Justification: By Faith or By Works?
Reconciling James and Paul

The early church was not free from controversy. One of the earliest problems that had to be addressed by the church was the issue of the basis of salvation. Are we saved by our obedience to the Law of Moses or are we saved through faith in Christ? Does God consider us righteous because of what we do or because of what we believe? Do we establish a righteousness of our own based on the works of the law, or do we simply receive righteousness as a gift based on the death of Jesus Christ? The early church had to face these questions, and it is crucial that we understand their answer.

When we read the epistles of Paul, especially Romans and Galatians, we discover that he gives some very clear and strong answers to these questions. Paul says, "We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law," (Romans 3:28). Faith in Christ plus nothing saves us. A cursory reading of the epistle of James would suggest that James would take issue with Paul, as James maintains, "You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone," (James 2:24). Are these two apostles arguing against one another? My thesis is that James and Paul do not contradict one another on the question of the basis of justification. My purpose here is to demonstrate why this is so.

1. What Is Justification?

Before we tackle the subject of the means of justification, we need to be clear about just what it is that we are talking about. We need to ask, "What is 'Justification'?" and "What does it mean to be 'justified'?" Genesis 15:6 says of Abraham, "Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness". This is Abraham's justification. God imputed righteousness to Abraham, "reckoned" him righteous, because of his faith.

Justification is the opposite of condemnation. It is acquittal. It is God's declaration that we are "not guilty" in His sight. Paul brings this out in Romans 8:33,34, "Who will bring a charge against God's elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns?" Notice that God is the one who does the justifying. He is the Judge, and He alone has this authority. We cannot justify ourselves, nor can we "un-justify" ourselves if He has justified us. If God has justified us, no one can condemn us. We are freed from condemnation! Romans 8:1 says, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."

We are justified when God "reckons righteousness" to us (Romans 4:6), when our sins have been "covered", or not "taken into account" against us (Romans 4:7,8). These are synonyms for justification. Justification is necessary to salvation. If we are going to be saved, we must be found righteous before God. The question the early church had to face then, was, "How do we obtain justification?" On what basis does God find us "not guilty"?

2. An Early Controversy - Acts 15

The question of the basis of salvation, of justification before God, was one that arose early in the history of the church. Paul and Barnabas had just returned from their first missionary journey and had won many Gentiles to faith in Christ. In Acts 15 we find that Paul and Barnabas had returned to Antioch in Syria, their home base. Some Jewish Christians came from Judea and were teaching the Gentile believers that they had to be circumcised and obey the Law of Moses in order to be saved (verses 1 and 5). Paul and Barnabas took issue with them, and it was determined that they all should go to Jerusalem to discuss the matter with the other apostles and elders.

In Jerusalem there was "much debate" on the matter, and finally Peter stood up and pointed out that when he had preached the gospel to the Gentiles they had believed and that God had cleansed "their hearts by faith" (verse 9). Peter says that God has made no distinction between Jew and Gentile, but saves them both the same way, "through the grace of the Lord Jesus" (verse 11). He calls the law a "yoke, which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear" (verse 10). Peter learned these things as a result of his encounter with Cornelius described in Acts 10.

Next, Paul and Barnabas were given an opportunity to relate what God had done through them in their ministry among the Gentiles. It had been their experience that God had not required the Gentiles to be circumcised and to obey the Law before they could be saved.

Then it was James' opportunity to respond (verses 13-29). James makes the point that God has taken the initiative in saving the Gentiles, and has accepted them as His people. He says, "Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from what is strangled and from blood. For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath." (Verses 19-21.)

In the letter the apostles and elders sent to the Gentile believers by the hand of Paul, Barnabas and others they say that the men who came to them telling them to be circumcised do not represent their position on the matter of salvation (verse 24). The only commands laid down in the letter are the prohibitions mentioned above by James plus abstaining from fornication. The Gentiles will "do well" if they keep themselves from such things. They are not meant to be prerequisites for salvation, but merely guidelines for Christian behavior. The people addressed were already considered "brethren" (verse 23).

This controversy was not resolved once and for all at this consultation, however. Much later we find Paul still combating those who tried to subvert his ministry among the Gentiles by telling them that they had to be circumcised and obey the Law in order to be saved. This is particularly evident in Paul's epistle to the Galatians.

3. Paul And James

As we've seen, Paul and James met in Jerusalem over this issue of the basis of justification. It was clear to the apostles at that time that God had accepted the Gentiles apart from the "works of the Law", especially circumcision. As we study their epistles, it becomes clear that they do not contradict each other on the issue of justification by faith, for several reasons.

