Are we saved by grace or works? Do Paul and James contradict each other? These questions pop up occasionally, like in class the other day. In case you’ve wondered as well, I’ll take you through the issue.
How Are You Saved?
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork,created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Ephesians 2:8-10 NIV
You’re saved by the gift and favor of God (grace), through the trust and assurance (faith) that He provides, so that no one can brag. God provides that faith when you hear the word about Christ (Romans 10:17).
Here’s the part people don’t quote very often…
For we are God’s handiwork,created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Ephesians 2:10 NIV
Created with a purpose, to do good works/deeds—we’ll get back to that—that God has already prepared in advance for us to do. Being a saved, adopted child of God isn’t just a Get Out Of Hell Free card. God has some important Kingdom business planned for us. James calls people out that ignore that last part.
Faith Without Deeds
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.
In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
James 2:14-26 NIV
I love the book of James. It’s been my favorite since God slapped me with James 3:1 one night. I was struggling with an issue, a newborn Christian, praying about and leaning towards lecturing the parties involved. It wasn’t about me. I was just gonna get on my high horse.
A still, small voice inside said, “James 3”.
“What?” I’d never read James before.
I popped it open on my Bible app and the first thing I read was, “Not many of you should become teachers…” I had to sit down. Then I devoured the chapter. Every word piercing deep. I call it the night that God told me to shut up.
What Is James Talking About?
He’s talking about the saving faith that you have is so transforming your life that it’s evident to those around you. Mere intellectual assent doesn’t do that. Acknowledging Jesus walked the earth isn’t the same as following him as Lord and Savior.
Our actions reveal our worldviews. When we say one thing but do another, it’s hypocrisy, no matter the worldview. When we say it, and live it out, we back it up with some credibility—revealing the strength of our faith.
In James’ examples, Abraham and Rahab believed first, which is faith. That’s what justified them. Then they acted on that faith, which proved that they really trusted God.
Look at the context of the passage rather than just a single verse. Be a good exegete. Admittedly, it is
confusing. Martin Luther, one of the leaders of the Reformation, allegedly said, “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.”
How Can I Reconcile Ephesians 2 and James 2?
I outlined the two passages and they mesh really well as you will see:
Salvation is a gift of God
by stepping into the trust that God enables
not because of anything you have done.
Crafted by God
to do the good works God set for you.
Showing your faith through your works
that authenticate the testimony of a changed life.
Now the question is, do you have a dead faith? All that a Christian does is because of God and through His power. Go to Jesus, accept the gift, get the true faith, and live life abundantly.