James: Saved by Works?

James is a polarizing New Testament book. Many love the straightforward practicality, but others hate the apparent over emphasis on works. Martin Luther is among those who were not especially approving of the book of James.

The source of the contention can be identified in one specific section of James and one particular verse in that section. James 2:24 says this:

You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

This is a very troubling verse considering all that Paul says about being justified by faith alone, especially Romans 3:28, which says:

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law

How are these two verses not direct contradictions? They seem to be, don’t they?

Indeed they do, but only if we don’t read them in context, and specifically, the context of James 2. The whole section begins in verse 14 with a question:

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?

And he goes on:

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

James is asking here, “Is saying ‘I’ll pray for you’ really caring for another person?” He’s challenging the “lip service” that we so often fall into. He’s saying that we can’t just say we have faith, but never live like Jesus calls us too. He’s saying that ur faith isn’t worth anything unless it is worked out in deeds.

This is made clear when he says:

Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.

This is the key. Our faith is only as good as our works display. How can we see someone’s faith if they don’t show us by their deeds? We can’t. We can only take their word for it. And if their word doesn’t match their works, what good is their faith really?

James is calling us to radical life change. He is not saying that good works save us. He is not saying that we are justified in the sense that Paul means. Paul means that we are made right before God by our faith, which is a gift according to Ephesians 2:8. James means that our faith is justified, proven true, by our works.

In other words, James gives us no excuse for worldly living. Christ calls us to trust, obey and treasure Him about all else, and if our actions don’t reflect that, how can we or anyone else know is we are saved?

Jesus makes this clear when He says:

let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

Our works prove our faith, and others see that faith only when we live lives of purity and joy before them. James wants us to shine. Christ wants us to shine. Let us shine the light of the gospel into the lives of others by our good deeds, deeds that prove our true and lasting faith.

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