Justified for Good
Paul and James on Faith and Works
ABSTRACT: Paul writes, “One is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” James writes, “A person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” How can Christians understand this tension in apostolic teaching? The message of the whole Bible on faith and works brings clarity to the relationship between Paul and James. Both the Old and New Testaments affirm justification by faith alone alongside the necessity of good works. Both Testaments, likewise, warn of fake faith and dubious good works. The messages of Paul and James, then, though paradoxical at first glance, together bear witness to the consistent teaching that God justifies us by faith, not works — and that true saving faith perseveres in faithful obedience.
If you have been a Christian for any length of time, you have probably spent time pondering the relationship between faith and works. In Romans 3:28, Paul declares that we are “justified by faith apart from works of the law.” This seems straightforward. Justification is by faith alone. But then in James 2:24 we read, “A person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” How then could any thinking person accept these both? This tension — what some call a contradiction — has been a perennial question throughout the history of the Christian church. Volume upon volume has been written on the relationship between faith and works, yet we continue to stumble over this tension. Therefore, it will be helpful for us to revisit this question and ask how we can sharpen our understanding of the whole Bible’s teaching on this important issue.
I don’t want to pretend that we can answer all of the questions in this short essay, but in what follows, we will walk through a series of clear principles that the Bible teaches us about faith and works. We will move through several more or less concentric circles, starting with broader statements and working toward the more specific. As we walk through these principles, we are going to let them stand in tension at first, but we will slowly bring them together. Through this process, we will see the big picture of faith and works throughout the Bible, which also will help us see how James and Paul relate to one another on this important topic, and finally, how these tensions must be seen in light of our union with Christ. In other words, we will look at the biblical evidence and ask where the points of tension can actually help us get more clarity about what the Bible teaches about faith, works, and justification.
A working definition of justification will help us frame our discussion moving forward. We’ll start with the definition of justification that J.I. Packer suggests. Packer defines justification as “a judicial act of God pardoning sinners (wicked and ungodly persons, Romans 4:5; 3:9–24), accepting them as just, and so putting permanently right their previously estranged relationship with himself. This justifying sentence is God’s gift of righteousness (Romans 5:15–17), his bestowal of a status of acceptance for Jesus’s sake.”1 To boil it down, justification is God’s declaration that a person has the status righteous. Consequently, this justified person is now accepted as part of his covenant people.2 It is important to note this definition as we begin, for justification is concerned with answering the question of how we are right with God. Ultimately, the question of faith and works centers on our relationship with God. How are we made right with God, and how should this status affect us?
Justifying Faith and Necessary Works
Church historians often say that the material cause of the Protestant Reformation was justification by faith alone. That is to say, if we are considering what the Reformers were actually saying and teaching, justification by faith alone is at the top of the list. And this principle of justification is clear throughout the New Testament, especially in Paul’s letters. As I mentioned earlier, Romans 3:28 is not ambiguous: “One is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” While some might disagree about what exactly Paul means by “works of the law,” most Protestants (and even Roman Catholics in some way3) have agreed that Paul is teaching that faith alone justifies us because faith alone unites us to Jesus.
Paul reiterates the same principle in Ephesians 2:8–9: “By grace you have been saved through faith.” In this context, Paul is using the phrase “saved through faith” similarly to the way he uses “justified by faith” in Romans and Galatians. He is describing the glorious status that we have because of our union with Christ. As Lynn Cohick observes, “Paul has already in so many words conveyed the concept of justification when he declared that we were made alive with Christ” (see vv. 5–6).4 As a result of this, God has “seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (v. 6). Thus, Paul is emphasizing that we are, in a sense, already seated with Christ in heaven; this heavenly position is rooted in our status as justified in Christ. We are united to Christ by faith alone; therefore, we are justified by faith alone. Again, we are declared righteous through faith alone because our only hope of justification is in Christ alone.
But does justification by faith alone mean that good works have no role in the life of a Christian? In Matthew 7, Jesus says that only “the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” will enter the kingdom (v. 21). Some, perhaps concerned that this warning undermines justification by faith alone, will say that Jesus is making a statement about our inability. No one is able to do the will of the Father perfectly; therefore, Jesus must do it for us. And this is true theologically. No one can perfectly obey, we have all sinned, and the glory of the gospel is that Jesus has done what we could never do for ourselves.
I’m not convinced, however, that this is what Jesus means in Matthew 7 or the other places where he speaks about the need for good works to prove our true faith at the final judgment (see Matthew 16:27; 25:31–46). The epistle of Hebrews speaks of the “holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (12:14). Some might say that this refers to the holy status we are given by faith alone. But this verse is a command to strive after both peace with everyone and holiness. We do not strive after justification; it is given by faith alone. But without real transformation and growth in holiness, we will not see the Lord in his glorious kingdom. Although justification is by faith alone, good works are ultimately necessary for final salvation.5 Let’s keep moving forward to see how these seemingly paradoxical statements can be reconciled.
