Paul said, “A man is justified by faith,” whereas James said, “A man is justified by works.” These verses have confused many Protestants who have initially found James to be in contradiction with Paul. How do we harmonize Paul and James? We can start by looking at the context of each statement. The Apostle James wrote:
Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? (James 2:21-25)
The Apostle Paul wrote:
Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law. (Romans 3:28)
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1)
knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. (Galatians 2:16)
For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in thebook of the law, to do them.” But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for “the just shall live by faith.” (Galatians 3:10-11)
Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. (Galatians 3:24)
What do we make of this apparent contradiction between Paul and James? When Paul made those statements above, he was talking about the works of the Law of Moses, not obedience to Jesus Christ. He was never saying that a man is not justified by works of righteousness. James clearly says a man is justified by works, not faith only. When Paul talks about works, he is talking about “deeds of the Law” (Romans 3:28), or “works of the Law” (Galatians 2:16; 3:10). But when James is talking about works, he is talking about a different kind of works like feeding the hungry and clothing the naked (James 2:14-17). Our works do not save us; we are saved by grace. But the gift of salvation is conditioned on obedient faith.
Like Paul, James says that it was because of Abraham’s faith that God declared him righteous. James and Paul both cite the same passage Genesis 15:6 to make their points:
For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” (Romans 4:3)
Just as Abraham “believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” (Galatians 3:6)
And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. (James 2:23)
Paul and James quote the same passage, but they are making two different points. Paul is explaining how Abraham was declared righteous before he was circumcised (cf. Romans 4:1-12). Likewise, Mosaic Law observance and circumcision was the context of the epistle to the Galatians (cf. Galatians 2:11-21; 5:2,3). Abraham was not justified by works, i.e., the works of Mosaic Law such as circumcision. But James makes a different point entirely. Though James quotes the same passage in Genesis 15:6, he points out how Abraham was justified by works when he offered his son Isaac in obedience to God.
Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? (James 2:21-24)
How was Abraham justified by faith, not works (according to Paul) and justified by works, not faith only (according to James)? Abraham was not justified by circumcision (says Paul), but Abraham was justified by offering his son Isaac (says James). These two works are not the same; circumcision is Mosaic Law and offering Isaac is obedient faith. Paul makes it clear that circumcision is nothing, but obedience to Jesus Christ does matter: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6); “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters” (1 Corinthians 7:19).
“And [Abraham] believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). What does it mean that He accounted it to him for righteousness? King David celebrated the same truth:
David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, And whose sins are covered; Blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin. (Romans 4:6-8)
David’s sins of adultery and murder were not counted against him even though he committed those sins. In a similar way, Abraham’s faith was counted to him for righteousness even though he was not perfect. But Paul was never saying that Abraham was counted righteous when he was actually unrighteous. No, Abraham (and David) really were righteous men (cf. 1 John 2:29; 3:7). Paul was saying that God counted Abraham righteous apart from circumcision and prior to being circumcised (cf. Romans 4:10-12). God considered Abraham righteous even though he was not perfect. But Abraham was not an ungodly and disobedient man. “By faith Abraham obeyed” (Hebrews 11:8; cf. Genesis 26:4-5). Paul was never saying Abraham was justified as an unjust man (cf. Hebrews 12:23). Yet so often this how evangelicals interpret the passage: “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness” (Romans 4:5). God does not justify the ungodly if they remain ungodly. Abraham was not an ungodly man. God counts righteous men as righteous even though they are not perfect.
In Ephesians 2:8-10, Paul describes how salvation is not by works, but by grace. He describes how saving faith is always followed with and characterized by good works:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
Once again, Paul says that, “when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:4-5) and God “saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began” (2 Timothy 1:9). Yet Paul again describes faith in terms of works in several passages such as the following:
“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6)
remembering without ceasing your work of faith, labor of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the sight of our God and Father (1 Thessalonians 1:3).
