A production of Sola Media
White Horse Inn: Conversational Theology

Justification by Works Alone?


Shane Rosenthal

Release date:

October 15, 2021

According to the apostle Paul, “a person who does not work, but trusts in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5). In other words, Paul makes clear in this verse that people who are by nature ungodly, are declared righteous, not by their works, but only by faith. So how are we to square this with James 2:24 which says that “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone”? This passage has often been used by opponents of the Reformation to challenge the doctrine of justification sola fide. “How can you Protestants hold to justification by faith alone,” you’ll sometimes hear Catholic apologists argue, “when the Bible itself teaches the very opposite?” In fact, if you search for the phrase ‘faith alone’ in Scripture, the only verse you’ll actually find containing these words is James 2:24 which says that ‘a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. So how are we to escape the seemly clear implications of this passage? The way I’d like to meet this challenge is first by comparing the theology of James 2:24 to other passages of Scripture, as well as a careful evaluation of the meaning of James’ words in their original context.

As you search through Scriptures, it becomes clear that justification by faith alone is taught in many places, though often not in the precise language we use to summarize the doctrine. One of the clearest passages in my estimation is found in Isaiah 53:11 which says, “By his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” In this passage we’re told that the suffering servant will not only bear our sin and guilt, but believers will also be accounted righteous in him. So what does a person need to do in order qualify to receive this gift? Well, it can’t be on the basis of our own good works since that’s the very thing we’re found lacking in the first place: “all we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way,” Isaiah says in verse 6. So, if from God’s perspective, we have all gone astray, then how do we get our sins transferred to the suffering servant, and how can we be accounted righteous in him? The answer is found in the very first verse of Isaiah 53, “Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?” According to the prophet, the basis of the great exchange is simply believing the report, which itself is something we fail to get credit for, since even this has to be revealed to us by God’s grace.

Paul makes this same point in Ephesians 2:8-9 when he writes, “For by grace you have been saved  through faith. And this is not your own doing;  it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Notice that Paul does not say here that we’re saved by faith, but rather through faith. Because there is so much confusion about this in our day, it’s important that we are clear and precise on this point. Faith is not the thing that saves us. It’s not the one meritorious work we must perform that qualifies us for heaven. Rather, as Paul writes in Rom 5:9 we’re actually “justified by his blood” referring to the work of Christ on our behalf. In other words, at the end of the day we’re saved by the object of our faith, not the act of believing. Faith is the means through which the objective work of Christ becomes effectual in our case, but even this is not of ourselves. It is the gift of God, so that no one may boast. 

In my view, the clearest expression of justification sola fide in Paul’s writings, is found at the beginning of Romans chapter 4, which I quoted from at the beginning of this article. Here’s the larger context:

What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: 7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” 

First of all you’ll notice that according to Paul in verse 2, Abraham was not justified by his works. If he had been, then he would have had something to boast about — but not before God. Those last few words are a crucial part of Paul’s argument. What he’s saying is that in some sense, a person may be justified by works before the eyes of other men, but not God’s sight (cf. Rom. 3:20). This, in my opinion, is the key to understanding the difference between Paul and James. For as we’ll see, James is not talking about the way believers are justified “before God.” If that really is his argument, then there really would be a serious conflict between the two biblical authors.

In Romans 4:4, Paul writes, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.” To state this a little differently, if we’re justified on the basis of our own good works, salvation would not be a gift but would be more like earning a paycheck. As it turns out, this contrast between a gift and a wage lies at the heart of Paul’s understanding of justification. Think about it for a moment. If we are justified by our own good works, how can salvation be described as a gift? In that case we would simply be receiving our just rewards. Paul continues in verse 5 saying, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” Notice that in this verse, believing the promise is contrasted with good works. In fact, to make this point clear, Paul says that an “ungodly” person who “does not work,” is the one who is counted righteous by faith. This faith does not contribute anything at all, but simply trusts and receives.

