Works in the Book of James—“Fruits and Evidences of a True and Lively Faith”

Image by Jill Thornton; Snapwire

Image by Jill Thornton; Snapwire

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“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”— James 2:24

It’s not uncommon to hear some people appeal to James 2:24 in order to argue that God saves people by faith plus works. In particular, some argue against the doctrine of justification by faith alone by appealing to this verse. They tend to pit Paul, who writes that we are justified by faith and not works, against James, who apparently writes that we are justified by faith plus works. This raises the question, who is right? What are we to believe? Are Paul and James actually at odds with each other? No, they are not.

What Are Paul and James Saying about Justification?

Simply put, although they are using the same verb, justification (in Greek it is also the same verb, dikaioō), they are using it differently. Paul is using it in its legal declarative sense, but James is using it in an evidential sense. They are complementing each other, not opposing each other.  

Questions concerning Paul and James begin with Paul writing in Romans 3-5 about justification as a declarative act of God grounded in the work of Christ and received by faith. James, on the other hand, is writing about sanctification—the gracious work of God that necessarily follows from justification.

James’ primary concern is that a person who has been justified will have good works that demonstrate their faith. True saving faith—the instrument of justification (e.g., Rom. 5:1; Eph. 2:8)—necessarily leads to sanctification, and sanctification is evidence of saving faith versus merely a faith that believes in mere knowledge (see James 2:19).

Justification and Sanctification—Two Benefits of Salvation in Christ

In order to help understand how Paul and James complement one another, there are two important terms to define: justification and sanctification.The Westminster Shorter Catechism provides good and concise definitions of each one.  

According to Question 33, “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us and received by faith alone.”

Question 35 defines sanctification as “the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.” 

Notice that the actor in both is God, and both are of free grace (e.g., not our works, but grace—a gift of God). The difference, however, is that justification is God’s “act” and sanctification is God’s “work.” The word act means a single event at a distinct point in time. In the case of justification, it is a single declarative act by God. On the other hand, sanctification is a “work” of God that changes us—in particular, enabling us to die more and more unto sin and to live unto righteousness.  

James is writing about how true justifying faith leads to sanctification—to good works. He writes that a mere intellectual faith that does not lead to good works is dead (2:17). The question is then, what do good works do? Do they make us right with God? Or do they show that God has justified a person and is now sanctifying that person?

The Verb To Justify—Two Senses

The Westminster Confession of Faith describes part of James’ argument this way: “These good works, done in obedience to God's commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith” (WCF 16.2). Notice the word “evidences.” James seems to be using the verb justify in an evidential sense—our good works are evidence that show what kind of person has saving faith, the faith which is the instrument by which God justifies us.

Paul, on the other hand, is using the verb in the sense of a judicial declaration. (For examples of justify used this way, see Deuteronomy 25:1, Proverbs, 17:15.)

James, however, is using the verb justify in a sense similar to a way it is used elsewhere in Scripture. (See Matt. 11:19, Luke 7:35; and 1 Tim. 3:16 where the verb is used of Christ who, being absolutely perfect, needed no declarative justification like sinners need.) In fact, previous to James 2:24, James writes, “show me your works” (James 2:18). It’s as though James is saying, “Show what kind of person you are.” Let your good works show that God is sanctifying you such that you are bearing the fruit of good works. Paul and James are not using the verb justify in precisely the same sense, nor are they opposing one another.

When James writes in 2:10 that we are guilty if we fail to keep even a single point of God’s law, he is helping make clear to us that our works cannot lead to justification in the sense in which Paul is using the word. All humans have sinned, making all guilty before God—works cannot change that. In other words, our works cannot make us right with God (justification). Rather, God graciously justifies his people on the basis of Christ’s work, which is received by faith. Once justified, God further sanctifies his people whose works are evidence that they are actually God’s people through faith in Christ. 

Justification and Sanctification in the Life of Abraham—and All Believers

James uses Abraham as an example to help us understand these points. In James 2:23, he quotes Genesis 15:6 where it is written that Abraham believed God and it (Abraham’s faith) was counted to him as righteousness. This is justification as a declarative act of God in the same sense that Paul wrote about in Romans 4:2-5 concerning Abraham being justified by faith and not works. In verse 2:23, James quotes the same Scripture (Gen. 15:6) as Paul quoted it.

To bolster his argument that faith without works is dead, James refers to the example of Abraham when he offered up Isaac on an altar. In Genesis 22 (after Abraham’s faith was counted by God as righteousness; Gen. 15:6), Abraham showed what kind of man he was: a man of true faith; a man who believed God and was justified by faith; a man who showed by his actions that he was a man of saving faith; a man who believed that if he had put Isaac to death, God would raise him from the dead because God had sworn that the promised offspring would come through Isaac (Gen. 15:4; Heb. 11:17-19). Abraham’s justification by faith—an act of God—was shown to be real in his sanctification, a work of God—his faith was tested and yielded the fruit of good works (James 2:22). God’s justification necessarily leads to God’s sanctification. 

Abraham and those whom God has justified by faith in Christ show themselves to be true people of faith by their sanctification as they bear the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith.

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Daniel Rowlands is content editor for Beautiful Christian Life.