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Q&A: Does James Teach Salvation by Works?

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by Jason Smathers on July 2, 2012

Q: Does James teach salvation by works? What exactly is the place of works in the life of the believer? Are works optional? If works are not optional, how can it be said that they are not required for salvation—in other words, that we are saved by works?

A: James does not teach of salvation by works. Rather, James harmonizes well with the rest of scripture.

James 2:14 (ESV)
14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?

In this rhetorical question, James is pointing out that we will know our brothers by their fruit and a person who claims to have faith but has no works does not have real faith.

These are the people similar to those Jesus addressed in Matthew 7:21-23 (ESV) :
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’
23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

This doesn’t mean that works are optional, it only means that works are not what causes salvation. Works are the right response to salvation, thus come after salvation and in no way cause salvation. All Christians should do good works as the right response to God’s grace.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Lucas Dawn July 2, 2012 at 3:47 pm

Hi Jason,

I agree that salvation begins with faith, and that true faith will have good works. Yet the passage in Mt. 7:21-23 is about the final salvation, entering the kingdom after all is said and done. If our works (of faith) fall short, and are full of disobedience, then those works expose our false faith and, in turn, disqualify us for that final salvation. In other words, we are finally saved (or not) according to how we did the will of Jesus’ Father; because our works show what kind of faith we had, they become the basis for our final salvation (or rejection). Final salvation comes after our works, and depends on our works (of true faith).

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Jason Smathers July 2, 2012 at 5:21 pm

Lucas,

I disagree with the notion that one can have beginning salvation, but not final salvation or any other notion that implies that justification is not an instantaneous event that cannot be reversed. We are justified through faith alone. At the moment of our faith, we are justified completely and forever.

You final statements are clearly Roman Catholic: “they [works] become the basis for our final salvation (or rejection)” and “Final salvation comes after our works, and depends on our works (of true faith).” I of course reject such notions that salvation can be earned. Salvation is the unmerited favor of God and can never be earned. To say that works are the basis of salvation is to say that one can merit salvation.

A person who leads a life characterized by sin through their last days would indicate that they were never justified and never had saving faith. However, once a person has saving faith, they will never loose it, as salvation is a complete act of God and God has promised never to cast out any of His people, nor can man undo what God has done. We cannot thwart God’s plans, he is the Almighty and we are mere men.

Blessings,
Jason

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