The most famous verse in the book of James may be the assertion that faith without works “is dead” (2:17). What is the relationship between faith and works in the Christian life? Does James contradict Paul’s teaching that we are saved by faith apart from works (Rom. 4:6; Eph. 2:9; Titus 3:5)? In fact, James and Paul agree. James assumes the priority of faith, and Paul acknowledges that those who are saved by faith have been “created in Christ Jesus to do good works” (Eph. 2:10).
We do not add our actions to faith in order to be saved. Faith expresses itself in action. For this reason, James speaks of action as the evidence of a faith that already exists. James affirms what Paul teaches by contrasting true faith with false or “dead” faith. Works or actions are the fruit of a faith that saves, not the basis for our salvation. We are saved by faith in Jesus Christ apart from any effort of our own. Yet those who are saved in this way are enabled to put their faith into practice by the transforming work of Christ and the power of His Spirit.
When considering the relationship between faith and works, the order is critical. In the Christian life faith always precedes works. If we reverse the order, the relationship between the two becomes toxic. Our acts of obedience are grounded in the knowledge that Jesus earned our righteous standing by His own obedience, and He paid the penalty for our sins by shedding His blood on our behalf. This is the only work sufficient enough to reconcile us to God (Heb. 9:14; 1 Peter 3:18).
Consequently, our good works are not an attempt to earn salvation after the fact. Instead, they are expressions of gratefulness for a salvation already received. The believer’s good works belong to the realm of sanctification, the progressive work of God’s Spirit by which He makes us holy. Sanctification follows justification, God’s declaration of our righteous standing based upon the finished work of Jesus Christ. We contribute nothing to our justification, but we cooperate with the process of sanctification. As Martin Luther observed, before we take Christ as our example we must first receive Him as a gift.
To learn more, James: Faith that Works by R. Kent Hughes (Crossway).