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Justification by Faith and the Book of James

By Eric Johnson

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Listen to a 5-part Viewpoint on Mormonism Podcast series that originally aired in August 2011 by clicking on the following links:  Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5 

When the subject of salvation comes up, many Mormons use certain biblical passages to support the LDS idea that good works are necessary for a person to receive salvation. It is clear 

Mormonism is a religion that stresses good works. Latter-day Saints are generally good people who are known for clean, wholesome living, volunteer service, and a rabid dedication to their families.

So, when a Christian says “salvation” comes by grace through faith alone (Ephesians 2:8-9), the average Mormon bristles. “What about James 2:20?” they oftentimes say, referring to the passage possibly quoted more often by Mormons than any other. It says that “faith without works is dead.” Is it true that James denies that justification before God comes by good works? What role does grace play? And if James is saying that good works are necessary to earn oneself a good relationship before God, does he contradict other biblical writers, especially Paul?

Tasks of the Interpreter

There are good books on the subject on biblical interpretation, which is officially known as hermeneutics. One of the best is Gordon Fee’s How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Zondervan, 1993). According to Fee, there are several important issues that we must consider when interpreting a passage. First, we must understand that exegesis—which is the careful, systematic study of the Scriptures with the goal to find the author’s originally intended meaning—is the primary goal. The biblical interpreter must consider several things:

1)      a passage’s historical context, such as time and culture (i.e. the cultural setting, the political situation, geographies,, etc.);

2)      the occasion of the book (letter psalm, prophetic oracle) as well as the book’s purpose;

3)      the literary context. Since words can have meaning only in sentences, it is important to take into consideration the context before and after the passage. Otherwise, it is too easy to improperly read one’s own biases into a text (creating the problem of “eisegesis”) and suggest a unique interpretation that the original author never meant. If words are to have meaning, then taking the author’s units of thought into consideration is vital.

Only when proper exegetical methods have been undertaken can a person interpret a passage that is consistent with its original meaning. In fact, a text cannot mean what the original author never meant. Only when we have utilized all resources available to us (i.e. Bible dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other such tools) can we properly apply the Bible to our lives today

The background of James

Most commentators believe that the author of James was the brother of Jesus. He probably was the oldest brother of Jesus since he is the first of the brothers listed in Matthew 13:55. Although James did not believe Jesus at first, he became a most prominent member of the early Christian church, including having Christ appear to him (1 Cor. 15:7). He was a “pillar” of the church (Gal. 2:9) who led the council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:13).

The book of James has a decidedly Jewish flavor (note verse 1 how the book is written to the twelve tribes scattered over the nations). After Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, James is possibly the next earliest New Testament book. It is simply organized (the chapters are neatly divided into sections dealing with a particular topic, such as “trials and temptation,” “taming the tongue,” etc.). Because James reflects on some of the issues dealt in the Sermon on the Mount and Proverbs, it would not be inaccurate to call James the wisdom book of the New Testament.

When a person reads through the book of James, he gets the feeling that good works are vital to a Christian’s life. In James 1:1-18, James talks about the importance of overcoming “trials and temptations” in the Christian walk. If we “let patience have her perfect work,” he says in verse 4, we might become “perfect and entire, wanting nothing.”

Notice verses 17 and 18, where James says,

“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.”

James obviously considered these early Christians to be just the beginning of a large future crop of believers.

In the next section (James 1:19-27), James talks about the importance of not just listening but also doing the right thing. He writes in verse 22, “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.” A person who does not do what the word says is, as he says in 23b-24, “like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was.” Therefore, he says, “If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain. Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” In other words, just knowing about the law is not enough. Doing it is what God requires.

In James 2:1-13, James explains the importance of not showing favoritism. Verse 9 says, “But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors.” So, he says in verses 12-13, “…speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty. 13: For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment.”

The sections following James 2:14-26 also encourages good works. Consider 3:1-12 where Paul talks about the importance of “taming the tongue.” Notice verse 2: “For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body.” (The NIV reads, “We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.”) Following the passage that says “faith without works is dead,” James admits that nobody “is never at fault.” Yet despite not attaining perfection in this life, he goes on to say, “Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter? Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh.” The rhetorical questions demand an adamant NO! in response.

In James 3:13-18 James says there are two kinds of wisdom. Verse 13 says, “Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom.” (After the questions, the NIV reads, “Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.”) In other words, show your wisdom by good actions. He ends the section with these words: “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace.” This is a passage certainly in line with Paul’s “fruit of the spirit” listing in Galatians 5:22-23!

