“Ye see that by works a man is justified, and not only by faith.” Jas. 2: 24.
It has often been supposed that there was opposition betwixt this utterance of James and the doctrine of Paul. It is to be nevertheless acknowledged at once that this is not the case, when one reflects that the works of which Paul speaks are entirely different from those which James intends. Paul always speaks of the works of the law: James has his eye upon the works of faith. The works of the law are those which are done out of the personal power of man. In the direction of fulfilling the law of God in order to merit the favor of God and make himself worthy of it. Of these the word of God says, that man is justified without the works of the law. He can do nothing that is good or meritorious: all that comes from him is impure and deserving of wrath. On the contrary, the works of faith of which James speaks are those which must be done for the confirmation and the perfecting of faith, and thus out of the power which God gives and not to merit anything. They serve to manifest that which faith has received from free grace. They follow upon conversion, while the works of the law can only precede this change. The works of the law will be able to glorify man: the works of faith give God all the honor; for they are done in the acknowledgment of personal unworthiness. Works and faith go together, as being both fruits of grace and tokens of the renewing of the mind; faith as the root of the works, the works as the perfecting of faith.
In this way it can now be clearly understood what the word of God means, when in one passage it says: “To him that worketh not but believeth, his faith is reckoned for righteousness,” and then again insists on works. The works which are done apart from faith, as an endeavor to make ourselves worthy of God’s favor and thus keep us back from faith, the reception of God’s free grace, are not to be done: they are abominable in the eyes of God: “He that worketh not is justified.” The works which are done with and in faith, while the soul in the sense of its unworthiness commits itself to the gracious promises of God, just because it hopes or knows that the Lord receives it apart from its merits, and seeks to praise Him for them, are acceptable to God, and must be done, the more the better. And it is of these that it is said that “man is justified by works”: they are the manifestation of faith and actual fruit-bearing, and not merely of a faith that continues inactive, and is thus dead.
Let the soul which seeks to come to Jesus in faith thus understand what it is to think of works. As soon as it begins to look upon its works as the ground of merit, as soon as it begins to say in fear, “My works are too small, too trifling, too sinful for me to be received,” it must at once remember that “man is justified without works.” No sin or ungodliness of which you have been guilty ought to keep you back from the hope of grace. Yet, on the other side, in order that the soul may not perhaps sit down in idle inactivity, in order that it may not go on in sin while it relies upon grace, let it be remembered that as soon as the first beginnings of the desire for grace awake within us — this, if it is sincere, will necessarily show itself active in the doing of God’s will. We shall be able to pray with confidence and in truth, “forgive us our debts,” only when at the same time we just as heartily endeavor to say, “as we forgive our debtors”; just as John writes, “Let us not love in word, neither with the tongue but in deed and truth. Hereby shall we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our heart before Him”; and, “If our heart condemn us not, we have boldness toward God.” (Compare further 1 John 4: 22, as also Psalm 18: 22-27.) Thus we learn to understand rightly the word, “work for God worketh in you,” that is, by faith; and our works become the lovely evidences of His heavenly grace, the foretokens of His everlasting favor.