The doctrine of salvation by faith alone is fundamental to Protestant theology. The old Methodist Discipline stated, “Wherefore, that we are justified by faith only is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort.” The Standard Baptist Manual, by Edward T. Hiscox teaches, “... the great gospel blessing which Christ secures to such as believe in Him is justification; that justification includes the pardon of sin and the promise of eternal life on principles of righteousness; that it is bestowed, not in consideration of any works of righteousness which we have done, but solely through faith in the Redeemer’s blood....”
Two New Testament passages deal extensively with the subject of faith and works in salvation. In Romans chapter four the apostle Paul appeals to the example of Abraham’s justification by faith, quoting Genesis 15:6 (Romans 4:3), and concludes:
"Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness" (Romans 4:4-5).
But James also quotes Genesis 15:6 (James 2:23) and deduces, “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only” (James 2:24). How can these two seemingly contradictory positions be harmonized? We will solve this problem by answering the question, What is the relationship between faith and works?
At first, the Lord’s disciples, all Jews (Acts 2:5,41), thought the gospel was for Jews alone (Acts 11:19). But when the Lord sent the apostle Peter to preach to uncircumcised Gentiles (Acts 10:1-11:17), the brethren learned that salvation in Christ is for both Jew and Gentile (Acts 10:34-35; 11:18).
But this did not bring the controversy to an end. Many Jewish disciples thought the Gentiles who came to Christ had to become proselytized to Judaism to be saved. They demanded that Gentile Christians be circumcised as a sign of becoming Jews and keep the law of Moses (Acts 15:1,5). Had they been correct, sinless obedience would have been essential to justification. Those who attempt to be justified by the Mosaic law are under its curse:
"For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them'" (Galatians 3:10; quoting Deuteronomy 27:26).
The law could maintain spiritual life for one who kept it sinlessly. “‘The man who does them shall live by them’” (Galatians 3:12; quoting Leviticus 18:5). But if he ever sinned in even one point, he was cursed. It was do, do, do, do, do all the law demands and never fail. This was because the Old Testament animal sacrifices were ultimately not sufficient to remove the guilt of sin (Hebrews 10:1- 5).
If the law were still in force, Christ could not be our High Priest, since He is of the tribe of Judah, whereas the Old Testament priests had to be of the tribe of Levi (Hebrews 7:12-14). Thus, He could not minister His blood for us, and we would be without a sacrifice that could remove the stain of sin.
The one who tries to be justified by the law is thus under the inescapable curse. He has sinned (Romans 3:9-19,23), the law can only show one his sin, not justify the sinner (Romans 3:20), and the sinner would have to cry in anguish, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24).
The Jews laid great stress on their fleshly descent from Abraham, to whom the Lord gave the promises (Genesis 12:1-7). John accused them of relying on their Abrahamic ancestry to refuse repentance (Luke 3:8). When Christ offered them freedom through truth, they indignantly replied, “‘We are Abraham’s descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How can you say, “You will me made free”?’” (John 8:31-33).
Circumcision was a fleshly sign of a covenant relationship with God (Genesis 17:13). The animal sacrifices of the law of Moses only offered a fleshly cleansing so the sin-defiled worshiper might come into the presence of the holy God, and its ordinances primarily pertained to the flesh (Hebrews 9:1-10). Paul shows that the Lord has replaced these fleshly requirements - Abrahamic descent, circumcision, carnal ordinances - with a covenant that pertains to the heart, the inner man, a spiritual relationship (Romans 2:28-29).
In the immediately preceding passage, Paul restated and expanded the theme of Romans: We are saved by faith apart from the law (Romans 3:20-31). The “law” is the “law of works” (Romans 3:27), i.e., a law which demands sinless obedience for justification, the Old Testament. “Faith” is “the law of faith” (Ibid), “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:3), the gospel (Romans 1:16).
Analysis of Passage
The apostle makes the strongest possible appeal to a Jew. How was Abraham, the father of the nation, the one the Lord gave the promises, justified? Was it by the flesh - physical relationship, circumcision, and the law of Moses? (Romans 4:1) If so, since this demands sinless obedience, he could boast of earning his salvation; but no one can so glory before the holy God (Romans 4:2). Rather, the Scriptures testify Abraham was justified by faith (Romans 4:3; quoting Genesis 15:6). Such justification is on the basis of the grace of God, undeserved favor (Romans 4:4; cf. 3:21-26). On the other hand, justification by works would be earned, not a matter of grace (Romans 4:4).
