8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
There is a lot of discussion on whether our salvation is based on grace through faith or on our works. The most prominent theme in the Bible is the grace and mercy of God. Grace is that God has given us what we do not deserve, and mercy is that He has withheld what we do deserve. He sacrificed His Son for our sins and withheld His wrath. His grace and mercy always have been taken for granted, which is evidenced in the Old and New Testaments and also in modern times. We should be thankful for the gift of grace, which was the atonement for our sins through the sacrifice of His Son. According to Ephesians 2:8-9, our salvation is based on this gift of grace, in which we believed (John 1:12-13; Acts 13:38-39; Romans 3:23, 4:4, 4:16, 11:6; Galatians 2:16). We believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that He came to die on the cross as a propitiation for our sins (1 John 2:2, 4:10). There was nothing that we could do on our own to cleanse ourselves of the sins we had committed before being saved. And even after receiving His grace, we still continue to sin against each other and against God. However, His grace is so sufficient that the blood of Christ cleanses us of our sins throughout our lives if we continue to walk in the light (cf., 1 John 1:7-10). It is clear that no one can boast of anything they do because we are all guilty of sin, and no matter how much we strive to be righteous, we will never be able to meet the standard (see Romans 7) because our righteousness is like filthy rags.
“as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God’” (Romans 3:10-11)
“Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:27-28).
“You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law” (Romans 2:23).
“But we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; we all fade as a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away” (Isaiah 64:6 New King James Version).
So those who believe that we are saved by grace through faith and not by works are correct. It is clearly stated in the Bible. However, in James 2:24 it is also clear that we are justified by works and not by faith alone. Also, there are several verses in the Scriptures that express the fact that we are to do good works as Christians.
“…so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10).
“…waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:13-14).
“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22).
We know that God does not contradict himself, and I believe the reason why these verses appear to be contradictory is because we tend to look at passages without considering the historical context. Let’s start first with the texts that say that salvation is by grace through faith, and not by works. We see this idea emerging mainly in Paul’s letters to the Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and also when Paul addresses the Jews and Gentiles in Acts 13. The Jewish Christians were binding themselves to mosaic law (but not out of obligation), and were also trying to bind Gentile Christians to that law. They couldn’t accept the fact that Gentiles could be saved only by the gospel and not by adhering to the law also. They were requiring that the Gentile Christians be circumcised because that was part of their tradition. Paul had to explain to both Jews and Gentiles why their works of the law were no longer necessary (Ephesians 2:8-9): “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works…” The word “works” is referring to the different sacrifices and rituals of the law, such as sin-offerings and circumcision. Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice that would take care of what the law couldn’t do, cleanse them of their sins.
The context of James’ letter to the Jewish Christians was different from that of Paul’s letters. James was addressing Christians that supposedly had faith but weren’t doing the good works that showed their faith. They were hearers of the word but not doers. We could think of them as lukewarm Christians like those in the church in Laodicea (cf., Revelations 3:14-21). James was basically saying to them that just because you believe, it doesn’t mean that you stop there because even the demons believe in God and shudder (cf., James 2:19). According to chapters 1 and 2, these Christians had several issues: favoritism, false wisdom/teaching, lack of humility, lack of mercy and patience with one another, etc. All these things showed that they lacked faith. Their faith was dead because they did not have good works (cf., James 2:20).
So what can we take from these verses that appear to contradict each other? We are indeed saved by grace through our belief that Christ did die for the sins of mankind, and because of that, we should have an active faith, doing what we have been created to – good works (Ephesians 2:10). We cannot say that we love God and have faith in Him if we do not keep His commandments. Many of us think that love and faith in God is a feeling, and I believe many live a life of distress when they don’t “feel” these things. The fact of the matter is love and faith is doing. Galatians 5:6 says, “6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” (emphasis is mine). That is, faith is express through love, and love is action:
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
“You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14).
“For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3).
“Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him…” (1 John 2:4)
“And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, so that you should walk in it” (2 John 1:6).
“‘Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.’ Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, ‘Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?’ Jesus answered him, ‘If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him’” (John 14:21-23).