Friday, November 26, 2010

Justification by Faith Alone - What About James?

We have seen that in both Galatians and Romans the Apostle Paul makes the case that we are justified (declared both not guilty and righteous) based on faith alone in Christ. He explicitly discounts works as a basis for justification.

As we look at this issue, we must also stare hard at what James has to say. Some people say that James contradicts Paul. Is that what's going on? Let's see.

This passage is critical so I'm going to quote all of James 2:14-26 below:

"What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, be warmed and filled,' without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, 'You have faith and I have works.' Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe- and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, 'Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness' - and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead."

What is going on here? Do James and Paul disagree? I don't think so.

Paul and James seem to be speaking of justification in different ways. While Paul makes the case that faith alone is the basis for justification, James is saying that good works act as evidence that justification has, in fact, taken place. Another way of famously saying it is, "Faith alone saves, but saving faith is never alone."

We must remember that one of the main themes of the book of James is that true Christians live godly, sacrificial lives. In other words, followers of Christ live changed lives. They do not live like the world. There is evidence in the life of the Christian that he is, in fact, saved.

In the above passage, James is anticipating the argument from some that faith is all that is needed for salvation and that works don't matter at all. James smashes this idea by saying that faith alone is not saving faith. It is instead dead. Justifying faith is always accompanied by works.

We can also say that faith is the root of justification while works are the fruit. If there's no fruit, the tree is dead.

But what about James 2:24? It says, "You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone." This verse, taken by itself, seems to say that works are required for justification.

So what do we do with this? More important, what did James mean by it? That is the key.

Again, we must remember James' primary theme: true Christianity evidences itself in godliness. While Paul spends much time (especially in Romans) discussing the actual process, means, and basis of salvation, James does not do this. Rather, James assumes that his readers understand all this. He is writing to exhort them to live out the faith they say saves them.

Paul's explanation focuses on the basis of justification. James' explanation focuses on evidence for justification.

Another way to say it is that while Paul looks at the necessary cause of justification, James looks at the necessary effect.

In the end, we see that Paul and James agree. They are simply looking at the issue of justification from two different angles.


Aussie John said...


In the discussion regarding justification, the importance of interpreting Scripture by Scripture comes to the fore, as well as the weakness of using proof texts to argue ones case, as so many do, on this and other issues.

Good stuff!

Eric said...


I agree that interpreting scripture by scripture is key. It should be obvious to all reading that Paul and James are emphasizing different things. Alas, some get stuck on one or two verses and lose sight of the forest for the trees.

Arthur Sido said...

People make two mistakes with James. First, trying to make it say what it doesn't (i.e. that works are needed for salvation). Second, ignoring what James is saying (i.e. that the only faith that saves is one that is evidenced by actions). Faith alone is what justifies but a cold, intellectual faith or an "easy believism" faith that exhibits no evidence of a transformed life cannot save.

Eric said...


I agree completely. Well said.