There have been some Bible students who have seen irreconcilable differences between the teachings of the Apostle Paul and those of the book of James on the importance of good works in regard to salvation. These seemingly irreconcilable differences led Martin Luther to “divorce” James from the rest of the New Testament, assigning the little book to a type of appendix in some Luther Bible editions.
This reflects a difference of practice within the Christian world. Some believe that salvation is by faith alone, and that is the end of the story. We do nothing whatsoever to be saved, and works of any type are irrelevant. Others believe that salvation is primarily a matter of the accumulation of good works, that we earn our way into heaven. In this case, we can never be satisfied with our good works, we must always be looking for more.
Let me say that I believe the New Testament teaches that salvation is a gift, it cannot be earned. Even more, this teaching is found in the Old Testament, too, because Paul uses Old Testament texts like Habakkuk 2:4 to make his point that “The just shall live by faith,” and Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” We cannot earn our salvation, and whenever our theology leads us to conclude that we do, we are wrong and need to fix something.
I think, though, that Paul and James are talking about two different sets of “good works.” Let me illustrate with this diagram:
To put it simply, Paul is concerned about the understanding of earning salvation through keeping the Jewish Law. In this he reflects the teachings of Jesus, who indicated with the rich young ruler that a keeper of the law will always have one more thing left to do. James is concerned with how we practice our faith. We might even say that James is concerned about the nature of faith itself, what the result of faith should be.
Once we have crossed the doorway of salvation (and we may disagree on how that works), what happens? After we walk through the door of faith and trust Jesus for our salvation, what do we do? James is encouraging his readers that this relationship with the Lord should show up in our lives. Good works are not the condition of salvation, they are the consequence. A life of faith should demonstrate itself as a life of doing good for others. If this does not happen, the personal faith of an individual is in question. There cannot be faith, true faith, genuine faith, saving faith, that does not lead to good works. This is the concern of James, and Paul would not have disagreed.
And I agree with both of them. You cannot be saved by good works, but you are not saved without them.
Nebraska Christian College