The verses I would read were ones like 1 Corinthians 6:9-11:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor [the] covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God.
or Revelation 21:7-8:
"He who overcomes shall inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son. "But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part [will be] in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death."
or Romans 2:5-8:
But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to every man according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation.
Now, I don't know about you, but when I was younger, I was told that there were two judgments in the end: one for those who believe and one for those who do not. The one for those who believe would be a judgment based on whether you accepted Jesus into your heart (remember that witnessing question, "If you died today and God asked you, 'Why should I let you into heaven?' what would you say?" Supposedly the answer should be, "I accepted Jesus as my Savior"). That was the picture of judgment I had when I was younger. It was simply based on whether one accepted Christ or not (of course, that is still true, but it's a little more nuanced now). I think many got that idea from a misreading of Revelation 20:11-15:
And I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is [the book] of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one [of them] according to their deeds. And death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
Supposedly, there is one judgment that is based on the deeds of these people going into the lake of fire, and another judgment based on whether one's name is written in the Lamb's book of life. Of course, that is true, but what most people say is that the second judgment is not a judgment of works, but of faith. That is neither the case in the entire corpus of Scripture, nor even here in the context. Notice what it says in the verses that precede this:
And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given to them. And I [saw] the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark upon their forehead and upon their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.
Notice that these people had maintained a witness for Christ by being beheaded for their testimony of Jesus and the Scripture, who had not worshiped the beat or his image (i.e., in Revelation this means that they had not given in to live as the world lives), and had not received the mark (i.e., they had not identified with the wicked world through their beliefs and conduct). In other words, their lives are filled with good doctrine and good works. This is the judgment given to them, and they come to life and reign with Christ indefinitely.
In other words, the very passage meant to support that there is a judgment based solely on whether one has accepted Christ and one based on works says the exact opposite. This is consistent with the rest of the book as well, a book that presents genuine Christians as faithful to God in both word and deed (remember the lampstands at the beginning of the book? Whether they stay or are taken away is based upon the beliefs and deeds of the church).
Further muddying up the waters of my once held view is the Book of Matthew in its entirety. Notice what Christ says concerning the judgment of Christians:
"Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide, and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. "For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it. (7:13-14)
"Even so, every good tree bears good fruit; but the bad tree bears bad fruit. "A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (speaking of pastors/teachers, vv. 17-19)
"Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. "Many will say to Me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?' "And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.' (vv. 21-23)
Notice that Christ here is speaking about professed believers, not professed unbelievers. Why do these people not enter into life? Because they didn't accept Jesus as Savior? Why in the world would they be prophesying and doing all of these ministries in His name if they didn't accepted Him as their Savior? But that isn't the problem. They didn't accept Him as their Lord. They practice anomia "lawlessness," i.e., they rule themselves instead of letting Christ rule them. They, therefore, do whatever they wish (and what they wish to do is wrong in the eyes of the Christ they profess to know). They, therefore, receive the outcome of their works, and are declared to have never really known Christ (oudepote egnōn hymas "I at no time knew you"). But that's just for doing wrong. In Matthew 25, we are told of the virgins who are waiting for Christ to come, but do not have enough oil in their lamps. We are then told what this parable means in the rest of the chapter when Christ discusses the way He will judge those who have a profession of faith. His true people will have provided life sustaining materials to other Christians and will enter eternal life, but the others will not have done so, and will enter eternal punishment instead.
What confused me further was the fact that Paul in Galatians, after so clearly and without fail arguing that we can only be saved by grace through faith, and not by works of the law, then goes on to tell us:
Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh shall from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit shall from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we shall reap if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, specifically speaking, to those who are of the household of the faith. (6:7-10)
The reason for my confusion is that I had confused the basis for salvation with the basis for judgment of whether I was saved. In other words, the Bible teaches that we are saved by grace through faith and that not of ourselves, but it also teaches that we are judged by our works as to whether that faith is genuine. This isn't a judgment where God needs to see Himself. God already knows if we have a relationship with Him. God is the one who brought it about in the first place before the foundation of the world. The display of works in judgment are for us. They are the evidence that convicts our lack of that relationship with Christ as our Lord or the evidence that vindicates our claim to know Christ.
Now, this was probably obvious to anyone reading texts like Ephesians 2:8-10, since it says right there that we are saved by grace through faith and not by our works, but that we have been saved (i.e., created in Christ Jesus) for the purpose of doing good works. This is not even to mention the fact that Paul goes on in Ephesians to say things like,
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you, and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma. But do not let immorality or any impurity or greed even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and [there must be no] filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them; for you were formerly darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light (Eph 5:1-8).
Let him who steals steal no longer; but rather let him labor, performing with his own hands what is good, in order that he may have [something] to share with him who has need. (4:28, notice the refraining from evil and the doing of good we saw in Matthew).
In Romans 6, Paul asks if our freedom in Christ means we can sin all the more so that grace might abound all the more. His answer? Mē genoito "may it not be," what is Paul's equivalent to saying, "No way, José!" He continues by saying, "How shall we who died to sin continue to live in it?" He then gives an argument for the absurdity of accepting transforming grace in the free gift of salvation offered without going on to be transformed.
In other words, we are saved by grace, but that grace will compel us to a new life of repentance from what is displeasing to God and toward the doing of what is pleasing to Him in terms of the works we do. If we have been saved by grace through faith, we will have these things in our life, and this gives us assurance of our standing before His throne before, as well as after, we get there. As John says,
And by this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, "I have come to know Him," and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him: the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked. (1 John 2:3-6)
Freedom gained for us in Christ is a freedom from the slavery of sin, the freedom from doing whatever our depraved minds desire, and this freedom compels us through love to do what is pleasing to Christ as our new Master. Before we were saved, our desires bound us, hand and foot, to practice lawlessness and to do only what pleased us at the sacrifice of others. Now, the free gift of God that could never be earned compels us to cease to do evil and learn to do good (Isa 1:16-17) as God's people.
But those who willfully sin (i.e., they sin without hesitation to start or genuine repentance to follow) prove that no salvation has been activated in their lives, and Christ's sacrifice, which can only be gained through genuine faith that produces works, is of no use to them (Hebrews 10:26-27).
So those academics that think Paul contradicts James simply do not understand Paul, as I once did not understand him. Both are in agreement. Faith without works is dead, and that kind of faith cannot save you. But the faith that saves continually puts sin to death in our lives and perpetually gives birth to what is good and glorifying to God. We will all stand before the throne and give an account for what we have done here, and this is the basis for the apostles' words exhorting us to "work out our salvation with fear and trembling" and "conduct yourselves in fear during your time of stay upon the earth" precisely because we have been saved already by a blood that is more precious than the things that once made up our self-oriented lives (Phil 2:12; 1 Pet 1:17-19). Why? "Because God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil" (Eccl 12:14).
The life of the believer is not one of perfection, as we still struggle with our old bondage, but it is a life of seeking to live in freedom from that bondage and in our new found love and devotion to the Lord of good works.