Is one justified by faith or is one justified by works? Do Paul and James disagree regarding justification?
“Faith without works is dead.”- James 2:20
MANY have supposed that there is doctrinal conflict between the apostle Paul and James, the former holding faith as the important feature of Christianity, the latter insisting that works take precedence. More or less this conflict of thought has come down the ages and is with us today; indeed, some who take the view who believe that justification is by faith alone have often, in effect, said that James was wrong in what he stated. We hold that there was no such conflict between the two Bible writers, and that the subject, rightly understood, leaves no room for disputation. Paul insists that none could be justified by works of the law, because none could obey that law perfectly, and that, therefore, all Jews were under condemnation along with the whole world. (Romans 3:8-31; Galatians 2:16; 3:11) He points out that the original Abrahamic Covenant was better and superior to the Law Covenant, because its provisions did not require perfect works, impossible to the sinful flesh (Romans 8:3), but instead tested him along another line – the line of his faith. (Galatians 3:14-18) The “works” that Paul was referring to was basically the endeavor to attain righteousness by means of such work, as provided by the Law. Any who could obey that Law perfectly would have been made righteous by the Law Covenant, but no one could attain righteousness through Law, due the weakness of the sinful flesh. Paul did not mean, and did not say, that works were valueless in God’s sight; but, realizing that the Jews, trusting in their special Law Covenant, already laid more stress upon works than upon faith, he emphasized the fact that with spiritual Israelites of the Isaac class, heirs of the original Abrahamic Covenant, faith must be regarded as the standard. (Galatians 4:21-31) Under it whoever would attain the proper kind of faith would be acceptable to God. (Galatians 5:5,6) That covenant does not declare for faith without works, but it does indicate a proper development of faith as necessary – something beyond the initial belief that “God is and that he is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him.” – Hebrews 11:6.
(2) Faith is a matter of steps and development; and only the developed faith could possibly bring to us the full blessing of the Abrahamic Covenant. We should have “repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Acts 20:21) This would imply works, to the extent that they would be possible, as in attestation of the faith. Nevertheless, none of us can be justified from the condemnation in Adam by works alone, because our best works are imperfect. Our judgment, our test, in its last analysis is, “According to your faith let it be to you.” (Matthew 9:29.) James, however, noted a lack of obedience to Jesus as related to activities of some who professed Christ; evidently these, like many today, believed that faith alone was all that they needed, and thus they did not need to watch their speech, and/or actions. James does not claim that one could perfect his speech, or that any could do works and that this alone would justify them before God, but merely insists that if the right kind of faith be developed in the heart it will surely bear fruit and make an outward manifestation, according to circumstances. Undoubtedly this is a sound position and one fully in accord with our Lord’s words, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” – Matthew 7:16.
(3) Coming to an orchard filled with fruit, we may quickly discern the various kinds of trees by their fruits. So with the Christian. If he professes faith in Christ we are willing to acknowledge him as a brother, but “But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if it is so that the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if any man doesn’t have the Spirit of Christ, he is not his.” The Spirit of Christ manifests itself in meekness, gentleness, patience, long-suffering, brotherly kindness, love! Hence, we look for evidences of the spirit, disposition, character, in all those who profess to be his “members,” “brothers.” (Romans 8:9) Those in whom the good work of the Spirit is ever begun, are counted on the living side — “risen with Christ,” — and not on the side of death and the devil. This is our encouragement, and also makes us debtors, not to live after the flesh but after the Spirit. (Romans 8:12-13) If we see little of Yahweh’s Spirit (disposition) we are inclined to next inquire how long the brother has known Christ and professed consecration to him. We thus sometimes find “babes in Christ,” who, for the time they have had a knowledge of him, should be more developed and have a larger measure of his Spirit. We should be on guard against considering such, in any sense of the word, suitable teachers or exemplars.
(4) On the contrary, we may very speedily discern the spirit of Christ in some – their gentleness, meekness, patience, brotherly kindness, love (for God first and their neighbor second) and self sacrifice. (Galatians 5:22-24; Ephesians 5:9) And if, as sometimes, these qualities be quickly developed in some who have only recently come to Jesus, we may the more rejoice with the fruit-bearer. However young in years, the fruit-bearing quality, the heart development, would indicate such to be possibly one of the “Elder” brothers – even though, because a novice, the Church may not yet consider it due time to advance him formally to an official position as an “Elder.” – 1 Timothy 3:2-6.
(5) From this standpoint we are ready to discern that the beginning of God’s dealing with us is along the lines of faith, and that it is to our faith that the promises of God appeal, and that by these “exceeding great and precious promises,” touching our faith, energizing our faith, God works in us, first to will, and later to do, his good pleasure. (2 Peter 3:4; Philippians 2:13) To will to do right is of primary importance and is wholly of faith. When the believer’s faith shall have developed sufficiently, the degree of his activity in obedience to God in the service of the Truth and righteousness and in service to his fellow believers will indicate the strength or the weakness of his spiritual development.
