What About Works, Part 2

Does James contradict Paul? When we dig beneath the surface, we discover they actually complement each other. One emphasizes the priority of faith while the other highlights the proof of faith.

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Am I really saved by grace alone through faith alone?

Or is there something I must do to secure my good standing with God as a forgiven, accepted, and loved son or daughter?

And if I am saved by grace alone, then what role do works play in the Christian life? If they don’t save me or sustain me, then why should I be at all concerned with whether or not there is any practical change in my life as a result of being a disciple of Jesus?

What about works?

This is the question James answers in James 2:14–26.

In you missed Part 1, catch up here.

Otherwise, let’s move on to What About Works, Part 2.

A Hypothetical Situation

15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what goodis that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

According to James, the fruit of faith is evidence or proof of authenticity, much like a letter of authenticity that would accompany a rare and valuable piece of antique European furniture.

Good works are like letters of authenticity for saving faith. As Kurt Richardson says in the New American Commentary, “Deeds of faith demonstrate the validity of [someone’s] claim to be a believer.”

According to James, without deeds of authenticity, faith is dead. It is merely faith of assent, not the faith of trust. It is not saving faith. It is just cultural faith.

The faith of verse 16 speaks words of blessing but doesn’t actually meet any specific need. Words are cheap. Giving, however, requires sacrifice, whether giving time, possessions, or money. A refusal to give is a refusal to sacrifice, which is a refusal to love.

In 1 John 3:17–18,the apostle says,

“If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love [only] with words… but with actions and in truth.”

  • With words, we proclaim the love of God in the gospel.

  • With deeds, we demonstrate the love of God in the gospel.

A Pastoral Admonition

18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works. Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe — and shudder!” 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” — and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.


This sounds like James is directly contradicting the apostle Paul.

After all, in Romans 3:28, Paul said, “We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.”

Apart from works.

When we dig beneath the surface of the text, we discover that Paul and James actually complement rather than contradict each other.

Let me explain.

The apostle Paul tells us in Galatians 1:18–19that, three years after his conversion, he met in Jerusalem with Peter and James. They discussed the gospel… and agreed.

This is confirmed in Acts 15, where Paul, Peter, and James were all present and each spoke at a special church council to decide whether Gentiles could be included into the church by faith alone, apart from works.

Theological Agreement

InActs 15:8–11, Peter says,

“8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9 He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are. 12 The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.”

Then, in verse 13, James spoke up, pronouncing a verdict in complete agreement with Peter and Paul.

Here is the distinction.

  • Paul was concerned about the priority of faith in justification. Therefore, when using Abraham as an example of justification by faith alone in Romans 4, he emphasized Abraham’s initial profession of faith that took place in Genesis 15.

  • James is concerned here about the proof of faith for justification. Therefore, when he uses an example from the life of Abraham, he emphasizes Abraham’s demonstration of faith in Genesis 22, with his willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac. He even says that in this event Abraham’s faith “was completed” by his works. The word translated “completed” is the Greek word, eteleiothe, which means“to bring to maturity” or “to be full-grown.”

To see how James and Paul complement each other, it is important for us to recognize that they use the word “justified” in two different ways.

Definitions of Justification

The Greek verb “to justify” is dikaioō(δικαιόω), which has two primary definitions.

  1. To be declared/pronounced righteous. This is how Paul uses the word.

  2. To be proved/vindicated as righteous. This is how James uses the word.

We see the second definition used in places like Luke 7:35. Here is the passage in several translations.

  • NIV, “But wisdom is proved right (dikaioō) by all her children.”

  • ESV, “Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.”

  • The Aramaic Bible in Plain English, “Wisdom is justified by all its works.”

  • NAS, “Yet wisdom is vindicated by all her children.”

John the Baptist would say to the Pharisees coming out to him when baptizing in the Jordan, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance,” because producing fruit is the proof of true repentance.

Again, as Kurt Richardson observes, “Close inspection of the ways in which Abraham’s story illustrates the messages of James and Paul differently helps us allow their distinctive messages to be heard.”

The ESV Study Bible comments,“The primary way in which Paul uses the word “justify” (Gk. dikaioō) emphasizes the sense of being declared righteous by God through faith, on the basis of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice (Rom. 3:24–26), whereas the primary way that James uses the word “justify” (Gk. dikaioō) here in James 2:21 seems to emphasize the way in which works demonstrate that someone has been justified, as evidenced by the good works that the person does (cf. Matt. 12:33–37).”

Faith and works are not an either/or, but a both/and. They do not contradict each other, they complement each other.

This is why we need both Paul and James, the priority of faith and the proof of faith to be holistic, full-orbed believers.

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