Almost every Mormon will eventually refer to James 2—and most bring it up sooner rather than later. They especially like to cite verse 24 to support their belief that works are necessary for salvation, “Ye see then how by works a man is justified, and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).
This verse has caught many Christians completely off guard. Some have never heard it, while others have heard it but have never understood it. Most Christians are troubled by it or, at the very least, are uneasy when Mormons refer to it. If they are experienced in talking with Christians, they probably have seen Christians react in these ways. If so, they might cite James 2 with eagerness and confidence—almost like someone triumphantly playing the trump card.
One former LDS missionary wrote about how he used James 2 on his mission.
“I pictured it almost as if Ephesians 2:8-9 was a sword swipe at us and we blocked it with James 2. We thought of it as like a secret weapon that Christians didn’t know about and that would confound any of this ‘grace is free’ talk.”
“If James 2 had been explained to me when I was a missionary I really think it would have made me think hard about it. You are right that we used that verse about being justified by works, but we didn’t know the context and much less the reconciliation of it with the rest of the New Testament as you present it here. This alone would be invaluable to understand and use effectively when ministering to missionaries, in my opinion.”
The goal is to help you understand James 2 so you don’t miss a beat when they introduce it. Using the following, you can explain your understanding of James 2 and thus neutralize their use of it. It probably is too lofty of a goal to have them agree with or even understand your explanation. Since they don’t comprehend God’s amazing love, they can’t grasp a motivation rooted in gratitude. You can, however, weaken their confident use of this passage by showing you are not shaken by it.
Before anything else, it would be good to read James 2 in a modern translation. Have it handy as we work through the chapter. We use the KJV because it is the translation recognized by Mormons.
As always, the context is vitally important. Explain the importance of looking at a passage’s context to properly interpret it. Especially enlightening is verse 18, “Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works” (James 2:18).
These words spell out what James is talking about, not how God recognizes who believes and who doesn’t, but how we recognize faith in each other. He talks about how we show or make our faith apparent to others.
In this context, works are important because, unlike God, we can’t see faith. Faith resides in the heart and thus is invisible to humans. All we can see are evidences of faith. That’s the point of James’ illustration, “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (James 2:26).
James compares faith to our spirits because both are invisible. Just like we know the spirit is still in a body if the body shows signs of life, so it is with faith. Faith makes itself visible through signs of life, through works.
What is crucial to remember, however, is that although faith always produces works, and thus faith and works go together. They are two separate things. It’s a matter of cause and effect. Spirit-worked faith in Jesus’ sacrifice for us is the cause of salvation, while works result from being saved. Put another way, faith is the root, and works are the fruit. It’s devastating to mix the two. Paul brought this out when he said, “And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then it is no more grace: otherwise work is no more work” (Romans 11:6).
Mixing works with grace as a cause of salvation does nothing less than destroy salvation. (See the article on grace plus illustrations.)
James does not contradict this. He reinforces it in his example of Abraham. In verses 21-23, he mentions two incidents from Abraham’s life. It is vitally important to see they are not in chronological order. James first talks about Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac – which occurred decades after the event mentioned in verse 23. In verse 23, James quotes Genesis 15:6—the significant verse telling us when God justified Abraham (declared him righteous). By quoting Genesis 15:6, James emphasizes that God had already declared Abraham righteous decades before his sacrifice of Isaac. In other words, God didn’t wait until Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac before he declared him righteous. He justified Abraham when he first believed decades before. Because God can see faith and because faith alone saves, God could do that. But we can’t see faith. Therefore, Abraham’s subsequent sacrifice of Isaac made his faith complete in the sense that now Abraham himself, his contemporaries, and even we today have this wonderful evidence of his faith in God.
A good example is how an apple makes an apple tree complete; how apples make it easy to identify the tree as an apple tree. The apple, however, doesn’t make the tree an apple tree. Likewise, we easily see that Abraham was a believer by his great act of faith, but it didn’t make him a believer. It showed he was already a believer.
The bottom line is that James agrees with the rest of the Bible. God declares us righteous or justifies us based on faith alone. Faith alone saves, but faith is never alone. It always bears fruit. This is the testimony of Paul, James, John, and all the biblical writers.
As mentioned above, it probably is expecting too much to think they will grasp this. Don’t worry about it. But don’t forego the opportunity to explain James 2. As the former missionary said above, if a Christian had explained James 2 to him while he was on his mission, it would have gotten him thinking.