Justified by Faith or Works?

In college one justifies his status as a current student in different ways to different individuals. The professor needs to see an official role sheet with the students name on it to consider them a current student. However, fellow classmates will believe one is a legitimate student of the university if they simply attend class. Those classmates don’t have access to the role sheet, so they can only know what they see the student doing. In the same way, a student that doesn’t attend class is considered an official student by the professor who has him on his role sheet. However, fellow students would not consider the absent one a student if they’ve never seen them in class. So, if one want to justify his status as a student to his professor he just has to be on the sheet. However, if I want to justify his status to both his professor and classmates, he has to be on the role sheet and attend class. This shows that there are different justification methods for different individuals. We will discover in this chapter that the same is true in our spiritual lives. Where being on the role sheet is connected to faith, attending class is connected to works.

Justification is most often used to describe the legal status of a person before God. A justified person is a saved person under most uses that we find in the New Testament. By and large, seeing justification as a synonym for salvation works to interpret most Biblical texts most of time. However, there are a few exceptions to this rule, which is what we are going to uncover in this chapter, as we consider the difference between justified by faith, and justified by works.

Let’s start with Paul’s description of justification in Romans 3:20.

Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.⁠1

No one is going to be saved from Hell by obeying the law. Anyone who happens to posses a physical body of flesh is stuck in this terrible dilemma. We can’t attain salvation by works. Paul continues a few verses later.

Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.⁠2

I almost hear a collective sigh of relief at that verse. Paul built a palpable tension as he goes explains that no one can be saved by work. He lets the tension release with this simple idea. We are justified by faith not works. Salvation comes by that which is internal to man, not external. Faith alone in Christ alone brings eternal life. In case we missed it, he clarifies with probably the most powerful statement of Grace ever uttered in Romans 4:5.

But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness,⁠3

Not only is faith the agent that makes salvation possibly, a person doesn’t even need to work. Someone can believe on Him and just sit on the couch. Still he will be saved. Obviously there will be consequences, but according to Paul the consequences are not a loss of salvation.

Justification is so clearly defined by these three verses that if we closed our Bible here, we would have a singular vision of what justification is. It’s connected to salvation, and happens as a one time event. When a person believes in Jesus for everlasting life, they have been eternally justified, and will remain so regardless of how they perform in their Christian life. Flip a few pages over, and it seems that James is singing a different tune.

James ostensibly disagrees with Paul’s powerful claim, or otherwise has a different meaning for the word Justified in mind.  Many have struggled to harmonize James’ and Paul’s perspectives without success. However, when we understand that there is more than one type of justification the apparent differences come together. Let’s take a look at James 2:21-24.

Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?

In the New Testament, the word Justified is used almost universally in connection to salvation. Here we find a break from the most common use of the word. Although, some have argued that James is claiming Abraham found a path to salvation through works, that is certainly not what James is saying. Even his own words a few verses later contradict that idea.

As we seek to understand how James could say that Abraham was declared righteous by his works, we should ask the question, who has declared him righteous? For one, God declared him righteous. However, God declared him righteous because of his faith not because of his works.⁠4 In fact, this was such a well known fact, James’ readers would have heard those famous words ringing in their ears. Even Paul weighs in on it when he said,

For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.⁠5

So, Abraham’s justification by works was not one that won him boasting rights before God. Yet we might ask again, “If God doesn’t declare him righteous because of his works, who would?” Well, other people, for one. God didn’t need to see Abraham’s actions to know that his faith was genuine.⁠6 However, other people who were under Abraham’s influence did not have the luxury of reading his heart and mind. If Abraham’s faith was going to be proved genuine to the people around him, it would have to make an appearance. Faith that doesn’t act doesn’t cease to be faith, but it is dead as James has already said in this chapter.

Could Abraham’s fellow man recognize a dead faith? Certainly not. However, they saw his living faith like a altar fire ablaze on a mountain side. So Abraham was not Justified before God because of his actions, but those works proved that he had faith to his fellow men and women. He was justified by his works to mankind, and that includes us today. By this we see that his salvation came by faith alone, but his credibility among those he lead and those who read his story came by his works. James goes on to explain,

Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?

What does it mean for faith to be made perfect? Being a perfect disciple does not mean that there are no failures along the way, but that the student follows the steps of discipleship toward perfection. In fact, The Greek word translated as perfect suggests development and maturation.⁠7 Even Jesus told the rich young ruler that he could be perfect if he followed his discipleship instructions.⁠8

Obviously faith being perfect can’t mean that the disciple is completely without sin. Read through Abraham’s life. He had a number of shortcomings and sins that he continued to trip over. None-the-less James uses this concept of a faith being perfected to illustrate Abraham’s continual movement toward spiritual growth.  James continues his idea as he says,

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.⁠9

Notice in this verse that there are two justifications going on. It’s not one justification that comes by faith-plus-works. Instead, it’s two separate and distinct justifications. The first is Justification before God which comes by faith alone since he says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”  The next sentence begins with the word And letting us know that what comes next is a related but separate idea. The second is Justification before man which comes by works, since it says he was called a friend of God.

We should ask, who called Abraham a friend of God? Obviously God called him that, but what’s in focus here is that other people called him, “a friend of God.” The fact that the statement is in third person tells us so. For if James was repeating God’s statement it would be rendered, “Abraham My friend.”⁠10 Instead the third person perspective tells us that it’s peers who recognized Abraham’s close relationship with God. And how did they know? Because of his works. Thus, Abraham carried the title, “a friend of God,” among the people that he lead and influenced. That’s why scripture mentions it multiple times.⁠11

In previous chapters we’ve talked about what it takes to be a friend of God? In this phrase we hear an echo of Jesus’ words.

You are My friends if you do whatever I command you… for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you.⁠12

The disciple becomes a friend of God by obedience, as James himself explains only a few chapters later.⁠13 Therefore, we find that there are two types of justification. One has to do with faith alone in God’s promise. This justification is what Paul often used to describe the event of salvation. The other Justification is one before our peers, in which our works validate our faith to them. When we follow Christ with fervor, it leaves those around us no other explanation, but that our faith is real. Justification before men has to do with obeying God’s commands, and doing the work of discipleship.

1 Romans 3:20.

2 Romans 3:28.

3 Romans 4:5.

4 Genesis 15:6, Galatinos 3:6, Romans 4:3

5 Romans 4:2.

6 Jeremiah 17:10

7 Zane C. Hodges, “The Epistle of James,” in The Grace New Testament Commentary, ed. Robert N. Wilkin (Denton, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 2010), 1121.

8 Matthew 19:21

9 James 2:21–24.

10 Isaiah 41:8

11 2 Chr. 20:7; Is. 41:8, James 2:21-24

12 John 15:14–15.

13 James 4:4



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About Lucas

Lucas is a staff writer with simply belief, and sci-fi/fantasy novelist. He has a B.S. in Bible, Psychology, and History/Political Science. He lives and writes from his home office in East Texas with his wife, daughter, and cat.