A couple of years ago, a friend of mine was discussing the necessity of works to salvation when a fellow Reformed minister accused him of legalism. This pastor, noted for promoting a radical version of Lutheran soteriology, cut him down with a slashing riposte. "You sound like a follower of James!" he stabbed. Unbloodied by this thrust, my friend answered, "James is, you know, in the Bible."
This conversation came to mind as I read Mark Jones' defense of John Piper in his insistence that Christians attain to heaven not merely by faith but also by works. ("Attaining to heaven," here seems to correspond with the character of one's post-conversion Christian life.) If one replies that Jones and Piper sound like the apostle James, well, James 2 is in the Bible.
It is by now standard for Reformed Christians to realize that when James wrote that "faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead" (Ja. 2:17), he was not contradicting Paul's teaching of justification through faith alone. The most common explanation is that while Paul taught that we are justified through faith alone, James taught that our faith is justified by works. Hence the non-contradiction. This is a helpful formula, yet it may not do James full justice or give the full emphasis of his point.
Consider the explanation in James 2:21-24. First, James writes that "Abraham our father [was] justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar" (Ja. 2:21). This refers, of course, to Abraham's obedience in Genesis 22. The angel of the Lord noted the importance of this obedience in Abraham's salvation, saying, "now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me" (Gen. 22:12). Evidently, fearing God is of soteric importance to those who have been justified through faith alone. It was on the basis of this fearing God that the covenant promise given long before in response to faith was confirmed again in Genesis 22:17. Unless we are to make this episode a pointless footnote to Abraham's story, we must say that the patriarch did not attain to salvation apart from obediently fearing the Lord, a matter that was important enough to God that he tested Abraham in so onerous a manner.
How, then, do we relate faith and works in Abraham's salvation? Conveniently, James tells us: "You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works" (Ja. 2:22). Here, James leaves Paul's doctrine of justification through faith alone undamaged. Both initially and finally, faith alone remains the instrumental condition of our justification.* But if we ask how a believer occupies himself between conversion and final glory, i.e. how he attains to salvation, James answers that faith is active in and finds its expression through works. So essential is this relationship between faith and works that James famously insisted: "faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead" (Ja. 2:17). It is in this sense that James concludes not only that our faith is justified by works but that "a person is justified by works and not by faith alone" (Ja. 2:24). Here we see the necessity of works, not only as evidence of true faith but as characteristic of the justified believer, such that a professing Christian without works has no basis to consider himself justified. As Abraham's example shows us, a person who is justified through faith alone attains to salvation by a life characterized by God-fearing obedience and good works. This person remains a sinner, of course, who stands justified before God only in Christ through faith. But being in Christ through faith involves a necessary and organic connection to good works (see also Eph. 2:8-10).
I can think of few messages more urgently needed by our worldly churches today than the necessity of pursuing practical holiness through obedience and good works. I realize that many even of our Reformed brothers would rather ignore James' teaching than work through its challenges, both doctrinally and practically. But as my friend insisted, "James is, you know, in the Bible."
* The word "condition" in theology does not always mean "instrument of." My guess is that people who are alarmed by Piper saying that there are other conditions than faith for attaining heaven are thinking of "condition" only in this narrow sense. I do not see Piper espousing the kind of initial vs. final justification teaching that you see in N. T. Wright, an approach that Piper has clearly refuted in The Future of Justification. Since, Piper reserves faith alone as the instrumental cause of our justification, I have taken his use of "condition" here to refer to the necessary characteristic of the justified Christian life. In this sense, James 2 urges full agreement.