A series of articles exploring teachings from the Good News as reavealed by God in His Word to us.
Justified by faith alone or by faith and works?
Are we justified by works, by faith, or both?
This is a fundamental question that is often raised. Most of the people who hold to the position that it is both strongly lean on James 2 as their "proof" of this. Does James 2 indeed imply that we are justified by works and faith? Let's see.
Before diving in the James 2:15-26, let us first place the context before us:
James 1:22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.
James 1:23 For if any is a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like a man beholding his natural face in a glass:
James 1:24 For he beholds himself, and goes his way, and right away forgets what manner of man he was.
James 1:25 But whoever looks into the perfect law of liberty, and continues therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed
Who was James writing to?
He was (is) writing to Christians who professed a faith, but didn't live it. To put it into today's terms, these are "Christians" who walked down an aisle, maybe were baptized, made a profession of faith before men, and now live as they have always lived - in the flesh. They "hear" the Word, but do not do what it says. This "Christian" thinks he has eternal security because of something he did. This is called "easy believism" by some now days. There are a lot of churches that teach this. These poor people are being told that they are saved, but don't realize that they are going to wake up on Judgment day and are going to have to answer for their sins because they never were truly saved from their sins. What most of these poor people experienced was perhaps an emotional moment of some sort but were not truly born again. It would appear that same thing was going on even back in James' day.
James 2 expounded.
Now, let us examine some of the verses more closely.
Verse2:14, is a reference to a profession of faith before men. It is obvious that a faith that does not bear the fruit of good work is a counterfeit faith. It was made by the lips only. That is why James uses the term "says that he has faith".
Verse2:17, is re-stating that a faith that does not produce the fruit of good works is dead…it is no faith at all, just an imitation of faith.
Verse2:18, James continues on this theme except he introduces what a man says. A hypothetical man is introduced and speaks as a true Christian. He makes a statement to a hypothetical counterfeit Christian and says "You claim to have faith, and I have works. You show me your faith without your works, and I'll show you my faith by my works." The Christian man who can easily demonstrate his faith by his works asks the counterfeit to show his faith without his works… It is a rhetorical request - the conclusion is that it is impossible. Works are the fruit of faith. It is the only way by which one man may observe whether another's faith is genuine or not. It is the only way we can "justify" our faith before men since they cannot see the internal change of our heart…the regeneration of our souls.
Verse2:19, is more evidence that what James is writing about is easy believism. Even the devils can say that there is one God. That does not make them born again any more than this hypothetical counterfeit Christian.
Verse2:20 states again that a hollow professed faith without works is dead; a cheap imitation.
Verse2:21 Abraham's faith was proved genuine by his good works. His faith was justified (tested and proved to be the genuine thing - i.e. put on trial and "justified") before men and declared real because of the fruit of good works that it produced.
Verse2:22 shows that faith produces the fruit of good works. The good works completed Abraham's faith in the sense that while God knew that the faith was genuine, the fruit of good works demonstrated it's genuineness to the rest of the world and to the principalities and powers. The word translated as "perfect" in this verse carries the meaning not of perfection in our modern language, but more of a completion. It is made complete by being demonstrated to all that he had a genuine faith.
Verse2:24 We see that good works have to accompany genuine faith. And not by a profession of faith only…otherwise, it would be a dead (counterfeit) faith. The Apostle John says the same thing only in a slightly different but plainer manner:
John I 1:6 If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth:
If this were the only Scripture addressing the subject of justification/works, we may be tempted to come to the conclusion that our justification is dependent upon our works. As it is, God has blessed us with much additional information on this subject as can be seen in my article on Justification. When one takes in account the whole of Scripture, it becomes clear that the Biblical view is that we are justified before God by faith alone. And I praise God for that because if I had to rely on my own efforts, I could not justify myself before God: I could not possibly live up to His perfect standard.
Our faith is justified before fellow men by our works. In no way are we justified before God by our works: the whole of Scripture simply does not permit this conclusion.