You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (Jas. 2:24 ESV)
James begins this section (2:14-26) with a rhetorical question, “What does it profit, my brothers, if someone says he has trust but does not have works? Is that trust able to save him?” (2:14). Previously, James had asserted that believers are to be not only hearers of the word, but doers of the word as well (1:22-25). In addition, “religion that is pure and undefiled” is caring for those in need, such as orphans and widows (1:27).
In connection with his description of “true religion,” James now considers how showing favoritism does not cohere with having trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. He sketches an incident where a person professes to trust in Jesus but then fails to live according to the law of love taught by Jesus. Such behavior is inconsistent and hypocritical. Favoritism is incompatible with genuine trust in Jesus (2:1) and fails to demonstrate adherence to the law of love (2:9). And thus, James’ admonition is to “speak and act as people who are going to be judged by the law of liberty” (2:12).
James’ rhetorical question at the beginning of verse 14 is directed at a simple premise: how can trust be authentic if it is not revealed through a person’s actions? Furthermore, James goes one step further and draws out the conclusion of his premise: “Can trust that does not result in a change in behavior actually be a trust that saves a person?” This question gets to the heart of the matter that James is addressing: “What does genuine trust look like when it is demonstrated in the life of a believer?”
James asserts that if a person believes (i.e., trusts in Jesus) but does not have “works,” that person’s trust is dead. (2:17). In combination with James’ claim that “by works a person is declared righteous, and not only by trust” (2:24), the reader might be confused about what James is talking about. How are “works” tied in to a saving trust in Jesus? Moreover, these statements by James likely bring up many questions in connection with the writings of the Apostle Paul where Paul has made the exact opposite claim: “For we maintain it is by trust that a person is declared righteous, apart from works of law” (Rom. 3:28).
So, does this mean that James is contradicting Paul? The simple answer is “No, he’s not.” The presupposition that most readers bring with them when reading the letter of James is that when James uses words like “trust” and “works,” he is using them with the same connotation and meaning Paul does. But this is the error in logic that brings the tension between James and Paul in the first place: a logical error called “the fallacy of equivocation.” However, when the mistake of equivocating the usage of these words in Paul and James is clarified, it will help the reader to see how James is making an entirely different point than Paul and using the same terms but in a completely different context, and thus assigning them a different meaning.
Unlike Paul, James’ argument in this section is not about the means or merit of salvation. While Paul’s argument in passages like Romans chapter 3 and Galatians chapter 3 is preoccupied with delineating the basis for salvation, James’ focus is rather on what authentic trust in Jesus looks like in practical terms—that is, what does trust look like in a person’s life?
Both Paul and James use the word “trust” (Gk. pistis) to refer to “belief, confidence, or reliance upon something” but they use it in totally different contexts. Paul is differentiating between “trust” and “works” as the basis for salvation, whereas James’ attention is to express how “trust” and “works” are interconnected and cannot be divorced from each other. This comparison might seem confusing until it is understood that Paul’s use of the word “works” is always with a view to “works of the law,” whereas James’ use of the word “works” is not in reference to law-observing works, but to “works of trust,” i.e., works that issue from having trust in Jesus. This critical distinction between the contexts of Paul and James is the crux of the tension that is often presumed to be between the two authors.
With that clarification made, what is James actually saying about how a person is justified “by works…and not only by trust”? (2:24). First, James’ contrast in verse 18 between a person who has “trust” and a person who has “works” is not a comparison between “trust” and “works” themselves, but instead between a person who has “trust” and yet does not live according to that trust, and a person who trusts and then lives according to that trust. In conjunction with James’ exhortation in 1:22-25, the first description refers to those who hear the word and believe but never actually obey the word they hear. The second description refers to those who hear the word and then do the word by obeying. So, when James speaks about the one who has “works,” he is speaking about the person whose actions (i.e., their works) reveal that they truly believe and trust the word they have heard, and thus, they genuinely trust in Jesus as their Lord and Christ.
To prove his point, James makes the striking claim that even demons believe in God but never have works that show their trust in the truth they know (2:19). They understand the truth and “believe” that God is real and Jesus is the Christ, but their manner of conduct (i.e., lack of obedience to God) reveals that they do not have genuine trust. Instead, they simply are afraid of God because they know their judgment is inevitable. This exemplifies how “trust apart from works is barren” (2:20), because if a person’s trust is authentic, it will be accompanied by the type of actions which prove its genuineness. To put it succinctly, trust without transformation is fake trust. James’ point is that a person can mentally assent to a fact, but if no action is taken in light of their belief, it is not true trust—trust is proven to be real through the demonstration of one’s actions (i.e., works).
James takes the lives of Abraham and Rahab as illustrations of his argument. They both trusted in God, but James highlights how that trust was proven to be real by their actions (“works”). Abraham obeyed God’s commandment to bind his son Isaac and sacrifice him on Mt. Moriah (Gen. 22:1-19), and Rahab believed in God and showed her allegiance and trust by hiding the Israelite messengers when they came to Jericho (Josh. 2:2-21). The “good works” shown by their obedience and submission to God’s authority proved their trust was genuine—they trusted and thus obeyed. And that is why when James says a person is justified “by works” and “not only by trust,” he is claiming that if a person’s life does not demonstrate the obedient action that results from true trust, then it is not true trust. Mere “trust” (belief) like demons have does not justify a person. Only genuine trust, which is proven by one’s actions is a trust that saves and is the evidence that a person is a doer of the word, and not a hearer only.