James 2:21—If Abraham was saved by works, why does the Bible say he was justified by faith?
Problem: Paul clearly teaches that we are justified by faith and not by works (Rom. 1:17). He declared, “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness” (Rom. 4:5). It is “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us” (Titus 3:5). For “by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph. 2:8–9).
But James seems to flatly contradict this by declaring, “a man is justified by works, and not by faith only” (2:24), for “faith without works is dead” (2:26). Indeed, while Paul said Abraham was justified by faith (Rom. 4:1–4), James declares, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works” (2:21). Are these not flatly contradictory?
Solution: James and Paul would be contradictory if they were speaking about the same thing, but there are many indications in the text that they are not. Paul is speaking about justification before God, while James is talking about justification before humans. This is indicated by the fact that James stressed that we should “show” (2:18) our faith. It must be something that can be seen by others in “works” (2:18–20). Further, James acknowledged that Abraham was justified before God by faith, not works, when he said, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness” (2:23). When he adds that Abraham was “justified by works” (v. 21), he is speaking of what Abraham did that could be seen by people, namely, offer his son Isaac on the altar (2:21–22).
Further, while Paul is stressing the root of justification (faith), James is stressing the fruit of justification (works). But each man acknowledges both. Immediately after affirming that we are “saved by grace through faith” (Eph. 2:8–9), Paul quickly adds, “we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). Likewise, right after declaring that it is “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us” (Titus 3:5–7), Paul urges that “those who have believed in God should be careful to maintain good works” (Eph. 2:8). The relation between Paul and James can be summarized this way:
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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.