James 2:24 says, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
The problem or the quandary that we run into in this verse is that evangelical Christianity stands upon the claim that it is only by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone that we are saved. This verse seems to explicitly say that we are justified “by works and not by faith alone“. What we need to do, rather than just ignore this verse or try to bury it in other verses, is figure out what James is talking about.
Misusing this verse
Others misuse this verse as evidence that their doctrine of salvation is correct. Some religions claim that we are saved by grace, and we do need faith to be saved, but we also need to do our own work in order to be saved. Councils have been gathered, and it has been concluded that anyone who thinks that we are saved by faith alone should be accursed. And if we don’t examine this verse carefully, it seems to support just that idea.
An apparent contradiction
Still others use this verse to try to show that the Bible is unreliable–either that it is totally false or that it has some errors. After all, Romans 3:28 says, “we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law“. So, which one is it? Are we justified by works and not by faith alone? Or are we justified by faith apart from works of the law?
The key to the answer is the meaning of the word “justified“. The Greek root is the word dikaioo, which can mean either to 1) justify or 2) to vindicate. In other words, it can be either to be declared righteous or to be shown righteous. In English, the second one is what we use when we say things like, the ends justify the means. Or after an inquiry of a officer-involved shooting, we might say that the shooting was justified, it was shown to be righteous. James is using the word in this way.
How do we know that? How do we know that we’re not just making it say what we want it to say? Well, let’s take a look at the context. Where Paul, in Romans, was arguing against a falsehood that you needed to do Jewish ceremonial works in order to be saved, James was battling a falsehood that you can simply have intellectual agreement to the gospel and be saved.
James in verse 14 shows the foolishness of having food and clothing but withholding it from a brother or sister who needs it. He says that “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (v17). Then, he says, “I will show you my faith by my works” (v18). Notice that he doesn’t say, “I will show you my faith and my works.” He’s talking about a faith that produces works. He’s talking about works that show evidence of his conversion.
Then, he says that believing that God is one is good, but even the demons believe that. So, intellectual assent doesn’t prove that someone is one of God’s people. That kind of faith, James says in verse 20, is “useless“.
Then, he says that Abraham was justified by works when he offered up Isaac (v21). Notice that in verse 23 he says, “the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” But here’s the thing: Abraham offered up Isaac years after he believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness. So, either James is misusing the Scripture, or he’s continuing this line of argument that works show that someone is saved. Works show that someone has had true faith.
It is in that context that he concludes, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” He’s not saying that someone is declared righteous by works, but rather shown to be righteous by works.
Not only should this help us see and contend that we’re still justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, but it should also remind us that we aren’t to be simply intellectual. We do need to have that intellectual agreement to the gospel, but in order to be shown to be saved, we must also have works. Someone who says that they believe in Jesus but don’t obey Him is either a liar or greatly mistaken. A faith in Jesus produces His works. So in faith and by grace, may we continue to labor for the Lord.