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Are We Saved By Works Or Not?

Paul argued that we are not saved by works (Eph. 2.8-9; Rom. 4:4-5; 11:6). However, James argued that we are saved by works (Ja 2.24) [1]. Do these arguments contradict one another?

Sadly, Martin Luther (1483-1546), the notable Protestant reformer whose theology has influenced millions, could not reconcile these two positions. Since he thought that James wrote “flatly against St. Paul” — even alleging that Jamesmangles the Scriptures” and “chaotically…throws things together” — Luther rejected the “apostolic authorship” of the book (see Luther; cf. Barclay, 7; Lenski, 515).

Although he did not go so far as to omit the work from the New Testament [2] — for he still saw “value” in the “many good sayings” in it — still, in the preface of his 1522 translation, Luther refused to put the book of James “among the true chief books” of the New Testament (id.).

This attitude, however, was dreadfully premature.

What Is A Contradiction?

In the first place, a contradiction is a combination of statements, ideas, or features of a situation that refer to the same thing, at the same time, and in the same sense, which are opposed to one another.

Sometimes two statements that seem contradictory are compatible. For example, if I said: “Paul is so little;” and then I said: “Paul is a giant;” it would be rash to allege that I have contradicted myself. I can harmonize these two statements in one of three ways:

(1) I may be referring to two different “Pauls.”

(2) I may be referring to the same Paul, but at different stages in his life (e.g., looking at his baby picture, then looking at him full-grown).

(3) Or, I may be referring to the same Paul, at the same time of his life, in two different senses. Perhaps Paul is literally little (i.e., in physical stature); but he is a giant in character.

These statements only contradict if I am referring to the same thing/person, at the same time, and in the same sense. In that case, they cannot both be true.

So do Paul and James contradict one another? If not, how do we reconcile their statements?

Different Kinds Of Works?

One explanation — to which I do not subscribe — is that Paul and James are referring to different kinds of works.

Since Paul taught that we cannot earn or merit our salvation with “works” (Eph. 2.8-9), yet he also taught that we must “obey God to be “set free from sin” (Rom. 6.17-18), some believe that Paul never regarded works of obedience as works of merit. Supposedly, therefore, Paul insisted that we are not saved by meritorious works, whereas James insisted that we are saved by works of obedience (to which Paul would agree).

With that explanation, then, there is no contradiction, since the two inspired authors were ostensibly discussing two different things (i.e., “meritorious” works [which don’t save] vs. “obedient” works [which do]).

But what exactly are “meritorious” works? And are they different from obeying God?

Categories of Works

The Bible certainly describes different kinds of works. They fall into the following broad categories:

(1) Miraculous Works. The supernatural operations of Christ were sometimes described as “mighty works” (Mt. 11.20; 13.58; Mk. 6.2).

At other times, they are the “works of God” (Jn. 9.3).

(2) Sinful Works. The Bible employs a variety of expressions for this category of works: “evil works” (Jn. 7.7; 1 Jn. 3.12), “wicked works” (Col. 1.21), “works of darkness” (Rom. 13.12; Eph. 5.11), “works of the flesh” (Gal. 5.19), “works of the devil” (1 Jn. 3.8), “dead works” (Heb. 9.14), hypocritical “works” that “deny” God (Tit. 1.16), even “cold” and “lukewarm” “works” (Rev. 3.15-16).

(3) Righteous Works. Finally, there are works of which God approves, which he has instructed us to perform. They are called: “good works” (Mt. 5.16; Acts 9.36; Rom. 2.10; Eph. 2.10; 1 Tim. 2.10; 6.18; Tit. 2.14; 3.14; Heb. 10.24), “works of God” (Jn. 6.28-29), “hot” works (Rev. 3.15), and “works of righteousness” (Tit. 3.5; Acts 10.35).

The works within this category fall under two main branches:

(a) works obeying the Law of Moses;

(b) works obeying the Law of Christ.

First, there are the “works of the law” of Moses (Rom. 9.32; Gal. 2.16; 3.2), which are “dead” to us, since God has repealed them (Rom. 7.1-6).

