Does the New Testament book of James undermine salvation by faith alone?

Theology that hits the spot
Theology that hits the spot

Are people brought in a right relationship with God because God provides for their salvation, or must we do works in order to earn our place with God in the afterlife?

The Bible is pretty clear that God provides our salvation from our rebellion by himself, all we have to do is accept it.

Look at Romans 3:21-30:

21 But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets,

22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction;

23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus;

25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed;

26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

27 Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith.

28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.

29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the Godof Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also,

30 since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one.

Here’s theologian R.C. Sproul, to explain a passage from the Bible that seems to contradict the passages that teach that faith alone is sufficient for salvation.

Here’s James 2:18-24:

18 But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”

19 You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.

20 But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?

21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?

22 You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected;

23 and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God.

24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.

Sproul explains the apparent conflict:

What James is saying is this: If a person says he has faith, but he gives no outward evidence of that faith through righteous works, his faith will not justify him. Martin Luther, John Calvin, or John Knox would absolutely agree with James. We are not saved by a profession of faith or by a claim to faith. That faith has to be genuine before the merit of Christ will be imputed to anybody. You can’t just say you have faith. True faith will absolutely and necessarily yield the fruits of obedience and the works of righteousness. Luther was saying that those works don’t add to that person’s justification at the judgment seat of God. But they do justify his claim to faith before the eyes of man. James is saying, not that a man is justified before God by his works, but that his claim to faith is shown to be genuine as he demonstrates the evidence of that claim of faith through his works.

So yes, works are important as a sign to others that you believe what you say you believe, but not important for balancing your sins. Your sins are already paid for by Jesus, what you do in your life doesn’t add or take away anything from that. But I will say that if you can see that a person is spending a great deal of their time performing actions that are consistent with a concern for God’s purposes and reputation, then that’s a good sign that his faith is in good shape. Yes, even if he doesn’t do as much Bible study, devotions, singing and praying as he should. The important thing about actions (works) is that you can look at a person’s life and see evidence that he is taking God seriously – that Jesus is his leader, and that Jesus’ character is informing their decision-making and prioritizing.

8 thoughts on “Does the New Testament book of James undermine salvation by faith alone?”

    1. Actually, Luther said it was “an epistle of straw” when it came to the Gospel. He didn’t want it removed; he even wrote a commentary on it.

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    2. A fair point wildswanderer, but please note that Luther’s translation of the Bible (finished 1534) contained James. His translation also included Jude, Hebrews, and Revelation – other books which it is often alleged that Luther wanted removed from the canon. I’d say if he wanted them purged from the Bible he did a very bad job of it. :)

      N.b. I agree with Stan’s synopsis of Luther’s reasoning.

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  1. I’ve always pictured Paul and James like this. The two are standing on the point of salvation. Paul looks back and says, “How did I get here?” and James looks forward and asks, “Where do I go from here?” Paul says we get there by faith, not works. James says works are the natural result.

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  2. LOL, this seems like such a male female argument to me, because generally men like their information a bit more compartmentalized than women do. So I would say, where your heart goes the rest of you follows. If you truly “feel” grace, than you are simply compelled to do works. Feelings cause actions, it is that knowing of grace that leads you to want to follow with your own footsteps. Your own footsteps indeed have nothing to do with grace, you have no chance of ever earning it, it’s just a natural progression of having received it.

    It is not a dis-similar feeling to what women sometimes have with husbands, at least in happy marriages. You are simply compelled to try and please them, not out of any sense of obligation or duty as if you are making a payment, but simply because that is what love reflected back looks like.

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  3. There is no contradiction between James and the other Scriptures. You have to logically at “heart” and “works” like a square with 4 possible choices rather than an “either/or”:

    A bad heart, and bad works. A bad heart with bad works is all of us prior to coming to the knowlege of the saving grace of God and accepting that gift.

    A bad heart, and good works. Those with a bad heart, and doing good works do good works for selfish reasons. Maybe they are doing it because they receive self worth gratification from being a people pleaser. Maybe they are doing it because they believe in karma. Maybe that are doing it because they think that good works will save them or get them to other religion’s equivalent of heaven.

    A good heart, and bad works. James 2, in particular, discusses a supposedly good heart with bad works. If you read the passage it specifically says that people were saying they were Christians with faith but had no works. We know this contradicts other parts of Scripture, especially to what Jesus has said: Trees are known by their fruit. Thus, the James passage specifically refutes the idea that there is such a thing as a good heart with no works or bad works.

    A good heart, and good works. Thus, we come to the last one where a good heart produces good works. I think Ephesians 2 typically explains it best: we’re saved through our faith alone and created in Jesus for good works that God has prepared for us. The Titus 3 passage clarifies it further, which says that the good works in particular are profitable for men. This makes sense because good works do not profit God: if we choose not to do them He can always use another Christian to do them.

    James comes against the falsehood that there is a good heart with no works or bad works.

    Faith changes the heart, and out of the heart come good works for those that are in Christ Jesus.

    Matthew 15:0 And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: 11 not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.” 12 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” 13 He answered, “Every plant which my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. 14 Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.” 15 But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” 16 And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and so passes on?[d] 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man.”

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  4. James is anything but focused on work-righteousness. Half of his letter is anti-Pharisaical. Somewhat like John the Baptist, he is trying to point out the difference between fruits of faith and self-righteousness. He is also trying to point out just how hard it really is to lead a life of faith, and especially how hard it is to be a leader of the faithful. James is quite sobering reading, which is why so many people don’t read him. He doesn’t allow you any wiggle room.

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