James 4:1-12 talks about submitting oneself to God, using these strong words in verse 4: “Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.” The word for “adulterers” is powerful; it was not referring to a people that were sexually immoral but rather spiritually immoral. The covenant in Jeremiah 31:32, where God intended for a New Covenant to be in existence between Him and His people, was broken. Through all of this we must understand that God desired a relationship with His people. However, these early Christians were adulterating themselves through an unholy alliance with the world.

Then, in James 4:13-17, James emphasizes that believers should not boast about tomorrow. The passage ends with verse 17: “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.” Thus both the sins of commission (those things we do that are evil) and omission (not doing what God intended us to do) are sin, plain and simple.

Chapter 5 concludes with three sections: Warning to Rich Oppressors (James 5:1-6), Patience in Suffering (James 5:7-12), and the Prayer of Faith (James 5:13-20). Each of these sections contains commands that the Christian who desires fruit will crave to follow. James 5:19-20 is interesting:

“Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.”

There are two possibilities here. One, this is referring to a professing Christian who talks the talk but does not walk that talk. In other words, he is a hypocrite. The death James refers to would then be a reference to eternal death as referred to in Revelation 21:8. The second possibility is that James is referring to a sinning Christian who needs to be restored to the truth. If so, then the dead must refer to physical death. The believer is instructed to watch out for others who are falling in sin. And this is how the book ends.

James 2:14-26 in light of the rest of the book

When we consider the context of the entire book of James, we see that just because a person is a Christian does not guarantee that he will not fall. We also see that good works are highly stressed as being an essential part of the Christian’s life. In addition, we note that a person who says he is as Christian but does works contrary to the wisdom from heaven (as listed in 3:17-18) is a hypocrite.

With this as a background, we can consider James 2:14-26.  Before we go any further, let’s go ahead and quote James 2:14-26 (KJV):

14  What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, 16  and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?  17  Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.

18  Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works. 19  Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. 20 But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? 21  Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? 22  Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? 23  And the Scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. 24  Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.  25  Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?  26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

When James asks the question “Can faith save him?” in verse 14, he provides an example to show what he means. A person who needs food and clothes does not need to be told to be warm and full; instead, this person needs food and clothes! The person who offers only words rather than tangible objects to meet these needs is doing nothing beneficial. Faith, James says in verse 17, must have actions to show its authenticity.

Indeed James adamantly states in verse 18:

“Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works: show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works.”

Showing that James is not advocating a “works righteousness,” Christian pastor John MacArthur notes that the verbs in these verses are present tense. He states:

“They describe someone who routinely claims to be a believer yet continuously lacks any external evidence of faith. The question ‘Can that faith save him?’ employs the Greek negative particle me, indicating that a negative reply is assumed. It might literally be rendered, ‘That faith cannot save him, can it?’ James, like the apostle John, challenges the authenticity of a profession of faith that produces no fruit (cf. 1 John 2:4, 6, 9). The context indicates that the ‘works he speaks of are not anyone’s bid to earn eternal life. These are acts of compassion….Real faith inevitably produces faith-works” (Faith Works: The Gospel According to the Apostles, p. 149)

After showing that mere belief is inadequate—consider the type of belief held by demons who believe intellectually that there is no God but who are no more “Christian” than the Devil himself—James gives the famous admonition in 2:20, which again say that “faith without works is dead.” It is obvious that James is admonishing the Jewish Christians to make their faith come alive through works. To merely assent to being a Christian in an intellectual sense and then declare that works are not important is akin to a leopard saying he doesn’t need any spots. “What do you mean, a Christian who says that he has faith and therefore doesn’t have any works?” James is asking. “This is ridiculous and should be rejected.”

This “antinomian” (against the law) idea is contrary to the Gospel. Some Mormons have a term for such people who believe that a simple prayer at an evangelistic crusade or at the end of a church service can excuse their future acts of lawlessness: “gracers.” James strongly condemns such a view. MacArthur writes,

 “Faith works are a consequence of faith, not a component of faith. As we observed earlier, faith is an entirely inward response and therefore is complete before it produces its first work. At the moment of salvation, faith does nothing but receive the provision of Christ. The believer himself contributes nothing meritorious to the saving process…True faith never remains passive” (Faith Works, p. 53).

