Do you realize how often we give and receive contrasting pieces of wisdom? Several popular proverbs in our culture are diametrical. For example, some people say that “birds of a feather flock together,” but others claim that “opposites attract.” One saying contends that similarities bring people together, while the other alleges that differences bring people together. It has been said that “actions speak louder than words,” but it has also been said that “the pen is mightier than the sword.” One saying contends that what one does is more powerful than what one says, while the other argues that what one says is more powerful than what one does. Some subscribe to the “better safe than sorry” mentality, while others ascribe to the “nothing ventured, nothing gained” mentality. One believes that playing it safe is better than taking risks, while the other believes that taking risks is better than playing it safe.
The point is that there are many wise sayings, which, on the surface, contradict one another. Some believe that such contradictory words of wisdom can be found in the Bible, particularly when it comes to the subject of faith and works. Let us consider whether or not such a contradiction is present in Scripture.
In Ephesians 2:8-9, Paul said, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” Then, in James 2:14-17, James said, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” Since Paul spoke of faith absent works, and James spoke of faith in conjunction with works, some allege a contradiction between these two inspired authors. However, if you examine the texts closely, you will discover that they are complementing one another instead of contradicting one another.
When Paul wrote Ephesians 2, he was focused on salvation, and he was particularly concerned with discussing how one is saved. He contended that salvation is a gracious gift we receive through faith rather than a prize we earn through works. His objective was to dispel the concept of works righteousness; therefore, he emphasized that we are saved not by what we do for God but by what God has done for us. However, it was not Paul’s objective to minimize or ignore the importance of works. After discussing how we are saved in Ephesians 2:8-9, he discussed why we are saved in Ephesians 2:10. He said, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Paul’s point was that we are saved so that we can do good works for God. So, while Paul emphasizes that grace is how we are saved, he also emphasizes that works are why we are saved. In other words, Paul taught that we do good works because we are saved, not to receive salvation.
When James wrote his letter, he was focused on faith, and he was particularly concerned with discussing how faith is evidenced. James was not saying that works earn salvation but that works serve as evidence of a saving faith. In fact, James acknowledged the relationship between faith and salvation when he rhetorically asked, “Can such faith save him” (James 2:14). It is important to note that James did not ask, “Can works save him” because James’ issue was never whether or not works play a part in salvation but whether or not a profession of faith absent the evidence of works is really a saving faith. Throughout James’ letter, he contends that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17, 26), not “salvation without works is dead.” Thus, James is saying that works are the result of a saving faith rather than the replacement of a saving faith.
These two passages do not contradict one another because they both emphasize faith as the means through which salvation is received, and they both emphasize works as the response of those who have been saved. Thus, the Bible’s ultimate message is that faith without works is a hollow profession, and works without faith is an inadequate attempt at salvation. The two go hand in hand because we receive salvation through faith, and, as a result of that gift, we desire to do good works for the one who saved us.