“A person is justified by works and not faith alone.” – James 2v24
This is a massively debated verse. Here James (Jesus’ brother) is telling us that we are justified by the things that we do and not just because we believe in Jesus. The reason it is such a massively debated issue is because there are verses elsewhere in the Bible which seen to imply the exact opposite. The most noteworthy one of these is Romans 3v28:
“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”
So James says we are justified by works and Romans (written by Paul) says that we are saved by faith. The two big questions that come out of this are:
one which is right? Are we justified by faith or by works?
two does the Bible contradict itself?
one: Faith or Works?
Both of these passages use the word “justified”. Other Bible versions translate this word into “made right with God”. As with everything else in the Bible it is all about one thing: Jesus! We are made right with God because Jesus died – he took our sin and gave us eternal life and a relationship with God, the best deal in all of history. We couldn’t earn it or buy it, it was a free gift and you received it when you decided to give your life to Jesus.
So when this happens the Bible tells us that we got a new heart (check out Ezekiel 36:26f, it’s a beautiful passage). When the Bible says heart it doesn’t mean an actual organ that pumps blood etc but rather the centre of who you are. Everything that you do, like, love, think about etc all comes out of your heart. Proverbs 4:23 says: “out of the heart comes your whole life”.
Out of this new heart comes new desires. We suddenly love God, we want to obey him, read our Bible, pray, get to know Jesus more, we want people who don’t know Jesus to know him too, we want to do all the things that God wants us to do and stop doing the things that he doesn’t want us to do. We care about things and people that we didn’t before. This is what these two passages mean by works.
The simple answer to the question is that we are justified (or, made right with God) by faith (trusting in Jesus) but the result of faith is works. It is a cause and effect. When it rains, you get wet, in exactly the same way when you get saved you start doing good works (because you have a new heart). Faith comes first then the good works follow. So when James says that we are justified by works and not faith alone he is saying: “if you aren’t doing good works, are you really a Christian?”
There is no third tree
I heard one preacher explain it this way. One of the results of being is a Christian is that you bear fruit. Non-Chrisitans don’t. In effect someone who doesn’t follow Jesus is a tree without any fruit and someone who does follow Jesus is a tree with fruit but in James’ church there were people who were saying that they were a third kind of tree: a follower of Jesus but just without the fruit. James is saying that that sort of tree doesn’t exist. If you love Jesus, good works follow.
The flip side of the coin is what Paul is talking about in Romans 3v28. This is more likely to be aimed at the religious types of people, the Pharisee type that Jesus went after all the time who think they are saved because they do good things and follow the rules and give loads of money but really their hearts are not for God. To them Paul is saying: “the works alone won’t save you, you need to believe in Jesus and have a new heart”.
two: Does the Bible contradict itself?
This bit is a tad theological but it is important.
We can see that these two passages that looked like they were in contradiction actually weren’t. But what about the rest of the Bible? The answer is: No, the Bible does not contradict itself.
We read a few days ago in Timothy 3v16 that all of the Bible was breathed out by God and so it is impossible for the Bible to contradict itself because God cannot contradict himself. The esv study bible explains it this way: “because God is always perfectly truthful, it follows that his Word is completely truthful as well: He is the “God who never lies” (Titus 1:2). It would be contrary to his character to affirm anything false.”
So everything that is written in the Bible is completely true…but it is not always completely clear and we won’t always understand it straight away. But that is ok. That is why it is important to begin with the right view of Scripture; that it is always right. That way when we come across something that seems to contradict or that we don’t understand, our starting point is knowing that the Bible is not wrong, there are no contradictions but rather that we need understanding. The answer is to ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to us what the confusing part means, then “with the illumination of the Spirit (2 Tim 2:7), the teaching of the Bible is clear to all who seek understanding with the goal of knowing and obeying God” (esv study bible).
quod erat demonstrandum.