What kind of works does the apostle have in mind? The Bible mentions many kinds:
- good and evil (Titus 2:14; 2 Timothy 4:18),
- of God and of darkness (John 6:28-29; Romans 13:12),
- of Christ and of iniquity (Philippians 2:30; Matthew 7:23),
- of the Lord and of the flesh (1 Corinthians 15:58; Galatians 5:19),
- befitting repentance and wicked (Acts 26:20; Colossians 1:21),
- righteous and hypocritical (Acts 10:35; Matthew 23:3,5),
- perfect and dead (James 1:4; Hebrews 9:14),
- of faith and of the law (also called boastful and of righteousness, i.e., earned righteousness (1 Thessalonians 1:3; Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 2:9; Titus 3:5).
Some of these works will cause us to be lost (Galatians 5:19-21), some will not save (Galatians 2:16), but some are essential to salvation (John 6:28-29; Philippians 2:12; Galatians 5:6).
Judgment will be on the basis of our works (Romans 2:5-10). How can this be if works have nothing to do with our salvation? The works of Romans four are the works of the law of Moses. The justification of Romans four is “to him who does not work” (Romans 4:5). If this includes every kind of works, even good works, then we should not do good works. We should never feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, take in the stranger, clothe the naked, house the homeless, or visit the prisoner. But Christians are “created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Ephesians 2:10), and we will be condemned if we fail to do them (Matthew 25:31-46). Again, the works of Romans four are the works of the Old Testament.
The remainder of the chapter clinches the argument. David, the great hero of Israel, was justified by faith apart from sinless obedience to the law (Romans 4:6-8; quoting Psalm 32:1-2). Abraham was justified by faith before he was circumcised, proving one can be righteous without circumcision (Romans 4:9-12; cf. Genesis 15:6; 17:1-14,23-27). The Abrahamic promise predated the law and had nothing to do with the law, and Abraham himself was righteous though he never kept the Mosaic law. This proves we are justified by faith without the works of the Old Testament (Romans 4:13-25).
We are not justified by the works of the law of Moses, works that demanded sinless obedience, were fleshly and would earn salvation. Rather, we are saved by grace through faith as we by faith meet the divine conditions of pardon.
The greatest leader of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, so strongly believed we are saved by faith alone that, where the apostle states in Roman 5:1 that we are “justified by faith,” Luther rendered it in his German version, “justified by faith alone.” He was perplexed by the book of James. It certainly has the credentials to be included in the New Testament canon. But Luther could not reconcile James 2:14-26 with his belief in salvation by faith alone. He once called James a “right strawy epistle” and asserted it had “no gospel character in it.” He even asserted, “I will not have it in my Bible in the number of the proper chief books.” When one’s doctrine leads him to deny a book of the Bible its proper place as inspired and authoritative, he needs to reexamine his doctrine. What does James teach about faith and works?
The Passage Examined
James poses a question: “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?” (James 2:14) Thus, the inquiry of the passage is, Will faith apart from works save? The inspired writer answers his own query in verses fifteen through twenty-six.
James first demonstrates by three arguments that faith alone is a dead faith (James 2:14-20). Just as it does no good to wish a needy person well unless we do something to relieve his needs, faith apart from works is dead (James 2:15-17). If your neighbor came to your door in the freezing cold of winter, wearing tattered, thin clothing and looking gaunt from hunger, and asked for help, would you reply with a laugh, “Friend, I can’t help you, but I hope you find some food and clothing”? How much would that help? That’s how much good faith apart from works does in our salvation. Then the inspired writer shows that, apart from works, one can’t even prove he has faith (James 2:18). It’s not faith or works, it is faith and works. It is said a Scotsman once labeled the oars of his rowboat “Faith” and “Works.” When a neighbor asked him why he pushed his boat into the water. He only pulled on the oar named “Faith” and just went in a circle. Then he just pulled on “Works” and went in an opposite circle. But when he pulled on both “Faith” and “Works,” he went to his destination.
Even the demons believe, but they are nonetheless condemned (James 2:19). Thus, faith without works is a dead faith (James 2:20). Do you think a dead faith will save?
Then James demonstrates by two Old Testament examples that we are justified by faith that works (James 2:21-25). First, he appeals to the example of Abraham (James 2:21-24). Abraham was a Hebrew, godly, a man, a child of God, and the friend of God. He was justified by faith (James 2:23; quoting Genesis 15:6), but his faith had to be perfected by works of obedience to God (James 2:22), the greatest being his offering of his beloved son of promise, Isaac, upon an altar as a sacrifice in obedience to the command of God (James 2:21; cf. Genesis 22:1-18). He thus was the friend of God (James 2:23; cf. II Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8; John 15:14).
