Does “Faith Alone” Doctrine Contradict the Letter of James?

Of the “five solas” of the Reformation, sola fide (Latin for “faith alone”) was so important that Luther called it the “doctrine by which the church stands or falls.” Rooted in Scriptures like Eph 2:8–10, it drew a line in the sand between Protestant and Catholic theology on the topic of justification.

“Faith alone.” It’s a simple phrase really. Its meaning seems equally simple … until we read that “faith apart from works is dead” in Jas 2:14–17. How do we reconcile that? Is there a contradiction going on here? How did Reformers like Luther and Calvin view this passage?

In this clip from his course on the Letter of James, Dr. William Varner explains that sola fide does not in fact contradict what James is saying. The key lies in understanding the difference between “faith alone” and a faith that is alone.

In NT365 Book Study: Letter of James, Dr. Varner presents a fresh perspective on James the man and also James the letter, showing how the emphasis on works complements rather than contradicts Paul’s emphasis on faith.

Learn more about this course today!

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  • I would hope that we would clearly see that to say that “one is saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone” is a contradiction. “Alone” means “by itself.” This means that nothing else is involved. It would seem that since there are three tenses of salvation (justification, sanctification, and glorification) and that James is writing to people whom he calls “brothers” and “beloved brothers” throughout the entire epistle, then we should ask the question “saved from what?” when looking at James 2:14. It taking the previous context of James 2:12-13, it is clear that James is exhorting his readers to live by the law of liberty, which is in Christ Jesus (not the law of Moses). In doing so, they should seek to live and treat others with mercy (coming off of the context of the treatment of the rich and poor in the local assembly). Those who live by mercy will receive mercy at the Bema (the judgment seat of Christ- 1 Cor 3:10-15; 2 Cor 5:10, which is not the same thing as the Great White Throne Judgment- Rev 20:11-15). James then gives a practical example of treating others with mercy in providing food and clothing for a needy brother or sister in James 2:14. It would seem that the meaning of “saved” in 2:14 is referring to having a good showing before the judgment seat of Christ because one’s life has been characterized by mercy, which demonstrates itself in actions. While one could conclude that “saved” in 2:14 means “go to heaven when you die,” I believe that this would be committing an illegitimate totality transfer in equating one word with only one meaning, rather than the many meanings that the word could possibly have.

    It should be noted that there are two jusifications that are seen in the biblical text. Justification by faith is seen in Romans 3-4 and is by faith alone, while being justified by works is seen in James 2:14-26 and is something that takes place at the maturity of one’s faith, not regarding their initial faith in Christ Jesus. in other words, one’s justification by works is the result of faith and works working together in the Christian life. Notice the examples of Abraham and Rahab. Each one’s “justification by works” is established after their faith in God, and not before it. This passage has to do with a Christian’s growth and not with “going to heaven when you die.”

    Lastly, it is important to note and agree with the fact that faith without works IS dead, meaning that it has no profit nor benefit among the assembly (“dead” is seen to be contrasted with “good” or “profit” in James 2:14). However, James does not say that faith without works is not truly saving faith. If we remove the battery from your car, it does not cease to be a car. Your car is now a dead car and it is beneficial to no one. All Christian living is for the benefit of others, and should never be used as a means to promote self. When one’s faith is not being utilized to live the Christian life, they are not a benefit to any brother or sister. This is unacceptable in building up the Body of Christ.

    Hopefully some of you will consider these thoughts in light of the text and the surrounding context. My goal is not to start a fight but to bring clarity to a text that has been grossly misunderstood (in my opinion). Thank you for taking the time to read my comments.

  • I would suggest that Paul emphasizes present justification (which is by faith) while James is talking about future justification (which is on the basis of Spirit-inspired works). The final judgment, after all, is consistently understood throughout the NT as being on the basis of works. In the final judgment, God’s justification by faith in the present will be vindicated in the future by referencing the fruits of a life lived according to the Spirit.

    I would also note that “salvation by faith” is a concept that has no connection to the world apart from concrete particulars. Those particulars (baptism, confession, etc.) are in themselves the works God has ordained for justification in the present such that neither present nor future justification are unaccompanied by works.

  • The blog text accompanying the Varner video clip refers to Ephesians 2:8-10 as an example passage on which the Reformation doctrine of ‘sola fide’ was based. Interestingly, that brief passage in itself deals with both sides of the coin and makes clear the compatibility of belief between the Pauline community and James (as William Varner explains so well). Read those verses carefully (ESV):

    “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, NOT A RESULT OF WORKS, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, CREATED in Christ [Messiah] Jesus FOR GOOD WORKS, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

    Clearly, as Dr Varner points out, both aspects (both sides of the same coin) are essential – being put right with God is a gift and cannot be achieved by our own works or actions, but once that gift has been provided and we are “in Messiah,” with the influence and power of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, this new way of being produces “good works.” This seems straightforward to me. As James makes clear, both are crucial – you can’t have one without the other.

