For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.How can this ever be reconciled? Can both of these men be apostles of Christ, teaching the same truth?
Paul, Romans 3:28 (ESV)
You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
James, James 2:24 (ESV)
Much more could be said about this subject than we have time for in this post. But let's take a quick and simple look at what Paul and James are teaching.
Both Paul and James use the word justified. But judging from the context, they are not using this word in the same way.
In Paul's context, he is speaking about the righteousness of God that is imputed to the believer in Jesus through faith (Rom 3:21-28). This righteousness cannot be earned by good works, but is given as a gift through faith. The one who believes on Jesus is declared righteous by God. This is justification by faith.
Paul uses Abraham as his example of this. He quotes Genesis 15:6, which says that "Abraham believed God" (faith) "and it was counted to him as righteousness" (he was declared righteous through faith). This was a gift to Abraham from God through faith, not works.
James, on the other hand, is not speaking about imputed righteousness, but about true, saving faith being proven by works ("Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. ..faith apart from works is dead" 2:18b, 26b). He stands on the same foundation of faith as Paul, but is expressing an additional idea; namely, that there is a true, saving faith, which is proven (shown to be genuine) by good works (obedience, fruit), and that there is a false faith (a dead faith which does not save), which is demonstrated by a lack of good works. Whereas Paul speaks of being declared righteous by God through faith and not works (Paul's use of justified), James speaks of having your faith proven to be real through works (his use of justified).
James also uses Abraham as an example. He quotes the same verse as Paul about Abraham being counted righteous through faith (James 2:23), but draws his lesson from a different passage about Abraham; where he is tested by God in giving up his son, Isaac (Genesis 22). Thus he demonstrates from the Scriptures that Abraham's faith (by which he was declared righteous - in agreement with Paul's teaching) was proven to be true faith by his works ("Genesis 15:6 faith" was proven genuine by "Genesis 22 works").
Paul and James must be taken together! Paul is correct: Abraham was justified by his faith, apart from works, when he was declared righteous by God. But James is also correct: Abraham was justified by his works when his obedience proved his faith to be real and living.
Both Paul and James agree that we must have a living and true faith in Christ (justified by faith). And both Paul and James agree that our faith must be proven true by our works (justified by works) [In other places Paul teaches the importance of works to demonstrate that our faith is real: Gal 5:19-21; Eph 2:8-10; 5:5-6; Col 1:22-23; 1 Cor 6:9-11; 15:2; 2 Cor 13:5].
The study notes to the ESV Study Bible are helpful on this subject:
On the surface James may seem to contradict Paul. I.e., Paul denies that Abraham was "justified by works" (Rom 4:2), arguing from Gen. 15:6 that Abraham's faith "was counted to him as righteousness" (Rom 4:3). However, James's assertion in this verse (that "Abraham [was]. . .justified by works") is based not on Gen. 15:6 but on Gen. 22:9-10, where (many years later) Abraham began to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. Thus James apparently has a different sense of the word "justify" in view here, as evidenced by the different Scripture passages, and the different events in Abraham's life, to which James and Paul refer. The primary way in which Paul uses the word "justify" (Gk. dikaioo) emphasizes the sense of being declared righteous by God through faith, on the basis of Jesus' atoning sacrifice (Rom. 3:24-26), whereas the primary way that James uses the word "justify" (Gk. dikaioo) here in James 2:21 seems to emphasize the way in which works demonstrate that someone has been justified, as evidenced by the good works that the person does (cf. Matt. 12:33-37). ...James centers on Abraham's act of obedience while Paul centers on God's declaration of Abraham's righteousness. ...For James, "faith alone" means a bogus kind of faith, mere intellectual agreement without a genuine personal trust in Christ that bears fruit in one's life. (ESV Study Bible notes)When we study the Bible in context we see a unified call to faith in Jesus Christ that results in a changed life of obedience and good works. These good works are the fruit, not the cause, of righteousness. God gives us the righteousness we could never earn with our works...and then enables us to live lives of holiness and obedience! All of this is through Jesus Christ, who died for our sins and rose again. Praise God!