“Justified by Works” (Understanding James 2:24)

Show me your faith. No, really, show me your faith. That may seem like a strange request, but it is biblical. How are you going to do that? If you have “faith” without works, it is impossible. No one other than God can see faith. So, if others want to know if you have faith, the only thing they can look to is your works.

If we claim to have faith but do not have works, that faith is dead. In other words, we do not have faith at all because saving faith is alive. Faith is completed by works (James 2:22). Works are the natural outworking of living faith, or to put it another way, faith produces works.

If we put this all together, our works of righteousness are how we show our faith to others. If we have no works, there is no reason for anyone to think we have faith. “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).

Wait! Did not Paul say we were justified by faith apart from works (Romans 3:28)? Are Paul and James contradicting each other? To answer this, we need to know what a contradiction is. In logic, the law of non-contradiction says A cannot be both A and non-A in the same sense and at the same time.

For something to be a contradiction, two criteria must be in place, time and sense. Let’s start with time. If I say, “That man is wet,” and then later say, “That man is not wet,” I am either contradicting myself, or time has passed, and something has changed. If I said “he is not wet” two hours later after he has had time to dry, I have not contradicted myself. Unfortunately, this does not help us with Paul’s and James’s apparent contradiction.

The other criterion that must be in place for a contradiction to occur is sense. If I say, “That man is green,” and at the same time say, “That man is not green,” I have either contradicted myself, or I am using the word “green” in two different senses.

If I say, “That man is green,” meaning he is inexperienced, but then say, “He is not green,” meaning he is not the color green, there is no contradiction. A change in sense is what is taking place between Paul and James. When Paul says, “we are justified by faith apart from works,” he means justified before God, declared righteous in Jesus Christ. James means justified before men. That is why this article, working from James chapter 2, started with the request, “Show me your faith.” James is talking about proving your faith to others, not our standing before God.

We are justified by faith apart from works before God, but saving faith is never alone. Faith produces works. At the same time and in a different sense, we are justified before others by works and not faith alone.

Faith that does not produce works is dead; it is not saving faith. However, though the works that faith produces justify us before others, those same works earn us no merit in our right standing before God. We are declared righteous, justified, by Christ’s work on our behalf.

-D. Eaton

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