It isn’t just the book of James that causes problems for the Protestant doctrine of sola fide. So does Matthew’s gospel.
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life? For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done.” [Mt. 16:24-27; emphasis added]
If salvation is by faith alone in the way that Protestants say, why doesn’t our Lord even mention faith here? Why, instead, does he say that men will be judged by what they have done? Whatever answer one might like to suggest, it is pretty obvious that salvation by faith alone is ruled out. From what Jesus says here, our works will be at least in some way part of the measure; certainly faith is involved but the fact that He omits any mention of it here seems mighty important: like the things He does mention are important too.
And this is not the only place Matthew’s gospel complicates the sola fide picture. He summarizes Christ’s preaching as “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” Certainly repentance is a matter of the heart, but it is expressed by changing how we live our lives: the things we do matter. There is no true repentance without a change of behavior accompanying it; it is more than merely feeling sorry for one’s sins. This fact is contrary to the Protestant appeal to sola fide.
Maybe the biggest issue in Matthew’s gospel for the sola fide of Protestantism is in 25:31-46:
“When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
I still remember a live recording done by Keith Green, drawn from this passage. He summed up the problem for Protestantism’s sola fide here rather nicely: “The only difference according to the Scripture between the sheep and the goats is what they did—or didn’t—do.”
In short, it isn’t credible (according to Matthew’s gospel) to say that we are “saved by faith alone” like Protestants say. What we do—whether Christian or not—is not a matter of indifference.