Indeed, New Testament authors maintain that, though the Law of Moses is “holy and just and good” and is therefore “profitable” “for our learning” (Rom. 7.12; 2 Tim. 3.16; Rom. 15.4), God no longer holds his people accountable to it (cf. Gal. 5.18; Rom. 7.6). Rather, we will now be judged by the “Law of Christ” (Gal. 6.2; cf. Heb. 1.1-2; Jn 12.48; 1 Cor. 9.21; 2 Cor. 5.10).

Hence, the works of the Law of Moses were once approved by God (i.e., “righteous” works; cf. Rom. 9.31), but since Christ instituted a “new covenant” (Mt. 26.28; cf. Jer. 31.31), which is “better” than the old (Heb. 8.6), God has “abolished” the Mosaic covenant (Eph. 2.15; cf. Col. 2.14; Heb. 8.6-13; 9.15ff; 2 Cor. 3.6-18; Acts 13.38-39; Gal. 3.23-25).

Second, therefore, the works of the Law of Christ are the “works of righteousness” that God expects us to obey today.

Meritorious Vs. Obedience?

That said, Paul never distinguishes between works of “merit” and works of “obedience.” To him, they are the same.

Indeed, logically, the only works that could be considered “meritorious” (deserving reward or praise) are those works that God has commanded — i.e., righteous works performed in compliance with God’s law. Consider:

(1) Miraculous works could not be meritorious, since they are not achieved by any human ability. How could we earn credit for something that is, by definition, beyond human power (cf. Jn. 3.2; 9.33)?

(2) Sinful works certainly could not merit God’s approval. Quite the opposite (cf. Ps. 7.11; Rom. 1.18)!

This leaves only righteous works performed in obedience to God’s commandments.

Certainly, the works of the Law of Moses cannot justify the sinner, since they have been repealed (cf. Gal. 2.16). Mosaic works merit nothing! Is there any reward or praise for obeying a dead law? Yet, Paul spoke of works that could potentially allow a man to “boast” — and denies that those boast-worthy works save us (Eph. 2.9).

Therefore, in Ephesians 2.8-9, Paul could not be referring to the works of the Mosaic regime as meritorious — allowing us to “boast” — especially since the remarks he made in that letter were directed to “Gentiles in the flesh” (Eph. 2.11) who were “strangers from the covenants of promise” (cf. Eph. 2.12). Not only is that Law now dead to all (thereby taking away its boast-worthy qualities), the Gentiles were never under those works in the first place!

The only works the Ephesians could potentially regard as “meritorious” (deserving reward or praise), then, are works performed in obedience to the Law of Christ.

Let’s develop this a little further.

In Galatians 3.21, Paul denies that we are “given life” by obedience to any “law given” — that includes not only the Law of Moses (expressly discussed in that context) but also the Law of Christ, for even the Law of Christ “confines all under sin” (Gal. 3.22; cf. 1 John 3.4) [3].

Paul’s point is this: the Law of the Lord condemns us; it cannot save us! Why? Because we all transgress it (cf. 1 Jn. 3.4; Rom. 3.23). Even if we should obey every commandment the Lord has given us, when we “stumble in one point,” we become “guilty of all” (Jms. 2.10). And with that guilt comes a “curse,” not life (cf. Deut. 27.26).

Accordingly, it is impossible to be saved by works of obedience to sacred law.

Furthermore, in Titus 3.5, when Paul says that we are saved “not by works of righteousness,” he shows that in his mind it is right-doing (obeying God) that could be considered “meritorious.” Indeed, if God only offers us salvation in response to our obedience to his commandments, then our salvation is given as a reward (like an employer paying his employee for doing the job he’s been assigned) — not as a gift. Paul emphatically denies this (cf. Rom. 4.4; 11.6).

In short, Paul and James are not discussing different kinds of works. Rather, they are both addressing works of obedience to the commandments of God. Paul specifically argues that we are not “saved” by doing works God has called “right,” lest we should have grounds to “boast” (Eph. 2.9; Tit. 3.5).

Does this mean, then, that obeying the gospel is not essential to our salvation? That would be an unwarranted conclusion. Again, Paul himself argues that we must “obey” God “from the heart” to be “set free from sin” (Rom 6.17-18).

There is a better explanation.

Different Sides of Salvation?

