One of Paul’s clarion calls is his mantra that “a man is justified by faith apart from [the] works of [the] law” (cf. Romans 3:28; Galatians 2:16). However James appears to contradict this truth when he writes, “you see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only” (James 2:24). Of course, those of us who believe in biblical inspiration believe the truth of both sentiments as expressed by each writer. The question is how to harmonize the two. How can both be true?
The first interpretive step is to understand that Paul and James are referring to different kinds of “works.” Paul specifically mentions “works of the law” which entails a person’s effort to gain a relationship with a holy God through his meritorious effort. Those who seek to gain God’s approval in this way think that if one keeps the requirements of God’s law then God will accept him based on his goodness. The problem with this approach, says Paul, is that no one really keeps the law—at least not perfectly, which is the requirement to earn a right standing with God through works (cf. Romans 3:23; Galatians 3:10). Instead, the law’s intended function is to help all men to see their failure and to accept that their condemnation is just (Romans 3:19-20; Galatians 3:21-22).
James, on the other hand is discussing works that are produced by a genuine faith in God. When a person possesses a faith/trust in the promises of God then he is moved to comply with the will of God in order to place himself in a position to receive his promises. Abraham, for example, showed the genuineness of his faith when he complied with God’s command to offer Isaac on the altar (James 2:21). Not only was his obedience a result of his genuine belief in God, but it was also an evidence of it.
This also helps us see that Paul and James are not only discussing different kinds of works, but different kinds of justification also. Paul’s “justification” is a forensic act whereby God imputes Christ’s righteousness to our account and can thus justly declare us to be free from condemnation (Romans 5:1; 8:1). James, on the other hand, seems to be focused on how a person can “justify” his claim to “believe in God.” Listen to James’ challenge to those who say they have faith but don’t show any evidence of that faith by their deeds: “Show me your faith without works, and I will show you my faith by works!” Now which one do you suppose has any “justification” to back up his claim? Clearly, the one who “justifies” his claim by showing the works of his faith. This seems to be James’ point. In using the example of Abraham, James says the earlier declaration that “Abraham believed God” was “fulfilled” when we see him offer his son on the altar. That is, the statement made in Genesis 15:6 is “justified” (shown to be legitimate) when, for example, we see that faith in the offering of Isaac (James 2:21-23). Rahab also in declaring her allegiance to God and his army by hiding the spies and covertly ushering them to safety “justified” her claim to faith (found in Joshua 2:9-11) as being genuine (James 2:25). While these works do not merit God’s grace, they display that faith is not “dead” or “vain” and thus are necessary in a proper response to the promises of God (James 2:17, 20).
So the statements of Paul and James are reconciled when we understand that they are discussing both a different kind of works as well as a different kind of justification. While neither Paul nor James declare that a man can merit his own salvation, Paul himself would say that the only thing that counts in Christianity is “a faith that works through love” (Galatians 5:6). So when Paul speaks of our salvation in Christ he asserts that we are saved by faith and not by works—but a faith that saves is a faith that works.