All humans have sinned, making all guilty before God—works cannot change that. In other words, our works cannot make us right with God (justification). Rather, God graciously justifies his people on the basis of Christ’s work, which is received by faith. Once justified, God further sanctifies his people whose works are evidence that they are actually God’s people through faith in Christ.
You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.— James 2:24
It’s not uncommon to hear some people appeal to James 2:24 in order to argue that God saves people by faith plus works. In particular, some argue against the doctrine of justification by faith alone by appealing to this verse. They tend to pit Paul, who writes that we are justified by faith and not works, against James, who apparently writes that we are justified by faith plus works. This raises the question, who is right? What are we to believe? Are Paul and James actually at odds with each other? No, they are not.
What Are Paul and James Saying about Justification?
Simply put, although they are using the same verb, justification (in Greek it is also the same verb, dikaioō), they are using it differently. Paul is using it in its legal declarative sense, but James is using it in an evidential sense. They are complementing each other, not opposing each other.
Questions concerning Paul and James begin with Paul writing in Romans 3–5 about justification as a declarative act of God grounded in the work of Christ and received by faith. James, on the other hand, is writing about sanctification—the gracious work of God that necessarily follows from justification.
James’ primary concern is that a person who has been justified will have good works that demonstrate their faith. True saving faith—the instrument of justification (e.g., Rom. 5:1; Eph. 2:8)—necessarily leads to sanctification, and sanctification is evidence of saving faith versus merely a faith that believes in mere knowledge (see James 2:19).
Justification and Sanctification—Two Benefits of Salvation in Christ
In order to help understand how Paul and James complement one another, there are two important terms to define: justification and sanctification. The Westminster Shorter Catechism provides good and concise definitions of each one.
According to Question 33, “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us and received by faith alone.”
Question 35 defines sanctification as “the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.”
Notice that the actor in both is God, and both are of free grace (e.g., not our works, but grace—a gift of God). The difference, however, is that justification is God’s “act” and sanctification is God’s “work.” The word act means a single event at a distinct point in time. In the case of justification, it is a single declarative act by God.