Another explanation — also erroneous — is that while Paul denies that works lead to salvation, James only argues that works are the result of salvation. Ostensibly, then, Paul and James do not contradict since they are talking about different time-frames of salvation (i.e., works before salvation vs. works after salvation).

Paul is indeed discussing the role of works before salvation, for he reminds the Ephesian Christians of the period in their lives when they were still “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2.1). And our salvation indeed leads to "good works" (Eph. 2.10).

However, it is false to argue that James is only addressing works performed after salvation.

First, James is speaking broadly about the “kind of faith” that can “save” a man — i.e., a faith leading to (before) a man’s salvation. He says there is no “benefit” if “someone (anyone) claims to be having faith but does not have works” (Ja. 2.14).

In other words, he is appealing to a universal principle, pertinent both to the alien sinner and to the child of God. His point is this: no one — regardless of who they are — can be saved by a workless faith, since that “kind of faith” is entirely bereft of “benefit.” If a workless faith cannot “save” the saved, how can it possibly “save” the unsaved?

Second, James’ language is very blunt. He affirms that we are “justified by works” (Ja. 2.21, 24). He is not addressing the fact that we are justified for (leading to) works.

The preposition, ek (“by”), is used “of motion outwards” (Abbott-Smith, 492), denoting either “as a result of” or “the source from which something flows” (Bauer, et al., 234). Justification comes out of—as a result ofworks. It is backward to suggest he is arguing that works come out of justification.

Therefore, to allege, as Protestant commentators do, that James only means that justification “leads to works” (i.e., works come by justification; Barnes, 47), when the inspired penman conversely says that justification comes “by” works is grossly irresponsible — a true example of “mangling” the words of Scripture (cf. 2 Cor. 4.2).

Third, James offers several examples to clarify his meaning.

(1) First, there is the negative example of the “demons” who “believe” (Ja. 2.19).

These are unsaved beings. James affirms that they have faith in God’s existence and power — and they “tremble” (phrisso—to shudder or shiver from fear) at it. Demons are not atheists! Yet, they fail to obey God’s word. Hence, James reasons that their workless faith is of no use to their salvation (Ja. 2.20).

Ponder this: If a workless faith cannot save unsaved demons, how could such a faith save the unsaved among us (the true object of James’ appeals)?

(2) Next, there is the positive example of “our father Abraham” who was “justified by works when he offered (a work of faith) Isaac his son upon the altar” (Ja. 2.21; cf. Gen. 22.1ff).

If Abraham had not complied with God’s command to sacrifice his son, would his faith, by itself, have justified him? Would he have been called “the friend of God” (Ja. 2.23)? James answers in the negative — “not by faith alone” (Ja. 2.24).

Rather, the only “kind of faith” that made Abraham right with God was one “completed” by “working together with his works” (Ja. 2.22) — i.e., when he believed in and worked to carry out the sacrifice of Isaac.

But someone says: Abraham was already a child of God at this point — with an established relationship with the father (cf. Gen. 12.1ff). His sacrifice of Isaac, then, came more than a quarter of a century after Abraham’s original calling.

This observation — however true — misses the point entirely. James’ argument does not rest upon where Abraham is in his relationship with God, but rather upon the role of faith and works.

James insists that Abraham was only “right” with God after he obeyed. If he had only believed in sacrificing Isaac but had not followed through with it, he would not have been “right” with God. And if that is true of Abraham, how could any alien sinner — not in a relationship with God already — think that merely believing in God, without obeying his instructions, would be enough to make him “right” with God? How unfair would that be to Abraham? And what would that say about God?

Hence, whether a man is in a covenant relationship with God or not, the principle that a “faith without works is dead” (Ja. 2.20) remains the same.

And note this: From the specific case of Abraham (Ja. 2.21-23), James applies the generic lesson to all:

“You see then that a man (any man, AP) is justified by works, not by faith only” (Ja. 2.24).

What was true of father Abraham is equally true for everyone else — saint and sinner alike.

Accordingly, being right with God requires a faith that works; faith alone cannot make someone right with God.

(3) Finally, there is the positive example of “Rahab the harlot” who was “also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way” (Ja. 2.25; cf. Josh. 2.1ff).

