James does not teach salvation through faith alone

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

(Click here to read Monday Musings ... the place where I discuss the thinking that went into this article.)

Question: James 2:14 and 2:24 clearly state that faith without works cannot save. He then refers to a monotheistic faith in James 2:19 — but applying that to believers in Jesus (James 2:1). I think that the apostles probably thought that the Jewish nation would be converted soon and that for them Christianity was monotheistic. This means that Romans could be interpreted differently.

So, was Paul saying that the Law was useless — but only without faith? James seems to say so using Abraham as an example. He said that thanks to faith, Abraham's works became righteousness (James 2:21-23). This changes how we look at Bible verses like John 3:16. They could be synecdoches, meaning that faith is the most important means to get salvation... but not the only means.

I think that the Holy Spirit made James write those things so today’s Christians wouldn’t do the wrong exegesis of Romans. Many early Christian writers (who knew the apostles) taught the “faith alone” brand of salvation... but many went on to say that certain sins would send us to hell anyway! This means that faith saves you because it makes your deeds valid. This is like a car that moves by its wheels and not by its motor... but the wheels are useless without the motor.

Answer: Let me say at the outset that I love your car analogy (I will probably steal it.) — and you made some interesting points. But I do not agree with your conclusions about James’s view of faith. One of the reasons is that the law was not useless without faith; the law was our schoolmaster before the age of Grace (Galatians 3:24-25). This means that it was definitively useful before the New Testament showed how God — through Jesus Christ — applied his grace to us lawbreakers.

Paul used the schoolmaster's image to show that God’s people have graduated from the elementary school of works-and-law and are now attending the college of grace-and-faith. As such, we do not “do away” with the law any more than we “do away” with multiplication tables. It is true that we no longer have to keep looking at our multiplication tables, but their propositional content is still a basic truth that helps us understand higher scientific truths. We treat the law the same way. Without the law, we would not understand the higher truths found in the New Testament.

You see, God’s revelation is progressive. He revealed things about faith in the New Testament that were unknown in the Old Testament — and here’s the thing: newer revelation trump older revelation — and it is in the New Testament where we learn that salvation is in Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone... and that the faith we apply to obtain salvation has nothing to do with good works.

True, James was talking about faith in chapter 2. But he was talking about the kind of faith that exists (or does not exist) after we’ve been saved. Faith at this juncture is different from the faith we applied before we were saved — and you are conflating the two.

So, although the words in James 2:14 say that faith without works cannot save, this is not the propositional content of that statement. Most commentators agree with me here; they do not see James and Paul in contradiction on the role of works and grace in salvation. To illustrate, let me share two versions of James 2:14 — one a translation and one a paraphrase:

“What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone?” (James 2:14, NLT)

“Since faith without works is not what anyone — including God! — expects in someone who is truly saved, we are within our rights to assume that people who claim to be true born-again believers — but who show no fruit of their purported salvation — are not saved at all. So, if you insist on using the term ‘faith’ to describe their spiritual condition, let’s call theirs a ‘dead faith.’” (James 2:14, paraphrase by Evan Plante)

As you can see, what I see in the verse is different than what that verse is often said to say... but the New Living Translation agrees with me. In translating the last part of that verse as “Can that kind of faith save anyone?” the NLT emphasizes that James is using this as an example... and this means that he is not giving an express teaching on faith. He’s giving an incidental teaching on faith... but that’s a different animal.

Why is it important to emphasize that James is giving an incidental teaching rather than an express teaching? Because Paul’s teaching on faith in Ephesians 2:8-10 is an express teaching… and all things being equal, an express teaching — one that has a clear, direct and unambiguous propositional content — trumps less clear teachings... and the amount of debate alone on James 2 shows that it is a less clear passage than Ephesians 2.

But not only is Ephesians 2:8-10 clearer than James 2, it is a model of clarity. This is why it is such a beloved passage in the evangelical community.

“[8] For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—[9] not by works, so that no one can boast. [10] For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:8–10, NIV)

In the above passage, Paul teaches clearly and directly that it was God’s grace that saved us… and that our only role in this was to apply faith. But then he interrupted this thought to emphasize that our works had nothing to do with our salvation! — and he doubled-down on this by saying expressly that God’s grace was a gift! (The word “gift” here is used in a dichotomy with things earned or deserved.)

But it was like Paul understood that a question still hung in the air: what is the role of good works in our salvation? He said that their role is to follow us forever (10). God made us new creations in Christ Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:17), and we new creatures have a new assignment: do the good works that God prepared for us to do... but these works are to be done after salvation — and that’s James’s context. After salvation, faith should always be evidenced by good works.

Note, however, that this faith is a function of obedience — but from people who are already saved... and it is these saved people who are following God’s orders in verse 10. Therefore, this type of faith is never about getting or staying saved — and James isn’t saying that! He is saying that doing good works is the only way we have of proving to the world that we are saved... and many people who claimed to be believers in James’s day — which was probably a mix of saved and unsaved people, just like today — were not distinguishing themselves by doing the works that Christians were supposed to do... and nobody could tell who was who.

James’s thesis was that people should be able to tell who was who... and to this end, Christians should be congruent in faith and practice. This is why he commended Abraham. Abraham was the father of all faithful people — not just the Jews. But his faith was proven through his obedience to God... although I do not see how turning these ideas into figures of speech (like synecdoches) would help them overturn the many direct teachings that salvation is grace-based.

This is why I say that James was not challenging Paul. He was challenging all within earshot that if you say you’re a Christian, you’d better look like it — and having a faith that results in good works is the only way to do that! Therefore, when we consider James’s point of view, he was right to question the validity of any faith that was not manifested in works — and call such faith dead! ... all the while fitting hand-in-glove with Pauls’ teachings on salvation.

I will close with a link to a Got Questions Ministries article on the faith-and-works controversy. If you are interested, click here to see that article... and I pray all this helps with your future exegesis.

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20200406 James does not teach salvation through faith alone).

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