How should we understand the relationship between faith and works in salvation and how does the Book of James’ teaching on faith and works relate with that of the apostle Paul?
The apostle Paul presents faith as the alone instrument of salvation, apart from works. He writes in Romans, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (3:28). Paul is especially ruling out religious rites as a way to become right with God. In Romans 4:4-5, Paul extends this to works of any kind, writing, “To the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.”
We may sum up Paul’s teaching on faith and works as follows: 1) We cannot be saved by works, because all our works are corrupted by sin, but Jesus Christ fulfilled the law and offered his perfect works to God for us; 2) By faith in Christ, we are forgiven of our sins because of his death on the cross, and we receive by imputation his perfect fulfillment of God’s Law. Whereas we cannot be saved by our works, we are saved through faith by the work of Jesus Christ; 3) Having been saved by faith alone, we are called to do good works, living in accordance with God’s law and serving him with our lives. This is all laid out in Ephesians 2:8-10, “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
The apostle James writes about faith and works differently. One reason is the difference in the type of letter and purpose of writing. In letters like Romans and Ephesians, Paul presents a doctrinal treatise. His concern is to systematically lay out certain truths. James is writing what we call “wisdom literature.” His Book in the New Testament is analogous to the Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament. His concern is to pastorally exhort his readers. Because of this James says things about faith and works that some people think contradicts what Paul teaches. One of them was Martin Luther, who therefore all but rejected the Book of James and once called it “the epistle of straw.” In fact, James does not contradict Paul, but speaks about faith from a different point of emphasis.
James’s concern was to preach against empty, formal belief, which he says is really not a living or saving faith. “What good is it, my brothers,” he asks, “if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?. . . Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead… Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (2:17-18).
James’ point is that for faith to be alive, it must produce works. Using the example of Abraham, whose faith was finally proved by his willingness to offer his son, he writes in a way that seems to be even more challenging to Paul’s doctrine of faith alone: “A person is justified,” he says, “by works and not by faith alone” (2:24). This verse is celebrated by those who oppose or want to change Paul’s teaching on faith alone. But James’ point is made clear by his elaboration on the matter by, for instance, verse 22, which says, “You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works.” That is something Paul would have strongly affirmed, that a living faith, which alone saves us through Jesus Christ, is only one which proves itself through good and obedient works. As John Calvin famously put it, “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that really saves us never is alone.”
James, like Paul, distinguishes between faith and works. Paul emphasizes that we are saved through faith apart from works; James emphasizes that the faith that really saves us is a faith that does works. Together, they provide us a well-rounded New Testament teaching on faith alone as that which saves us to a life that is characterized by good works in living worship unto the Lord.
Rev. Richard Phillips is the chair of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology and senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church Coral Springs, Margate, Florida.