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Is Salvation By Faith Or Works? (Reconciling Paul And James) – Part 1

“Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” (James 2:21-26)

The misinterpretation, misuse, and outright abuse that has been made from this passage in the Book of James is staggering. From smug skeptics who use it to attempt to overturn the validity of the entire Bible to sincere Christians who use it to validate their beliefs that one must ceaselessly strive to maintain their Salvation in Christ through their own efforts, fewer passages of Scripture have been more controversial than this one. One cannot get very deep into discussing how Salvation works without dealing with these verses in James.

Regardless of what position a person takes on the matter, it is almost impossible to bring up anything about how to obtain Salvation in a denominationally mixed group of Christians without having a to offer a  reconciliation between the writings of Paul and those of James. Those who lean on this passage in James to support a “Salvation by faith plus works” are invariably challenged by those who adhere to a strict “by faith alone” method. Similarly, it is very hard to talk about Romans 4:1-8 or Ephesians 2:8-10 in a large group without somebody objecting and bringing up James 2:14-26.

It seems interesting to me that there are so many who are willing to disregard entire books of the Bible (such as Romans and Galatians) along with huge portions of other books of the Bible based entirely upon what they believe 13 verses of Scripture (James 2:14-26) are teaching. On the other hand, it seems irresponsible and dishonest to want to bury and disregard those 13 verses rather than really consider what they are saying. The great Reformer, Martin Luther, went so far as to call the Book of James:

“An epistle of straw compared to [Paul’s epistles] ; for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel in it.”(1)

He was motivated by the desire to counter against the use of this particular passage by some in the Roman Catholic Church to support a “Salvation by works” doctrine.

But disparaging James’ entire epistle is also not necessary in order to address the apparent contradiction between Romans 4:1-8 and James 2:21-26. Let us now examine these passages in order to see if there really is a contradiction between James and Paul, or if they both have something important to say to us:

Two Different Types Of Readers

The first step in determining what is being said in these two passages of Scripture (Romans 4:1-8 and James 2:21-26) is to consider that they were both written within an entire book of the Bible. Neither passage was intended to be lifted out and isolated from the rest of the book they appear in. Interpreting any passage of the Bible out of the context in which it was written is a very dangerous and misleading practice. Nor is it a solid technique of Biblical interpretation to build an entire doctrine around an isolated verse or two. To rip a single verse or short passage from the context in which it was written and proceed to use it to validate a particular doctrine is not a sensible approach to studying the Bible. Countless heresies and cults have been born by somebody doing just that. We should always remember that ALL Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable (2 Timothy 3:16) and we should always consider what the entire Bible says before accepting any doctrine.

So, let us consider the context in which these two passages appear. The first thing that we should look at is exactly who James and Paul are talking to.

Paul

While the Book of Romans was addressed to the “saints”, or Christians, in Rome (Romans 1:7), the portion of the epistle in which Romans 4:1-8 appears is dealing with how a person initially receives Salvation. In other words, it is focusing on the unconverted and demonstrating that God has always justified people by faith. The case that Paul is making is that a person is not justified by their own works, especially the “works of the Law” (Romans 3:20-21, 28).

James

James, on the other hand, is writing specifically to those who are already professing Christians. His letter is addressed to the scattered Jewish Christians throughout the Roman Empire (James 1:1-2). Rather than laying out a systematic Theological discourse, like the Book of Romans, the focus of James’ epistle is on practical Christian living. James is not trying to teach doctrinal issues to his readers, but offer sound, practical wisdom. The overriding theme of James 1:2-2:26 is the testing of our faith, whether it is genuine or not. As the modern colloquialism goes: “Are we walking the walk or are we just talking the talk?”

Faith, Works, And Justification

More than anything else, a lot of confusion between the two passages has been due to these three terms appearing in both. Additionally, Romans 4:2 appears to be a direct contradiction of James 2:21. They are both referring to Abraham, and both mention him being “justified.” James says it was by works, Paul says that it was not by works. At least one of them is wrong, right? Let’s look at what each writer is referring to when he uses these three words:

Faith

Paul uses the term “faith” throughout the Book of Romans to describe a real and abiding trust in the Person and work of Jesus Christ. Faith is the means by which anyone can secure Salvation apart from their own merit by God’s Grace alone (Romans 3:21-22, 28). That a person might be paying mere lip service and feigning a genuine faith in Christ is not the issue in Romans, nor is it even brought up. The faith that Paul is talking about naturally leads one to commitment and obedience to the will of God because it is a true and living faith. Paul is presuming that his readers will understand that faith in Christ is not a spurious, superficial statement made without any corresponding action. Paul understood this. In one of his most pointed letters concerning the error of mingling works with faith for Salvation he sternly warns his readers that anyone who would profess faith in Christ and live like he hadn’t is only deceiving himself and mocking the Grace of God (Galatians 6:7-8).

