Most Christians have a problem with the relationship between faith and works. Paul argues in Romans that we are justified by faith, and most believers come to faith listening to such arguments. Then when we become Christians somebody comes along and mentions the letter of James who says that faith without works is dead and we are utterly confused. Especially if it is the same person who told us about Romans in the first place. So how do we resolve this?
Part of the problem is in the order we have come across the two letters. We tend to read them in the wrong order because most scholars believe that the letter of James is the earliest of the New Testament books to be written. So James was not written because he criticised Paul’s reasoning for justification by faith. That may be the impression we are given because it comes after it in the canon of Scripture. If anything it was the other way round because Paul wrote his letters to correct false ideas that were going around, including that of the Judaisers who often claimed to have come from James. Yet Paul did not disagree with anything in the James itself, but, probably, he would have preferred to use the word “fruit” rather than “works.” If you substitute the phrase “fruits of the Spirit” instead of “works” in James chapter 2 verse 26 it makes perfect sense. “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without the fruits of the Spirit is dead.” The works that James is talking about are evidence of our faith showing that it is alive. It is not an argument against Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith. Nowhere in the his letter does James suggest that one can earn their salvation through good works. All he is saying is that you do not expect to find apples on a dead apple tree. The fruit is a sign of life.
David Rose, 2018