Both Paul and James also demonstrate that justification by faith alone (and the transformed life that follows from it) is rooted in the Old Testament — specifically in Genesis 15:6. These apostles apply this text in different but complementary ways. Paul cites Genesis 15 from the perspective of the beginning of Abraham’s faith. When Abraham believed God, he was truly counted righteous apart from any works.
ABSTRACT: Paul writes, “One is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” James writes, “A person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” How can Christians understand this tension in apostolic teaching? The message of the whole Bible on faith and works brings clarity to the relationship between Paul and James. Both the Old and New Testaments affirm justification by faith alone alongside the necessity of good works. Both Testaments, likewise, warn of fake faith and dubious good works. The messages of Paul and James, then, though paradoxical at first glance, together bear witness to the consistent teaching that God justifies us by faith, not works — and that true saving faith perseveres in faithful obedience.
For our ongoing series of feature articles by scholars for pastors, leaders, and teachers, we asked Chris Bruno, assistant professor of New Testament and Greek at Bethlehem College & Seminary, to address the relationship between faith and works in the writings of Paul and James.
If you have been a Christian for any length of time, you have probably spent time pondering the relationship between faith and works. In Romans 3:28, Paul declares that we are “justified by faith apart from works of the law.” This seems straightforward. Justification is by faith alone. But then in James 2:24 we read, “A person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” How then could any thinking person accept these both? This tension — what some call a contradiction — has been a perennial question throughout the history of the Christian church. Volume upon volume has been written on the relationship between faith and works, yet we continue to stumble over this tension. Therefore, it will be helpful for us to revisit this question and ask how we can sharpen our understanding of the whole Bible’s teaching on this important issue.
I don’t want to pretend that we can answer all of the questions in this short essay, but in what follows, we will walk through a series of clear principles that the Bible teaches us about faith and works. We will move through several more or less concentric circles, starting with broader statements and working toward the more specific. As we walk through these principles, we are going to let them stand in tension at first, but we will slowly bring them together. Through this process, we will see the big picture of faith and works throughout the Bible, which also will help us see how James and Paul relate to one another on this important topic, and finally, how these tensions must be seen in light of our union with Christ. In other words, we will look at the biblical evidence and ask where the points of tension can actually help us get more clarity about what the Bible teaches about faith, works, and justification.
A working definition of justification will help us frame our discussion moving forward. We’ll start with the definition of justification that J.I. Packer suggests. Packer defines justification as “a judicial act of God pardoning sinners (wicked and ungodly persons, Romans 4:5; 3:9–24), accepting them as just, and so putting permanently right their previously estranged relationship with himself. This justifying sentence is God’s gift of righteousness (Romans 5:15–17), his bestowal of a status of acceptance for Jesus’s sake.”1 To boil it down, justification is God’s declaration that a person has the status righteous. Consequently, this justified person is now accepted as part of his covenant people.2 It is important to note this definition as we begin, for justification is concerned with answering the question of how we are right with God. Ultimately, the question of faith and works centers on our relationship with God. How are we made right with God, and how should this status affect us?
Justifying Faith and Necessary Works
Church historians often say that the material cause of the Protestant Reformation was justification by faith alone. That is to say, if we are considering what the Reformers were actually saying and teaching, justification by faith alone is at the top of the list. And this principle of justification is clear throughout the New Testament, especially in Paul’s letters. As I mentioned earlier, Romans 3:28 is not ambiguous: “One is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” While some might disagree about what exactly Paul means by “works of the law,” most Protestants (and even Roman Catholics in some way3) have agreed that Paul is teaching that faith alone justifies us because faith alone unites us to Jesus.
Paul reiterates the same principle in Ephesians 2:8–9: “By grace you have been saved through faith.” In this context, Paul is using the phrase “saved through faith” similarly to the way he uses “justified by faith” in Romans and Galatians. He is describing the glorious status that we have because of our union with Christ. As Lynn Cohick observes, “Paul has already in so many words conveyed the concept of justification when he declared that we were made alive with Christ” (see vv. 5–6).4 As a result of this, God has “seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (v. 6). Thus, Paul is emphasizing that we are, in a sense, already seated with Christ in heaven; this heavenly position is rooted in our status as justified in Christ. We are united to Christ by faith alone; therefore, we are justified by faith alone. Again, we are declared righteous through faith alone because our only hope of justification is in Christ alone.