Some people think that Paul and James contradict each other on the subject of works. Paul writes that a person is not justified by works, but by faith. James says that faith without works is dead. But, whenever you study a subject in the Scriptures you have to understand the context. Paul was writing to the Roman congregation and some of them thought that they were justified by works of Torah observance.
This idea is never taught in the Torah itself, but a system of works righteousness was developed by the first century and Paul was dealing with this false doctrine. Keep in mind, the people he was writing to in Rome were in three groups. There were non-believing Jews, believing Jews and then believing Gentiles who attended the synagogues in Rome. Paul was addressing all these people who attended these synagogues in Rome, not just one congregation in particular. Who he is talking to depends on what he is saying.
A man can never be justified by his works before God. But just like today in some denominations, the Jews had developed a system of works righteousness. He says in Rom 9.31-32 that they did not pursue righteousness by faith but by works. They thought that when they obeyed God they earned righteousness and that is not the case.
That’s why Paul says that we are not “under the Law.” That term in Greek is “upo nomou” and it means that we are not subject to a system of works righteousness. He also says that we cannot earn righteousness through “works of the Law.” That term in Greek is “ergo nomou” and it means a system of works righteousness. You cannot earn righteousness through obedience to God (ergo nomou) nor are we subject to a system that says we can (upo nomou).
We approach the Lord by “emunah”, or faith. This Hebrew word means “confidence” and it is related to the word “amen” which means “so be it” or “let it be done.” We know from Heb 11 that faith is action and faith is made up of three concepts that work in conjunction with each other.
The first component is “ahav” or love. The Lord said “If you love me, keep my commandments” which can also mean “mitzvah” in Hebrew and it is another word for “good works.” Love is having the right attitude towards God and our neighbor, the greatest commandment. The ten commandments teach this concept in that the first four commandments teach us how to love the Lord, and the last six teach us how to love our neighbor.
The second component is “mitz’vot” or commandments. We obey what the Lord has commanded because we love him and we want our good “mitz’vot” (good works) shine so that the Lord can be glorified.
The last component of faith is “da’at” or knowledge. You have to know what the Lord wants you to do in order to be able to obey him by faith. At Mt Sinai, Moses could approach the mountain because he already had knowledge about it and he had already been there and talked with the Lord. The people did not have that knowledge and were afraid to approach the mountain, especially when they saw the signs and wonders. So, their lack of knowledge about the Lord was a breakdown in faith and they didn’t act in obedience, so good works were not produced. There is no such thing as blind faith in the Bible.
So, biblical faith is made up of love, good works and knowledge of God. Paul is saying that a man is not justified by works, but he does not say that you shouldn’t have any. But these works are the ones that the Lord told you to do. Many keep man-made laws that replace God’s commandments and these are not evidence of biblical faith and the Lord didn’t tell them to do it.
James is basically saying the same thing but he is dealing with forgetful hearers of the Torah. James says that if a person has genuine faith he will have genuine works as evidence of that faith. He is not saying you need works to be saved, but he is saying that you will have works because you are saved. Now, these works are not what man says are good works, it is what the Lord has already said are good works and those works are described in the commandments. Paul and James are not contradicting each other but they are showing how a component of faith (good works) fits into a person’s life.
Paul says that good works cannot earn you righteousness with God because salvation is a free gift from God. James is saying that one who is truly saved will have good works following them as evidence of that saving faith.