Unlike Abraham, Rahab was a Gentile sinner — outside a covenant relationship with God. She had only “heard” the reports of God parting the Red Sea for Israel and giving them victory over their enemies, yet she believed (cf. Josh. 2.10-11).

James argues, however, that Rahab was made right with God only when her faith became operative. Indeed, what use would her faith have been if she had only believed in God but had nothing to do with the Israelite spies? James insists that if she had a “faith without works,” her faith would have been just as “dead” as a “body” is “without the spirit” (Ja. 2.26).

In short, even alien sinners like Rahab need to engage in works of faith before they can be “justified” by God! Otherwise, their faith is useless.

Hence, James insists that works come before justification.

Finally, throughout this chapter James describes a workless faith as profitless (Ja. 2.14), unable to save (Ja. 2.14), dead (Ja. 2.17, 26), invisible (Ja. 2.18), useless (Ja. 2.20), imperfect (Ja. 2.22), like the demons (Ja. 2.18), unlike Abraham (Ja. 2.22-23), unlike Rahab (Ja. 2.25-26), and unable to justify (Ja. 2.24).

Now this: If a workless faith is all these things after salvation, is it reasonable to contend that the alien sinner can have such a profitless, dead, demonic, useless, imperfect, workless faith before salvation and still become right with God? As James put it rhetorically, “can” such a useless, dead “faith save him” (Ja. 2.14)? Of course not!

No, Paul and James are not discussing different sides of salvation. There is a better explanation.

Different Stages Of Grace

To recapitulate: When Paul says that we are not saved by works, and James says that we are saved by works, they are both talking about:

(1) the same things (righteous works of obedience and salvation from sin);

(2) the same time frame (before salvation, whether initial [entering into a relationship with God] or ultimate [entering into heaven]).

So then how do we reconcile these two statements?

The solution to this ostensible predicament is this: Paul and James are speaking of salvation in two different senses (i.e., with slightly different meanings).

Often overlooked in the discussion of faith and works is the fact that grace necessarily involves two phases: the offering of the gift and the receiving of the gift (for more, see: “Salvation: A Free Gift”). Thus, Paul and James are discussing different stages of God’s grace.

On one hand, Paul stresses the offering stage of grace (i.e., we are not offered salvation by our faithful works). James, however, stresses the receiving stage (we can only receive salvation by our faithful works).

Let’s flesh this out a bit more.

The Offer Of Salvation

This distinction is made especially clear in Paul’s letter to Titus.

When the apostle says:

“not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us” (Tit. 3.5),

he clarifies that he is addressing

when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us” (Tit. 3.4-5; see also Eph. 2.5 “when we were dead…”).

“Saved,” in other words, is used in the sense of “when” God made his grace available, which freely “appears” to “all people” (cf. Rom. 6.23; Tit. 2.11 [ESV]). Indeed, in this sense, Paul can affirm that the “living God…is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe” (1 Tim. 4.10; cf. Lk. 3.6; Rom. 5.18). Every single human being — including unbelievers and “especially” believers — has been given the gift of salvation. Indeed, it is for “whoever desires” it (Rev. 22.17).

Thus, God’s gracious offer of salvation was not provoked by anything man has done — and despite all the wrong we have done (Rom. 5.8f). It is his “gift” to our entire race (Eph. 2.8), freely "given to us in Christ Jesus before time began" (2 Tim. 1.9).

To put it another way: it is not as though man obeys and then God’s grace “appears” as a reward for that obedience — such would turn “grace” into “debt” and “righteousness” into “boasting.” Rather, “when” this gift of salvation “appeared” to every “man,” it did so “apart from works” (Rom. 4.6) — “not by works of righteousness” (Tit. 3.5).

The offer of salvation, then, is unconditional, entailing no works (obedient or otherwise) on man’s part.

The Reception Of Salvation

On the other hand, Paul insists that though the gift of salvation “appeared” to “all people” “apart from works,” there are those who “reject” the gift and make themselves “unworthy of everlasting life” (Acts 13.46). Though God is the “Savior of all men,” not all men choose to be saved.

So then, as Paul put it, how do we “receive the grace of God” (2 Cor. 6.1)? This is where both Paul and James are in perfect alignment.

