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.

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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

Why are you doing that? (Romans 10:2-3)

SCENE 1

The squirrels had been in my attic for a while now. I could hear them overhead, running the length of the attic as they played in my insulation. It was driving me crazy. I hated those squirrels. “How are they getting into my attic?” Then one day I was standing in the front yard and saw a squirrel cross the street and head directly toward my house. It climbed up the trunk of a small tree near the house, jumped onto a branch of the tree, which bent under the weight and then sprung back up, catapulting the squirrel onto the roof of my house. “Oh ho! That’s how they are getting onto my roof and into my attic!” So, the next Saturday I was out with my tree saw and started to cut down the tree that the squirrels were using as a catapult. My neighbor wandered over to me and asked,

“Why are you doing that?”

“What do you mean, ‘Why am I doing that?’ I am cutting down this tree because I don’t want squirrels in my attic!” He shook his head and smiled and said, “Cutting down that tree won’t stop squirrels. You know, squirrels can just climb up the brick on the outside of your house and get onto your roof.”

            I began to feel just a tiny bit stupid, realizing that he might be right, but I continued cutting down the tree anyway. “There,” I said, as the small tree sunk to the ground. “That will stop them!” My victory was short-lived, however. About two hours later, I felt chagrined and outmatched as I watched that same squirrel scamper up the corner of my house, using the brick as you or I would use a sidewalk, pop over onto the roof and then disappear into my attic.

            What had just happened? Because of my ignorance of the real nature of the problem, I had employed a strategy that could never get me the results I wanted. I wanted to get rid of the squirrels in my attic, so I cut down the tree. No good. Waste of time. Bad idea.

            Now, other than a little bit of humiliation in the eyes of my neighbor, my blunder had no real consequences. No big deal. Lost a tree and kept the squirrels. Oh, well.

SCENE 2       

For the next scene, we turn to the Bible as Paul is applying the truths of the gospel to his Jewish countrymen in Romans 10. Paul presents a troubling scenario. Paul writes, “For I testify about them (his Jewish brethren), that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge (10:2). For not knowing about God’s righteousness (that is, not knowing about salvation by grace through faith in Jesus the Messiah), and seeking to establish their own (by religious works), they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God (10:3).”

            So, what I want to do is frame this scenario in terms of the incident with the squirrels in my attic, because these scenes are similar. Let’s say that an observer was talking to one of Paul’s friends, who was a Pharisee.

“I see that you are really zealous about doing religious things. You fast twice a week. You tithe from all that you get. You pray long prayers on the street corners. You always wash your hands before you eat, and you never do any work on the Sabbath. Everyone knows that you give to the poor. I’ve heard you even cast out demons and occasionally do a miracle! But . . . “

“Why are you doing that?”

            The Pharisee replied, “Because I want to be righteous, of course!” The observer sadly shook his head and said, “Doing all these religious works does not make you righteous. In fact, no amount of religious works can EVER make you righteous. Do all your works, but your sin will remain.”

            The Pharisee said, “That’s nonsense! Anyone can see that I am more righteous than you! I know that my religious works please God.”

            Once more, the other man tried to get through. “Actually, in Isaiah 64:6 the prophet says, ‘All our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.’ The only way to be righteous is to believe in Jesus the Messiah.”

            For a brief moment it seemed that the Pharisee was considering what had just been said. Did Isaiah really say that thing about the filthy garment? And if he did say that what might that mean for me? Could my Rabbi be wrong? Could I be wrong? Could this guy be right? Then the mental window slammed shut. “I don’t need to be taught by you!” he said. “I will continue to work my works!”

            What had just happened? Because of the Pharisee’s ignorance of the real nature of righteousness, he was employing a strategy that could never get him the results he wanted. He wanted righteousness, but he is trying to obtain his righteousness by his own works. No good. Waste of time. Bad idea.

            But it is right at this point that things radically change. For while my blunder with the squirrels cost me a small tree and a little bit of embarrassment, the Pharisee’s error will cost him an eternity in hell. You see, “Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness for all who believe (Romans 10:4).” The only possible way to obtain righteousness before the Holy One, the God of heaven, is to believe in Jesus the Messiah. This is not a preference issue. This is not a question of semantics. This is not an issue where you go at your way and I go at it my way and then we will probably both get there eventually. If the Pharisee does not change his mind and repent and bow the knee to Jesus the Messiah, he will never obtain any righteousness. In fact, he will miss righteousness by an eternity.

SCENE 3

            The final scene is a lunch discussion between me and Jack. Jack is a business associate of mine. We have developed a bit of a friendship and know a little bit about each other. I know that Jack is a Catholic, and we have had a couple of discussions about each other’s religious views. On this occasion, I have steered the conversation in the religious direction again.

            “So, as a Catholic, what sorts of things do you do? In other words, what religious things do Catholics do?”

            “We have talked about this before, Roy, but anyway. We do confession and we do the Mass every Sunday with the Eucharist. We do some ‘our Fathers’ and some ‘hail Marys.’ Some people do the rosary. We pray to various saints. Like that.”

“Why are you doing that?”

“What do you mean, ‘Why am I doing that?’ I am doing these things because I don’t want to go to hell!”

At that moment, I felt like the neighbor who was telling me the truth about squirrels or like the “other guy” who was telling the Pharisee the truth about righteousness. Jack said that he wanted to avoid hell, but he was pursuing a strategy that guaranteed that he would arrive there. He had adopted the Catholic plan which promises that good Catholics will avoid God’s wrath by doing religious things. For Catholics, trying to do your best and obeying the Catholic Church will at least get you into Purgatory. These are the inventions of the Catholic Church that keep people from hearing the truth.

So, I tried to explain to Jack that this was not a preference issue. I tried to tell him that there was no such thing as Purgatory (“Jack, I think you have a hole in your parachute.”) I told him that Jesus died to atone for sin, so there is no longer an ongoing sacrifice needed through the Mass. The priest has no authority to forgive sins or to give you any sort of penance that you can do to remove your sin. But my words fell on hard ground and we basically left the restaurant a tiny bit incensed with one another and probably a little more polarized.

The lesson from this is that we must be clear about what is wisdom and what is absolute truth. With regard to salvation, we must insist that there is no room for compromise or personal preference. When the fireman crashes your door down with an axe, it is not so he can debate with you whether your house is on fire. For everyone of us, our house is on fire, and there is only one way to safety. His name is Jesus.

For Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness for all who believe.

Romans 10:4

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