The idea that James teaches the necessity of good works to be eternally saved comes up against a very strong objection: James says that absolutely no one is qualified to be saved on the basis of their works.
On the one hand, James emphasizes that we all sin.
For we all stumble in many ways (James 3:2a).
Most people would agree. They would readily admit, “Nobody’s perfect.” But they still might hold on to the hope that, nevertheless, they are still better than the average sinner.
Well, James allows no room for that kind of spiritual blindness. He makes clear that one sin is all it takes to be guilty before God. Why?
For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all (James 2:10).
How many felonies does it take to be a felon? One.
How many laws do you need to break to be a lawbreaker? One.
How many sins does it take to be a sinner? One.
When you sin—and remember, we all stumble, he says—you are guilty of breaking the whole law. Period. As far as God is concerned, you are a sinner.
But what is a sin? In case you’re wondering, James defines it for us.
It goes deeper than breaking outward commandments:
Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin (James 4:17).
When I read that, I feel a deep sense of conviction, don’t you? If my salvation depended on never sinning again, I’d be lost by the end of the day.
I occasionally meet people who say they are sinless. What they usually mean is they do not commit any overtly sinful acts like murdering, committing adultery, or getting drunk. In my opinion, they have a very shallow idea of what sin is. They also have a very shallow idea of what it means to be good.
James points out sin’s deepest dimension—not just to stumble, but to leave the good undone.
Do you love consistently? Do you always do what is good? Are you ever lazy in doing good deeds? Then you’ve left the good undone. That means you’ve sinned.
When I look at these three verses, it astounds me that anyone could think James was telling people how to be eternally saved. Do you think that a man as sensitive to sin as James would think he could be saved by being good?
I think the commentators might have stumbled.