James vs. Paul: Salvation by Grace or Works?

James Walker

Is salvation by faith in Christ alone or in faith plus works?

This is one of the most important questions that must be answered when Christians witness to those in the cults.

Almost uniformly, cults teach that salvation is obtained through a combination of a person's faith plus works.

In other words, the cults will almost always teach that eternal life is based at least in part on doing a certain list of good deeds or serving the organization with time or money.

The challenge for the Christian, is to convince them to stop trusting their own good works or obedience for salvation and to put all of their faith and trust in Jesus alone for eternal life.

Often a Christian will rightly turn to the Apostle Paul's words in Ephesians 2:8-10, Titus 3:5, or Romans chapters three and four to document the Biblical doctrine of salvation through faith alone.

But, at this point almost every cult member -- whether MormonJehovah's WitnessWorldwide Church of God, etc -- will turn to the book of James to defend their belief that works are necessary for salvation.

The Clash of the Apostles

Paul says that God is the, "...justifier of him which believeth in Jesus ...By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law" (Romans 3:26-28).

However James states, "Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only" (James 2:24).

When witnessing to someone in a cultChristians should be prepared to deal with this apparent contradiction. The nature of the Gospel hinges on a proper understanding of the relationship of faith and works in salvation.

Justification by Faith

The major theme of Paul's letters is that salvation is a totally free gift -- not earned by good works, rituals, or obeying laws. Eternal life is by grace through faith.

In Romans chapters three and four alone, Paul states this principle no fewer than fifteen times. A few examples are:

"Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight...." (Rom. 3:19).

"But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested...." (3:20).

"Being justified freely by his grace...." (3:24).

"...Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness" (4:3).

"But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justified the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness." (4:5).

"...God imputeth righteousness without works" (4:6).

Therefore it is of faith that it might by grace...." (4:15).

Justification by Works?

However, when turning to James one finds what appears at first to be a direct contradiction. James states:

"...though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?" (James 2:14).

"Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone...." (2:17).

"But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?" (2:20).

"Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only." (2:24).

This apparent conflict between the two epistles has caused confusion on the part of many Christians when cult members point to James as "proof" that one must earn salvation.

As one commentator, Dr. D. Edmond Hiebert, observes, "This paragraph [James 2:14-26] is one of the most difficult, and certainly the most misunderstood, sections in the epistle.

"It has been a theological battle ground; James often has been understood as contradicting Paul's teaching that salvation is by faith alone apart from works" (The Epistle of James, D. Edmond Hiebert, p. 174).

Reformer Martin Luther, the champion of salvation through faith alone sola fide, once even called the book of James "a right strawy epistle" because of this difficult passage (ibid).

While some critics may even point to this as an example of the Bible contradicting itself, a close examination shows no contradiction between Romans and James -- both Paul and James were teaching the same Gospel.

What Kind of Faith?

In different contexts, the words belief or faith can mean a number of various things.

Someone may say, "I believe we will have rain tomorrow." This kind of belief is simply expressing an opinion or fact.

This type of belief, even when applied to religious truths, is not the kind of faith that saves. The devilsbelieve that there is one God (a true Biblical fact) but this is not saving faith (James 2:19).

It is only agreeing with a fact such as someone who believes two plus two equals four.

As James Adamson points out the word faith (pisteuo) "...is used sometimes to mean mere intellectual belief in God's existence, a faith which even the devils share. (The Epistle of JamesThe New International Commentary on the New Testament p. 125.

It is this type of faith that James is attacking.

He rightly points out that one can distinguish between this type of "dead" faith and saving faith.

Saving faith will produce a changed life. A person who is saved is trusting Christ alone for their salvation, not their works (ie Romans).

However, once saved by grace alone, a true Christian will want to practice good works such as feeding the poor (ie James). Not to earn salvation -- which they already have -- but because they are saved. (see Ephesians 2:8-10).

John Calvin reduce this principle to a sentence: "Faith alone justifies, but the faith which justifies is not alone" (The Principles of Theology, p. 61).

James is warning of a belief in facts -- a type of faith that never results in a changed life.

Saving faith comes when someone stops trusting their own goodness or work (Phil. 2:8) and puts all their trust in Christ for salvation. And this type of faith will naturally exhibit good works.

Two Deadly Kinds of Faith

Paul and James were defending two different errors.

As one author explains, "They are not antagonists facing each other with crossed swords; they stand back to back, confronting different foes of the Gospel" (Alexander Ross, The Epistles of James and John, p. 53).

James was warning of the wrong kind of faith -- that is mere intellectual assent or belief in facts. Even if these facts are true, this type of faith can not save.

Paul's concern is over a different error. Faith with the wrong object. Paul was addressing those who were trusting in their own works or obedience rather than trusting Christ alone for salvation.

This kind of faith -- faith in works -- does produce a changed life. Like the Pharisees, people who believe that works are necessary for salvation are zealous to perform these works.

But neither faith in facts nor faith in works saves.

For both Paul and James, true salvation is found in believing, trusting, and having faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross alone for salvation.

This type of faith, true faith, will result in two things: eternal life and a desire to do good works.


The list of works necessary for salvation varies from cult to cult. A cult member will often feel that their eternal life is based on all or some of the following:

  • Donating money or tithes
  • Participation in secret rituals
  • Abstaining from certain foods or beverages
  • Spending hours each month fund-raising
  • (through literature distribution, or
  • the selling of trinkets or flowers)
  • Recruitment of new members
  • Observing certain holy days
  • Not observing certain holy days or holidays
  • Obeying the Ten Commandments and/or other laws
  • Baptism by the organization
  • Maintaining membership in the group
  • Abstaining from medical treatments
  • Purchasing the programs or literature needed for enlightenment
  • Loyalty and obedience to superiors
  • Limiting contact with former members or others outside the group

Although some of the items on this list are worthy goals that Christians should be involved in, none of these help gain eternal life. Salvation is a free gift (Titus 3:5). If someone is trusting any of these good deeds to help them earn salvation, they are not fully trusting Jesus as their Savior.

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