“It is His doing,” says Paul, that we “are in Christ Jesus, who became to us . . . righteousness. . . .” (1 Cor. 1:30). Ephesians 2:8-9 indicates we “are saved by [His] grace through [the instrument] of faith . . . not by [any] works.” Paul’s doctrine of faith alone is foundational to our understanding of what grace actually is and what being “declared righteous” (i.e., justified—through faith alone) by the Lord really means. As we know, in spite of the clarity of numerous passages in both the OT and NT, which stipulate this biblical truth, many non-Christian groups (esp. LDS and Catholics) deny this, thus denying the sufficiency and efficacy of the cross-work of the Lord Jesus Christ.
These groups routinely appeal to James 2:21: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?” Then, in the same breath, verse 24: “A person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Note that James actually says a person is “justified by works” and “not by faith alone” (ouk ek pisteōs monon). Typically, most Christians will respond to the objector by insisting that the Bible teaches that man is saved by “faith alone” and not by works. Although this is true, the response is lacking—because it doesn’t specifically deal with the passages in James 2, it just denies the assertion of the objector. To make matters worse, the objector will quickly point out the fact that James 2:24 is the only place in the NT where the exact phrase “faith alone” is used, and in the negative—“not by faith alone!”
However, groups such as Roman Catholics, who claim Scripture is the inspired Word of God, inadvertently make the NT contradict itself—placing James’ theology against Paul’s. Paul clearly says, “a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Rom. 3:28). And Paul argues elsewhere, “the one who does not work, but believes in Him . . . his faith is credited as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5). Paul’s faith-alone theology is unequivocally seen throughout his epistles (cf. Gal. 2:16; Rom. 4:4-8; 5:1; Eph. 2:8-10; 2 Thess. 2:13; etc.).
Reconciling the Apparent James vs. Paul Discrepancy
There are several issues, which clearly erase any idea of discrepancy, affirm the theological consistency of James and Paul, and the biblical revelation of justification apart from any works.
Different Meanings. As we will see, contextually both James and Paul mean something different in their usage of particular terms—especially the term “justified.”
Word Fallacy. Because both James and Paul use the same terms (dikaioō, “to justify,” pisteōs, “faith,” and ergōn, “works”), the objector typically assumes that James is using “justified,” as Paul does,—in a context of salvation (viz. God pardoning the sinner declaring him righteous). This is the main error of the objector. By doing this, he engages in an exegetical word fallacy: applying a “limited” or single definition to a term at every place it appears regardless of the context. This error is a common one. We see the same with the term “world.” For example, the “world,” which the Apostle John says not to love in 1 John 2:15 is certainly not the same “world” as mentioned in John 3:16. The fact is, terms such as “world,” “every/all,” “prosperity,” “heal,” “son,” “age,” etc. are frequently misdefined due to a missing context. Remember, words are meaningless without a context. Since most terms can have various meanings, one must pay close attention to the context in which a term appears in order to obtain an accurate definition of the term in a given passage.
So, in James 2:14-26, the objector applies a limited meaning to the term “justified”—that is, the actual act of God pardoning and declaring the sinner righteous by imputing the righteousness of Christ to the sinner’s account through faith—happening at conversion (cf. Rom. 3:28; 5:1; etc.). Although, this kind of justification is the marrow of Paul’s theology, James is not speaking about this kind of justification. In James 2:14-26, James is speaking of the already justified (saved) Christian being “justified” by his actions (esp. love) before men.
James explains that a workless faith, is a faith that is fruitless, not a real faith at all; it is not a genuine faith that was the result of regeneration. Again, James is dealing with the already justified person showing the world, by his works and behavior, that he is actually saved. In the same way, Abraham, who was already justified before the Lord by his faith alone, proved to men his justified status by his actions of obedience (“works”) offering up Isaac. This is the very point James makes in 2:21ff. Therefore, James can say Abraham was justified (before men) by his works and not by faith alone. Understanding this makes it easier to see what James is saying and thus draw a distinction between how James uses “justified” (before men) and how Paul uses it (before God).
In fact, there are many places in Scripture where God subsequently declares an already justified person “righteous” (as with Abraham in Gen. 15:6). There are also places where God pronounces an “act of justification” or openly acquits an already justified person before others. For example, Jesus in Luke 7:36-50 openly declares to Simon the Pharisee and to the women who washed His feet that her sins were forgiven.
It is obvious that her sins had been previously forgiven at some prior time. Her acts of piety and devotion toward the Lord Jesus show this to be true, which prompted Jesus to declare to her openly: “Your sins have been forgiven” (cf. vv. 40-48). Her previous state as truly justified motivated her acts of devotion towards the Lord Jesus. We saw the same with Abraham in Genesis 15:6: “Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness,” which James even quotes in 2:23. When was Abraham “credited as righteous”—before or after this passage? Clearly before, for this could not have been the first time that Abraham believed.