Damning Faith and Dubious Works
When a person has faith in Christ, he is united to him and kept by him. But there are several times in the Bible where someone appears to have faith, yet this faith is later proved to be fake. Probably the best-known example of this phenomenon is Judas Iscariot, who followed Jesus for years before betraying him and proving that his faith was never genuine.
We see another example of this counterfeit faith in John 2:23. John tells us that after the crowds in Jerusalem saw Jesus doing miracles, “many believed in his name.” However, in the following verse, John tells us that Jesus did not “entrust himself” to them (v. 24) because he knew their faith would not last. The Greek verb for believed in verse 23 and entrust in verse 24 is the same (pisteuō). We could even say they believed in Jesus, but he did not believe in them — because they had a kind of faith that was not true saving faith.
The epistle of James tells us more about this kind of faith. In chapter 2, James says that even the demons believe the truth about God: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe — and shudder!” (v. 19). The demons, James says, believe the right things about God and even have a proper emotional response to the truth. They shudder because they know who God is and the judgment that is waiting for them. Yet James tells us that this kind of faith is worthless because it is not connected to faithful good works.
A few verses earlier, when he introduces this topic, James asks, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?” (2:14). He is talking about a specific kind of faith — a “worksless” faith — and asks if that kind of faith saves anyone. The obvious answer is negative. Fake faith does not save; it is empty intellectual assent with no real devotion to Christ. This kind of faith ultimately puts us in the same position as the demons; this fake faith will damn us.
Not only is there a fake faith that will damn us, but there is also a species of good works that will do the same. Back in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 7:22, Jesus says that on the day of judgment, many will point out the great works that they did in his name. But Jesus will respond to them, “I never knew you; depart from me” (v. 23). If it is possible to prophesy, cast out demons, and do miracles in Jesus’s name but still be cast into hell, then it is certainly possible to give money to the church, always tell the truth, and keep yourself from sexual immorality and still be cast into hell.
Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is teaching that our external actions and our inward motivation must line up with each other. The great fault of the Pharisees was that they failed to line up their external actions with their inward motivations. As a result, they were not righteous at all. So then, when Jesus says that our righteousness must exceed the scribes and the Pharisees in Matthew 5:20, he is not saying that they were really righteous, so we have to be extra good to pass them up; he was saying that they were not truly righteous, because their internal motivations did not line up with their external actions. Their good works were actually sending them to hell, because they were being done in the wrong way for the wrong reasons.
Thus far, we have seen that faith alone justifies, but good works are somehow necessary; however, there are examples of both “faith” and “good works” in the Bible that are not saving faith or faithful good works. We will add one more layer before pulling some of these threads together in the letters of James and Paul.
Old Testament Faith and New Testament Works
In the second century AD, the well-known heretic Marcion taught that there was a radical divide between Old and New Testaments. Though it is difficult to know everything that Marcion himself taught, his key premise was that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are different deities because the message of the Old Testament and the message of the New Testament are fundamentally contradictory. The Old Testament is a message of condemnation; the New Testament is a message of grace.
Even though the church has always and consistently condemned Marcionism, traces of its ideas have always lingered. Today we can see its influence whenever Christians suggest that the modern church has no real need for the Old Testament. Even though many would not say so, when the Old Testament is hardly ever read or taught, the message many Christians receive is that it is irrelevant or even damaging to modern Christian living. As a result of this assumption, many Christians have the vague notion that the Old Testament and New Testament are contradictory, and that Old Testament saints were somehow justified by works.
But a careful reading of the Old Testament reveals just the opposite. In the Old Testament, God’s people were declared righteous through their faith in God’s covenant promises. We see this most clearly in Genesis 15:6. In this chapter, God appears to Abraham several years after he first called him and gave him a series of covenant promises. Abraham was growing old, but he did not yet have a son, and he wasn’t sure whether he would ever have one (vv. 1–3). God reassured him of his commitment to keep his covenant, and Abraham believed God (vv. 4–6). He believed that God’s covenant promises were true; these covenant promises were ultimately focused on God’s commitment to save the world through the Promised One. In a very real sense, Abraham’s faith was in the Promised One, Jesus. And through this faith, Abraham was justified — counted righteous. We can debate how much Abraham knew about the coming Messiah (perhaps he knew a lot more than many of us tend to think he did), but the point is clear: Abraham was justified through faith in God’s covenant promises.
