“For we conclude that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.”
– Romans 3:28 (CSB – Read the chapter)
”For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.”
– James 2:26 (CSB – Read the chapter)
Paul and James were two of the brightest lights in the early church. James became the leader of the flagship church in Jerusalem and was ultimately martyred by the Jewish religious authorities when Rome had their political back turned. Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles and was almost singularly responsible for the expansion of the church into Europe. The church was in many ways built on their backs. And yet in this pair of verses, they seem to be deeply at odds with each other. What gives?
The apparent conflict between these two verses is such that Martin Luther, who came to salvation because of the witness of Paul in Romans, wanted to excise James’ letter from the canon. Paul made clear that salvation was by faith alone. He came back to the point multiple times in Romans, again in Ephesians and Galatians, and touched on it in a few others places as well. Then James comes along and says that faith without works is dead. It’s a good thing the pair were only together once that we know of and before either of them had written any letters (read about it in Acts 15).
How do we reconcile these two apparently disparate views on a saving faith in God? My own New Testament professor, Craig Blomberg, offers an excellent harmonization in his review of the epistles and Revelation, From Pentecost to Patmos. He argues that the Jews and the Greeks had different understandings of work and faith and that the two men were coming from out of these respective places. When you get your mind around that, it’s easy to see they were describing two sides of the same coin.
Extending his argument forward a bit, Paul is talking about what it looks like to come to faith in the first place, while James is talking about what it looks like to live a lifestyle of faith. I think this makes the harmonization even simpler.
When it comes to entering into a saving faith in God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, it’s all by faith from start to finish. There is not a single thing we can do to earn—or work—our way there. If there was, the God offering the salvation would not be worthy of our worship since He would be reduced to owing us something and you don’t worship someone who owes you something. We simply receive as efficacious on our behalf Christ’s work on the cross, accept the historical reality of the resurrection, and receive Jesus as our Lord. Paul was absolutely right here: justification comes by faith alone. There is no amount of good works by which we can make ourselves right with God. Period.
Once we have that saving faith in our lives, however, there is a lifestyle that necessarily comes with it. This is where we must turn with Paul to James for guidance. To accept Jesus as Lord and then not live as Jesus told us to live is to not actually accept Jesus as Lord. It results in our living a lie. If Jesus is our Lord, we do what He says, namely to love one another—that is, pursue good works that bring glory to God. If we do what someone or something else says instead, that person or thing is our actual Lord and Jesus is just the banner we falsely claim because of some perceived social or cultural benefit. Our faith, in other words, is dead without works.
These two seemingly at odds ideas, then, are not at war at all as it turns out. They are right in line with each other. One doesn’t make sense without the other. The latter is built entirely on the foundation of the former. You are saved by faith and your faith is demonstrated as alive and well by your works. This is Christian Living 101. Let’s get to it.