Justified by faith and justified by works (James 2:14-26)

“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.”

APPLICATION

            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

5 thoughts on “Justified by faith and justified by works (James 2:14-26)

  1. NT was written in Greek, not in English. Tenses in Greek are not the same with those of English. The phrase “justified by faith” appears four times in NT (Romans 3:28, 5:1, Galatians 2:16 and 3:24). In Rom. 3:28 it was written in Greek passive present tense while the other three in Greek passive aorist tense. Those two tenses do not indicate a completed justification by faith and the person remains justified ever since, which the Reformers taught. Inspired by the Holy Spirit and if Scripture does teach justification by faith alone, then Paul would wrote those phrase in Greek passive perfect tense. Greek passive perfect tense is the one that indicates justification was completed by faith and the person remains justified ever since. To conclude NT does not teach justification by faith alone. Luther even added the word alone in Rom. 3:28 in his German translation of NT, which is not in line with Greek passive present tense of Rom. 3:28.

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  2. I am not sure that I understand your comment, but I think that you are suggesting that Paul was not sure that justification by faith was a completed action because he did not use the proper tense of the Greek verb for “justify.” I would disagree with your view, since Paul makes emphatically clear in places too numerous to count (including the ones you referenced) that justification is a one-time event that definitely saves the one who believes in Jesus (Romans 3:26).
    But since my article did not make one reference to Greek tenses, I would be interested in your views of the point which I made in my article, namely, that James and Paul use “justified” in two different senses and that these two biblical authors are teaching about two different topics. James is asking the question, “Is your claim of saving faith justified?” That is the issue. How would you answer that question? rmb

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  3. I did not write “Paul was not sure”, what I want to point out to you is: if Scripture teaches justification is by faith alone then the Holy Spirit would inspire Paul to write the phrase “justified by faith” in Greek passive perfect tense.

    What you rote is standard reply to reconcile Paul and James. It does not work because both use the same Greek verb “to be justified”. James does not say “Abraham was sanctified when he offered his son Issac” – remember, following Reformers you believe justification is one time event and is by faith alone and sanctification comes after this one time justification. Thus Paul and James show that justification is not one time event and is not by faith alone. This is consistent with the tenses Paul used in the phrase “justified by faith”.

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  4. Thank you for your reply. Regarding your comments about the Greek tenses, you are mistaken in your understanding of the aorist tense. While it is true that the perfect tense does communicate a completed action with abiding results, there are many examples of the aorist tense being used in the same way. For example, the word “died” is most commonly expressed in the aorist tense. (See John 8:52, 53; Acts 2:29; 7:4; 9:37; many others, I just stopped looking up aorist uses of “died”.) I think we can agree that “died” is a completed action with abiding effects, yet the inspired writers of the New Testament repeatedly used the aorist tense to express this word. Also, in your previous comment you said that Romans 3:28 (“is justified”) is in the present passive. You are correct. In Romans 3:28, Paul uses the Present passive. “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” But then you said that, if he wanted to communicate that justification by faith was a completed act, Paul would have used the perfect tense. I suggest Paul’s meaning is Romans 3:28 is perfectly clear as it is: A man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. APART FROM WORKS. I cannot see how the text could be clearer.
    On your other point, I am glad that my article was consistent with what others have written about the passage in James 2:14-26. That encourages me. I think, however, that you too lightly dismissed the points that I made. The entire point of my article was to demonstrate that Paul and James use the verb “justify” in two very different ways. It is obvious that they use the same verb. In his salvific passages, like those listed in my original post, Paul uses “justify” in the sense of “to declare righteous.” For example, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness (Romans 4:3; Genesis 15:6).” But Paul goes on: “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor (“grace” in the Greek), but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness (Romans 4:4-5).” Paul is saying that, when a sinner believes in Jesus Christ, God declares that sinner to be righteous. Paul is writing about justification by faith.
    But James is not talking about “justify” in that sense at all. Why do I say that? Because James does not mention sin. He does not mention righteousness (except in the quote in James 2:23, which also appears in Romans 4:3 and Genesis 15:6 as quoted above). He barely mentions salvation. James even gives the example of demons having false “faith,” because their claim of faith could never be “justified,” meaning proven. How is genuine faith “justified,” according to James? The genuineness of your faith is proven by the fruit of your life, by the godly works that you do as a result of your salvation. Again, the critical question for each of us to ask from this passage is, “Is the faith that I claim a faith that is demonstrated in the works that it produces?” If the answer to that question is, “Probably not,” or, “I am really not sure,” then I need to turn to Paul’s writing and read through Romans until I understand what justification by faith truly means and understand what Christ accomplished on the cross and understand how I can begin to bear the fruit of salvation. rmb

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  5. You need to review your understanding of aorist tense. Greek aorist tense indicates that the action described in the past happened, usually (not always) in the past, without telling us whether it was completed or on-going. Greek NT scholar, William Mounce (who is a Protestant, http://www.billmounce.com) explains:

    The aorist tense has often been mishandled bu both scholars and preachers. Aorist verbs too frequently are said to denote one for all action when the text has no such intention (Mounce: Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar, page 202).

    For example the Greek verbs “sanctified” and “justified” in 1 Cor 6:11 are also in passive aorist tense. Sanctification is an on-going process, not a completed one, while, following Reformers, you believe”justified” is one time event. If NT Greek has precise tense to describe a completed action in the past with continuing result to the present, i.e. its perfect tense, then why didn’t Paul use it, if he intended to teach justification by faith alone?

    Scripture says that through Christ we are made righteous (Rom. 5:19) and nowhere says that through Him we are counted or declared as righteous, as taught by the Reformers, i.e. we rely on external righteousness of Christ imputed on us, covering our sins. Rom. 4:3 says that Abraham’s faith is counted as righteous but it does not say Abraham was counted or declared as righteous. Scripture also says the righteous shall go to eternal life (Mat. 25:46).

    The fact that both Paul and James use the same Greek verb “justified” indicate that justification is not one time event and is not through faith alone.

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