Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?
It was this verse, specifically the phrase “justified by works” which proved such irritation to Martin Luther. The reformer was rightly so set against the heresy of salvation through works, that he called the entire letter of James “an epistle of straw.” It is critical to remember that James was not contradicting the doctrine of salvation by the means of faith. Rather he was declaring that a saving salvation will demonstrate an outcome of a faith that bears a changed life and fruitful works.
James, in fact, was a fan of Paul. Consider that it was James who fully supported Paul’s preaching of salvation by grace through faith (Acts 15:13-21). Later, James defends Paul’s reputation among the Jewish believers in Jerusalem (Act 21:15-24).
The key to the supposed tension on this verse is the word “justified.” The language must be handled with accuracy. Depending on context, the verb can mean either “to declare righteous,” as in a legal court case; or “to demonstrate as righteous.” The first case may be simply a verdict of “not guilty,” even if a person is guilty as charged. The second case is defined as “rightness demonstrated by actions observable to everybody.” Paul and James each simply pick up one of these two uses of the verb, so that the same word forms two sides of the same coin. Paul comments on the first; James the second.
Paul looks at the root of salvation– you are saved through faith and nothing added to faith in the provision of the complete and finished salvation offered through the blood of Jesus. James looks at the fruit of salvation– after salvation, after the root of faith gets planed, our lives ought to be bearing the fruit of good works. Paul is viewing the born-again life from the perspective of God. James through the lens of mankind.
In review and conclusion, Paul wrote in Romans 3:28– “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.” Paul shows how an unbeliever becomes a Christian, emphasizes the root of salvation and an inward disposition. James (see heading verse) writes how a believer is to live as a Christian. He emphasizes the fruit of salvation and the presence of outward actions. Fruit bearing is not a function added to a plant, but rather is an integral part of its design and purpose. The seed itself, even before going into the soil, has the genetic structure for producing the proper fruit. Ephesians 2:10 is quite appropriate here– “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” Jesus said in John 15:5– “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit…”
Abide in Jesus, be fruitful and next time you’re berry-picking or at Rays think on these things–