Q. Did James Teach Salvation by Works?
A. Critics of the Bible have long argued that the book of James contradicts the rest of Scripture in its teaching “that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone” (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 actually taught that we are saved not by works but by the kind of faith that produces good works. As James put 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 said a person is not justified by faith alone, he meant that a person is not justified by mental assent alone. Thus he said, “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 said that “a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone” and Paul said “man is justified by faith apart from observing the law” (Romans 3:28), their words are in complete harmony. James was countering the false assertion that a said faith is a substitute for a saving faith, while Paul was 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.”