Abraham then becomes the prototype of faith throughout the rest of the Old Testament. God’s people are the children of Abraham. Being a child of Abraham sometimes refers to physical descent, but more fundamentally, it refers to following the path of Abraham’s faith. Abraham’s true children are his spiritual heirs (Romans 9:7; Galatians 3:29).
Becoming a child of Abraham requires faith in God’s promises. When God is calling Israel back to fidelity to him in the prophecies of Isaiah, he tells them to “look to Abraham your father . . . for he was but one when I called him, that I might bless him and multiply him” (Isaiah 51:2). The Israelites were to have the same kind of faith in God that Abraham did. If they did, they could expect the same outcome: justification.
God’s people have always been justified by faith, so this is nothing new in the New Testament. We have already observed some of the places where the New Testament calls us to faithful good works, but it is important to reiterate this again. Just as some Christians assume that the Old Testament teaches a gospel of justification by works, some also assume that the New Testament teaches that any call for faithful good works undermines the gospel of justification by faith alone. This is clearly not the case. True saving faith perseveres in faithful good works. Paul states this principle succinctly in 2 Timothy 2:12: “If we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us.” The point is, if we do not endure in faithful good works and thereby deny him, he will deny us and send us into judgment.6
We’ve seen that we are justified by faith, yet works are necessary. We have also seen that false faith and false works are possible, and these will ultimately condemn us. Now we see in the Old Testament that justification is by faith, and once again in the New Testament that persevering good works are necessary for salvation. Finally, we can turn to James and Paul and fit their teaching on faith and works into what we have seen in the rest of the Bible.
Paul and James, Faith and Works
At this point, we have already observed several places where both Paul and James affirm the principles we’ve seen throughout this essay. But now it may be helpful to bring them together to show that both of these apostles affirm the truths that we have observed above. In short, both James and Paul affirm justification by faith alone and the necessity of faithful good works.
Justifying Faith and Necessary Works
Both James and Paul teach that our justification, being declared righteous by God, is by faith alone. We’ve already seen this in Paul, but you might wonder about James. After all, he says, “A person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). But we need to look closely at the way James is talking about “faith alone” in this chapter. Remember what we saw above? James is arguing against a fake faith that is only intellectual assent. This is the kind of “faith alone” that he is referencing here. It is no faith at all.
Also, his understanding of “justified by works” is different than what Paul means by this. James means that works will play a confirming role in justification. After all, he quotes Genesis 15:6 in James 2:23 to affirm justification by faith alone in the Pauline sense. Thus, James affirms that Abraham was counted righteous — justified — by faith. Yet that justified status had to be fulfilled through his life of faithful good works.
We have already seen the different ways that both of these apostles affirm the necessity of good works. We need not belabor the point in James 2; his emphasis on faithful good works is clear. Paul’s letters have a similar emphasis. If we keep reading after Paul’s famous statement about salvation by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8–9), we discover that the necessary corollary of God’s grace in salvation is our ongoing good works: “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (v. 10). We are justified through faith, not works, but God’s good work in us is that we will produce good works.
Damning Faith and Dubious Works
Not only do both of these apostles affirm justification by faith alone and the necessity of faithful good works, but they also see (and combat) fake faith and works. As we’ve seen, Paul consistently needed to combat a wrong view of works. Some were teaching that works of the law are somehow the way we are declared righteous before God. But Paul shows that faith alone justifies us (Romans 3:28) because faith alone unites us to Christ (Ephesians 2:4–9). James, however, is exposing a faulty understanding of faith. Against someone who might understand faith as only intellectual assent that has no real effect on us, James shows that faith (and the righteous status that follows) must be fulfilled through a transformed life.
Old Testament Faith and New Testament Works
Both Paul and James also demonstrate that justification by faith alone (and the transformed life that follows from it) is rooted in the Old Testament — specifically in Genesis 15:6. These apostles apply this text in different but complementary ways. Paul cites Genesis 15 from the perspective of the beginning of Abraham’s faith. When Abraham believed God, he was truly counted righteous apart from any works. James affirms the same truth, but considers Genesis 15 from a later point in Abraham’s life. He refers to the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22 as an example of how Abraham’s righteous status was “completed” or “fulfilled” (teleioō) in his obedience to the Lord (James 2:21–22).
Foundational Union with Christ
Finally, along with the principles we’ve already seen, for both of these apostles, both justification by faith and our growth in good works are inseparable from and rooted in our union with Christ. For Paul, this concept is quite clear. For example, union with Christ saturates Ephesians 1–2. Ephesians 2:5–6 emphasizes that we are made alive with Christ, raised up with Christ, and seated with Christ in the heavenly places. In other words, we are truly united to Christ in such a way that we share in his death, resurrection, ascension, and reign. We have his status: we are declared righteous — justified — in him.
