Summary: In James 2, we see one of the most challenging passages of Scripture. However, when seen in context, James' point becomes clear and understood.
The English language can be a very challenging language to learn. Part of that is because many ordinary words that we use in everyday conversation can have many different meanings. Take the word “run,” for example, which according to dictionary.com, has over 179 different meanings for the word. How would you understand the phrase, “I need to run through this.” Does it mean you physically need to run through something? Does it mean that you need to practice or review something? The phrase by itself is rather ambiguous given the variety of meanings. That is not the only word with multiple meanings. Words like “cut,” “hand,” “break,” and “set” all have over 90 possible interpretations. How do we know what they mean? We use context. Context helps us to better understand a word’s meaning. Context is important. As we look at James chapter two, we see the same rule at play. Context is important, and it is key for how we understand this chapter. For here, James teaches us about works’ relationship with faith. For when we see James 2 within the context of Scripture and the book itself, the Apostles’ point becomes clear and understood.
James says in verse 14, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” Later in verse 26, he concludes, “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” At a first glance, this seems to be at odds with the Apostle Paul, the champion of “we are saved by grace through faith alone.” James seems to muddy the waters by bringing works into the mix, and their role in salvation. It seems like we have a potential problem on our hands, here. But remember, we need to look at the context. We need to see James 2 within the context of Scripture, and especially, with the context of Paul.
Is James the Apostle at odds with Paul the Apostle? Are they at odds with each other about how we are saved? No, of course not. Context shows us otherwise. A professor named Reed Lessing really showed me how this is not the case. Why do they sound so different? Paul and James both have different audiences. They are writing about two different sets of problems. In his letters, Paul writes against legalism, the idea that I saved by works rather than by grace. Paul says that is not the case. We are saved by grace. We right with God through Jesus. Legalism is the problem that Paul writes about. But this isn’t the problem that James faces. The problem his audience faces his laxity. They are lazy and lukewarm in their faith. They say, “Since we are saved by faith alone, what does it matter what we do or not do? It doesn’t make a difference! We’re saved by grace, not works.” That is James’ problem.
Both apostles also have different focuses. Paul writes about the root of salvation. He answers the question: “What is the basis for my relationship with the God of the Universe?” And it is from what we receive and are given in Jesus Christ, gifts like faith and His forgiveness. That is where our salvation and relationship with God comes from, and is based on. James, however, writes about the fruit of salvation. He talks about how we respond in faith to God saving us in Jesus Christ. He talks about the fruit of salvation, works. That is what he is concerned about.
They also have different points. Paul writes about how to know you’re a Christian. Again, it is by faith alone, by what we receive and are in Jesus Christ. This isn’t based on what I have done or will do, but rather, what Jesus has done for me. James is concerned with how to show you are a Christian. He focuses on what does it mean that Jesus died and rose for me. He writes about what it means for our daily walk of faith. James and Paul have different contexts.
But do they conflict on their teachings about salvation? Paul gives the most definitive and clear explanation of how are saved, and how that relates to works. In Ephesians 2:8-10, he writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Jesus Christ for good works.” Did you catch that? We are saved by grace through faith alone. Our works have nothing to do with it. However, we have been given new life and have been created for good works. Good works naturally follow and flow from faith. They cannot be separated from it although they don’t save us.