In my last post, I discussed Paul’s teaching that we are justified by faith and faith alone. James 2:14-26 is often seen as a contradiction of Paul, but what James said was not directed at Paul, and for that matter what Paul said had not been directed at James. Paul was speaking to a group of people who felt that they could earn their righteousness by obeying the law to the letter, and often to the point of neglecting mercy and compassion. James was speaking to his brothers and sisters—those who already claimed to have a faith in God but were not showing it in their actions.
James is not saying that we need to have both faith and works in order to earn salvation. If that were the case, we would be claiming that Christ is not our only saviour, but that we are saviours for ourselves. This is not supported in the rest of scripture at all, and it is not what James is teaching either. Faith in Christ is all we need for salvation, but true faith is more than just saying so; it is more than just intellectual agreement. That is an essential first step, but it is not the last step. True faith naturally results in obedience to Christ, and in the character of Christ being displayed through us. Good works are the only way that other people will be able to see our faith.
If we were to go to court to claim our innocence in some matter, we would be judged on our actions; that is how the jury would decide if what we said is true. The same principle applies to our faith. Our actions are the evidence that shows the world that our faith is real. Good works are the fruit of the tree that has faith as its root. You are known by the fruit that you bear. (Matthew 12:33)
It is a case of what motivates us. Are we doing what we believe is right, as Paul’s audience was, because we are trying to earn gold stars, or are we doing what we believe God wants us to do because we love Him and want to serve Him? Ephesians 2:8-10 ties it all together for us. We are saved by faith, but we were designed to do good works.