Take part in TGC’s Read the Bible initiative, where we’re encouraging Christians and churches to read together through God’s Word in a year. This article is adapted from Steadfast: A Devotional Bible Study on the Book of James (TGC, 2020).
Do you know anyone who would readily say, “I believe in God,” but has no other indicator of Christian faith? How might you respond to that person? James 2:14–26 offers them some chilling words. In James 2:19, he says, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!”
In this passage, James is talking to believers about someone who claims to have faith, most likely a person in their congregation. This person is a professing believer, and the big question James wants them to ask themselves is, Is my faith real?
True Faith vs. False Faith
James 2:14–26 is probably the most controversial passage in the book of James. As Christians, we believe that Scripture alone is the written revelation of God, that salvation is through faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone, and that we live for the glory of God alone.
But if those are true confessions, then what does James mean when he says that “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24)? One commentator answers: “[James] approaches [his readers] with his challenging question, not because he would propose a different way of salvation, but because he would have them understand what ‘by faith alone’ really means.”
These verses aren’t a contrast between faith and works. They’re a contrast between true faith and false faith.
These verses aren’t a contrast between faith and works. They’re a contrast between true faith and false faith. Anyone can say they believe in God, even demons (James 2:19)! True faith is proved real because it results in good works. False faith is proved dead because it doesn’t.
Pre-Salvation Works vs. Post-Salvation Works
Faith, works, and justification—James wasn’t the only biblical author to discuss how these three things are related. Many scholars have noted that, on the surface, it looks as if James and the apostle Paul might disagree.
Paul said that Abraham was not justified by works, but by faith (Rom. 4:2–3). James says that Abraham was justified by what he did and that a person is not justified by faith alone, but also by works (James 2:21–23). Is James right, or is Paul right?
The key to understanding the relationship between faith and works is to identify the timing of the works.
The key to understanding the relationship between faith and works is to identify the timing of the works. Are they pre- or post-salvation? Paul talks a lot about pre-salvation works. He makes it clear that salvation is never earned through works or good deeds (Eph. 2:8–9). James talks more about post-salvation works. He makes it clear that salvation always results in works and good deeds (James 2:18).
Paul and James are in complete agreement: works without faith won’t save you. They also agree that professed faith that doesn’t result in good works isn’t saving faith.
The relationship between salvation, faith, and works can be depicted as Faith = Salvation + Works. We can fall into error on both sides of this equation: We can think that our works contribute to our salvation, or we can believe that a profession of faith that never results in a changed life is real faith.
Faith = Salvation + Works
We’re saved by faith alone, but, once we’re saved, that faith doesn’t remain alone. When Jesus saves us, he intends to transform us. Our transformation is to be holistic, affecting not only our heads (what we think), but also our hearts (what we love) and our hands (what we do).
We’re Saved by Works—His!
Now, after all that talk about whether or not we’re saved by works, we should remember that we actually are saved by works—Christ’s!
Our salvation was planned in eternity past by God the Father, but it began to be accomplished when the Son of God took on flesh and was born as a baby in Bethlehem. Jesus then led a perfectly sinless life. He obeyed his Father in every way, and he submitted to his Father’s plan (Matt. 26:39). He was tempted but did not sin (Heb. 4:15). Each of these works was necessary for our salvation.
The two central events in Jesus’s life—his death and resurrection—are the core of his saving work. At the cross, Jesus paid the penalty for our sin; in the resurrection, he proved the payment was accepted. Afterward Jesus ascended to heaven, sat down on his throne, poured out his Spirit, and continually prays for us.
When he gives us the gift of faith and we believe, the Holy Spirit applies everything Jesus did to us. His perfectly sinless life is counted as our perfectly sinless life. His death becomes our death, his resurrection our resurrection.
Through his works, Christ has accomplished for us what we could never do for ourselves.
The last thing Christ will do to complete our salvation is come again. He will take us to live with him, and we will reign and rule with him in glory. Through his works, Christ has accomplished for us what we could never do for ourselves.
Is My Faith Real?
If you profess faith in Christ, James 2:14–26 should have one of two effects. It should confirm the validity of your faith and spur you on to good works. Or it should help you realize that your profession of faith is false.
Has your faith in Christ changed how you interact with and love your neighbor? Or are you only inclined to do good for others when you can benefit? If the latter, ask God to give you true, saving faith. If the former, ask God to continue to produce many good works in and through you as a result of such a great salvation.