Problem: James says salvation is by works
Verses: James 1:22-27, 2:14-26; Status: Unsure

It's usually taken (at least by Protestants) that salvation is attained through faith alone, and that good works have little to do with it. The problem is that James seems to contradict this view. Although some would have you believe the problem is a single verse, James 2:14, in reality all the verses listed at the top point towards works being required for salvation. Here is James 2:21-24:

Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness" - and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (ESV)

To solve this problem, I believe Protestants interpret the relationship between faith, works, and salvation something like this:

The logical relation here would be that faith causes salvation, and faith causes good works, but good works do not cause salvation. Under this view, if you say you have faith but don't have good works, then that proves you aren't sincere about having faith - because if you did have true faith, you would also have good works. It's therefore true, in a sense, that works are "required" for salvation.

There's also another logical relationship we might consider:

Under this view, faith gets the ball rolling, and works are also a cause of salvation, but not the main cause.

So there are certainly potential ways to resolve the difficulty. The question though is whether the various New Testament authors are really presenting a coherent and unified message about this. On the face of things, it doesn't seem like it. It's a historical fact that certain Christians have been uncomfortable with the Epistle of James. It was gradually accepted into the canon, but some evidently still had doubts. Luther called it a "right strawy epistle".

Ultimately, I must decline to pass judgement on this problem, as there are far too many verses to examine, and this sort of difficult theological issue gives me a headache.

Updated: Summer 2008

Back to main index