Justification: By Faith or By Works?
There simply is no more eternally important question that any man or woman can ask and then answer than this: “How might I, a hell-deserving sinner, be reconciled to God and made acceptable in his sight?” Continue reading . . .
There simply is no more eternally important question that any man or woman can ask and then answer than this: “How might I, a hell-deserving sinner, be reconciled to God and made acceptable in his sight?” Or we might pose the question in yet another way: “How might I, a man/woman who is undeniably unrighteous and thus deserving of eternal judgment, be made righteous in the sight of God?” Other questions might feel more pressing or more practical, but rest assured that nothing else in all of life matters much in comparison with the issue of how we can be made right with God and thus assured of eternal life in his presence.
To put it another way, what is it that commends us to God? On what grounds or for what reason does God receive us as his children and look on us with a smile of approval and joy?
You and I will make numerous colossally stupid decisions during our years on earth. But we will, in the end, survive them all. None of them is quite as devastating as we think. Whether it’s choosing the wrong job or purchasing the wrong car or making bad friends, as painful as such choices can be, we will survive them. But the issue that we encounter in James 2:14-26 is of an eternally different order. The conclusion you draw concerning the meaning of this passage and how you live your life as a result will bear consequences into eternity. Not just for the next few weeks, or even years, but for eternity.
So here’s what I propose to do. As difficult and challenging as many have found James 2 to be, I want to make an effort to simplify it. I think in doing so we can resolve any problems that we might have with this passage.
The reason people struggle with this text is because they envision the apostle Paul and James standing toe to toe, nose touching nose, glaring into each other’s eyes, doing all they can to refute and overturn the other’s view. After all, when we put their respective statements on justification side by side they appear to be contradictory and mutually exclusive. You can’t affirm one view without denying and rejecting the other. Or so it seems.
Paul says this:
“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his [God’s] sight” (Rom. 3:20a).
Again he says:
“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom. 3:28).
One more time, Paul declares:
“yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Jesus Christ, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Gal. 2:16).
I can’t imagine anyone stating a position with any greater clarity. But then along comes James who says:
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (James 2:14).
“Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?” (James 2:21).
“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).
Here at Bridgeway we believe in the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, which means that we believe all the truth that it teaches is harmonious and unified and never contradictory. So what are we to make of these texts? And if our eternal salvation hangs suspended on our answer to the question of how one might be justified or declared righteous in the sight of God, how can we have any confidence in our relationship with God when two of the authors of the inspired and inerrant biblical text appear to assert utterly opposite things concerning this matter?
The answer really is easier and simpler than you think. We must begin with the recognition that Paul and James are not arguing against each other. They are not waging theological war with one another. They are not to be thought of as standing face to face but rather as standing back to back. Neither of them disagrees with the other. The reason people stumble here is they think Paul and James are fighting against each other when in fact they are each fighting against different theological opponents.
Now, who are these opponents? Let’s take Paul first. We will call Paul’s opponent Larry the Legalist. What is a legalist? Well, in this case it is a person who believes that acceptance with God, being in the right with God, is dependent on doing works of religious obedience. Good deeds save us. I call him a “legalist” because he loves all things legal or relating to the Law of God. Do the works of the law and you will be saved.
This is the person whom Paul confronts and engages in theological debate. Paul stands face-to-face and nose-to-nose with this person and says without qualification that “by works of the law no one will be justified” (Gal. 2:16).
Justification is another important word that we need to understand. To be “justified” means that God has declared you to be forgiven of your sins and acceptable in his sight because through your faith he has imputed or reckoned to you the righteousness of Jesus Christ. To be justified means that you are in the right with God. He sees not your sin but the goodness and righteousness of Jesus. Paul said in Philippians 3:9 that he wants to be “found” in Christ, “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil. 3:9).
Larry the Legalist argues that we must have a righteousness to be accepted by God and it comes through our own efforts in seeking to obey God’s law. To this Paul says No, we are justified not by works of the law but by faith alone in Christ alone.
James also confronts a theological enemy. We’ll call him Arthur the Antinomian. You may not be familiar with the word “antinomian” so let me define it. It comes from two words that mean “against the law.’ Arthur is the sort of person who says, “Well, if I’m justified by faith alone, as Paul says, it doesn’t matter how I live my life. I can sin all I want. I don’t need to worry at all about obeying God’s will. He has accepted me on the grounds of my faith in Christ. So I’ll ignore the law of God, I’ll play fast and loose with his commandments, I don’t have to worry about good works at all.”
That is the person whom James confronts. James stands back to back with Paul but face to face with Arthur the Antinomian. And he says to him: “Sir, you are horribly misinformed. Whereas it is true that we are justified by faith alone, we are not justified by the faith which is alone. That is to say, the faith that alone justifies or makes us acceptable in God’s sight is the sort or kind of faith that then will work and obey and happily do the things that God has commanded.”
By the way, the apostle Paul had to deal with Arthur the Antinomian also. When people heard Paul emphasize justification by faith alone they concluded that they were free to sin all the more. You may recall that Paul said “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom. 5:20). In other words, when sin is seen as really bad, grace is seen as really good. Some people heard this and said in response: “Well, if grace abounds and is seen as such a glorious thing wherever sin exists, then why don’t we sin all the more so that grace might abound all the more?”
No, says Paul. Actually, he says it a bit stronger than that. In Romans 6:1 we read this: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! [God forbid! For heaven’s sake, No, no, no!]. How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:1-2). So you can see from this that some people distorted Paul’s message of justification by faith alone and thought that it meant we didn’t need to worry about living a righteous life in obedience to God’s revealed will.
But let’s not get diverted. The major point I want you to understand is that Paul and James are not fighting each other. Paul is fighting Larry the Legalist who thinks that doing good deeds and good works is the basis or foundation of our acceptance with God. James is fighting Arthur the Antinomian who thinks that good works have no place at all in the Christian life. Since we are justified by faith alone we need not worry about practical obedience.
Thus when we realize who the opponents are we see that Paul and James are on the same side. They are simply arguing against different distortions of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Both men agree that justification is by faith alone. But both also agree that the faith that alone justifies is not a faith that is alone. It is a faith that obeys.
To be continued . . .