What does the example of Abraham demonstrate? “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only” (James 2:24). This is the only time the Bible even mentions the doctrine of salvation by faith alone, and the inspired writer James emphatically declares it to be a lie. Then James refers to the salvation of Rahab the harlot (James 2:25; cf. Joshua 2:1-22; 6:22-25). In contrast with Abraham, Rahab was a Gentile, immoral, a woman, an alien, and belonged to God’s enemies. How was she saved? She heard about the Lord and the terms of salvation (Joshua 2:10,12- 20), she believed (Joshua 2:11,21; Hebrews 11:31), and she obeyed (Joshua 2:1-8,21; James 2:25). Thus, when Jericho perished, Rahab was saved (Joshua 6).
What does James conclude about faith and works in our salvation? “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (James 2:26). James does not deny salvation by faith, but he emphatically denies salvation by faith only (James 2:14,17,20,22,24,26).
Protestants raise various objections to this simple analysis of James’ teaching. Sometimes they contend that Paul taught justification by faith without works for the alien sinner, whereas James refers to the justification of Christians. To begin with, this does not help, for the same ones who teach the alien is saved by faith alone contend that the Christian cannot be lost. They deny anyone, saint or sinner, must obey Christ.
Furthermore, both Paul and James quote the same passage to prove their point - Genesis 15:6 (Romans 4:3; James 2:23). And in the application that each makes, Abraham had already been an obedient believer for many years. Abram was saved by faith no later than his age seventy-five (Genesis 11:31 - 12:4; Hebrews 11:8), and that saving faith was obedient faith. He had worshiped the Lord for years (Genesis 12:7; 13:3-4), and Melchizedek blessed him as “Abram of God Most High” (Genesis 14:18-20). Thus, long before the events of Genesis fifteen, Abram was a saved, obedient, faithful worshiper of the Lord.
Also, Rahab was certainly an alien when she was justified by obedient faith (James 2:25). The simple fact is that both the alien and the child of God must be justified by faith that works (Mark 16:15-16; Matthew 28:20).
Some argue that James speaks of justification before men, not God. But the subject of James 2:14-26 is salvation - Will faith without works save? (James 2:14) Who saw Abraham offer Isaac? (James 2:21; Genesis 22:3,5,12) When Abraham offered Isaac, he proved his faith in God (Genesis 22:11-12).
Others contend that Paul writes of true faith, whereas James speaks of alleged but false faith. Paul teaches that we must be saved by working faith (Galatians 5:6). James shows what makes alleged faith saving faith, and that is works of obedience (James 2:14,17,20,22,24,26). Still others assert that demons just believe in God, not in Christ (James 2:19). The demons believe in one God (Ibid) and in Jesus as the Son of God (Mark 5:7). They confessed their faith in Christ (Mark 5:7), worshiped Him (Mark 5:6), submitted to Him (Mark 5:12-13), and they fear the judgment (James 2:19). Nevertheless, they are lost (Matthew 8:29). And James plainly teaches that they prove faith without works is dead (James 2:19-20).
The kind of works Paul teaches will not save are works that demand sinless obedience, works whereby one would earn righteousness, the works of the law of Moses (Galatians 5:1-4). The works James teaches do justify are works of the obedience of faith, works whereby we meet the conditions of divine grace, works of obedience to the gospel (cf. Luke 17:10). Faith alone does not profit (James 2:14), will not save (James 2:14), is dead (James 2:17,20,26), cannot be shown (James 2:18), is possessed by demons (James 2:19), is incomplete (James 2:22), and will not justify (James 2:24). The only kind of faith that will save is a working faith.
The alien sinner must work to be saved (Matthew 7:21), and so must the child of God (Philippians 2:12). The alien must believe in Jesus (John 6:28-29), repent of his sins (Acts 3:19), confess his faith in Christ (Romans 10:9-10), and be baptized for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38). The child of God must “observe all things” Christ commands (Matthew 28:19-20). When he fails to do so he must repent, confess his sin, and pray for forgiveness (Acts 8:22; 1 John 1:9). The doctrine of salvation by faith alone may be “very full of comfort,” but it is also very full of damnation. “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only” (James 2:24).