This is not a Bible contradiction, but before we answer the question, you should carefully examine both verses and notice that they say two completely different things. Paul says that a man is not justified by works but by faith. His statement is supported by other verses like Gal 2:16; Rom 3:28 and Acts 13:38-39. James, on the other hand, says that a man is justified by works and not by faith only. Look at the verses carefully.
Romans 4:5, “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.”
James 2:24, “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.”
Most men that attempt to reconcile this apparent contradiction simply say that the faith it takes to save you in Rom 4:5 must be accompanied by works as evidence of that salvation [Jas 2:24] or else you are not saved. As you have heard said, “Faith alone saves, but not that faith which is alone.” However, there are times that you have been in such a backslidden condition [or you have known somebody in that condition] that your works evidenced nothing of the kind. A preacher who believed Jas 2:24 was proof that you were lost in your backslidden condition would be dealing with you as a lost man and would be trying to get you saved all over again.
Likewise, the reconciliation of Jas 2:24 and Rom 4:5 is not found in distinguishing between works that cannot save [Rom 4:5] and works that “prove” your salvation [Jas 2:24]. Frankly, there are many self-righteous, lost, religious people whose works upon observation would “prove” that they are saved. And if you considered that their works were proof of saving faith in Christ, you might neglect to deal with their souls since you have concluded that they are already saved. Honestly, which works would you consider were proof of salvation and which works would you consider were evidence that a person was trying to work his way to heaven? See the confusion!
So, what is the reconciliation? It is simple. Rom 4:5 is addressed to us in the church age and Jas 2:24 is addressed to people in the tribulation. Look at Rev 12:17 and Rev 14:12 and notice that during the tribulation, a tribulation saint will have to both have faith in Jesus and keep the commandments of God. He will have to have faith and works to be saved.
You see, during the tribulation, the body of Christ will not be here. We will have been raptured before that time. So, a saved man in the tribulation cannot be baptized by the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ [1 Cor 12:13; Eph 5:30-32] because the body will be gone. Therefore, there will be no eternal security during the tribulation. A man can lose his salvation during the tribulation if he takes the mark of the beast or worships him or his image, for instance. Hence he must obey the commandments and not bow down to another god.
Notice that during the tribulation a man must endure to the end to be saved [Matt 24:13, 21, that’s not like us in the church age, at all]. Notice that he is limited on how far he can travel on the Sabbath while running from the antichrist [Matt 24:20, that doesn’t concern you and me, obviously]. Notice that, while we are not subject to the law in the church age because we are in the body [of Christ], tribulation saints will be subject to the ordinances of the law [Col 2:16-17]. Notice that, while we are eternally secure in the church age [Jn 5:24, 6:37; Rom 8:38-39; etc], tribulation saints are not [Heb 6:4-6; Heb 3:14; Rev 14:9-11; etc]. Notice that Jas 1:1 reveals that the book of James is written to “the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad.” [Those are surely not church age saints, because in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile (Gal 3:28; 1 Cor 10:32)].
The works that concern a tribulation saint are of no concern to a born again Christian in the church age. We are saved by faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ on Calvary plus nothing. There are no works that we can add to what Jesus Christ has already done for us that will save us or that will guarantee our salvation if we are in doubt. That is all clear from Rom 4:5.
A tribulation saint, on the other hand, can believe in Jesus all he wants and can be “washed in the blood” and living for God. If he takes the mark of the beast or bows down to worship the beast or to worship his image in violation of the law, he will lose his salvation forever [see Heb 6:4-6 where it is impossible for him to get it back] and go straight to hell when he dies. He must have faith and works to be justified! That is absolutely clear in Jas 2:24.
Hope this helps,
Pastor Bevans Welder