Paul says good works have no place whatsoever when it comes to the ground of our justification (i.e., Galatians 2:16). No, says Paul, the only basis upon which we can be justified are the merits of Christ received through faith. James, on the other hand, is dealing with the question as to how can we tell if someone truly has faith. James’ readers must be aware that good works will accompany their profession of faith in Christ, if that profession is genuine. James is saying nothing more, but certainly, nothing less.
It would be hard to find a passage of Scripture which is more controversial than James 2:14-26.
The reason for the controversy is James’ assertion in verse 24 of chapter two of his epistle that “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” On its face, this seems to fly in the face of a number of passages in Paul’s letters where the apostle appears to be saying the exact opposite thing. Take, for example, Galatians 2:16. “Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” Are James and Paul on the same page? Yes, they are as I intend to demonstrate.
Those who believe that the justification of sinners is a process which is not complete until death (Rome), view James’ assertion here as a classic proof-text which supports this view. But those who see justification as an instantaneous declaration made about the sinner because the merits of Christ are imputed to them through the means of faith, seem to stumble all over James’ declaration that works are somehow tied to justification, and that we are not justified by faith alone. But as we will see, James and Paul do not contradict each other. In fact, when James’ assertion is put in its proper context, there is nothing whatsoever in James 2 which conflicts with the doctrine of justification sola fide.
This section of James is somewhat of a sore spot to confessional Protestants who champion Paul’s doctrine of justification. One reason for this is because when addressing justification, the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (sixth session, Canon X)–Rome’s official response to the Protestant Reformation–teach that justification is a day to day process, depending upon how effectively people submit themselves to God’s grace, so that they increase their justification over time, and hopefully, attain final justification. James 2:24 is cited by the Council of Trent (sixth session, Chapter VII) as a proof-text supporting Rome’s view that justification is a process connected to the merit of our good works.
Granted, at first glance, James seems to be saying something quite different than Paul. And those who oppose the Reformation doctrine of justification often seize upon comments made by James in this chapter to prove that we are not justified by faith alone, but that we are justified by faith plus continual inward transformation, and the performance of good works which merit (earn) a reward from God.
Let me be clear here. Yes, James is saying something quite different than Paul is saying. But James is not contradicting Paul. The two apostles are addressing completely different issues. This is the critical point to keep in mind. I think a good case can be made that James wrote his epistle sometime in the mid 40’s of the first century—perhaps the first New Testament epistle written. The date of the composition of this epistle, understanding the context in which it was written, and then keeping in mind the specific issue which James is addressing, is the key to understanding James’ teaching on justification. When these factors are in place, the supposed controversy between James and Paul, and the apparent contradiction between James 2:24 and passages like Galatians 2:16 and Romans 3:28, is easily resolved. In fact, there is no contradiction, since James is addressing a completely different matter than Paul is addressing.
There are three key points to consider. First, James writes this epistle several years before the controversy broke out in Asia Minor between Jewish and Gentile Christians over the role of the ceremonial law in the justification of sinners. According to Acts 15, when the Jerusalem Council convenes (about 49 A.D.), James, Peter, and Paul (along with all the elders of the church) were absolutely united in teaching that Gentiles are saved by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, just as Jews were saved. This means that elsewhere in the New Testament (outside the Epistle of James), we have iron-clad evidence that the church was of one mind on the doctrine of justification sola fide. Christ saves us by grace, through faith, from beginning to end. Jesus does not give us grace so that we can improve ourselves and thereby earn a right-standing before God as Rome teaches. Given the fact that the apostles were of one mind on this critical doctrine in Acts 15, and since we believe in the inspiration of Scripture, we cannot interpret James in such a way as to contradict Paul, or vice-versa.