At its core this is a “works” vs “grace” debate. James 2:24 is often quoted in isolation from the rest of the passage in James to suggest that people achieve salvation by means of good works and deeds. Without considering the passage as a whole the verse reads, “Ye see that by works a man is justified, and not only by faith.”
When considered alone, this verse would seem to indicate that a person is justified (saved), not by faith alone, but with the addition of good works. Never, but never consider a verse alone. Always take the full passage into consideration and the total of the scriptures for that matter.
Before considering the whole of this passage, read some of the passages that clearly detail a grace system of salvation that is void of human good works.
“But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.” (Romans 11:6)
Few believers will argue that we are saved by the grace of God. The previous verse from Romans clearly states that grace is no longer grace with the addition of works. When you attempt to add to God’s perfect plan for salvation by adding your good deeds you essentially nullify grace. If a person is to be saved by grace, but nullifies the same grace with works, grace is no longer grace and the person is not to be saved. Space and time will not allow for an examination of the book of Romans or the total of any of the books considered here, but few will disagree that the book of Romans is the book on grace. Please make this book part of your own personal study and read the book of Romans.
“He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit,” (Titus 3:5)
“Deeds” is another word for “works.” All of your good deeds are not enough to earn you salvation. Works nullify grace and deeds nullify God’s good mercy and grace.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2: 8-9)
This passage in Ephesians makes it perfectly clear, we are saved by grace through faith, and there is nothing you can do to save yourself outside of faith. This faith is a gift from God, but it is no longer a gift if you try to earn it. Once you try to earn your salvation with good works and deeds, grace is no longer grace because you are asking to be compensated for something you have done. This passage includes that added warning to those who would boast about being able to work their way to heaven. It takes a boastful person to proclaim that their works and deeds earned their salvation. This is considered boasting in part because the message is that Christ’s work on the cross was not enough to save, or that their works and deeds are somehow comparable to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Now back to James 2:24. How does James 2:24 fit with the whole of the bible? A few verses earlier we read, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” (James 2:10) This earlier verse in James is consistent with the other verses and passages considered above. The Mosaic Law was given to the Jews to prove that they could not live a perfect life, and because of sin they would need a savior. A works system of salvation is doomed to fail. Our good works cannot save and as James points out in verse 10 it just takes one stumble to become guilty. And we are all guilty and need a savior. So not only does James 2:24 seem to contradict the rest of the bible, it would also seem to conflict with a verse found in the same chapter. To reconcile the issue the believer must consider the entire passage and when finished there is no conflict at all.
The second chapter of James opens with “My brethren, hold not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons.” In the next two verses the writer gives an example of two men who walk into a synagogue and are judged by others according to their clothing. In James 2:4 the writer begins to address the specific issue of believers judging other believers. “Do ye not make distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?” Therefore, we see that this second chapter in James speaks to believers judging other believers. The next several include a reminder that we should love one another, not judge, and to judge is in fact sin. This leads to James 2:10, see above, the reminder that it only takes one stumble, one sin to result in the need for a savior.
So the first half of the second chapter of James is related to believers judging other believers, and the way believers judge other believers is based on outward appearance (verses 2 and 3). Believers mistakenly judge other believers based on tangible things that can be seen. A believer will have the tendency to judge other believers based on things the others are seen doing. Things like “works” and “deeds.” We know from Hebrews 4:12 that God judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart. It is man that judges by “works” and “deeds,” and the second half of this chapter in James speaks to works as they relate to faith judged by man. “Even so faith, if it have not works, is dead in itself.” (James 2:17) Believers, limited in their ability to judge other believers, will judge based on the outward appearance of “works” and “deeds.” As believers, we are not capable of judging the thoughts and intentions of believers. Verse 18 states, “Yea, a man will say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: show me thy faith apart from thy works, and I by my works will show thee my faith.” I underlined three words, “man will say.” According to this passage it is man that judges another man’s faith by tangible “works” and “deeds.” If you want to know how God judges believers you will need to go to the other passages considered above.
Continuing in chapter two with the theme of man judging man, picking up at verse twenty-one, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, in that he offered up Isaac his son upon the alter? Thou seest that faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect; and the scripture was fulfilled with saith, And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness; and he was called the friend of God.” Please note as underlined above that when it comes to the scriptures we know that Abraham was saved because he “believed.” Righteousness credited to Abraham is apparent to every other believer because of his obedience to God (works and deeds). Abraham was saved by faith, just as you and I are saved by faith alone.
For you and me, our faith should be apparent to others by our works and deeds (which is the result of our faith - not a condition of faith). Rest assured, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2: 8-9)