Summary: Can mere belief in God and the truths of His Word win the Lord’s approval and blessings? To the contrary, the Scriptures plainly teach that only a faith that leads to obedience to God wins approval and reward.
When one reads the Letter to the Romans and then reads the Letter of James, there may appear to be a contradiction. Romans 4:1-6 clearly teaches that we are justified by faith apart from works. However, James 2:24 says that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.
Martin Luther saw the two passages as contrary to each other and concluded that James’ letter was uninspired and should not be included in the Bible. He called it vulgar and devilish. A Lutheran pastor in Arlington, MN told me that it was obvious that Paul and James did not agree and that Paul’s gospel was more in line with the spirit of Christ.
And while many present-day denominations are embarrassed and perplexed by the teachings of James Chapter 2, some teachers and preachers of the churches of Christ seem equally embarrassed and stymied by Romans Chapter 4.
The fact remains that there is not any contradiction between Paul in Romans and James. They are in complete harmony.
To see the harmony, we must realize two crucial points:
1.The words ’justification’ or ’justified’ have more than one meaning in the New Testament. Its meaning is primarily to be determined by the context and Greek grammar of the passage.
2.Paul and James are not strictly speaking about the same topic. Paul and James are addressing two different phases of a person’s spiritual journey. Paul, in Romans 3 & 4, is talking about how an ungodly sinner is acquitted, declared righteous, and thereby accepted by God. James speaks about life after having been accepted by God. He is talking to the Christian believer.
Apparently, there were Christians in the early Church who took the position that Biblical Faith was simply belief or profession of belief. It is not active but passive.
They seemed to have believed that possessing mere belief was sufficient for the Christian to continue in God’s favor from day to day.
James teaches, in Chapter 2, that Biblical faith is belief that naturally exhibits itself in works. It is believing God’s word to the point that it will cause the one to act upon it. Works demonstrate before all that the person possesses the faith they profess to have.
Like Paul, James uses Abraham to prove his point:
James, in verse 23, supports Paul’s assertion that it was Abraham faith that was counted or reckoned as righteousness. It was Abraham’s faith in God and His Word that caused him to be favorably accepted by God.
However, verse 22, Abraham’s faith was made complete or perfected when it led Abraham to perform works or acts of obedience. James brings to our attention Abraham’s obedience to God’s command to sacrifice Isaac.
In verse 21, he says Abraham was "justified" by this work or act of obedience.
What does this mean?
It does NOT mean that on the occasion of this act that Abraham was judicially declared righteous and accepted by God. No, this was achieved many years before in Genesis 15.
Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac didn’t occur until Genesis 22.
Here, we have the secondary meaning of the Greek ’dikaioo’, translated "justified". It means, in this instance, to show one’s self to be righteous such as he is and wishes himself to be considered.
Abraham’s obedience demonstrated that he truly possessed the kind of faith that justifies. Abraham continued to receive God’s approval by demonstrating his faith.
In fact, having been accepted by God, he was expected by God to be obedient - Genesis 18:19, "I have chosen him, so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by DOING righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him."
Thus, faith without works is not faith at all. True biblical faith is always a working active faith. Never is it a passive thing of mere belief. Even demons believe. Yet, they do not receive God’s approval. Why? They may believe but they do not have faith.
Let’s look at Hebrews 11.
Verse 8, "By faith, Abraham, when he was called, obeyed...."
Verse 9, "By faith he lived as an alien...."
Verse 17, "By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac,"
Who wrote the letter to the Hebrews? Who wrote, here, that faith leads to obedient acts or works? It is the Apostle Paul.
The Apostle Paul never taught that Biblical faith is mere belief or profession of belief. Paul fully taught that Biblical faith is an active, living thing that leads to obedience. In fact, in the letter to the Romans, he twice speaks of "the obedience of faith" (Romans 1:5; 16:26).
In the Galatian letter, Paul speaks of "faith working through love" (Galatians 5:6).
In 1 Thessalonians 1:3, Paul commends the brethren’s "work of faith".