Salvation by Works?
Today’s reading is drawn from James 2:14-26.
ON THE SURFACE, the writings of Paul and this letter from James appear to present a contradiction. Paul is very clear that we are saved by grace through faith and not works. He argues that Abraham was saved through faith, apart from works of the law (Gal. 3). James, however, says that faith without good works cannot save (Jas. 2:26) and appeals to the example of Abraham to show that he believed and obeyed God when he offered up Isaac (Jas. 2:21-24). How can we reconcile these viewpoints?
I suggest that if we understand three specific contrasts between Paul and James, we see both of their perspectives in harmony. First, Paul is looking at the root of our salvation, while James is looking at the fruit after salvation. Paul emphasizes the point that at the time of conversion, the root of salvation is faith alone. James sees that the faith that saves us does not remain alone, though we are saved by faith alone. After salvation, there are things that will inevitably happen in our lives that show the reality of our salvation.
Another contrast is that Paul describes salvation from God’s perspective, while James is addressing the issue from a human perspective. It’s like Paul is sitting in the house and sees the fire in the fireplace. James walks by the outside of the house and sees the smoke coming out of the chimney. James says, “When I see the smoke, I have no trouble believing that there’s a fire in the fireplace.” People can’t see through walls, but God can. In other words, Paul says, “God sees the fire,” while James says, “I’m looking for the smoke.”
Perhaps the most important contrast of all is the difference in tone: Paul is instructing, and James is exhorting. The difference is clear in the way the two talk about justification. When Paul says “justification,” he is referring to the sovereign act of God whereby He declares a believing sinner righteous on the basis of faith. But James uses the word in the sense of validation. A person’s works validate him or her as a genuine believer.
So when James calls out faith without works as useless, he is questioning the value of a faith that is not validated. What good does it do to carry around a card that says “Driver’s License” if you never actually drive and couldn’t if you needed to? What good does it do to show somebody your high school diploma only to have them find out that you are unable to add two and two together? In a way, that is what James is saying. Now, this implies that a person’s professed faith can be phony, which leads to a deeper question: Can a faith that is not validated save? The answer is clearly implied by James’s argument: No, that phony kind of faith cannot save anyone. But of course, that is God’s place to judge, not ours. We tend to see ourselves as the standard of how much validation proves our faith.
In light of this, James is making the point that Abraham’s faith, which justified him before God, was validated in his life by his obedience to God. This sets a pattern for every believer’s life. James shows that faith is more than merely correct knowledge, which even the demons possess (Jas. 2:19-20). Faith includes a response of the heart to God, which inevitably bears fruit.
[call out text: Faith is more than merely correct knowledge, which even the demons possess. Faith includes a response of the heart to God, which inevitably bears fruit.]