James uses the term faith in this portion of his epistle to describe an unproven, untested “faith.” Apparently in the Church of his day (like the Church in our day), there were those who professed a faith in Christ but their actions did not back that profession up. They were all talk and no action (James 2:15-16). This was a cold, dead “faith” that really wasn’t a faith at all. The Christian life is not an intellectual philosophy whose theories and notions are discussed exclusively in remote ivory towers. Even the men and women of faith described in Hebrews 11 are not noted for the faith that they merely said they had, but by the actions which proved the faith that they had. However, James was not saying that every Christian must give all their belongings to the poor and serve a mission in another country in order to prove that their faith is real.

Next time, Lord willing, we will pick up right here and consider what these two men had in mind when they mentioned works.

(For Part 2 of this series, Click Here)

(1) Quotation found in the preface of Martin Luther’s Commentary On The New Testament

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16 responses

  1. Here I was longing for another teaching from you and you delivered! Thank you! :) This is a good one, a needed one and I’m all ears and learning. Can’t wait (but will!) for the next installment. Passing this on to others who will appreciate it too! Take care Loren and God bless you for helping us understand His word! Deb

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  2. Hi Loren,

    EXACTLY. We have to understand the context of the scripture that we’re lifting out. For instance, I can’t pull out the Nazarite laws and apply it to me. Everybody would laugh at me for obvious reasons.

    Works is a natural result of salvation. People who are not Christians are fully capable of doing good works but those good works will not earn them even a peek at eternal life. If someone is claiming they have salvific faith but their life doesn’t support what they profess, they really, really need to look at and see if they really are in the faith. Some mature in the faith quicker than others but if one is in a salvific faith, their very nature will change. If it doesn’t and they are mimicking or following a list of rules, they are merely changing their outward behavior. Anybody can do that. Their very desires will change. It just happens.

    Cleaning the outside of the cup — well, the pharisees were in that boat.

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  3. Thanks a lot, Deb, for all of your kind and encouraging words!

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  4. Well said.

    By the way, don’t feel bad about being unable to follow the Nazarite laws. My hairline has receded so much that if I were to let my hair grow (Num. 6:5), nobody would really be able to tell the difference!

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  5. Loren,

    Very well put….. I hope this helps a lot of people who feel they have to follow a bunch of laws in order to be a Christian…. The apostle John helps set things in order by saying in 1 John 4:19, “We love, because He first loved us.” — and then in 1 John 5:3, “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.”

    Loving God for the salvation He gives us in Christ, changes our hearts and minds, so that there is a godly desire to live the way God wants us to live….. It’s based on love and faith — not legalism.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Margaret

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  6. Nice way to put it, Margaret. We only love God because He first loved us, and it is only by that love that we are able to obey Him. To think that we have any ability to produce a love for God on our own that would enable us to obey Him and thus “earn” Salvation is a terrible error.

    Praise God that we are saved by His Grace alone!

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  7. […] Is Salvation By Faith Or Works? (Reconciling Paul And James) — Part 2 April 11, 2010 tags: Bible, Christianity, Faith, James, Romans, Salvation, Theology by Loren (If you missed Part 1 of this series, Click Here) […]

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  8. Kira Derocher

    Hi! I need help with something please answer this for me. I have read your passage and just wanted to say it is very good but I do not understand something! I keep getting told that after repenting of a sin then we are saved and a child of God and we are given the gift of salvation is this true? If we were saved and we did have faith and it started off with changing from our old ways (repentance) and then making him lord of our lives and we happen to no longer follow him but went our own separate ways, then are we still his children and saved? I heard that if you can’t earn the gift of salvation then you can’t loose it and god forgives if your truly sorry for your sins and that is how you become saved in the first place.

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  9. Hi Kira,

    First of all, thanks for reading this and taking the time to share your thoughts.

    You have brought up some very good questions and I will do my best to answer them as directly and thoroughly as possible. On the other hand, much can be said about every question you have written here, so I will try to keep it brief as well. I would like to break your comment down into parts and address them individually:

    “I keep getting told that after repenting of a sin then we are saved and a child of God and we are given the gift of salvation is this true?”

