“Does the Bible teach that we are justified by faith alone, or does the Bible teach that we are justified by our works?” This question was one of the central issues of the Protestant Reformation and remains the main dividing line between evangelical Christians and Catholics. “Justification by faith alone” is a non-negotiable doctrine of the Christian faith because it is a central teaching of the New Testament. On the other hand, a major doctrine of Catholicism is that the Catholic is saved by faith and works. This teaching was firmly established as Catholic doctrine at the Council of Trent and is still the doctrine of the Catholic Church today. Thus, the two positions contradict one another. Justification is either by faith alone or it is by faith and human works, but both positions cannot be true.
A PROBLEM PASSAGE?
And this brings us to a passage in the New Testament book of “James” that seems to create a conundrum, because James explicitly states in James 2:24,
“You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
Now, it is a fact that the overwhelming majority of New Testament teachings on justification explicitly state that justification is by faith. “Works” are either expressly rejected within the passage or are prohibited by the context of the passage. (A list of these passages is given at the end of this article.) But now we see that this passage in James 2 seems to declare that justification is by works. In light of this verse and this passage, Catholics say that their doctrine of justification by faith plus works has biblical warrant.
Is this the case? Do Paul and James contradict one another in the fundamental doctrine of justification? Is there a contradiction in the New Testament, indeed, a major contradiction? Is the Bible ambiguous on how a sinner is justified? We will need to investigate this passage in James 2:14-26 to see if these things are so.
TWO DIFFERENT QUESTIONS
First, the good news is that there is no contradiction in the Bible’s teaching on justification. The Bible is the Holy-Spirit inspired, God-breathed infallible word of the living God and, as such, has no contradictions. The Bible is the Christian’s final source for all matters of faith and practice and is trustworthy. Therefore, we know from the outset that Paul and James do not contradict one another. But, having said that, we must nevertheless carefully consider this passage in James 2 and see why there is no contradiction with the rest of the New Testament.
Second, a reading of James 2:14-26 will reveal that James is addressing the situation where the person in view already has faith. James’ teaching in this passage requires that the person under consideration already professes faith in Jesus. In fact, the entire passage is predicated on a claim of saving faith. So, in this passage James is not addressing the question, “How does a person receive salvation?” Rather, this passage addresses the question, “Is the faith that you claim you have received a saving faith that manifests itself in works keeping with salvation?” The answers to these two questions cannot contradict each other because they answer two entirely different questions.
JAMES AND PAUL ON JUSTIFICATION
Paul’s teaching on justification is almost entirely focused on answering the first question above, “How is a sinner justified unto salvation?” Paul consistently and repeatedly answers that question with, “The sinner is justified by faith (alone).”
By contrast, in James 2:14-26, James is dealing with the second question; namely, “How is the faith that you claim justified (proven)?” James answers that question with, “The claim of faith must be justified (proven) by your works.” So, it may be said that James is, indeed, teaching “justification by works.” James is teaching that saving faith is “justified” by a changed life full of “works,” full of evidence that you are saved.
With that understanding as a background, the difficulties of James 2:14-26 disappear, and the passage flows easily.
INTERPRETING THE PASSAGE
- 2:14-17 – James gives an example of faith without works. “What use is that (2:16)?” The expected answer is, “It’s not worth anything!” “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead.” A works-less faith is dead.
- 2:18 – The difficulty of a claim of faith is that anyone can make such a claim. It may be a justified claim, or it may be an empty claim, but there is no way to tell based on the claim alone. Ah, but show me your godly works, and show me your obedience, and show me your fruit in keeping with repentance, and I will believe your claim of faith.
- 2:19 – You can make a claim of faith and the demons can make a claim of faith, but if your claim is not justified by visible godly works, your claim will net you a demon’s reward.
- 2:20 – James is now going to give illustrations of those who were justified by saving faith, because “faith without works is useless.”
- 2:21-23 – Abraham proved the immensity of his faith by obediently being willing to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice. The faith that had justified Abraham and that was reckoned to him as righteousness many years before (Genesis 15:6); that faith was justified and perfected when Abraham offered up Isaac on Moriah.
- You see that Abraham was justified by faith, but Abraham’s faith was justified by his works.
- 2:24 – “You see that a man is justified by works and not by (a claim of) faith alone.”
- 2:25 – Even Rahab the harlot proved that she had saving faith because she risked her life by sending the spies out by another way. In this way, her invisible saving faith was made visible. So, she was justified by her works.
- 2:26 – James concludes his argument, “Faith without works is dead.”
The first application of this teaching is to assure the believer that James and Paul are not at odds and the Bible is not unclear about justification. James and Paul are addressing two different questions and are using “justification” in two different ways.
The second application would be as a possible Bible study opportunity for one of your Catholic friends. If your friend was willing to listen to this teaching from James AND also listen to the teaching on justification by faith unto salvation, you may be able to use this as an evangelistic opportunity.
SDG rmb 4/26/2021
It is faith alone that saves, but the faith that saves is not alone.
“Justification by faith” verses or passages:
Romans 3:22, 24, 28, 30; 4:2-6; 5:1; 9:30-33; Galatians 2:16, 21; 3:6, 8, 11; Ephesians 2:8-9; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:5; Hebrews 11:6, 7, 17-19; 1 Peter 1:5, 9