There is an apparent contradiction between two verses in the Bible.
James says, “A person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).
Paul says, “One is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28).
Although they appear contradictory on the surface, a closer examination of how James and Paul are using words shows that they are talking about two different things.
Both James and Paul (and Jesus, for that matter!) argue forcefully that saving faith will always result in a changed life; a life that is characterized by good works. But Paul and James are referring to two different things when they use the word “justified.” Paul uses the word “justified” to refer to the declaration of a person’s initial pardon at the moment of his conversion. James uses the word “justified” to refer to the final accounting of a person’s life before God on the last day.
James argues that any faith that does not produce good works is only a superficial faith. It is not real. It is a “dead” faith (James 2:14), he even says a faith that doesn’t produce good works is demonic (James 2:19). James is not saying, however, that we need to perform good works in order to be saved. The kind of faith that actually saves us is a faith that changes us and produces spiritual fruit in our lives.
Consider it this way: if a person goes through the spiritual motions of “getting saved” but is not moved to care for people in need, be more generous, experience some degree of joy and thankfulness in Christ, then what good is that kind of faith? Sobering question.
But James is not the only one who says these sorts of things. The Apostle Paul wrote similar things in the book of Titus. He says that some people “profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work” (Titus 1:6). He calls them “empty talkers” in Titus 1:10. People whose faith is nothing more than a religious accessory to round out the image of a balanced life. In Titus 3:8, Paul tells another Pastor, Timothy, this: “I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believe in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people.”
Perhaps the most striking words come from Jesus himself, who said “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits (Matthew 7:19).”
James cites two examples to make his case: Abraham (Jew) and Rahab (Gentile). Both of them believed in God’s saving power, and they demonstrated their faith by incredible acts of faith. In Genesis 22, Abraham believed so strongly in God’s promise to provide him with a family, he was willing to allow his own son to die because he believed that God could even raise the dead. Rahab, who was a Gentile prostitute believed God to save her by putting her own life at risk to protect two of God’s people.
James cites these acts of faith to show that true, saving faith is lived out in every day life. When James says that “Abraham was justified by works” in James 2:21, he is saying that Abraham’s works proved in the end that his initial, saving faith was real. God did not justify Abraham because Abraham did some great work. Rather, Abraham’s faith in God was proven genuine by his works.
Consider this. Suppose a man is arrested and placed on trial for burglary. In the course of the trial, this man is able to present clear evidence that he was innocent of the crime, and he was acquitted by the judge. The man could say that the verdict justified him because he was an innocent man. But the judge could say the evidence justified him because the evidence proved he was actually innocent. The man sees his justification in terms of his actual innocence of a crime. The judge sees his justification as having been proven by evidence.
The same is true for James and Paul. Paul sees our “justification” as a declaration that God views us innocent and perfect in Christ and given new life. James sees our “justification” as the evidence of that new life demonstrated by our good works.
Thus James and Paul do not contradict each other. They are both describing different things using the same word. And both James and Paul agree that we are saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and that faith changes us and produces good works in us.