    We become children of God when we place our faith in the work and Person of the Lord Jesus Christ. Galatians 3:26 tells us that we become children of God: “By faith in Jesus Christ.” John writes:

    “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:” (John 1:12)

    Jesus Himself declared: “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent” (John 6:29). Ephesians 2:8 tells us: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.” And, finally, Peter preached: “To him give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43). So it is our faith in Jesus Christ that saves us and makes us children of God.

    Repentance of sin is an integral, inseparable part of genuine faith. Jesus said that He came to call sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32), Peter preached repentance at Pentecost (Acts 2:38-39) and afterward (Acts 3:19), and John the Baptist came preaching repentance before Jesus’ ministry began (Matthew 3:2). Repentance of sin is a natural reaction to true faith. As C.I. Scofield wrote in his Scofield Reference Bible: “Saving faith includes and implies that change of mind which is called repentance.”*

    So, in answer to your first question: Genuine belief (faith) in the Person and work of Jesus Christ — of which repentance from sin is a part — brings the gift of Salvation and turns a person into a child of God.

    “If we were saved and we did have faith and it started off with changing from our old ways (repentance) and then making him lord of our lives and we happen to no longer follow him but went our own separate ways, then are we still his children and saved?”

    This, too, is a very good question. To what extent may a true child of God wander and still be a true child of God? Well, the short answer is that a true child of God is always a true child of God. It is not possible for anyone to “sin” themselves out of being a child of God. The parable of “The Prodigal Son” (Luke 15:11-32) gives us a portrait of a child of God who wanders away and wastes what he has been graciously given on sinful living. After spending all the money of his inheritance, the son becomes so desperate that he goes to work feeding pigs for such poor wages that he cannot even afford to feed himself. A Bible scholar was once asked concerning this parable what he thought would have happened had the son died in the pigpens and never made it back home. Would he have still been a son of his father or not? “Well”, the Bible scholar replied, “He would not have been a pig.” Suppose he had died in that pigpen; he would still have been a son of his father.

    The true child of God has the assurance of the Word of God that they will never lose their Salvation. Jesus said: “My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand” (John 10:29). The Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans: “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified” (Romans 8:29-30). In other words, God will make sure that everyone who started out with Him will stay with Him and make it to the end. Paul concludes this passage with these great words of assurance: “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v.38-39).

    I heard that if you can’t earn the gift of salvation then you can’t loose it and god forgives if your truly sorry for your sins and that is how you become saved in the first place.”

    I think that’s a good way to put it. Since we cannot earn Salvation, then it follows that we can do nothing to maintain our Salvation. It is always a gift given by God. I mentioned Ephesians 2:8 above which tells us clearly that Salvation is a “gift of God” and not something produced through our own efforts. God does not freely give us Salvation and then expect us to “keep it afloat.” It is the work of God in us — beginning to end.

    Throughout this answer, I have used the term true or genuine child of God, and there is a reason. There are those who profess to have faith in Christ, yet they do not. Jesus gave this solemn warning:

    “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” (Matthew 7:21-23)

    John writes about those who are members of a local church, who profess faith, attend services, and look very much like real believers, but they are not. “They went out from us“, he says, “but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us:” (1 John 2:19). For the false convert, the Word of God gives no assurance. There are those who deceive everyone else (even themselves), yet God is not fooled. Some “wander away from God”, but they never really belonged to Him in the first place. Who is and who is not a “genuine Christian” is not for me or any other person to know. We are only given the standards by which we may honestly evaluate ourselves (I have written about some of these in this post: Click Here).

    As far as coming back to God, well, the Prodigal Son did come home — and the child of God can too!

    “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)

    God is faithful to forgive us when we have sinned and turn again to Him. To be completely honest, I don’t really know which of those who are “wallowing in the pigpens” are true children of the Father. But I do know that those who are will eventually find their way back home. And when they do, He will receive them back to Himself:

    “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.” (John 6:37)

    God bless you, Kira, and thank you again for reading this.

    In Christ,

    Loren

    *Scofield Reference Bible (c) 1909, 1917, 1937, 1945 , Rev. C.I. Scofield, D.D. –(p. 1174 — Entry Note on “Repentance”)

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  10. Loren, thank you for your answer to Kira. You have a great way of explaining scripture that benefits us all. Blessings! deb

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  11. Thanks, Deb, for the encouragement. I hope my answer was helpful.

