According to James, in his letter to the scattered believers in Jerusalem, a man is justified by works and faith (James 2:24). He concluded that faith without works is dead (James 2:26). Faith without works is likened as a body without a spirit.
This excellent illustration is consistent with the words of our Lord Jesus: “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63). Clearly, the determinant here is the Spirit of God.
Just as a body can be dead or living, a dead faith (without works) and a living faith (with works) cannot coexist in the same person. The dead faith is a sign of an unchanged, spiritually dead heart. Faith without works is dead because it does not reveal the transforming work of the Holy Spirit manifested in the fruit of righteousness in a person’s life (Ephesians 5:8-10; Philippians 1:9-11).
If Faith Without Works Is Dead, Should Believers Work to Be Saved?
For centuries, Christians have believed that salvation is the gift of God, not earned by the works of man. This belief is mainly grounded on Paul’s message to the believers in Ephesus around AD 62 (Ephesians 2:8-9). As Christians, we have peace with God since we have been justified and saved by His grace through faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1).
The Bible explicitly says that eternal life is the gift of God (Romans 6:23). [Note that it does not say “the reward of God is eternal life.”] Gift reflects the giver’s generosity while reward requires the earner’s performance. Thus, salvation is given out of God’s love in the first place, not earned by human’s ability. The redemptive work of Jesus Christ on the cross is all necessary for the salvation of humanity.
In fact, when Jesus was asked what men must do to do the works of God, He answered, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent” (John 6:29). This all means that the only work a man should do to be saved is believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God — this is not the work of the flesh, but the work of faith by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3).
Does James Contradict Paul Concerning Salvation?
Understanding the context of each Epistle is important to answer this question. As summarized by Dr. John T. Yates, the appearance of a contradiction between Paul and James involves a differing audience and purpose of their respective letters.
Paul writes to newly established churches in need of being grounded in the core doctrines of Christian faith (e.g., salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone) while James writes to the well-established Jerusalem church in need of an exhortation to put their faith into practice in the face of dispersion and persecution.
Paul was battling legalism (which demands works to earn salvation) while James was battling license (which demands works from those who have been freely given the gift of salvation). The core message is “faith alone saves” (Paul), but “faith that saves is not alone” (James).
It is noteworthy that Paul himself also confirms that Christ’s believers are saved by faith for good works (Ephesians 2:10). [Note that we must first be “created in Christ Jesus” before doing the good works.] Therefore, faith is the root of salvation while work is the fruit of salvation — the words of Paul and James are not contradictory.
How Does It Apply to Christians Today?
True living faith is produced by the Holy Spirit and produces the fruit of the Spirit in a believer’s life (Galatians 5:22-23). In Jesus Christ, we have been saved by God’s grace through faith for doing good works He has prepared for us. Professing faith without doing works means nothing. Possessing faith should result in fruitful, loving works that will bring glory to God (Galatians 5:6).
While it is true that we do not need to work for the gift of salvation, we do have to work out our salvation, obeying God with utmost honor and fear (Philippians 2:12). We must, however, remember that it is ultimately God who enables and empowers us to do good, fulfilling His purpose (Philippians 2:13). Again, this is the work of faith (not of flesh) driven by the Spirit of God himself.
As a conclusion, faith without works is dead (James 2:26) while works without faith is sin (Romans 14:23). Having faith that works is essential in our walk with God. As Christ’s followers, we should first have faith in the complete, sacrificial work of Jesus Christ on the cross for our salvation and foremost express that faith in love to God and to our neighbors.
The reality of our faith is demonstrated by the reality of our love. Salvation is the gift and God is the reward for those who believe in Christ Jesus (Hebrews 11:6).
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Philip Wijaya, Ph.D. currently lives in Vancouver, Canada with his wife, Sandra, and their daughter, Shalom. His interest in science and faith in God has motivated him to actively write in his personal blog (philipwijaya.com), in addition to his professional research work in the area of clean energy and chemical engineering. In his leisure time, he enjoys sports, football games, music, and traveling with family.