“What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him?” James 2:14
James poses a question here that would become a point of dissension among believers for centuries. Is faith sufficient for salvation? This question not only plagued the Jews in Jesus’ day, but it became the point of a major split in the church of the middle ages as Martin Luther forged the way for the Reformation with his statement “sola fide, sola scriptura”. Luther asserted something that was uncommon for his day; the notion that the believer was saved by faith alone, without any help of the good works and the sacraments as prescribed by the Catholic Church.
To this day many of the cults as well as all of the major world religions are asserting that the road to God, -whoever they claim he is-, is traveled upon the merit of one’s good deeds and efforts.
Is faith sufficient to save? At first glance the implications of James’ statement in verse 14 of chapter two seem to conflict with Paul’s statements in Galatians 3 and Romans 4. In those chapters Paul makes it very clear to his readers that nothing has to be added to the finished work of Christ at the cross. There needs to be no addition to their faith in Jesus, but their salvation is assure once for all through the supreme sacrifice of Jesus. “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ.” (Gal.3:26)
Both authors draw upon the example of the patriarch Abraham to make their point. James states that Abraham’s actions motivated by his faith were his righteousness (cf. Js.2:21), whereas Paul makes the point that it was Abraham’s faith that was reckoned to him as righteousness (cf. Rom.4:3,9; Gal.3:6).
The question of what the authors tried to communicate, and whether or not they are actually in conflict cannot be answered sufficiently without exploring the historical background of James’ and Paul’s writings.
James writes to Jews in the dispersion, who had become Christians. Paul on the other hand addresses mostly former Gentiles, who had become Christians and who were confronted by some factions in the church with the need to become Jews before they would be able to become Christians. These people (Judaizers) would claim that there was a prerequisite that had to be fulfilled for these Gentiles to become Christians, namely circumcision. Paul and James addressed this issue at the council of Jerusalem ca. AD 49. The result was that Gentiles were no longer to be compelled to become Jews in order to be Christians, and a letter to this effect was written by James himself and sent to the Gentile churches (cf. Acts 15). This shows clearly that we are dealing with two different scenarios. James is asserting that there ought to be a natural outflow of your faith, namely good works. Paul by no means denies this, but stresses that salvation itself can not be accomplished by anything we do, but by faith in Jesus alone.
James seems to make a differentiation between a said faith, something merely professed and a true, living and active faith. In this he by no means differs from a statement Jesus made. “Many will come in that day and say Lord, Lord…and I will say depart from me you evildoers.” (Mt.7:22-23; cf. also Lk.13:27) Jesus makes it clear that those who come to him with a professed faith, but whose lives are untouched by the transformation that must naturally follow true deliverance from their evil ways, are not his. Paul certainly confirms this in more than one passage. Col.1:10; 1 Tim.6:18; Phil.2:12; Rom.2:13; Rom.12:2 are all confirming that we are saved unto good works. The most obvious statement comes in his letter to the Ephesians, where Paul writes;
“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph.2:10).
It appears then that each author is trying to make a point that agrees with the teaching of Jesus. They are by no means contradicting each other, but merely stating two elements of the same truth. Paul focuses on the Gentiles, who by nature of their inherited religions were more prone to appease the gods with acts of worship, sacrifice and good deeds and he underlines the fact that in and of themselves they have nothing to offer to be saved. They are children of wrath and can hope for nothing, but for the saving grace of Jesus. To the Jews, who are just beginning to understand the idea of being free from the Law and to enjoy their newly-found freedom, James stresses that there are still ethical requirements in the Christian faith. The different audiences of the two writers determined the needed message and the message determined how the author would communicate the truth of the Gospel. Paul’s central message is freedom in Christ, whereas James’ message is an exhortation to practical Christianity. James does not so much discuss how one becomes or remains a Christian, but how that salvation ought to affect one’s lifestyle.