I have listened to the whole book of Romans but this verse below [James 2:24] seems to indicate that works are necessary for justification and not faith alone.
This is the question at the heart of the Reformation. It has been said that the Reformation hinged on one word: alone. What was at stake was the gospel itself. Is one saved by faith alone in Christ alone, or are works also necessary to be saved? Arguably, this is one of the most important questions a Christian can ask.
Before we get into the answer, it’s important to remember that we let Scripture interpret Scripture. Also, we let the explicit interpret the implicit. That is, if we find a verse in Scripture that can be interpreted in more than one way (implicit) but find another verse that can only be interpreted one way (explicit), we use the one that is clear to interpret the one that is less clear. This is because God is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33).
The short answer to the question is that a person is saved by faith alone in Christ alone, and not by works. We see this in Scripture in two ways.
First, as we learned in Romans, God is the one who decides who is saved. Romans 9:15-16 in particular showed that our salvation is not based what we do, but on what God does:
For He says to Moses, "I WILL HAVE MERCY ON WHOM I HAVE MERCY, AND I WILL HAVE COMPASSION ON WHOM I HAVE COMPASSION." So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.
If God is the one who chooses on whom it is He will have mercy, then it is not logically possible that our works can play any part in our salvation (“it is not of him who wills or runs”).
Some people, however, do not believe in the doctrine of election (even though it is taught very explicitly in Scripture). So, the second proof in Scripture to which we can point is what Paul says in Romans 4 and 5. Since you just studied Romans, this will be fresh in your mind. Rather than repeat all of the verses to prove that we are saved by faith alone in Christ alone, let’s look at a high-level summary of Romans chapters 1-5.
In Romans chapters 1-3, Paul lays out the case that all mankind has sinned against God, they know God exists, but they do not acknowledge Him as God nor do they seek Him. There is none righteous, no not one, not Jew, not Gentile. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Having convicted all humanity of sin, Paul now moves on to how one can be reconciled to God in chapter 4.
Using Abraham (who transcends both Jew and Gentile) as his example, Paul demonstrates that a person is justified (i.e., counted righteous in God’s eyes) by faith, not by works. It’s important to mention here that Paul is not talking about works of the Law, for Abraham came before the Law; therefore, works refers to any human works. We read in v. 4:3:
For what does the Scripture say? ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.
Paul’s point is clear: like Abraham, we are saved by faith, and by faith, God credits, imputes, assigns to us His righteousness. More could be said, but the key point is that it is by faith that God credits righteousness to us, not works.
Having made his case that we are justified by faith, Paul begins chapter 5 with this conclusion, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The “therefore” in verse 5:1 is a logical conclusion to what Paul just said in Romans 4.
To make sure we understand this, Paul makes a comparison of how we became sinners and how we can become righteous. He does this by making a parallel comparison and contrast with Adam and Christ. Before we were born, before we did anything, we are counted sinners because of Adam’s transgression (5:12). In other words, sin was imputed, credited to Adam’s progeny because of his transgression.
Our works did not make us sinners; rather, we sin because we are sinners. Paul then shows that, similarly, believers are counted righteous by Christ’s obedience (as contrasted with Adam’s transgression). This point was made in chapter 4, and Paul makes it clear that he means we are counted righteous not by what we do, but solely by Christ’s obedience. This is important, because obedience means works.
The whole point of Romans 5 is to emphasize the similarity of Adam and Jesus, with one leading to sin and death, and the other leading to righteousness. Therefore, in context, vs. 5:14-19 clearly teaches that we are made righteous not by our obedience, but by Christ’s obedience:
Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many. The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification. For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ. So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.”
Verse 14 makes clear that even though we didn’t commit the same sin Adam committed in the garden of Eden, we all still died. This means we all sinned in some way, for death came into the world because of sin. This is the, by the way, the chapter in Scripture to which theologians will point when they teach “original sin”. It means we inherited Adam’s sinful nature (see vs.5:12 and 5:19: we were “made sinners”).
This is also why Jesus was born of a virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit. It was necessary that He not have a human father (for sin comes from Adam, the father). With God as His Father, He could be born sinless, even though it was through a human mother.
Romans 5 also ties in with many other Scriptures that speak about the righteousness of God. I think 2 Corinthians 5:21 says it well, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Christ took the penalty for our sin, and gave us His righteousness, which is imputed to us by faith. It is on this basis alone that we are counted righteous, not by any works we do.
