A gracEmail subscriber asks what the Epistle of James means in saying that one is “justified by works and not by faith only,” when the Apostle Paul clearly teaches that only by trusting in Jesus are we set right with God.
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Some have suggested that James and Paul represent two opposing teachings in early Christianity, but I believe there is a better explanation than that. When we look closely at James, we see that he means something different from Paul by both “faith” and “justify.” In the first century as now, some people claimed to have faith (2:14) when they really meant that they intellectually agreed with orthodox doctrine (2:19). That kind of “faith” might be all talk and no fruit. It certainly is not the same as wholehearted trust in Christ as Savior.
Genuine faith always produces tangible results in the form of activity and changed lives (2:20). Works are the flower to the bud of faith, the fruit to the root of faith, the “perfection” or “maturity” to which living faith aspires and moves. Abraham was declared righteous by faith, but his faith consisted of more than words. We see the reality of Abraham’s faith by his works (James 2:21-24; see Gen. 15:6 and 22:12). James says to us as well: “Show me some evidence of your faith in tangible, outward conduct, and I will see that you are justified in claiming to be a believer.”
James answers the question: “How may I justify my claim to have faith?” The correct answer is: “By your works of obedience to God which flow from genuine faith.” Paul answers a different question: “How may I ever be declared right (justified) by a holy God?” The answer is, “Only by trusting in what God has done for you in Jesus.” True faith will show itself in obedience, based on one’s own knowledge and understanding. The gospel tells us that God reconciled us to himself while we were still his enemies (Rom. 5:10) and we gain access into God’s grace by faith (Rom. 5:2). Read in context, James says nothing contrary to those gospel truths.