Unproductive Ways to Study the Bible
In my experience, people typically respond to James 2 with Romans 4 and vice-versa. This is irresponsible and is one of the reasons why people rarely make progress when studying the Bible with others. If someone presents a passage in a study, it isn’t wrong to introduce another passage to help one make their point, but the focus of the one responding should be to properly interpret passages that they’ve been given first. For example, when studying prophecy, if I point out a passage that says the coming of the Lord was at hand in the first century, deal with that first before skipping and jumping to questions about the nature of fulfillment. That latter discussion is necessary, but only after the initial point are dealt with. If the conversation goes as follows, something is wrong, and the discussion will ultimately be unfruitful unless the fruit one is looking for is to feel intellectually superior and right in their own mind.
“Romans 4 says that someone is justified by faith apart from works.”
“Well, James 2 says that faith without works is dead.”
Do you see how little this solves? If we are going to be fair to one another, we must deal with the context of the original passages and not use one text to bash another text. Now, this action is permissible when discussing biblical contradictions, but between two people who do not believe the Bible contradicts in any meaningful way, it is only fair to honestly consider the passages introduced by the other.
A Brief Commentary on James 2:14-26
Background of James
James was written to Jewish Christians who were scattered abroad (James 1:1). One reason this is evident, besides James’ salutation, is found in James 2:1-13. Within this passage, James appeals to the Law to justify his condemnation of their actions towards the poor. Let’s notice a tiny section of this larger pericope:
If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. For He who said, “DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY,” also said, “DO NOT COMMIT MURDER.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.(James 2:8–11)
The reason why James can use the Law in reprimanding the Jewish Christians is because they continued to keep the Law until the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. For example, in the book of Acts, James had a conversation with Paul, and, as an elder at the Jerusalem church who was inspired by the Holy Spirit, he said this,
You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law; and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs. What, then, is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. Therefore do this that we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; take them and purify yourself along with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads; and all will know that there is nothing to the things which they have been told about you, but that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Law.Acts 21:20–24
Paul went on to do just what a Holy Spirit-Guided elder told him to do (Acts 15:19, 22, 25; 20:28; Ephesians 4:11-13). He followed this experience up by saying that he lived in good conscience to that day (Acts 23:1). Surely his conscience would have been offended if he believed that one shouldn’t be zealous for the Law after the cross, right? But he said that it wasn’t, so we must take him at his word. What Paul was against was binding the Law on the Gentiles. In terms of the Jews, however, he understood that “Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19).
In conclusion, James was writing to Jewish Christians who were keeping the Law. He was writing to them, in part, because they had failed in their obligation to care for the poor. It is within this context that we must read the following section.
What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.(James 2:14–17)
James’ main point here is that they had made a commitment to put their faith in Christ. While righteousness was counted towards their account at the point of faith, they had yet to act upon it. He compared this to telling someone that they should be warned and filled without doing a thing to help them. If I make a claim to follow Jesus but do not act on it, then my faith is dead. Again, James is not talking about the point of conversion. He is writing to people who needed to understand that action was required on their part following their conversion.
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?(James 2:18–20)
Faith must be coupled with action. Anyone can make a claim to have faith, but it is the actions that come from faith (obedience of faith) that prove that our faith is real. I can say that I have taken up my cross to follow Jesus, but if I run the second I am called to climb onto the cross beside Him, then I must not have actually trusted in Him to begin with.
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 2:21–26
Was Abraham justified before he offered up Isaac or when he offered up Isaac? The answer is yes. God calls into being that which does not exist. Both passages are true. Imputed righteousness is real, but it is “satisfied” or “fulfilled” when we allow Christ to work through us (Galatians 2:20). As we will see in the coming sections, justification and salvation are processes and not just one-time events. Hopefully that section clears up some of the confusion on this subject as well.
The bottom line is that works are necessary. Faith without works is dead. At the same time, God calls into being that which does not exist. In other words, He credits righteousness to our account prior to our obedience. When one puts their trust in Christ, they are considered righteous by God, but that does not mean they are free to live their life in whatever way they would like. Following in Jesus’ footsteps is the natural next step to those who put their entire trust in God.
Romans 4 and James 2 do not contradict one another. Romans 4 is speaking of the initial point of justification while James 2 was writing to people who were already believers in Christ that had failed to put their faith into action. Their faith was in danger of being dead because of their lack of works. Of course, in the context of the passage, their works had to do with loving their neighbor and not showing partiality to the rich. Their works had nothing to do with “steps of salvation.”