As Paul makes clear in Titus 3:4-7:
But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
It is also why Jeremiah says we will call Him “the LORD our righteousness.” (Jeremiah 23:6) If salvation is by works, then, logically, our works would be what makes us righteous. Yet over and over again, Scripture says the Lord is our righteousness. Again, this agrees completely with Romans 5. In a sense, though, works do make us righteous. However, it is not our works, it is Christ’s works, His obedience, that makes us righteous.
Now, just to make sure we're not reading our view into what Paul has said all the way through chapter 5, let’s suppose that James 2 teaches that salvation is by works and then apply that viewpoint to where Paul goes next in Romans.
Throughout Romans, Paul likes to ask questions he anticipates his reader will have. If salvation is by grace through faith in Christ, but then depends on us to be obedient (i.e., our works), and is conditional on our obeying the commandments, We would expect that Paul would now move into teaching us how to be obedient to ensure that we will be saved.
But instead, chapter six begins with this question, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?” This question fits perfectly with the logical flow of what Paul has just previously taught. If I am not saved by what I do, if I am saved solely by faith, by which Christ’s righteousness is imputed to me, then a logical question is hey, it doesn’t matter if I continue to sin, does it In fact, the more I sin, Paul, the more grace will abound!
Paul goes on to deal with this erroneous thought. Clearly, Paul is not teaching that we are saved by works but only by faith alone in Christ alone. So, we see that Scripture explicitly teaches that we are saved not by works, but by faith alone in Christ alone (remember what we said about explicit and implicit teaching in Scripture).
Knowing this, let’s next look at what James says. As we do this, keep this thought in mind. When James says, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone”, it appears he is saying that we are saved by works.
However, another way to interpret this verse is that James is saying that a man manifests (makes known) his justification (his salvation) by what he does, not just by saying he has faith. This is clearly implied when this verse is interpreted properly in its context. If we take what Paul says as explicit, and what James says as explicit, then we have a contradiction. Since God is the author of all Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16), and since God is perfect, then there cannot be a contradiction in Scripture. Either we have misinterpreted what Paul says in Romans, or we have misinterpreted what James says.
We maintain that James is not teaching that we are saved by faith and works, but that he is teaching that we make known our salvation to the world by our works. The world cannot look on our heart and know we have faith, as God can; they can only see it by what we do.
With that as a background, let’s look at what James teaches in chapters 1 and 2 that lead up to his statement in v. 2:24. First, we see that James is writing to Christians, those who are already saved. He is writing about how they are to live as Christians. He speaks about persecutions, about our need to trust in God’s provisions. Some key verses in James 1:18-25 are these:
In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures. This you know, my beloved brethren But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.
Note that in v.18, James says that God brought us forth by the “exercise of His will.” In v.21 he says the word “implanted” will save your soul. The Greek word for implanted is emphutos, which means “inborn, implanted by nature, implanted by others instruction." It refers to something planted in us.
Both of these verses tie in perfectly with Paul’s teaching on election. This is something God performed, not something we did. Furthermore, the word from which emphutos is derived is phuo, which means “to produce, to become, to grow.” This suggests, then, that the word that saves us will also grow in us and produce something in us, namely, good works.
This is exactly where James goes next, talking about being doers of the word. If you hear the word (that is, the gospel), but are not a doer, you have deceived yourself into thinking that you are indeed saved. Importantly, James says “prove” yourself as a doer of the word by being someone who “abides by it” (v.25).
Clearly, James here is not saying we are saved by works. On the contrary, he just stated that the word was “implanted” in us by the exercise of God’s will, which is something we are not even able to accomplish. It’s obvious that he is commanding believers to show that they have this implanted word by being a doer. This is how the word grows in us and produces (phuo) good works. He also does not say we will be saved by being a doer; rather, we will be blessed.
James then continues by stating how we prove ourselves doers of the word. A true believer (one who has had faith implanted in his soul by the exercise of God’s will) will bridle his tongue, visit orphans and widows, keep himself unstained from the world, and not show favoritism. He tells us to show mercy, just as we have been shown mercy in Christ.
So, the context of James’ letter to believers is that we are to demonstrate our faith by what we do (prove ourselves to be doers of the word). He gives specific examples of how we can do this. Then, beginning in 2:14, he says:
“What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?”
This is an important verse for understanding v2:24. Note that James is focused on a particular kind of faith. If a person has a faith that produces no works, he has deceived himself because that faith is no faith, and thus, cannot save anyone. Indeed, it is a “dead” faith (v. 17). James then continues in 2:18-26:
But someone may well say, "You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works." You believe that God is one You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, "AND ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS," and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.”
