James chapter two is one of the more controversial chapters of the Bible especially when James writes in verse 24: “Ye see then how by works a man is justified, and not by faith alone.” That sure sounds like James is contradicting passages like Ephesians 2:8-9 where Paul says we are saved by faith and not by works.
But, as always, the context in which James says this is vitally important. Especially enlightening is verse 18: “Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.” These words spell out plainly that James is talking about, not how God recognizes who believes and who doesn’t, but how we recognize that it each other. It’s talking about how we show, make apparent, our faith to other people.
In that context, works are important because, unlike God, we can’t see faith. Faith resides in the heart and is invisible to humans. All we can see are evidences of faith. That’s the point of James’ illustration in verse 26: “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” Faith is like our spirits – it is invisible. Just like we know the spirit is still in a body if the body shows signs of life, so also with faith. Faith makes itself visible in works.
But what is so important to remember is that although faith always produces works and thus faith and works go together, they are two separate things. It’s a matter of cause and effect. Spirit-worked faith in Jesus’ sacrifice for us is the cause of our salvation, while works are the result of our being saved. Or to put it another way, faith is the root and works are the fruit. And it’s devastating to mix the two. Paul brings this out in Romans 11:6: “And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then it is no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.” Mixing works in with grace as a cause of salvation does nothing less than destroy salvation.
James is not contradicting that. In fact, he is reinforcing that as seen in his citing Abraham as an example. In verses 21-23 he mentions two incidents from Abraham’s life. It is important to see that he does not mention them in chronological order. He first talks about his sacrifice of Isaac – something that occurred decades after the event mentioned in verse 23. In verse 23 he quotes Genesis 15:6 – the significant verse that tells us when God justified him (declared him righteous). James is emphasizing that God had already declared Abraham righteous decades before his sacrifice of Isaac. He didn’t wait until Abraham had done this work to declare him righteous. No, he did that when Abraham believed. Because God can see faith and because faith alone saves, God could do that. But we can’t. Therefore Abraham’s subsequent sacrifice of Isaac made his faith complete in the sense that now Abraham himself, his contemporaries, and even we today, have this wonderful evidence that he believed. It’s like an apple making an apple tree complete, identifying the tree as an apple tree. Now we too can justify Abraham because he showed us his faith by his works.
James agrees with the rest of the Bible. God declares us righteous, he justifies us, on the basis of faith alone. And that is so comforting. My being worthy before God isn’t a team project with Jesus and me both contributing to it. It’s not even Jesus doing most of the work and me doing a little bit. It’s all about Jesus doing everything for me. It’s about God giving me eternal life as a gift. And that is so comforting. Because now I know beyond the shadow of any doubt that I will spend eternity with Heavenly Father. I know that because Jesus has already done everything for me. All praise and glory be his!