James’s references to union with Christ are more subtle. In James 1:21, James tells his audience to “receive with meekness the implanted word.” The “implanted word” is probably a reference to the new-covenant promise that God would write the law on the hearts of his people (see Jeremiah 31:33).7 A few verses later, in James 2:1, he reminds us of our shared “faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” When we put these realities together, we have faith in Christ, which results in the transformation of the heart, which then results in transformed lives. The reality underneath this is our real union with him. Because we are truly joined to him by faith, we are given the status of righteous and then transformed more and more into his image.
If we are to be faithful to the whole Bible’s teaching on faith and works, we must be constantly aware of challenges on both ends of the spectrum. We cannot assume that anything we do will serve as the ground for our acceptance before God. This includes the acts of “works righteousness” that we typically think about: church attendance, giving money, serving, and so on.
But works righteousness can be more insidious. Racism can be a form of works righteousness, for we require a racial or cultural identity to be accepted before God and counted as one of his people.8 Pressing for a certain type of emotional experience in Christian worship can be a form or works righteousness as well. We might not intend it, but if we give the impression that our acceptance before God depends on a particular intensity of emotion, then we are adding to the gospel and requiring additional works to be accepted by God. Faith alone unites us to Christ, and he alone is the basis for our justification before God.
On the other side, we also must never give the impression that our acceptance with God will not result in real transformation. If we are truly united to Christ, we will truly be transformed into the image of Christ. Again, this precludes what we might consider more obvious distortions, like “easy-believism” and the teaching that claims some strange formula where Jesus can be our Savior but not our Lord.
But for many of us, the temptation toward neglecting good works can be more subtle. For instance, advocating for same-sex “marriage” could be a way of neglecting James’s teaching on faithful good works because it pushes aside the Bible’s teaching on sexuality that the church has affirmed for millennia.9 The same could be true of any number of issues that might be unpopular in a given culture, such as caring for orphans, widows, and immigrants. Or disobedience to James 2 might simply be an unwillingness to call for faith and repentance out of the fear of being called a legalist.
Misunderstanding the relationship between faith and works has been and continues to be a perennial danger for the church. To be faithful to the Lord Jesus, we must hold and teach these truths together. Justification is by faith alone, yet good works will inevitably result from our justified status. We must be aware of and press against wrong views of faith and works, which can ultimately condemn us. The Old and New Testaments, along with James and Paul, are unified in this message. Although different parts of the Bible emphasize different parts of this picture, the whole picture remains consistent. We are united to Christ by faith alone, and our union with him leads to our transformation into his glorious image.
J.I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 1993), 164. ↩
The inclusion in God’s covenant people is not constitutive of justification, as some argue. For example, N.T. Wright has argued that justification is “God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people” (What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997], 119). Wright is correct to see a connection between justification and covenant membership, for God’s declaration that a person is righteous and the inclusion of that person in his covenant people are inseparable. Nevertheless, they are distinguishable. ↩
At a gathering of German bishops in Mainz in 1980, Pope John Paul II, in some sense, affirmed Luther’s doctrine of justification. Stephan Pfürtner wrote, “For the first time in history a pope cited Martin Luther as a witness whose message of faith and justification should be listened to by us all” (“The Paradigms of Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther: Did Luther’s Message of Justification Mean a Paradigm Change?” in Paradigm Change in Theology: A Symposium for the Future, ed. Hans Küng and David Tracy [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989], 131). See also Peter Kreeft, “Justification by Faith,” in Fundamentals of the Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 277–81. ↩
Lynn H. Cohick, Ephesians: A New Covenant Commentary (Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2013), 67. Cohick suggests that the word justification is “too restrictive for [Paul’s] meaning” here. However, it could simply be the case that Paul is using different language to communicate a similar reality. F.F. Bruce is likely correct: “In Galatians he says ‘one is justified’ because the question of justification was integral to the Galatian crisis; in Ephesians he says, using a more general term, ‘you have been saved,’ perhaps because justification in the more specific sense was not a controversial issue for readers of this letter” (The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, NICNT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984], 233). Thus, Paul may also include positional sanctification in “salvation by faith” in Ephesians 2. ↩
As noted above, justification is God’s declaration that a person is counted righteous. Salvation, however, is broader than this declaration, for it includes justification, sanctification, and final glorification. While justification guarantees that all other components of salvation will be accomplished, these terms are not equivalent to each other. ↩
This means that 2 Timothy 2:13 refers to God’s faithfulness in judging, not in saving us in spite of our faithlessness. Otherwise, this would contradict the clear point of verse 12. ↩
See my discussion in Paul vs. James: What We’ve Been Missing in the Faith and Works Debate (Chicago: Moody, 2019), 136–39. Note also that social activism, especially when buoyed by popular sentiments, can easily become a form of works righteousness. ↩