James continues to emphasize that works prove a person’s faith. He says we show we have faith by our works. Just saying we believe is not enough, for even the demons do this, yet they hate God and will ultimately be destroyed. Anyone can say they have faith, but true faith is a faith that results in works. This is in complete agreement with Ephesians 2:8-10
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.”
Notice that we are not saved by works but are created for good works. This is what James is also saying, for if we have been saved, and if God saved us for good works, then a person with true faith will show his faith by his good works.
Verses 20-26 are very important verses. Note that James focuses on how we know someone has faith. In v.22, he says “you see." He says it again in vs.24 and implies it in v.25. So, the focus is on demonstrating that a person has faith, not that works saves a person. Importantly, James discusses Abraham’s offering of Isaac in Genesis 22.
This is important, because in Romans 4, Paul discusses Abraham being saved by faith and not by works, referring to Genesis 15. It would be helpful to go back and read both Genesis 15 and 22, but suffice it to say here that God gave the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 15, and it was an unconditional covenant. This means that God promised to save Abraham and his seed, without any condition on Abraham’s part. This is contrasted with the Mosaic covenant, which said Israel would be saved only if they perfectly obeyed the Law.
Now, if God unconditionally promised to save Abraham and his seed in Genesis 15, then why did He ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac in Genesis 22? The text even says, after Abraham was going to sacrifice Isaac, that God now knows that Abraham feared God. He goes on to say in Genesis 22:16-18:
By Myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.
This text makes it appear that God really didn’t know that Abraham had faith until He tested him (v. 16, “because you have done this thing”). Yet, we read the following back in Genesis 15:5-6:
And He took him outside and said, "Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them " And He said to him, "So shall your descendants be." Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
The point here is that Abraham was already counted righteous in Genesis 15 because he believed God’s promise. Paul refers to this text in Romans 4 to emphasize that Abraham was saved solely by faith. Obviously, since God gave Abraham that faith (Ephesians 2:8 says faith is a gift from God), God knew what Abraham would do with respect to Isaac.
This begs the question, why did God ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? It is because this act showed men that Abraham had faith. Looking at Abraham’s life leading up to Genesis 22, one would not necessarily conclude that Abraham had faith in God. For example, in Genesis 20, Abraham tells Abimelech that Sarah is his sister. He does this so Abimelech will not kill him and take Sarah. Is this the picture of a person who has faith in God? So, God asks Abraham to make the ultimate sacrifice: kill your son, your only son, whom you love.
By obeying God, we “see” that Abraham had faith, as James points out. Likewise, how could Rahab, a prostitute, be saved? She, too, had faith and it was manifested when she helped Israel’s spies. Without this righteous act, it would appear that God saved a wicked prostitute who only disobeyed God.
Hebrews 11 makes the same point, first stating that men gained approval by faith, and then listing several examples of works that were done by faith. Indeed, the author of Hebrews 11:17-19 says of Abraham:}
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son; it was he to whom it was said, "IN ISAAC YOUR DESCENDANTS SHALL BE CALLED." He considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead, from which he also received him back as a type.”
Note that Abraham was “tested” to prove his faith. In this sense, the Scripture was fulfilled (James 2:23). God had already made Abraham righteous by giving him faith to believe God’s promise. This was fulfilled in men’s eyes by Abraham showing his willingness to offer up his son.
While this should be enough to demonstrate that our works do not save us, some will say (and have said) that James 2:24 uses the same word for justification that Paul uses, so it must mean that works are necessary for salvation. If that is true, then, using this exact same logic, wisdom must also be saved.
In Matthew 11:19, Jesus says:
“The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
The word “vindicated” is the same Greek word for justification. In fact, some English translations use the word justification.
The NASB used vindicated, because it makes no sense to say that wisdom is justified; that is, wisdom cannot be “saved." Therefore, we have a clear and explicit example in Scripture where the word justified can also mean vindicated, or proven. Thus, James is not saying a person is saved by works, but that a person proves he has faith (vindicates his faith) by his works.
Given all of the above, we conclude that a person is saved by faith alone in Christ alone, and not by works. Let us give thanks to God for this, because if we were saved by our works, we would never become righteous. If we were saved by works, we would not have the peace that passes understanding. Yet the Lord has explained His word so that we may have the assurance of our salvation, knowing that it is based on what Christ has done, not on what we do, “for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.” (1 Corinthians 14:33)