Wherefore also we pray always for you, that our God would count you worthy of this calling, and fulfil all the good pleasure of his goodness, and the work of faith with power (2 Thessalonians 1:11).
A saving relationship with Jesus is characterized by faith and works. Maybe you have already accused me of teaching salvation by works. But salvation by works is earning, meriting, or deserving salvation by good works. We cannot earn or merit our salvation by an accumulation of good works. The problem is that theologians have persuaded us that there’s an irreconcilable conflict between salvation based on grace and salvation conditioned on works or obedience. These theologians tell us that there are only two possibilities regarding salvation: it’s either (1) a gift from God or (2) it’s something we earn by our works. They have created a “false dilemma” with their erroneous form of argumentation. The gift of salvation is no less by grace simply because it’s conditioned on faith and works. Faith and works are not mutually exclusive.
We are saved by grace, not by works. But salvation conditioned on works is not the same as salvation by works. The gift of salvation is no less a gift simply because it’s conditioned on faith and works. God gives His gift to whomever He chooses. But He chooses to give it to those in Christ who have faith and works. A person could have all the faith and good works in the world and still not be saved if God did not choose to save those who believed and obeyed Him. We cannot save ourselves. Simply because a person is selective in his giving, it doesn’t change the gift into a wage. Even though salvation is conditional, it is nonetheless a gift from God that cannot be earned. Faith and works are not deserving of the gift of salvation, so boasting is excluded. When Paul says, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8), he is saying that we are NOT saved BY our works. In other words, it is not because of our works that God has saved us (Timothy 1:8-11; Titus 3:4-7). We are saved BY grace. Paul never said that works have no role in our salvation.
What about verses like these below?:
By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:20)
But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. (Romans 4:5)
Nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified. (Galatians 2:16)
I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come[s] by the law, then Christ is dead in vain. (Galatians 2:21)
Again, Paul was talking about the works of the Law of Moses,especially circumcision (cf. Romans 3:20,21; 4:9-12), not the commandments of Jesus Christ. Paul was never saying that we can be saved apart from good works in Jesus. In the same letters quoted above, Paul noted the necessity of obedience to Christ (cf. Romans 2:5-11; 10:16; 13:12; 16:17-19; 16:25,26; Galatians 3:1; 5:7). Theologians have mistakenly applied Paul’s statements about the Law of Moses to the commandments of Jesus, the eternal law. From Paul’s discussions on this topic of faith and works, they mistakenly conclude that works have no role in our salvation. The ESV does no violence to the text, but does challenge some people’s ideas of Sola Fide (by faith alone), when it says, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). James explains:
What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will 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. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? . . . For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. (James 2:14-20,26)
James is not saying that Abraham was saved by works or that we can work our way to heaven, but that he was considered righteous because the type of faith he had produced good works. Abraham’s faith would have been dead and incomplete if he did not offer up Isaac his son when God told him to do so. Similarly, our faith is incomplete and dead if we do not obey the radical teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.
Notice that Abraham and Rehab were listed as those who had faith in Hebrews 11 as well as James’ epistle. James is simply describing two sides of the same coin. James shows that because they had faith, they acted; likewise the epistle to the Hebrews shows that their actions demonstrated their faith. By faith, Abraham and Rehab did something. By faith, Abraham obeyed God (Hebrews 11:8), and by faith, Rehab “received the spies with peace” (Hebrews 11:31). Rehab is commended in both epistles for doing something which was according to her belief in God.
This is the Gospel Jesus preached also. Speaking to the Jews who wanted to kill Him, Jesus called to their attention the works of Abraham. Though these pious Jews had faith in God (and even believed in Jesus), it was not the kind of saving faith characterized by the good and obedient works of Abraham.
As He spoke these words, many believed in Him. Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. . . If ye were Abraham’s children, ye would do the works of Abraham” (John 8:30,31,39).
The Lord also said, “But why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46). Jesus gives us the picture of the terrifying reality coming for those who believe God (they have faith), but will be damned on the basis of their works:
Then one said to Him, “Lord, are there few who are saved?”
