Quick Challenge Answer: Does James Chapter 2 Teach Salvation By Works?

Does James Chapter 2 teach salvation by works?  Reading the Bible can be challenging.  Sometimes we find verses that seem to contradict what we see in other spots in the Bible.  James chapter 2 seems to be one of these verses.  The message contained in it seems to argue that one can be saved by doing good works. 

Several groups, such as the Church of Latter-Day Saints, use this verse as a proof text of their assertion that works are necessary to obtain salvation.  They claim that Christians practice “Cheap Grace”, in which the claim salvation but then “Live like hell”.  So, what does the verse actually say and mean?  Let’s first take a look at verse itself. 

James Chapter 2 vs. 14-24

14 What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does itprofit? 17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

Quick Challenge Answer: Does James Chapter 2 Teach Salvation By Works?

18 But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! 20 But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22 Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? 23 And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. 24 You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.

What Is The Time And Circumstances For James’ Epistle?

As you can see, these verses seem pretty hard to align with the idea that we are saved by faith alone.  Is James advocating for works + faith in this passage? Does James Chapter 2 Teach Salvation By Works? Let’s see what we can flesh out.  

The key to unlocking this passage is to understand who it was being written to.  James is believed to be one of the earliest Epistles written.  He was writing to the earliest believers who were based in Jerusalem.  His main concern is how the new faith these people experienced was going to manifest itself in their daily lives.  In other words, he’s more concerned with the outward expression of faith, rather than the means to obtain it. 

James uses an Old Testament example to make his point.  He recounts Abraham’s offering to sacrifice Isaac as a sign of Abrahams faith.  This example would surly resonate with his audience, who had Jewish roots to their newfound faith in Christ.  

The Solution

When Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac, it was an outward expression of his faith.  And this is the key to what James is talking about here.  Works become the outward expression of our faith.  No one can know what we believe simply by looking at us.  Christians lives should be transformed by their commitment to follow Jesus.

This is the difference in the “Cheap Grace” described by the LDS church.  James is telling us that if we are not transformed, we do not have a saving faith.  Our works are the outward evidence of this transformation.  

One word of caution before we end.  It can be tempting to look at Christian and assume that they do not have a saving faith because we don’t see these outward signs.  We should be cautious in making these judgements.  I know many Christians that are quite generous, but also do not go around bragging about it.  They may choose to remain anonymous in their giving and in their helping of others.  We shouldn’t make assumptions about people’s salvation based on our limited knowledge of their works.  

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