Critics of the Bible have long argued that the book of James contradicts the rest of Scripture in teaching “that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). Upon closer examination, however, the book of James, like the rest of Scripture, confirms that we are saved not by what we do but by what Jesus Christ has done.
First, in context James teaches that we are saved not by works but by the kind of faith that produces good works. As James puts it, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” (2:14). The answer is “no.” “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead” (v. 26).
Furthermore, when James says a person is not justified by faith alone, he means that a person is not justified by mental assent alone. As such, he says, “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that––and shudder” (vv. 18–19). In other words, demons believe in the sense of giving mental assent to the fact that there is only one true God, all the while failing to place their hope and trust in him.
Finally, while James says “a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone” and Paul says “man is justified by faith apart from observing the law” (Romans 3:28), their words are in complete harmony. James is countering the false assertion that a said faith is a substitute for a saving faith, while Paul is countering the equally fallacious notion that salvation can be earned by observing the law. As the Reformers were wont to say, “Justification is by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone.”
For further study, see R. C. Sproul, Justified by Faith Alone (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999).
“Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous
for what he did when he offered his son Isaac
on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions
were working together, and his faith
was made complete by what he did.”