In the next verses James brings up the story of when the patriarch Abraham was about to offer his son Issac at the altar. Verse 23 clearly states, “And the Scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness.” Notice, it was Abraham’s “belief” and not his works that “imputed unto him for righteousness.” This fact is reiterated later in the book of Hebrews in the famous “Hall of Faith” (Hebrews 11). The author of Hebrews writes in 11:8-10:

8 By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. 9 By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: 10 for he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.

But James is not done. He brings up the story of the prostitute Rahab, saying that she was considered righteous by her good works. Hebrews 11:31 agrees when it says, “By faith the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not, when she had received the spies with peace.” Notice, both Abraham and Rahab were credited with faith, but it was their works that led to their obedience, not their obedience that led to their faith. This is an important distinction that needs to be made.

After all of this is said, James 2:10 needs to be taken into consideration. It says, “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.” For the Mormon to truly hold to a righteousness based on works, an important question must be answered: Do you keep the whole law? If not—if you fail in even one point—you are guilty of breaking all of the laws! Who can stand up to such a demand? The answer. Nobody.

Do Paul and James contradict?

A passage that is a favorite among many Christians is Ephesians 2:8-9. It says,

“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9 not of works, lest any man should boast.”

In this second chapter of Ephesians, Paul writes very powerful words regarding the Christian’s claim to having a relationship with God. In fact, the term “justification by faith alone” was Martin Luther’s rallying cry in his attempt to reform the Catholic Church. Did Paul and James contradict each other in their words? Absolutely not! Before we can describe the differences, we need to understand the meaning of the word salvation.

According to the Bible, a person becomes a Christian through faith alone. Acts 13:39 says,

“And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses.”

Romans 3:28 and 5:1 add,

“Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law….Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Talking about whether the Gentiles would be “justified” through faith or the observance of the law, Paul wrote in Galatians 2:15-16:

We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, 16 knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.”

In Romans 4, Paul refers to this justification in light of Abraham, the very person who is mentioned in James 2. James explains in 2:1-4,

“What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found?  2  For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God.  3  For what saith the Scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. 4  Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt.”

 Verses 13 and 16 add,

“For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith….Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all.”

When Paul says that a person is “saved through faith,” he is talking about how a person comes into a relationship with Jesus. It is quite clear that works—either by themselves or even when combined with God’s grace—have absolutely nothing to do with one’s righteous standing before God. This is why he says in Ephesians 2:8 that it is “not of yourselves: it is the gift of God…” Justification before God is based solely on His grace.

Suppose my daughter—after opening her presents on Christmas Day—begins to put on her work clothes. “Where are you going?” I would ask her. Imagine my surprise if she said, “Out to mow the grass to pay for these presents.” Or how about when you give a friend a birthday present and he takes out his wallet. Imagine your shock when your friend asked you, “So how much did it cost so I can pay you for it?” Truly a gift cannot be repaid; to attempt to do so is an insult to the one giving the gift.

But Paul does not negate the necessity of good works in a Christian’s life, for consider verse 10:

“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.”

Sanctification, or living holy, has its roots in justification. When a person becomes justified, good works come out of this to show forth the seed that was planted. Thus, good works are a result of justification, not something accomplished in order to earn justification before God.

Paul was not schizophrenic! He was not saying “salvation is free” in one breath and then saying that “salvation (justification) comes through works.” By putting verse 10 behind verses 8-9, Paul clearly says that good works should be a natural result of the Christian’s justification. As he says in 2 Corinthians 5:17,

“Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.”

A person who has a new nature should not want to follow the ways of his old nature. Whereas the nature of the believer once was that of the cockroach—loving the darkness and fearing the light—the very core of his or her being has been radically altered. In effect, the believer’s nature has become that of the moth, a creature that desperately wants to leave the darkness and searches for the light, delighting in it when it is found.

