Justified by works? | Daily Office Devotional 2021/8/31

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.

James 2:14-26

The Reformer Martin Luther had had this to say about the epistle of James:

In a word St. John’s Gospel and his first epistle, St. Paul’s epistles, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that is necessary and salvatory for you to know, even if you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine. Therefore St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it. (LW 35:362)

Dr. Luther elaborated on this judgment in his preface to the epistle, faulting James not only for not presenting the good news of Christ, but also for appearing to contradict Paul’s teaching on justification by faith:

But this James does nothing more than drive to the law and to its works. Besides, he throws things together so chaotically that it seems to me he must have been some good, pious man, who took a few sayings from the disciples of the apostles and thus tossed them off on paper. … He mangles the Scriptures and thereby opposes Paul and all Scripture. He tries to accomplish by harping on the law what the apostles accomplish by stimulating people to love.

Certainly, James doesn’t mention much about the good news of Christ in his epistle,[1] but the exaggerated assertion that he opposes “Paul and all Scripture” can’t be sustained. In fact, James’ contradiction of Paul is all but apparent since the both of them were dealing with different issues. Paul was emphasizing justification by faith as the common denominator between Jewish and Gentile Christians before God, as opposed to the external works of the Jewish Law like circumcision. Paul is stressing that it’s only by faith in Christ that both Jews and Gentiles are reckoned to be righteous before God.

However, James is correcting a mistaken notion of “justification by faith” held by some Christians. These Christians think that faith can be separated from works (here referring to the outward obedience to God). This is ludicrous to James because they’re reducing faith to mere assent and such “faith” is possessed even by demons who don’t obey God! Even they believe that there’s God and they shudder at this belief! What good is such “faith”? It’s worthless and therefore pointless for Christians to make much of it.

Instead, James is adamant that the kind of faith Christians possesses is inseparable from works, or rather, works cannot but emerge from Christian faith. If one is truly justified by faith, then one will also be obedient to God, manifesting this obedience in what one does. True faith is necessarily accompanied by good works, and the good works completes or fulfils true faith. This was the case with Abraham who demonstrated his faith in the sacrifice of Isaac, and with Rahab who demonstrated her faith in her assistance to the spies. It’s in this sense that James can say that “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” In short, if we’re justified by faith, then we’ll also be justified by works.

Of course, James isn’t saying that Christians who are truly justified by faith will be perfect and sinless, but he’s making a case against “cheap grace” or “easy believism” where being a Christian is reduced to an assent to the good news of Christ and the hard work of discipleship is set aside. If we’ve truly believed in Christ, then our lives will certainly bear discernible marks of faith. Paul would not have disagreed.


  1. Nor should we expect the good news of Christ to feature in every epistle sent by a Christian leader, after all, there are sundry matters of the Christian faith to be addressed. As N. T. Wright puts it, “The problem with theology is that you have to say everything all at once. Otherwise, people think you’ve deliberately missed something out.”↩︎

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