One of the major concepts that separates Christianity from all other religions/worldviews is that salvation 1 is not earned through meritorious works, but is a free gift of God that can never be earned in any way and is credited to us by God based on the finished work of Christ alone through trusting in Him as a person. This relationship between faith and works is evident when we read the words of Paul in his letter to the church at Ephesus:
“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, that no one should boast.
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
Now, these verses seem to be very straightforward concerning the relationship between faith and works, namely that faith comes first and then the natural outflow of a genuine faith is good works, because in Christ we are a new creation 2 and we are created in him “for good works.” Notice Paul says we were made into new creations in Christ FOR good works, not BECAUSE OF good works, which makes a big difference.
When we get to the book of James it seems as though he has an alternate understanding to that of Paul concerning the relationship between faith and works.
“You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone.”
How can a man be justified by works (as with James) if we receive salvation by grace through faith apart from works (as with Paul)? It seems as though Paul and James disagree about how faith and works are related to one another. But is this really the case? Was Paul or James really in disagreement with the other? What we explore below will demonstrate that, despite the seeming problems on the surface, Paul and James actually COMPLIMENT one another rather than CONTRADICT. We will do this by briefly examining the context of what Paul and James are each speaking about.
Paul is speaking in context about “salvation by grace through faith,” and he is teaching that performing works or good deeds won’t earn special favor with God resulting in him giving you salvation from your sins because you earned it. No, Paul teaches that it (salvation) is a gift of God. The word “this” or the word “that” in Ephesians 2:8 (depends on which translation you use as to which one of those two words is there) is a neuter word as far as its gender in the Greek text. Nouns are either masculine, feminine or neuter in Greek. When using a demonstrative pronoun like “this” or “that,” the word the pronoun refers back to must match it in gender. So when Paul says “You have been saved by grace through faith…that not of yourselves…” the word “that” is actually referring to the entire process of salvation by grace through faith. The Greek words for grace and faith are feminine, so when Paul says “that not of yourselves, but it is a gift of God,” he is referring to the entire process of salvation itself as being a gift, and doesn’t mean that grace or faith is a gift or the Greek word translated as “that” would need to be feminine since that demonstrative pronoun would be referring back to one of those two feminine words.
Another important point to make is that Paul refers to salvation as a gift. How many of us would describe our paycheck, or anything else we worked hard for as a gift? We don’t refer to wages earned as gifts because we do the work and get compensated in return. Paul teaches us here that salvation is a gift that is freely given by God’s grace through our trust in Him. To work for salvation would render it as something earned and it would cease to be a gift. Does James disagree with Paul on this? Let us now look to the words of James.
In his letter in the New Testament James mentions the relationship between works and faith in the second chapter starting in verse 14 (Originally there were no chapters or verses in the text, they were added much later, in the 13th century3) continuing on through until the end of the chapter (verse 26). James really seems to emphasize the importance of works, even making the statement we looked at above saying “You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone.” One of the keys to properly interpreting this passage is in the first four verses:
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith, but does not have works? Can his faith save him?
If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food,
and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it?
In the same way faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself.
But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without works, and I will show you faith from my works.”
James is teaching here that just merely professing to have faith/trust in Christ doesn’t mean that trust is genuine. He emphasizes that genuine faith leads to taking action, and that a profession of faith really is dead/not genuine if works don’t follow. James also is teaching that works are an outward working of a genuine faith, in other words we SHOW our faith to be genuine by doing good works. This actually agrees with what Paul taught us in Ephesians right? He said we are “His workmanship created in Christ Jesus for/unto good works.” In other words, faith comes first followed by works.
This principle (a genuine faith leading to action/works) is also evident throughout Scripture. The eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews in the New Testament also emphasizes this principle. This chapter is generally referred to as the “faith chapter” as it lists several Old Testament saints and they are commended for their faith/trust in God. What also becomes evident as you read through it is that the phrase “by faith” occurs often, actually 20 times in 19 verses to be exact. The formula used by the writer of Hebrews is using the phrase “by faith,” then mentioning an action that followed. So we read “By faith Abraham,” or “By faith Noah,” etc. followed by an action taken by that particular individual BECAUSE of their faith. Which again, reinforces the principle that a genuine faith results in good works, not that we do good works to earn salvation. So in the end we can conclude that James and Paul both teach that salvation is granted to us as a free gift of God by His grace through our trusting in Christ. As a result good works will follow, or our profession of faith was not genuine, but was just that…a profession and nothing more!