Why does James 2 say “justified by works” three times?

Throughout the New Testament, the Gospel is clearly announced. It declares that we are saved by faith and not by works. But did you know that James 2 seemingly contradicts this?

That’s right. Three times in a row, the apostle James writes the phrase “justified by works”:

“Was not Abraham our father justified by works…?” (v 21)
“Was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works…?” (v 25)
“You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (v 24)

I’ve literally seen some people sweep these under the rug, acting like they don’t exist. I’ve seen others do mental gymnastics to say that James is talking about works after salvation. But clearly James is indeed referring to the kind of faith that saves a person.

So, how do we resolve this seeming contradiction? Martin Luther went so far as to claim James should not be part of the Bible!

Don’t worry. I believe there is a simple answer, and it’s perfectly consistent with us being justified by faith, not by good works. It has everything to do with James’ definition of “works” in the passage. You see, James is NOT talking about a laundry list of good works. Instead, he’s simply talking about a real response to the Gospel.

When we open the door of our lives to Jesus (like Rahab opened the door!) or when we offer ourselves to God (like Abraham offered Isaac), then we are expressing living faith. This is exactly what Jesus meant when He said “the work of God is this: to believe in the One He has sent” (John 6:29).

Living faith is what sets us apart from nonbelievers. Remember, James says even the demons could pass a theology test! But your response to Jesus at salvation was more than accepting theological facts. You actually opened the door of your life to Christ and offered yourself to God. Now that’s living faith!

In a recent call, I confronted head-on what “justified by works” means in James 2. Check out this clip and see how simple it is to resolve the “justified by works” dilemma when you recognize the living faith that saves!


For more clarity on works and being justified before God, check out my message, Lie #2: You’re Justified by Faith Plus Good Works, or my BibleQuestions.com Q&A, Why Does James 2 Say We’re Justified by Works?

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