace. They do not mix:

“And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.” (Rms 11:6)

So the wrong way to read James is to think that we must work for God and generally do stuff to make ourselves righteous. Yes, we were created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. But when we abide in Christ, He is the one who does them.

“It is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” (Php 2:13)

Under law, good works become a struggle and a burden. We do them because we love Jesus but in the end we’ll crash and burn because failure is the inevitable result of living under law. Under grace, good works are easy and the burden is light because He is the One doing the heavy lifting. What is our part in this? Resting in Him, trusting Him, abiding in Him.

Justified by works?

Now that we begin to have a good sense of what “work” looks like in the new covenant, we are ready to unpackage James 2:24:

“You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” (NIV)

This is not a vague call for miscellaneous works of faith. I believe James had something very specific in mind – something that we do that determines whether or not we are saved, justified, and accepted. And we will find out what that is in Part 2 of our study when we look at what Jesus referred to as “the works of Abraham.”

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Related posts:
- James 2:24
- Two religions: Works and blood
- The gospel comes to Laodicea

Comments

  1. Nowadays everybody wanna talk like they got somethin’ to say,
    But nothin’ comes out when they move their lips, just a bunch o’ gibberish.
    And act like they forgot about James.

  2. Brother!!

    How could you leave us hanging like that??? Haaa-haaa come on, spill the rest!

    LOVED the way you unpacked this, so clear, profound and swimming in truth. You hit the nail on the head with this one. James and 1 John are 2 most abused books in the entire New Covenant.

    You’d better not wait too long with your part 2, or I’ll have to come over there and force it out of you, ;-)

    In Grace, Andre van der Merwe

  3. Daniel Kotin says:

    Cliff hangerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!!! looool

  4. Susan Vivas says:

    Great post!!!!! Thanks! Eagerly awaiting for the Part two..

  5. Stephen Pugh says:

    James is an interesting book. Scofield says this: “..his epistle shows no trace of the larger revelations of the church and the distinctive doctrines of grace make through the apostle Paul, nor even the discussions concerning the relation of gentile converts to the law of Moses, which culminated in the first council (Acts 15) over which James presided. This presumes the very early date of James, which may confidently be set down as ‘the first epistle to Christians’ (Weston).”

    So this letter is very elementary christian teaching prior to the revelations of Paul concerning the doctrines of the church and the grace of God. It is set in the context of Christianity within Judaism. The believers in Christ are still attending synagogue 2v1 and are still part of the Jewish courts. In the last chapter god is still disciplining Israel with sickness for backsliding and the Jewish ordinance of anointing with oil are still being practised on those who are sick and who are healed on return to the Lord. To say that this letter is a corrective to the teaching of Paul is absurd because Paul had not written to the Romans yet.

    So this teaching is Jewish-Christianity at its best. Its focus is on righteous living according to the law as an answer to faith in Christ.
    Steve

    • Steve,
      Interesting conclusion, but one which is based on uncertainties (e.g., the date of writing) and outright misconceptions (God doesn’t make us sick). I have several authoritative sources on my shelf that date James anywhere from AD45 to 150. Whether James was written before or after Romans is moot, for this James – if he is the Lord’s brother and the leader of the Jerusalem church – would’ve been personally acquainted with Paul (see Acts 15, 21, Gal 1:19):

      “The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present. Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. When they heard this, they praised God.” (Acts 21:20)

      Elsewhere Paul explains how he set before the Jerusalem leaders “the gospel that I preach” (Gal 2:2). Whether James fully understood the message of grace at this point, we can’t say. But it is a stretch to say he was not acquainted with it.

      I’m not quite sure what you mean by your last line when you suggest “living according to the law as an answer to faith in Christ.” It’s one or the other. Does James talk about the law? Yes. Does James preach justification by the law? No. (More on this in Part 5 of the study.) There is no such thing as grace/Christianity within law/Judaism. Christ either fulfilled all the requirements of the law – leaving you with no requirements to observe – or He didn’t. You can’t half-trust Christ.

  6. You must know one thing for sure. If you say the works of Abraham, Abraham lost or missed nothing. Abraham did not sacrifice Isaac,this is the work of Abraham.

  7. God’s grace (unmerited favour) through the indwelling Spirit, who only indwells us by grace alone, empowers/enables/strengthens us to do the good works James speaks of (re: Titus on grace) Good works are indeed obligatory upon loving God as James correctly points out, but God’s grace alone (the power of the indwelling Spirit) enables us to meet that obligation upon love, through not only strengthening our whole spirit-man, but including our will. Thus, all your talk of ‘faith or works’ and ‘faith plus works’ is your own misunderstanding of what you are discussing here. Paul and James are not in conflict with each other at all. Grace enables us to believe both initially and continually (abiding in Him) and, enables us to obey Him too (live holy), obedience being obligatory (evidencing) upon loving God as James points out. Its ALL by grace alone but, you cannot divorce faith from works, they go together, but not in the sense the author of this post suggests. Grace is the ‘engine’ behind both faith and obedience, but in no way does grace nullify man’s responsibility for his own salvation. God’s ability to ‘keep’ him who indeed perseveres in Him, remains wholly unaffected by our responsibility to abide in Him. Do not mix God’s ability to ‘keep’ us saved and our grace-enabled responsibility unto abiding/remaining in Him (the hope of our salvation) They are not the same thing, albethey related of course. Our salvation is ‘already but not yet,’ i.e. the very hope that we have our assurance/security in (invest our faith in), but a man is not saved until he is indeed saved. If you remain in that hope (abide in Him through belief/love of which obedience is a grace-enabled obligation as already explained), you’ll be fine. Understand that little gem of truth, and you should be set free from the whole grace-versus-works-responsibility debacle.

  8. maxin philip says:

    what i believe about book of james is, either it is written to those christians who were either practising law, or they were fully jews chapter 1&2 clearly mentions about it…..certain areas we can see james is directly bringing those people to a point where they may feel, guilty, condemned and they may understand that by keeping law they cannot be perfect. One place he is saying even devil knows God is one…this james is quoting from deutronomy chapter6 which jews used to speak in their synagogue. So what i believe is this the audience here is jews who believed that God is one but were unable to believe in christ. They just said we believe in god as every jew do. But the work which was not manifesting was they were not ready to believe in their heart and confess with their mouth that jesus is lord. They might also have been living in a double mindedness that both jewish and christianity is right. But my point is this, the audience were making a headache to james because of their heretic stubborn keeping of law and self righteousness.

  9. When is th next article due Paul?

  10. I have a catholic friend who likes to go round and around with me on this and other subjects, he says catholics take scripture at face value.I told him its good to know what the original language says or you will never understand scripture. example is it sin noun? or sin verb? english example Rain or Reign? right-on or write-on bro?

  11. The majority of Christians for the first five hundred years never even saw this book –no one even mentions his book the first 200 years book. It was at a very late and no one knows exactly who wrote it that’s why I was disputed.. When something contradicts something else it should be set aside. you could take the book of James out of the bible and it woulnt do anything to the message of the gospel. james does not mention the Gentiles …its obviously an early book

  12. chrisvanrooyen says:

    Illumination of these verses comes from knowing that Faith is a free gift from God, and that this faith results in works.
    James is in no way preaching salvation or justification by works. There are no contradictions.

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