And He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the Master of the house has risen up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open for us,’ and He will answer and say to you, ‘I do not know you, where you are from,’ then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets.’ But He will say, ‘I tell you I do not know you, where you are from. Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity.’ (Luke 13:23-27)
If we have true saving faith, then we will have good works as evidence of that faith. Any other kind of faith is a dead faith and is not a saving faith. The Scriptures are clear that we will be judged according to what we do.
Paul said, “A man is justified by faith.” Nevertheless, in all of the passages listed below, Paul agrees with James who said, “A man is justified by works.” Though we are not saved by our works, our works of righteousness characterize saving faith. There is no difficulty in harmonizing Paul and James if we read the context of their epistles. Unfortunately, most professing Christians’ doctrine of salvation accepts Paul’s statement that “a man is justified by faith” but essentially nullifies James’ statement that “a man is justified by works.” Hopefully, we can give equal weight to both. Paul also said:
Through Him we have received grace and apostleship for obedience to the faith among all nations for His name, (Romans 1:5)
But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who “will render to each one according to his deeds”: eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality; but to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness—indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek; but glory, honor, and peace to everyone who works what is good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God. (Romans 2:5-11)
Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. (Romans 6:16-17)
Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery kept secret since the world began but now made manifest, and by the prophetic Scriptures made known to all nations, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, for obedience to the faith—(Romans 16:25-26)
But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our report?” So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. (Romans 10:16)
Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters (1 Corinthians 7:19)
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. (2 Corinthians 5:10)
And his affections are greater for you as he remembers the obedience of you all, how with fear and trembling you received him. (2 Corinthians 7:15)
For the administration of this service not only supplies the needs of the saints, but also is abounding through many thanksgivings to God, while, through the proof of this ministry, they glorify God for the obedience of your confession to the gospel of Christ, and for your liberal sharing with them and all men, and by their prayer for you, who long for you because of the exceeding grace of God in you. (2 Corinthians 9:12-14)
For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, and being ready to punish all disobedience when your obedience is fulfilled. (2 Corinthians 10:4-6)
Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works. (2 Corinthians 11:15)
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? (Galatians 3:1)
You ran well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? (Galatians 5:7)
And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others. (Ephesians 2:1-3)
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)
But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them. (Ephesians 5:5,6)
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13)
Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience, in which you yourselves once walked when you lived in them. (Colossians 3:5-7)
We are bound to thank God always for you, brethren, as it is fitting, because your faith grows exceedingly, and the love of every one of you all abounds toward each other, so that we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your patience and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations that you endure, which is manifest evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you also suffer; since it is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes, in that Day, to be glorified in His saints and to be admired among all those who believe, because our testimony among you was believed. (2 Thessalonians 1:3-10)
And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed. (2 Thessalonians 3:14)
Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you. (1 Timothy 4:16)
They profess to know God, but in works they deny Him, being abominable, disobedient, and disqualified for every good work. (Titus 1:16)
For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. (Titus 3:3)
This is a faithful saying, and these things I want you to affirm constantly, that those who have believed in God should be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable to men. (Titus 3:8)
Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. (Philemon 1:21)
And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey? (Hebrews 3:18)
Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away. For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him. (Hebrews 2:1-3)
Since therefore it remains that some must enter it, and those to whom it was first preached did not enter because of disobedience, again He designates a certain day, saying in David, “Today,” after such a long time, as it has been said: “Today, if you will hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts.” For if Joshua had given them rest, then He would not afterward have spoken of another day. There remains therefore a rest for the people of God. For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His.Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience. (Hebrews 4:6-11)
And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him, (Hebrews 5:9)
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. (Hebrews 11:8)
We can see from all these passages that Paul was in total agreement with James about faith and works. The problem is that much of professing Christian theology accepts Paul’s statements about faith, but nullifies James’ statements about works. By examining the context of these passages and considering the totality of Scripture, we can believe them both.