Ephesians 2:1–10 focuses on the doctrine of salvation, affirming that we are set right with God based solely on His grace and our faith, which is also His gift. But Paul likewise speaks of the importance of works in this passage (v. 10), so it is important for us to understand precisely the relationship between our good deeds and our justification, that act in which the Father declares us righteous. In order to explore this topic more deeply, our next two studies will be based on the lectures “Faith and Works (parts 1 and 2)” from Dr. R.C. Sproul’s teaching series Themes from Ephesians.
James 2:24 is the most obvious place to begin our discussion because of the centrality of this text in the history of Reformation theology. During the sixteenth century, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the other Protestant Reformers argued forcefully that Scripture teaches the doctrine of sola fide: God declares us righteous and restores our relationship with Him through the means of faith — and faith alone. Our good works contribute nothing to this right standing. In response, the bishop of Rome — the Pope — convened the Council of Trent, which replied to Protestant doctrine and marked the official separation of Roman Catholicism from Protestantism. In response to Luther, Calvin, and the other Protestants, the bishops at Trent affirmed that our faith and our good works are both taken into account in our justification. Our right standing is based on faith and works. For support of this doctrine, the council turned often to James 2, particularly verse 24, because the text seems to contradict sola fide (faith alone), at least on a surface-level reading.
If James 2:24 teaches what Rome claims it does, then we have a serious problem. James would be contradicting Paul, for the apostle Paul clearly affirms that our justification is not based in any sense on our works (Rom. 4; Gal. 2:15–16; Eph. 2:1–10). Given the God-breathed nature of Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16–17), however, we know that no such contradiction can exist. Real contradictions would make us unable to know what to believe, and, therefore, the Bible could not make us wise unto salvation. James, then, cannot be teaching a different doctrine of justification than Paul. In fact, as we read James 2:14–26, we see that while both apostles speak of justification, they are referring to two different problems and teaching two harmonious truths.