(6) Self-examination along this line is very proper. (2 Corinthians 13:5) If we have heard, seen, tasted, of the grace of God and enjoyed it, and if no desire to serve our gracious Father or to assist others to the same blessings that we enjoy has been manifested, it implies that our spiritual vitality is very weak and in danger of perishing. (Hebrews 6:7,8) But if, on the contrary, we find ourselves burning with fervency of love for Yahweh, and with appreciation of his great Plan of Salvation, and are consumed with a desire to tell the good tidings to others for their blessing, strengthening, upbuilding and participation in the Divine faith, it should encourage us. We should notice, too, that Jesus specially loved and favored the more zealous, vigorous and energetic of the apostles, Peter, James, John, and, we may be sure, Paul also.
(7) James presses his point and endeavors to awaken some who have a measure of faith, but who have not have not sought to develop the fruits of the spirit. He asks what profit there would be for us to say that we have faith if we do not have works to correspond – to attest the faith, however imperfect the works would be. He asks (R. V.), “Can that faith save him?” We answer, No. Does Paul disagree with this? Paul declares, It is the faith that works by love that counts. (Galatians 5:6) But it is the faith that counts, and not the works; because the faith can be perfect, complete; but perfection of works is impossible to us, because we have this treasure of the new creation in an earthen vessel. – 2 Corinthians 6:7
(8) Illustrating this point he suggests that to tell a poor brother of our faith that God will help him and to send him away without relief, when it is within our power to relieve him, would not be such a faith as God would approve. It would rather signify that we had deceived our own selves. It would profit us nothing. So faith that has no works, of any kind or degree, cannot be called a living faith, because, as yet, it has given no evidence of life – it does not produce any fruits of repentance.
(9) James clearly attests his thought, saying, “A man may say, You have faith, and I have works; show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” Again he points to the special feature of the Jewish faith in one God in contrast with the beliefs of the heathen in many gods. He says to the Jewish brothers, “You boast in having knowledge of the one living and true God, but surely this is not the extent of your faith in this direction; because the devils believe and tremble. Oh, foolish man, faith without works is barren. It can never bring you life, birth.” A faith that will not develop obedience, in harmony with ability, is, therefore, unavailing during this Gospel Age, even as imperfect works failed to justify to life under the Law Covenant.
ILLUSTRATIONS OF FAITH AND WORKS
(10) Note the case of Abraham, the “father of the faithful.” It is written that he believed God, and that his faith was counted to him for righteousness. But how much faith is required and to what extent is it involved in works? James points out that God placed a crucial test upon Abraham’s faith, which would have proven it inefficient, if it had not developed to the stage of works of obedience in harmony with faith. It was years after the promise had been made, and Isaac, the seed of promise, was grown to young manhood, when God commanded that he should be sacrificed upon the altar – thus prefiguring the sacrifice of our Savior as the Lamb of God. – John 1:29,36; 3:16
(11) Then, fearful that he had given an example of so lofty a faith and obedience as would discourage us, James picks out and holds up before us another illustration of faith and works – that of Rahab the harlot. She had faith in God, but it would not have availed her if it had not developed to the degree of activity and helpful service, risking her own interests temporarily for the assistance of the spies. Manifestly she would never have had such works without faith – and it is the faith that is specially pleasing to Yahweh. But the faith would not have been pleasing to Yahweh, had it not led up to works in accord. Thus we see how works have to do with our justification, in conjunction with our faith, which is the foundation of our works.
THE BODY WITHOUT THE SPIRIT
(12) James summarizes this thought, saying, “As the body without the spirit of life is dead, even so faith without works is dead.” Some might think that the writer of these words had erred in likening the body to faith and the spirit of life to works, supposing that the illustration should be reversed, namely, to compare the body to works and the spirit of life to faith. But St. James has expressed the matter properly. A body must be had before any spirit of life could come into it. (Genesis 2:7) So a faith must exist before it can bring forth activity. But the activity in accordance with faith is absolutely necessary before one can bring forth the fruitage necessary for the life to come.
(13) So does Paul disagree with James? Paul certainly agrees: “What must we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid! How shall we, who are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” (Romans 6:1) “Do not let sin rule over you mortal body, that you should obey it in its desires.” (Romans 6:12) “Do you not know that to whom you yield yourselves as servants to obey, you are servants to whom you obey, whether of sin to death, or of obedience to righteousness.” (Romans 6:16) “If you live after the flesh, you will die, but if you through the spirit do put do death the deeds of the body, you will live.” — Romans 8:13.
(14) However, works of the law, of which no one could keep perfectly, and thus weak through the sinful flesh, does not justify one. Nor could one become justified by the works of sacrifices of purification offered under the law or by circumcision. This was Paul’s argument. (Romans 3:20; 4:1-10; Galatians 3:2; Hebrews 10:1,4) When the disciple James speaks of being justified by works, he is not speaking of being justified by works of law. The works of which James refers to are a demonstration or proof of the faith, without which our faith would be dead, meaningless. – See Matthew 7:21-27; John 14:21,23; 15:10; Ephesians 2:8-10.
(15) Thus we see that a close examination of the scriptures reveals that there is no conflict between the writings of the apostle Paul and disciple James on faith and works.
Some related online studies:
How God’s Son Condemned Sin in the Flesh
Ronald R. Day, Sr.
1242 Maple Ave.
Terre Haute, Indiana 47804