God’s gift of salvation is unmerited — offered freely to the entire human population apart from works of obedience. But man must “obey the gospel” “by faith,” which God has made necessary to receive that gift and be made right with him (2 Thess 1.8; cf. Rom. 1.5; 10.16; 16.26; Heb 5.9; 11.8).

The case of Abraham — to which both Paul and James appeal to demonstrate their respective points — highlights both facets of salvation.

First, God made promises to that ancient patriarch before Abraham exercised faithfulness. God gave him many descendants, the land of Canaan, the Messiah, etc., in anticipation of Abraham’s faith, not in reaction to it. See these passages, noting words like “make,” “bless,” “give,” etc. (Gen. 12.2-3, 7; 15.2, 3, 7, 18).

Therefore, when Paul (Rom. 4.3, 9, 22) quotes Genesis 15.6 — “And Abraham believed God…” — he shows that it was the promises that God had already offered him (viz., that God would make him a “great nation” [Gen. 12.2] by giving him many “descendants” [Gen. 15.5]) that Abraham “believed.”

In other words, Abraham’s faith was in response to God’s gift — not the other way around! It is not as though Abraham believed and then God rewarded such faith with promises of blessing. If that were how the interaction transpired, then, as Paul reasons, Abraham could have “something to boast about” (Rom. 4.2). The promises would then be “counted” not “as grace but as debt” (Rom. 4.4) — i.e., it would be as if God owed Abraham these promises simply because of Abraham’s faithfulness.

In short, the gifts of God were freely given to the patriarch, not earned.

Second, Abraham never could have received these gracious promises without possessing an obedient faith. Note Abraham’s faithful activities after the gifts of God were freely offered to him:

(1) Abraham “departed” for the land promised to him just as God “told him” to do (Gen. 12.4, ESV). As the Hebrews’ writer put it:

“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance” (Heb. 11.8).

Thus, God gave Abraham the land of Canaan apart from his works of faith. But the man never would have “received” that land if he had failed to “depart” for it as God had instructed.

To put it another way, it is not as though:

(a) God commanded Abraham to leave his home;

(b) Abraham left his home in obedience to God’s law;

(c) and then God offered him the land of Canaan as a reward for that response.

In Romans 4, Paul observes that such would make “void” the need for “faith” in the promise — since, in that case, Abraham’s actions would have been conducted independently of the promise of Canaan (Rom. 4.14b).

For that matter, Paul continues, the “promise” itself would be of “no effect” (katargeo—inoperative; invalid; Rom. 4.14c). Why? If God only gave Abraham these promises after Abraham’s obedience to everything God had commanded him, God never would have promised them, for Abraham was a transgressor of divine Law (i.e., he failed to obey everything God commanded; cf. Rom. 3.23) — and that “brings about wrath” (sacred punishment), not blessing (Rom. 4.15).

Instead, God graciously offered Abraham the land first, apart from Abraham’s faithful actions (and despite his sins). Then, Abraham laid hold of that promised land by “departing” with an obedient faith.

“Therefore,” Paul concludes,

“it is of faith that it might be according to grace, so that the promise might be sure to all the seed” (Rom. 4.16).

In short, God gave Abraham the land of Canaan as an unmerited favor (not by works, per Paul), but Abraham had to “depart” with faith in that promise to receive it for himself (by works, per James).

(2) Furthermore, Abraham did more than just travel. He “built” altars to worship God (Gen. 12.7, 8; 13.4, 18). Please note that long before Moses said that Abraham “believed God and it was accounted to him for righteousness” (Gen. 15.6), Abraham had already been exercising an active faith — one that worshipped God. He did not have “faith alone” (Ja. 2.24).

(3) Additionally, Abraham “arose” and “walked in the land through its length and its width” (Gen. 13.7). As the Hebrews’ writer put it:

“By faith he dwelt in the land of promise” (Heb. 11.9).

The land was given to the patriarch before he arose, walked, and dwelt in it; yet, if he had failed to do these things by faith, he never could have received the promise.

(4) What’s more, Abraham begot children — including Isaac, the child of promise — with his wife Sarah (cf. Gen. 21.1ff; Heb. 11.12).