    I find it fascinating how human beings create endless debates out of very clear scriptural passages (maybe because we are driven by agendas that are different to those who wrote the relevant scriptural passages).

    • Amen and Amen!

      I think it’s very simple understanding as long as you take man (self) out of the way and put God in first position. Understand “theology proper” puts everything into perspective….just how holy, perfect, righteous God is and just how much we are…well, the opposite. (Yes, we were created in His image, but that’s a different subject).

      Just like in Abram in Gen. 15:6 was counted as righteous because he believed, we too are counted as righteous in Christ alone by faith alone. The Bible clearly teaches that in all ages imputed righteousness (i.e., salvation) comes by faith. From this faith, good works will be produced. The good works of loving your brother and sister in Christ, helping widows and orphans, forgiving others, etc. etc. These works will never save anyone, merely they are the evidence of one’s salvation. That simple really. 1 John 2:4–6 (ESV) says it this way:Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. Right? We ought to walk in Him.

      In conclusion: The Bible clearly and repeatedly teaches we’re saved by faith alone (Rom. 4:16, for good works (Ephs 2:10). No good works….ahhh, probably not saved. Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruit,” in Matt. 7:20. However, as stated prior, works will NEVER save anyone. God wants ALL the glory. He doesn’t need man to help Him to save him.(2 Cor. 3:5) Remember, before we we’re saved, we we’re lost (Lk 15:4;15:8-10;15:11-32) , we we’re an enemy of God(Rom 5:10), we walked with Satan, children of wrath, alienated, strangers to the covenants of God and without hope! More specifically, we we’re d-e-a-d. (Eph 1,2; Col 1:21) Yet, we were chosen before the foundation of the world and He predestined us (Eph. 1, Jn. 6:37,44,65,70) us to be His purpose, as a love gift to His Son. Remember, man’s BEST works are like filthy rags (Is 64:6), none does good, no one seeks after God, not even one human being…can you imagine, God can’t even hear one who is lost? (Is. 59:2, Rom. 3:9-12)

      Listen team…it’s only by Gods grace and mercy we’ve been saved, not of our own works, (and certainly not for our own purpose)…From this action, if we’re truly saved, we as believers will feel compelled to share the Gospel with the lost, to read Gods given words to us, we’ll want to learn doctrine, we’ll want to help those without, etc. etc. These desires will come from his heart and this is what God wants…your heart…and from your heart, works will spring up. (1 Sam 16:7; 2 Cor 5:17) The works are merely a manifestation of your belief system…of who you REALLY are. Make sense?

      I tried my best to explain…I’m just a layman who is passionate about sharing the Word…always seeking to give ALL GLORY TO GOD.

  • As a practicing Catholic and an amateur apologist this is the most practical and ecumenical thoughts on Sola Fide I have heard from a Protestant. Let’s not forget what Luther really meant by SF. He really meant Antinomianism which is a far cry from what Dr Varner is saying. I really think that most thinking Protestants today do not think that any thinking Catholic really proposes Pelagianism, as most thinking Catholics do not really think that most thinking Protestants propose Antinomianism. Both heresies have been roundly condemned by the teaching Magisterium the the Church for centuries.

    The real issue I hear from my Protestant friends today involves the Assurance of Salvation, which I guess is for another discussion

    • Just another thought: I think it was CS Lewis who said something like, faith and works are like the two blades of a pair of scissors

  • Martin Luther directly contradicted James, whom he called “an Apostle of Straw”.
    No man led by the Holy Spirit would say such a thing about an Apostle of Christ.

    Paul was making the point that SALVATION is the gift of God, i.e. being allowed entry into God’s vineyard has nothing to do with what a man has done.

    James is saying that ONCE a man is saved, he must demosntrate this in his actions. This is shown again in the parable of the talents.

    Paul & James are not contradicting each other. They couldn’t: Both of these faithful servants of God were led by the Holy Spirit.

    Martin Luther denied the Lord Jesus Christ (i.e. he contradicted the Word of God). He had numerous other heretical beliefs, e.g. Mary was the mother of God, Christ was physically present in the bread and the wine, and he encouarged the peasants to revolt when Paul specifically states that all governments should be respected as all power is given by God.

Written by Faithlife Staff