Justification by faith alone is a biblical principle. Yet Paul clearly believed in the sanctification process that follows this free gift. Indeed, Paul was the number-one advocate of good works! For instance, look at Ephesians 4:17 through chapter 5. Here is a list of imperatives (commands) Paul instructs the Ephesian Christians:

  • 17 Don’t live as the Gentiles do
  • 25 Put off falsehood
  • 25 Speak truthfully
  • 26 In your anger don’t sin
  • 26 Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry
  • 27 Don’t give the devil a foothold
  • 28 Don’t steal
  • 28 Work
  • 29 No course words out of your mouth
  • 30 Don’t grieve the Holy Spirit
  • 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, slander, malice
  • 32 Be kind/compassionate to one another
  • 32 Forgive each other
  • 5:1 Be imitators of God
  • 2 Live a life of love
  • 3 No hint of sexual immorality
  • 3 No impurity
  • 3 No greed
  • 4 No obscenity
  • 4 Foolish talk
  • 4 Coarse joking
  • 6 Don’t let others deceive you
  • 7 Don’t be partners with them
  • 8 Live as children of the light
  • 10 Find out what pleases the Lord
  • 11 Don’t have anything to do with darkness: expose them
  • 15 Be careful how you live your lives
  • 16 Make the most of every opportunity
  • 17 Don’t be foolish
  • 17 Understand the Lord’s will
  • 18 Don’t get drunk
  • 18 Be filled with the Spirit
  • 19 Speak and sing (psalms, hymns, spiritual songs)
  • 20 Always give thanks
  • 21 Submit to one another
  • 22 Wives submit
  • 25 Husbands love your wives (like you love yourselves)

The Mormon who says that James and Paul contradict certainly doesn’t know Paul. If anyone ever admonished the believer to do good works, it was Paul 

Why bother doing good works?

At this point, the Mormon may deny that there would be any motive to do good works, wondering, “What would keep a person from sinning freely if justification before God is free and is not based on what I do?” Paul predicted this argument in his writing to the Romans. Consider Romans 6:1ff in explaining how the Christian ought to be dead to sin:

1 What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? 2 God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?… 5 For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection:6 knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.

 He continued his argument in 6:15ff:

 15 What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid. 16 Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?…20 For when ye were the servants of sin, ye were free from righteousness.21 What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? for the end of those things is death.22 But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life. 23 For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Those who believe that Christianity is all about responding to an altar call so that they can sin like hell obviously does not understand the message of salvation by grace through faith. It would be akin to receiving a million-dollar gift from a relative. How would most people respond? By spray painting graffiti on the relative’s house and putting lye in the yard? Or would there be a desire to respond in kindness? In the same way, when a person realizes the tremendous cost of salvation—it cost Jesus plenty!—the response should be a desire to live according to the ways of the Master.

Works righteousness and other passages

Just like James 2:14-26, there are other passages used by Mormons to show how salvation comes by works. For instance, Philippians 2:12-13 is sometimes referenced. It says,

Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling: 13 for it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.

Again, the Mormon needs to be shown the differences between justification and sanctification, as a proper understanding of the meaning of the word salvation is crucial to comprehend what is really meant. In Philippians Paul is reiterating the point that works are a result of salvation. Very clearly we are instructed not to work for but rather work out our salvation. Notice verse 13 and Paul’s point that it is God who works in us for his will and pleasure, not us doing good works beforehand.

As Isaiah 64:6 says,But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.” Psalm 14:3 adds, They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one.” By ourselves, no amount of good works could ever please the all-perfect God.

Acts 26:20 gives Paul’s testimony to King Agrippa when he said, 

“…but showed first unto them of Damascus,  and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance.”

Although the Mormon might misunderstand “do works meet for repentance,” the NIV clearly translated it as “…prove their repentance by their deeds.” This is exactly what the Christian believes. Saved by grace, good works prove that the repentance was true.


It is understood that the toughest doctrine for those outside of Christianity is the doctrine of justification by faith through grace. After all, we live in a society that says nothing is free. You put in the hours at work, you earn a paycheck. While justification before God did come at a very expensive price, it comes to the believer as a gift and not as a wage. Unlike a paycheck, justification before God is free. As a result, good works will flow from the believer’s life. When the Christian understands this vital concept, the gospel story truly becomes alive.

Questions for the honest Latter-day Saints:

1)      If you believe in the Book of Mormon and 2 Nephi 25:23 ( “saved by grace after all you can do”), might I ask if you have done all you can do?

2)      How many good works are needed before you can rest assured that Jesus “will take care of the rest” of the debt?

3)      D&C 25:15 says that unless a person keeps the commandments “continually,” he cannot go where God is. Do you keep the commandments continually? If not, where do Mormons like you go when they die?

4)      If you cannot say that you do keep the commandments “continually,” then how do you explain 1 Nephi 3:7 where it says, “For I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them”?

For more information on this topic, see here.

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