Though Abraham and his wife were aged, God promised to give him innumerable offspring (Gen. 15.1-4). It was concerning this particular promise that Moses remarked:

“And [Abraham] believed in the LORD, and He accounted it to him for righteousness” (Gen. 15.6).

Consider these points about this passage especially:

First, this was not the first time Abraham “believed God,” for as the Hebrews’ writer noted, Abraham had “departed” for Canaan “by faith” three chapters (about a decade) earlier (Gen. 12.4; Heb. 11.8; cf. Gen 16.3, 16). Therefore, it is a mistake to appeal to this passage alleging that God saves sinners by faith alone — as if Genesis 15.6 were Abraham’s initiation into righteousness by an inactive faith. Paul never argues that.

Rather, Abraham — as a child of God already — was deemed right with God because he continued to trust in God’s promises. Just like James, then, Paul appeals to a universal principle, applicable both to “the ungodly” (Rom. 4.5, as David stresses [Rom. 4.6; Ps. 32.1-2]) and the godly (like Abraham; Rom. 4.9ff) — viz., we are only declared “right” with God through our response of faith to God’s freely given promises.

Second, Bible writers often use the word, “believe,” as a summary of a person’s active trust in God. For example, after Peter delivered his sermon on the day of Pentecost, his auditors asked him: “What shall we do?” (Acts 2.37). The apostle responded:

Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (v. 38).

“So,” Luke explains, “those who received his word were baptized” (v. 41). Hence, they engaged in works (repentance and baptism) — obedient actions for which they accepted responsibility.

Then, Luke remarks:

“All who believed were together” (v. 44).

Luke does not mean they believed only; rather, in context, those “who believed” had done so by repenting and being baptized. In other words, since repentance and baptism were done by faith, the word “believed” summarizes their obedient trust in God.

Even so, when Moses and Paul observe that Abraham “believed God,” they do not mean that he merely assented to the truth of God’s promises. His faith, up to that point, was filled with action for God. And in that very passage, God had instructed Abraham to “look toward heaven and count the stars” (Gen. 15.5), to which he faithfully complied.

Too, James observes that Genesis 15.6 — “And Abraham believed God” — was later “fulfilled” “when he offered (faithfully obeyed God) his son Isaac upon the altar” (Ja. 2.21, 23).

“Believed,” then, summarizes Abraham’s active faith — as one who was willing to do what God required to receive his blessing by grace rather than by works of law.

Paul’s point is this: Abraham was not right with God based on his perfect obedience (i.e., by works of law; cf. Rom. 10.5; Lev. 18.5) — for he fell short of such a high mark (Rom. 3.23). Rather, he was made right with God because he obediently believed God’s grace. God did not respond to Abraham’s works with blessing; instead, Abraham responded with faithful obedience to the blessing God had freely offered him.

So, as Paul reasons, Abraham set aside his age and the age of his wife — both well past child-making years — refusing to “waver at the promise of God through unbelief.” Instead, he performed his marital duties,

“strengthened in faith, giving glory to God (i.e., was active in his faith, AP), and being fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform” (Rom. 4.19-21).

In short, God’s promise of countless offspring was offered graciously to Abraham independent of his works of obedience. But Abraham had to possess an active faith — by begetting children even in his old age — to “access” this grace (Rom. 5.2).

(5) Finally, Abraham “offered his son Isaac upon the altar” (Ja. 2.21; cf. Gen. 22.9ff; Heb. 11.17-18).

After Abraham offered up his son, God reassured the patriarch (note the active terminology):

“By Myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son— blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice” (Gen. 22.16-18).

Once more, God freely gave Abraham these promises — i.e., many descendants and the universal messiah — despite Abraham’s works. Yet, it was only after Abraham obeyed God’s stipulations for receiving these promises that Abraham could obtain them.

In summary, then, Abraham was given (offered) God’s promises “apart from works;” yet, in another sense, he was given (received) those promises “by works.”

Even so, God “saves” (offers salvation to) us before our faithful activities — indeed, “while we were still sinners” (Rom. 5.8). But, like Abraham, we can only “obtain that promise “after” a faith that “patiently” “obeys” his grace (Heb 6.13-15; Heb 5.9).


