James 2 vs doctrine of justification by faith

On the surface, there seems to be two seemingly contradictory ideas between: 1/ James and his faith proved by action in James 2, and, 2/ Luther’s doctrine of justification that we cannot be saved by our good works.  I’ve heard Christians present James as a counter-argument to the doctrine of justification by faith.

The Reformational teaching of justification by grace thru faith says that we cannot be saved by our good works because we are all imperfect sinners at heart.  Our works will never be good enough for God. We can only be saved through our faith in Jesus.  The Apostle Paul taught, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Romans 3:28). Ditto in Rom. 4:5; 11:6; Gal. 2:16, 3:5-6; Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 3:9, plus many more.

James 2:20-24 seems to juxtapose an alternate view of faith and action:
“20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.”

These are two different ideas.  There is no contradiction here but it seems so easy to confuse these two ideas.

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Author: Kevin S.

A follower of Jesus, a husband and a father. Hobbies include biking, keeping fish if they don't die on me, blogging when I can, theologizing and ministry, and pondering about world affairs.

3 thoughts on “James 2 vs doctrine of justification by faith”

  1. I like the NIV version to get a good understanding for what James is saying.
    “2:17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. 2:22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,”[e] and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.”

    So, 1]we are saved by grace
    2] we show the same grace to others by works
    3] we have faith in God’s grace which is proven by our works
    4] If we claim to have faith but are selfish misers; are we really having faith in God or in ourselves.
    5] If we show our faith by works, our faith becomes complete and we are considered righteous.

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  2. I like your point #2 & #4:

    “2] we show the same grace to others by works”.

    “4] If we claim to have faith but are selfish misers; are we really having faith in God or in ourselves.”

    If you mean that part of our works or actions is showing grace, then that’s an interpretation I’ve never thought of before. Very interesting how you’ve interpreted righteous action/work as also offering grace or forgiveness to others. I like this. Did I read it right?

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    1. Yes, that is a part of my meaning. What good is it to do an outward deed if our attitude needs adjusting. Sometimes all a person needs is to know that they have been forgiven or excused for their heart to open up to hear how this could be possible-thus one is sowing a seed [or working] when they extend to others the same grace they have received. I am reminded of’Les Miserable’ when the priest put himself into the shoes of Valjean and accepted him as a precious human and forgave him for ‘stealing’ the silver.

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