“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
(CSB – Read the chapter)
I’ve said many times before that context is king when it comes to understanding the Scriptures. I’ll continue to beat that drum until I have you dancing to it in your sleep. But there aren’t many verses for which such a reminder is so important as this one. Taken out of context, this verse threatens to unravel our whole understanding of salvation and seems to justify the stifling legalism that has given Christianity such a bad name in so many places. How do we get this right?
We look at its context carefully. Out of context like I have it here (unless you click the link to read the rest of the chapter, which is why I always put those there), what James says here seems to mean that we need to put something with our faith in order to really obtain the salvation of Jesus Christ. And while, if you have been raised in the church to the beat of Ephesians 2:8 (you are saved by grace alone through faith), this may sound foreign to you, there have always been folks for whom the idea that faith alone can get the job done sounds crazy.
In James’ day there were the Judaizers. These were a group of Jewish-background Jesus followers who were convinced—and worked hard to convince others even to the point of following Paul around to “correct” his teaching when he left town—that in order to be a real follower of Jesus you had to keep the whole Law of Moses including circumcision for guys. Needless to say, they tended to discourage Gentile men from signing up. Paul was so incensed at them he actually wrote in Galatians that he wished they would go ahead and castrate themselves rather than stopping with just circumcision. Ouch!
Today, there are not a few faith traditions steeped in legalism. They may not be quite so explicit about it, but their list of rules and expectations for folks interested in following Jesus is long and burdensome. And they’ll say they are just seeking to apply the Scriptures carefully, but when you have to put up extra guardrails that the text doesn’t make explicit, you are leaning in the direction of the Judaizers.
And yet, James still wrote this which seems to give them cover. I mean, he couldn’t be much clearer. We are justified by works and not by faith alone. It’s right there in black and white. And from Jesus’ own brother no less! It’s as clear as it could be…unless you bother to carefully take in the context. Then it falls apart and what is really clear is that James is perfectly in line with Paul. The Judaizers and their kin don’t have a leg to stand on.
So, what does the context contribute? James is not talking about how we come by faith in the first place. He’s talking about how faith is demonstrated. Works cannot save us, but faith does change us. Faith changes us and works flow naturally from there.
You see, faith in Jesus is not merely one part of the life of the person who expresses it. It is the whole of that life. It becomes the lens through which we view and understand everything else. Such an all-encompassing worldview shift cannot be something that only affects our mind. It cannot be a merely internal shift. If it is, there is a good case to be made that it hasn’t really happened. No, a faith commitment to Jesus plays out through our actions.
When we trust in Jesus, what we are trusting in is His claim to be Lord. And if He is Lord, more than that, if He is our Lord, then our natural position is to do what He says. So then, what has He said? Well, a lot of things, but perhaps the most important thing is for us to love one another as He loved us. That is necessarily an action-oriented command. It involves our works. Thus, if we truly have faith in Jesus—if our faith in Him is not some dead, words-only profession—then there are going to be good works present in our lives as we seek to live out His call for us to love one another.
What is justified, then, by our works is not our whole lives as if we are saved by our works, but rather our confession of faith. If we say we have faith only, but do not match that claim with these obvious efforts to love one another as Jesus loved us, there is no good reason to take our claim seriously. It is dead. Trust without actions to demonstrate it is not trust at all.
The real question to be pondering out of what James says here is not whether he is in conflict with Paul (he’s not). The real question is how is your faith? Is it merely a profession you made in a moment of high emotion that has mostly stayed there, or is it something more, an actionable commitment that anyone who examines your life for a moment can see in technicolor? It is only that second faith that saves. Which do you have?