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Why does James 2 say we’re justified by works?

Quick Answer: Why does James 2 say we’re justified by works? While many believe James 2 teaches salvation by doing good works, this is not what the passage means. James is actually saying we’re saved by a living faith that involves the one-time decision to open the door of our lives to Jesus Christ (just like Rahab opened the door for the spies) and to offer ourselves to God (just like Abraham offered Isaac). This “living faith” that saves is contrasted against the dead faith that even demons have (James 2:19).

Diving Deeper: James 2 can be a confusing passage if some of its statements are removed from their context. Three different times, the passage states that we are “justified by works”:

1. “Was our father Abraham not justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? (James 2:21)
2. “
You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24)
3. “
In the same way, was Rahab the prostitute not justified by works also when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?” (James 2:25)

While some sweep this under the rug, acting like these challenging statements don’t exist, others (like Martin Luther) have confronted them head on yet decided James doesn’t belong in the canon of Scripture!

Here, we propose one can confront these three passages and explain them accurately (due to James’s definition of “works”) without finding any conflict with justification by faith. Here, James is not referring to a lifelong track record of good works that make a person right before God. No, the examples James gives of Abraham and Rahab both involve one-time decisions.

This is much like what Jesus taught when He said: “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent” (John 6:29). James is simply contrasting the living faith that saves versus the dead faith of demons (James 2:19).

Some have attempted to explain this challenging passage by purporting that James is not talking about being justified before God but being justified before men. While this is a creative take, there is simply no support for this view in the passage itself. In fact, it is salvation itself (justification before God) that is clearly in focus throughout the passage, and there is no mention at all of getting right before men:

  • “Can that faith save him? ” (James 2:14)
  • And Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness (James 2:23)

Without a doubt, James is talking about what kind of faith saves a person and makes them righteous. His point is simply that it is a living faith that involves opening the door of our lives (just like Rahab opened the door) and offering ourselves to God (just like Abraham offered Isaac). This one-time decision to call upon the Lord is the response to the Gospel that truly saves.

“This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent” (John 6:29).

Let’s Make It a Conversation!
1. How have you understood the faith and works passage in James 2?
2. Can you see how the examples of Abraham and Rahab shed light on James’ meaning?
3. React to this statement: The only “work” God requires is to believe in Jesus.


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101 Bible Questions - Book101 Bible Questions: And the Surprising Answers You May Not Hear in Church is now available on Amazon!

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