When Paul says we are not saved by works and James says we are saved by works, they are not discussing different kinds of works. Rather they both address “righteous” works performed in obedience to God’s commands.

Nor are they discussing different sides of salvation. Rather, they are both addressing works performed “before” salvation — works “by” which we are “justified.”

Instead, they are using the word, “salvation,” in two different senses:

(1) The offering of God’s grace “appears” “not by works.” Hence, there is a sense in which we are not saved by works of obedience; for even the vilest sinner in the world, who has never obeyed a single command of God, has nonetheless been given the gift of salvation. However, if he should reject such a gift, God will not force it upon him.

(2) The receiving of God’s grace can only occur “by works” of faith. Hence, there is a sense in which we are saved by works of obedience. If we “accept” the grace of God by faithfully complying with his terms for receiving it, then we will be saved — “not of ourselves” (for our law record is blemished, rendering us unjust), but by throwing ourselves upon his mercy with an obedient faith.

Friend, the gift of salvation is freely offered to the entire world. That includes you. But just as Abraham had to exercise a working faith to “receive” God’s promises, so you must hear God’s word (Rom. 10.17), believe it (Heb. 11.6), repent of sins (Acts 2.38), confess Jesus as the Son of God (Acts 8.37; Rom. 10.10), and be baptized to receive God’s freely-given gift of “the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2.38; cf. Mk. 16.16; Acts 22.16; Rom. 6.1-6; Gal. 3.27; 1 Pet. 3.21).

Will you not accept God’s gift of salvation — distributed “apart from” our works, yet received “by works” of faith?

End Notes

[1] In Biblical parlance, “salvation” and “justification” are interchangeable. It is the “divine process by which God acquits the sinner [salvation, AP] and reckons him as righteous” [justification, AP] (Jackson, 99; cf. Rom. 5.18-19), resulting in “peace with God” (cf. Rom. 5.1). Hence, though Paul spoke of being “saved…not of works” (Eph. 2.8-9) and James spoke of being “justified by works” (2.24), they are both referring to the same process (cf. Ja. 2.14, 21).

[2] Luther separated James from the other books of the New Testament in his 1522 translation — a section including three other “disputed” books (called “Antilegomena”).

[3] To be clear, sometimes Paul used the word, “law,” in the sense of a system or way of things rather than as a series of rules or restraints to which man should adhere.

For example, in Romans 8.2, the apostle spoke about the “law of sin and death” and the “law of the Spirit of life” that frees us from the former “law.” These are not laws in the same sense as the Law of Moses or Christ — a series of divine commandments man must obey. Rather, they refer to the contrasting order of the “Spirit” vs the order of “sin” — the order of “life” vs. the order of “death.” The divine arrangement brings life. The devilish arrangement brings death.

To put it another way: the “law of the Spirit of life” refers to the “gospel plan of salvation” in general (Boyd, 111) — a plan based not on law-keeping, but grace. This “plan” has released us from the system whereby sin brings about death.

Hence, there is no “law given” — i.e., a series of rules and restraints — that can “bring life,” including the Law of Christ (Gal. 3.21). However, there is a “law” —i.e., an order of things — that can bring life — viz., God’s system of grace (the gospel) that must be obeyed by faith (for more on this point, continue reading the article).

Abbott-Smith, G. A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament. T & T Clark, 1923.
Barclay, William. The Daily Study Bible: The Letters of James and Peter, revised edition.  Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1976.

Barnes, Albert. Notes On The New Testament: James, Peter, John, and Jude.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1953. 

Bauer, Walter, William F. Ardnt and F. Wilbur Gingrich.  A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature.  The University of Chicago Press, 1957. 

Boyd, James. System of Salvation: Comments On Romans.  Nashville, TN: Williams Printing Company, 1990. 

Jackson, Wayne.  Bible Words and Theological Terms Made Easy.  Stockton, CA: Courier Publications, 2002. 

Lenski, R.C.H. The Epistles to the Hebrews and to James. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1966. 

Luther, Martin. Preface to the Epistles of Saint James and Saint Jude (1522). “Luther's Treatment of the 'Disputed Books' of the New Testament.” Luther's Antilegomena. Accessed May 14, 2022.



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