First, both Paul and James maintain that we have no righteousness of our own, that everyone is a transgressor of the Law. In Romans 3:19f Paul says that everyone is guilty. No one keeps the Law, and that both Jew and Gentile are under sin. Romans 3:23 says, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God". Thus we cannot establish a righteousness of our own based on our obedience to the Law. Since everyone falls short of the glory of God and sins, everyone is under condemnation. In fact, Paul says that the purpose of the Law is to make us aware of our sin and condemnation! (See Galatians 3.)

James, in his epistle, agrees with Paul in saying that no one obeys the Law. In James 2:10 and 11, he tells us that if we stumble in one point of the Law, if we break just one command of the Law, we are "guilty of all". It only takes one sin to bring us under condemnation. Then in 3:2 he says, "For we all stumble in many ways." Only one incidence of stumbling is required to make us guilty, and everyone stumbles in many ways. Therefore, James would not maintain that we can find justification before God on the basis of our obedience to the Law. He has just said that no one does obey the law. Our sinful nature precludes justification on this basis.

Second, Paul and James have a different intent. Paul is writing to Gentile Christians who are in danger of being led astray into legalism. He wants them to know that righteousness does not come through the Law. If we seek righteousness through the Law, then we nullify the grace of God. Paul says, "...if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly" (Galatians 2:21). We could theoretically be justified through the works of the Law if we at all times kept the Law perfectly at every point. However, as we've seen, no one does keep the Law. Everyone falls short. Only Jesus was sinless, and that qualified Him to be the sin-offering for us.

James is speaking to those who think that faith means simple acceptance of certain propositions, such as "God is one" (James 2:19). It is his purpose to show that faith which does not produce good works is no faith at all. He says, "The demons also believe, and shudder" (James 2:19b). His concern is with the true nature of saving faith. He asks at verse 14, "What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him?" The implied answer is "no". He then goes on to show that true, saving faith must and will demonstrate itself in good works, such as giving to help those in need, and the works that demonstrated the faith of Abraham and Rahab. Faith without attesting works, James says, is useless and dead.

Third, Paul and James are talking about different kinds of "works". Paul is concerned with "works of the Law," things such as circumcision, the sabbath, dietary laws, etc. The Jews thought that they were accepted by God and considered righteous because they were circumcised and observed the Law. Paul says no, a man is "justified by faith, apart from works of the Law." James talks about what we might call "works of faith". In the example of Abraham from Genesis 22, we have a work of faith. When God commanded Abraham to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice, He was testing Abraham's faith (see Hebrews 11:17-19). Hebrews 11:19 tells us that Abraham believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead, since God had promised that his descendants would come through Isaac. It was only because of his faith that Abraham was able to offer up his son. So James is referring to "works" which spring from faith, not ritual works of the Law.

Paul is very clear in pointing out that Abraham was justified by faith even before he was circumcised (Rom. 4:10), and that circumcision was added as a "seal" of the righteousness he obtained by faith while yet uncircumcised (Rom. 4:11). So Abraham was declared righteous by God on the basis of his faith before he did anything, but his faith was faith that produced obedience. The offering of Isaac, which James refers to, came some thirty years later! This act of obedience ratified Abraham's faith, and demonstrated that it was true saving faith. James points to this fact when he says in 2:22, "You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected." Abraham's faith was "perfected" ("completed" or "matured") by his obedient works.

This emphasis on faith that produces good works can be found elsewhere. If you read through Hebrews 11 you will find example after example of people who by faith "did" something. John the Baptist urged those who had repented and had been baptized by him to "bring forth fruits in keeping with your repentance" (Luke 3:8). Jesus emphasized that those who abide in Him will bear fruit (John 15:1-8). This fruit can only be borne as we abide in Him by faith and allow Him to live through us. Even Paul says, in a context where he emphasizes the fact that we are saved by grace and not by good works, "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them" (Ephesians 2:10). Paul is saying that we are not saved by good works, but rather for good works.


If we had the opportunity to sit down with James and Paul and discuss the matter of justification, I believe we would find that they agree that we are justified by faith in Jesus Christ and His work on the cross. Both would deny that we can be found righteous before God on the basis of our obedience to the Law. Paul would cite Psalm 14 which tells us that "There is none righteous, not even one" (Romans 3:10). James would tell us, "We all stumble in many ways" (James 3:2). We are all under condemnation as a result of our sinful nature.

They would both tell us that we are declared righteous by God on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ. We are, through faith in Christ, clothed with His righteousness. We have no righteousness of our own. However, James would be careful to remind us, and Paul would no doubt agree, that saving faith produces good works; it bears fruit. If our faith does not produce good works, it is worthless and is not truly saving faith.

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