The book of James is sometimes confusing for the Christian who, rightly, believes that we are saved by grace alone. Without careful study and consideration, it seems like a legalistic book which contradicts the teachings of Paul regarding salvation. However, faith and works are not opposed to each other. It is crucial to understand their relationship, otherwise we will drift into legalism or licentiousness.
Good works are an essential and inevitable component of the Christian life because they are the fruit of saving faith.
First, let’s look closely at James 2:14–26. James begins by asking a jarring question, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (2:14). This question might seem confounding, especially if we recall Ephesians 2:8–9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” If Paul teaches that salvation isn’t the result of works, why would James link works to salvation?
To address any potential misunderstanding, James clarifies by expanding his line of questioning, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (2:15–16). By providing a specific example of faith in action, James exposes the folly of those who say one thing and don’t live it out. Telling a poor person to “be warmed and filled” is disingenuous if you’re unwilling to feed and clothe them. Likewise, claiming faith while neglecting the active implications of faith is worthless. Works matter. They matter so much that James boldly claims, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). This is a serious warning to heed.
A faith without works isn’t just weak or immature—it was never alive in the first place!
The problem that James aims to address is man’s propensity to profess a faith they haven’t been transformed by. He is graciously providing a warning to those who have a false assurance of salvation. Regurgitating the facts of salvation isn’t the same as receiving the gift of salvation. Knowing about God isn’t the same as knowing God. After all, James points out, even the demons believe in God and shudder (James 2:19). Yet, theirs isn’t the reverent fear produced by salvation. However accurately the demons may recognize God’s power and glory, they still despise him and rebel.
So, it is important for us to understand that James is not denying that salvation is by grace alone. Nor is he arguing that works lead to salvation. Rather, he is teaching that works are essential because they are the proof of saving faith. This is why he says, “I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18, emphasis mine) and also points to the example of Abraham and Rahab: Abraham showed his faith by offering Isaac as a sacrifice, and Rahab showed her faith by helping the Israelite messengers (James 2:21–26). They entrusted themselves to God for salvation, and that trust bore fruit. It was God’s grace that established their faith and empowered their good works.
James is not the only figure in the New Testament to emphasize the relationship between faith and works. In the gospel of John, Jesus states, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (14:15). This statement alone should extinguish any notion that obedience isn’t an essential fruit of salvation.
If we say we love Jesus but don’t obey him, our words are meaningless and our faith is dead.
So far we have seen why the fruit of good works is essential. Now, let’s consider why it is inevitable. Faith is a gift from God. When we receive it, it changes us because it unites us to Christ. In Christ, we are justified before God and freed from the bondage of sin (Rom. 5:1, 6:6–7). In Christ, we are reconciled to the Father and recreated into His likeness (Eph. 4: 24). In Christ, we are filled with the Holy Spirit and enabled to walk in obedience (Gal. 5:17–25). Though the process of sanctification happens over time, anyone born again as a child of God will grow into the image of their Father. “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9).
However much we may fail and continue wrestling with sin, good works are always the byproduct of living faith. John Murray writes, “Regeneration is the renewing of the heart and mind, and the renewed heart and mind must act according to their nature.”
The reason good works are an inevitable outcome of faith is because they become part of our very nature.
A final detail worth noting is that good works produced by faith, while manifested in a variety of ways, always include deeds of mercy. This is extensively taught throughout Scripture. In our key text, James is intentional to spotlight the necessity of mercy (James 2:15–16). In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) and the cautionary description of final judgement (Matt. 25:34–46), Jesus demonstrates that it is deeds of mercy which show who are children of God. Likewise, John writes, “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:16–18).
When God’s love abides in us, it causes us to care for the spiritual and physical needs of others.
Salvation is by grace alone. And yet, to downplay the role of good works in the life of the Christian is to truncate the effects of the gospel and reject the fullness we receive in our union with Christ. We have not just died to sin and been saved from punishment—we have been resurrected with Christ to live a life of good works, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).
I found John Murray and Herman Bavinck’s work especially insightful in defining the relationship between faith and works. They write respectively:
“Justification is by faith alone, but not by a faith this is alone. Justification is not all that is embraced in the gospel of redeeming grace. Christ is a complete Savior and it is not justification alone that the believing sinner possesses in him. And faith is not the only response in the heart of him who has entrusted himself to Christ for salvation. Faith alone justifies but a justified person with faith alone would be a monstrosity which never exists in the kingdom of grace. Faith works itself out through love (cf. Gal. 5:6). And faith without works is dead (cf. James 2:17–20).”
“Christ Himself is our righteousness, and He is at the same time our wisdom, sanctification, and redemption (1 Cor. 1:30). One cannot accept the one benefit of Christ without the other, for they all together lie contained in His person. Whoever accepts Christ as his righteousness by faith, at the same time receives Him as his sanctification. Christ cannot be accepted in parts. Whoever possesses Christ possesses Him in His entirety, and he who lacks His benefits lacks His person also.”
WISE series (Women in Seminary Education): This article was originally an assignment I submitted to Westminster Theological Seminary, where I am pursuing my Master of Arts in Theological Studies.
 John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1955), 111.
 Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, 138.
 Herman Bavinck, The Wonderful Works of God (Glenside, PA: Westminster Seminary Press, 2019), 442.