What does “faith” mean in the Bible? James 2:26 (“Faith without works is dead”) seems to contradict Galatians 2:16 (we are “justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law”).
Like all words used in the Bible, “faith” has a range of meanings that depend on its context. We should not expect individual authors to mean exactly the same thing each time they use a word. Yet Scripture is unified in the one story it tells and the one God whose voice we hear in its pages. This means we should expect harmony in its overall message even if individual texts seem to be dissonant..
In his letter, James’ point is that what we do matters. A person should not claim to have faith if it is never shown in concrete works of love. Even the demons believe in God, he reminds us (James 2:19). But real faith is more than mental assent. It is also covenantal fidelity. This fidelity shows itself in acts of daily discipleship as we take up our cross and follow our Lord (Matt. 16:24). It’s wrong to think that faith does not claim one’s entire life.
In Galatians, Paul’s point is that we cannot save ourselves. We are justified—included, accepted, approved—because of what Christ has done for us, not because of what we do. Although works of love are the fruit of saving faith, union with Christ is its root. As the Belgic Confession puts it, it is only because we draw our life from Christ that anything we do can be counted “good.” Without Christ, our works “could not be good, any more than the fruit of a tree could be good if the tree is not good in the first place” (Art. 24). We are wrong to take credit for the good works “which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10).
The Reformation’s “solas” are always held together: we are saved through “faith alone” (sola fide), and we always live “for the glory of God alone” (soli Deo gloria). As the faithful love of Jesus heals our hearts, it births faith in us: confidence in God’s promises, trust in God’s character, and fidelity to God’s commands. As Paul goes on to say in Galatians, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6).