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  12. Only Paul taught salvation by faith alone. Messiah Jesus taught that whoever beleived in him would do the same works that he had done [Jn.14]. The judgment of the sheep and the goats in Mt. 25 is by works as is the great white throne judgment in Rev.20. Rev.19 tells us that ‘the fine linen white and clean is the righteous deeds of the saints’ and Jesus taught that the man without a wedding garment was thrown into the outer darkness. James had to correct Paul by saying: “But will you know O vain man, that faith without works is dead. ” James2:19

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  13. Thanks, Rob, for reading this and taking the time to share your thoughts!

    Paul was actually not the only one who taught a faith-based Salvation (as opposed to a works-based Salvation). The Lord Jesus said:

    “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life.” (John 5:24)

    When asked what works were necessary to do the works of God, Jesus responded:

    “…This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.” (John 6:29)

    These are just two examples from among many which indicate that Jesus taught that belief was the necessary component for Salvation, not works. The Apostle Peter preached Salvation by faith (Acts 10:43), as did Philip (Acts 8:37), and John (John 20:21). To suggest that the Apostle Paul was alone in teaching Salvation by faith, to the contradiction of other Biblical writers, is simply incorrect. In fact, to disparage Paul is to disagree with other Biblical writers since he was directly commended by James (Acts 15:25 — if James had wanted to “correct” Paul, as you have suggested, would he not have done so during his statement on the requirements of the Law for Christians in Acts 15:13-29?), Luke (a travel companion of Paul’s and writer of the Book of Acts), and Peter (2 Peter 3:15-16). If you distrust Paul’s writings, then you must also distrust the writings of those who vouched for him. If you do that, you aren’t left with very much of the New Testament!

    Jesus’ statement in John 14 about Christians doing the works that He had done was not a statement of command or condition, but of relationship. If we read the statement in context, we see that Jesus was saying that the Father worked through Christ, verifying His authority, just as the Father will work through those who follow Christ, verifying their authority to preach in His name. Jesus wasn’t saying in any form or fashion that we must do the same works as He in order to be saved! If that’s the case then, with all due respect, may I ask you how that is working for you? Are you healing the sick? Raising the dead? Calming the stormy seas? Does that mean you are unsaved since you are not?

    As far as the wedding garment, I must ask, who provides that garment? Do we?

    “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decketh himself with ornaments, and as a bride adorneth herself with her jewels.” (Isaiah 61:10)

    It is God who covers the individual believer with the garment of Salvation. Rev. 19 does mention that the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints which the Bride wears at the Marriage of the Lamb, but who is the Bride? Revelation 21 shows us that the Bride is the Church herself, the New Jerusalem, the Body of Christ. She is granted the privilege of being adorned with the righteous acts of her members throughout the centuries who have glorified Christ through their service to Him. This has nothing to do with individual believers standing before Christ, adorned by their own works, and being joined to Him on that basis. In fact, the man cast out into outer darkness which you referenced from the Parable was cast out because he presented himself to Christ on the basis of his own merit, not clothed in the righteousness provided by Christ.

    The sheep and the goats judgment has to do with the nations (as indicated in Verse 32 of Matt. 25) and their treatment of Israel (My brethren; V. 40) in the last days. This is not a teaching about the final judgment of individuals. If this parable is teaching the path to Salvation, then the atheistic members of the non-Christian charities who feed the hungry, help the poor, etc. would all go to Heaven. If charitable giving is all that is necessary for Salvation, then we should all stay away from churches and spending time in the Bible and hang out at the hospitals, prisons, and soup kitchens.

    Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts. I believe that a careful examination of the Bible will leave us with no other conclusion but that it is faith in Christ which saves, not our own deeds and works. Yet, even so, if we are genuinely saved then we should be working and giving of ourselves to the cause of the Lord Who has saved us.

    Loren

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  14. An answer to “Can you lose your salvation?” I would think it wise to read and think about Revelation chapter 2 and 3 “to him that overcometh I will — give to eat, not be hurt, will NOT BE BLOTTED OUT, etc”. It seems to me that a name that IS in the book of life
    CAN be blotted out??? There is also a sin called an unforgivable sin-a rejecting of the Holy Sprit?

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  15. On dealing with Paul and James- they are in perfect agreement , mainly because God is speaking thru them. If you really want to get confused read Romans 5,6,7,8. But especially 7:15-25. Paul is such a learned man and trying to simplify for others to understand what is very confusing, and still is. Suggestion- read several translations to get a better understanding.

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