Faith and Works. So far, we saw how James uses the term “justified” in distinction to Paul’s usage. Now let’s look at the terms “faith” and “works” as used by James in distinction to Paul.
“Faith” (pisteuō). As with the term “justified,” the meaning of “faith” in James 2 is determined by the context. Frequently, Paul uses “faith” in the context of being the sole “instrument” (precondition) of justification (e.g., Rom. 5:1). Faith in this sense denotes the trustful response, which was the result of regeneration—faith is the instrument of justification whereas the lone merits of Christ is the cause of justification. Here, however, James is addressing those whose faith was progressing (if not already there) towards a stiff intellectualism empty of love, which James calls “faith without works”—that is, a dead faith.
“Works” (ergōn). Paul renounces the idea that any kind of works can merit in any way, shape, or form one’s justification—they cannot contribute anything to salvation. James, however, sees “works” as acts of kindness (love) to those in need. To James, this proves the evidence of one’s “actual justification” and a true and vital faith (2:14-17). So, although both James and Paul use the same terms (“justified,” “faith,” “works”) they use them in a different sense and context.
Further, Galatians 3:6 reads: “Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Here and throughout Paul’s writings, he speaks of how a man may achieve justification before God (by faith alone) in which he cites Genesis 15:6. While James speaks of how a Christian should demonstrate or display (by works) his already and actual justified state in which James cites Genesis 22:9-10. Consider also, that Abraham’s “show” of faith (to offer Isaac up as proof) was at least twenty years after he was “credited as righteous.”
Similarly, in James 2:25, James asks, “Was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another way?” However, before her noble “faith-act” of hiding the messengers, Rahab already had faith in YHWH (cf. Josh. 2:9). “The LORD your God,” she said to the messengers, “is God in heaven above and on earth beneath” (v. 11). She was already righteous before God through her faith alone and later justified before men by what she did. Again, this is precisely the point that James is making: observable faith before men (cf. James 2:25).
In this sense, James sees “works” in a positive sense: Works that justify a Christian before men. Whereas Paul speaks of “works” in the negative sense: Works that do not justify before God. In 2:14, James asks, “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?” The answer, of course, is No! True faith results in works (cf. 1 John 3:16-18). James further says, “Faith, if it has no works, is dead being by itself” (v. 2:17). So Luther rightfully affirms: “We are saved by faith alone, but that faith is not alone.”
Lastly, note the “language of observation,” as I call it. We find James using terms and phrases in chapter 2 denoting a real and literal “seeing/showing” faith, which again supports the context of as one of demonstrative active faith (shown by works), which justifies a Christian before men. For example, James uses phrases such as “show me,” “I will show you” (v. 18); “you see” (vv. 22, 24); etc. This, along with Abraham and Rahab’s “show” of faith defines the context: a show-faith before men.
Only by ignoring the audience to whom James wrote, the defining context, specific terms and phrases used, and the examples of Abraham and Rahab causes groups like Catholics and the LDS to remove James 2 out of its natural context making it oppose Paul’s faith-alone theology.
Therefore, when James says that a person is “justified by works and not by faith alone,” he is speaking of a person (Christian) whose works (viz. love) serves as proof to men that he is actually justified before the Lord. Whereas when Paul says, “a man is justified by faith apart from works” (Rom. 3:28; cf. 4:6; 5:1), Paul is speaking of a person to whom God, through faith alone, pardons and imputes to him the righteousness of Christ. Again, James speaks of how Christians are “justified” before men (by faith and works); Paul speaks of being “justified” before the Lord (through faith alone by God alone; cf. Rom. 8:33; Eph. 2:8-9). To interpret James 2:14-26 in a context of a sinner being “justified before God” (salvation) by works is a blatant “misuse” of the intended meaning of the Apostle James. That a person’s works (any works) justify him or her before the Lord contradicts the entire biblical content of divine revelation.
“Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1).
 Similar exegetical errors include known as “illegitimate totality transfer” (cf. Cf. Darrell Bock, in Introducing NT Interpretation; also cf. D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies). This fallacy “assumes that a word carries all of its senses in any one passage” (Bock, 110; the Amplified Bible tends to invoke this fallacy). Hence, to apply every definition that a term can have to a given passage with no regards for the context is an exegetical error.
 We see the same distinction (actual vs. open declaration) in the Sonship of Jesus Christ. In other words, Jesus was already and actually the “Son” when He was subsequently and openly declared to be the Son on many different occasions throughout His life (e.g., at His baptism, cf. Matt. 3:16-17; at the transfiguration, cf. Matt. 17:5; His resurrection, cf. Acts 13:33; see also Rom. 1:2-4, where the Son was declared to be the Son).