Does James teach Salvation by Faith Plus Works?
by Cooper Abrams
Often I get mail correcting me and explaining that James teaches that salvation is by faith plus one's works. The verse they use is James 2:24 which says, "Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only." This verse seems to some to be proof positive that the Bible says that faith alone does not save. However, on a close examination of the verse in its context within the passage it is easily seen that this is not the case.
Let's begin by leaning some basis principles of how to interpret the Word of God. Is the verse teaching that one's works can save him? Think for a moment, would God, who is the author of the Bible, contradict Himself? It is a rhetorical question because the obvious answer is no, God cannot contradict Himself because He is righteous and perfect. So are any other passages in the Bible which are as strong as James 2:24 in saying that salvation is through faith alone and not of works. The answer is yes. Look at the following passages:
"For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves it is the gift of God Not of works, lest any man should boast" (Eph. 2:8-9).
"But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness" (Rom. 4:5).
"Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life." (Titus 3:5-7)
Is God contradicting Himself? There must be some explanation why these verses appear to present opposing things because God would not contradict Himself.
The answer is a simple one and deals with properly interpreting the Bible. But before I explain this seeming contradiction let's learn a little about interpreting the Word of God.
One primary rule of interpreting Scripture is the Word of God must be interpreted in the "analogy of the Faith." The word "analogy" refers to things that are similar in various aspects. It means explaining something by comparing it point by point with something else (Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language, Cleveland: The World Publishing Company. 1959, p53) In hermeneutics (the science of interpreting the Bible) it means that we must interpret the Scriptures by comparing it point by point with the rest of the Scriptures. In other words, we are letting the Bible interpret itself because the Bible will be in harmony with itself. God is the author of the Bible and perfect in all his ways. Therefore God cannot make an error or contradict Himself, so if we find a clear statement that seems to contradict some other statement in Scripture we know we have an interpretation problem. The problem is not with the Bible, but with our understanding of what we are reading. If we assume there is a contradiction then we make God out to be a liar and destroy the creditability of the Bible.
Some may object to the premise that the Bible does not contradict itself, however, at the heart of understanding the Bible is understanding what the Bible says about itself. The Bible plainly states that it is the very Word of God! The term "Inspiration" is the theological term taken from the Bible which expresses the truth the Bible is God's very Word. To understand inspiration we must look at two classic Scripture verses:
The first passage is 2 Timothy 3:16. "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness." The word "inspiration" can be literally interpreted "God-breathed." The Greek word is "theopneutos", which means "theo" = God, and "pneutos" = breathed. The Hebrew word is "nehemiah" and is used only once in the Old Testament in Job 32:8. The verse is saying God breathed on the writers of the Bible and the wrote His very Word.
The next passage is 2 Peter 1:21, "For prophecy came not in old times by the will of man; but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit." Literally the verse is saying that inspiration is the process by which the Holy Spirit "moved on" or directed the writers of Scripture so what they wrote was not their words, but the word of God. God is saying He is the author of the Bible, not man. Hebrews 1:1 says, God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets." God has at different times in the past, and in many ways has spoken to man. Both Paul and Peter add that what these men wrote was God's word.
This is why we must insist the Bible is without error. God wrote it and preserves it and not man. It is the product of God, and His Word to man. It then is without error.
When it appears an error or contradiction, the problem is in our interpretation or understanding of the verse or passage not the Scriptures. If the passage appears to be a contradiction then your course of action is to continue studying until you arrive at the correct interpretation where there is no contradiction. Many times arriving at the correct interpretation of a passage of Scripture will take careful of study.
Another rule of interpreting the Bible is that we must consider the context of statement. For example Isaiah 22:13 says, "let us eat and drink; for to morrow we shall die." Is the Bible then teaching that we should live with abandon, drinking and eating, because we are going to die?" The answer is no! The context of the verse is that Isaiah was quoting the disobedient Judah and warning them of their sinful attitudes and of God's judgment. The context tells us that these are the foolish words of sinful Judah not the instruction of God. The context of the passage clearly establishes this and shows us we must consider the context of a passage in order to understand what it truly means.
Now let's get back to James 2:24. Applying these rules of biblical interpretation we must accept that these passages of God's word do not contradict each other and we must do further study to understand what is in truth being said. Let us then read the passage in its context:
James 2:14 begins a new paragraph and addresses the matter of those who say they have faith but their faith does not produce any fruit (works) in their lives. (V14) This shows the context or subject of the paragraph. Therefore the subject of this passage is bring attention to those who claim to be Christians, but do not live for the Lord. Their lives then produce no fruit which means God is not working in their lives. James says in verse 14, "What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?" (James 2:14) Note that he defines the type of faith he is addressing by the statement "though a man "say" he hath faith." In other words this passage is addressed to the one who claims or says they have saving faith. James is showing that this is a feigned faith because it produces nothing in this person's life. I can say I am an airplane pilot, but one would rightly question my claim if I never flew airplanes. I might even get into the cockpit of a plane and play with the controls, but if I did not fly the plane my claim of being a pilot would certainly be suspect. So, James' last phrase "can faith save him" means can a pretended faith that has no effect on a person save them. The answer is obvious, no. Note what God says about the person who has true saving faith. "Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new." (2 Corinthians 5:17) James further clarifies the subject by his statement in 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." He is certainly not saying that works saves, but salvation produces visible works. This is the key to interpreting the passage.
To interpret the passage is simple. James is saying that if a person says they have true saving faith, their faith will produce works in their life. You will be able to see their faith in action. The justification spoken of here is not salvation, but justifying one calling himself a Christian and claiming to have saving faith when he is not living for the Lord. In other words a man who says he is saved and does not show any outward evidence of salvation then his salvation is in doubt because it produces no works or result in the man's life. The person who has saving faith and works is publicly justified in claiming to be have faith and be saved. His works show his faith. The one who has no works, whether he is saved or not, is not justified in outwardly saying he has saving faith, because his lack of works does not justify his claim.
As shown in the verses we quoted above, overwhelmingly the Bible tells us that we are saved by faith alone apart from works. Romans 3:20 "Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight for by the law is the knowledge of sin."
Galatians 2:16 "Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified."
John 3:15-16, 36 "That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him."
James finishes the paragraph by saying "For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also" (James 2:26). Something that is dead is not alive and clearly God is saying that a person who, as a pattern of life, has no works does not appear to have saving faith. That is the point of this passage. This is certainly not teaching that a person must add works to faith to be saved. It is teaching the product of faith is works. James therefore is giving us the way of authenticating true saving faith. He is not teaching that salvation is faith plus works. He is giving us the justification for calling ourselves Christians.
Correctly interpreting the passage we can clearly see there is no contradiction. If we properly understand the passage and see that it does not conflict with Ephesians 2:8-9, which says, "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves it is the gift of God Not of works, lest any man should boast." Certainly, God could not have said it more plainly, "works do not save." Salvation is the gift of God and cannot be earned by works such as joining a church, baptism, doing sacraments, or some religious ritual.
Salvation then is as God says....by faith in Jesus Christ alone. One cannot work for salvation or earn it. Only Jesus Christ is righteous and can save. Salvation which means paying our sin debt is something only He could do. No one can justify himself or add his works to the work of Christ and justify Himself. The following passage clearly proves this fact of doctrine. Salvation is by faith alone in the finished and complete atonement by Jesus Christ.
"For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus" (Romans 3:21-225).
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