So now, having seen that justification by faith alone is clearly taught in various places throughout Scripture, let’s attempt to reconcile all that we have surveyed with what we find in the epistle of James. In verse 14 of chapter 2, James writes, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” Right off the bat, we’re given an important clue as to the specific issue in question. What we have here is an attempt to determine the quality of someone’s profession of faith. James says, “if someone says he has faith.” This is the starting point for a clear understanding of James’ point. The perspective is man-to-man, not man-before-God. We are being asked to determine the genuineness of a person’s faith claim, particularly when that claim can’t be demonstrated by anything outside itself. This is why James asks, “Can that faith save him?” That kind of faith is what Christians over the centuries have referred to as assent. It’s just a nod of the head. This isn’t true faith, but is in reality the faith of demons who, though they know the truth about God’s existence, fail to trust or follow him.

True faith is much more than bare assent to the truth of the Christian gospel. It’s also a vibrant trust that Christ’s work was effective for me. And even more, a true and living faith is always accompanied by signs of new life, so that the one who trusts exclusively in God’s gift of grace is also one who receives new affections and desires. The one who is justified by Christ alone is also someone who is being conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29), and who has been given the gift of repentance, (Acts 11:18, 2Tim. 2:25) which is a life-long process. 

So if someone “says” he has faith, but does not demonstrate any sign of repentance, or give any evidence that the Spirit is at work in him, James is saying, this person does not have true faith. The person has made a bare profession of faith, but the profession does not appear to be genuine. In other words, the point at issue is not what true faith accomplishes before God, but rather, how you and I are able to determine the genuineness of other people’s claims to faith.

James then asks in verses 20-21, “Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?” Here we find something a little perplexing. James appeals to the story of Abraham in a way that is almost identical to the way Paul does in Romans 4. And yet, contrary to Paul, James declares that Abraham was actually justified by his works. So how are we to make sense of this? 

The key is to recall the different perspectives that are in view. In Romans 4:2, Paul states clearly that from the divine perspective, a person cannot be justified by his works. So then, in what sense is James arguing that Abraham was justified in 2:20-21? First, we should notice that James begins with the question, “Do you want to be shown…” Since James is directing his question to his readers (which includes you and me), it seems clear that we’re dealing with the perspective of man-to-man. In other words, since we are the ones who are being shown Abraham’s good works, the kind of justification that is in view here is “not before God.” Therefore, the point James is making is not how Abraham was actually saved, but how he is vindicated as a genuine believer before our eyes.

James then asks, “Was not Abraham justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?” Here James is alluding to the scene in Genesis 22 in which Abraham obediently followed God’s command to sacrifice his son. But we should also recall Abraham’s sin and deception that took place back in Genesis 12 when he lied to the Pharaoh about his relationship to Sarah. In fact, Abraham committed that same sin again in Genesis 20, as he lied about his wife a second time to king Abimelech. Is this the man who is being justified before God on the basis of his works? Recall again Paul’s words from Romans 4:10. “Was Abraham counted righteous before he did good works or afterwards? It was not after, but before.” Basically, Paul’s point is that he was declared righteous when he first believed the promise (Gen 15:6), then later he obeyed the Lord’s command concerning circumcision (Gen 17:23), and was willing to sacrifice his son (Gen 22:10). But he did these things after he had already been justified. So for Paul, justification is by faith alone. As it turns out, James does not contradict this at all because he’s using the word “justification” in a different sense. He’s not talking about our justification before God, but is saying that Abraham was vindicated as a true believer before our eyes by his good works.

Let’s stop to consider this word vindication for a moment. I believe the word justification should actually be translated this way whenever we encounter it here in James chapter 2. For example, we actually find it rendered this way in some versions of Matthew 11:19. This is the passage in which Jesus says, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” That last line is translated by the NIV as “Wisdom is proved right by her deeds.” And according to the NASB it reads, “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” In other words, what we have here is the word justification in the sense of proving or demonstrating something to be good and right and true, rather than what we would refer to as the doctrine of justification, in which guilty sinners are credited with Christ’s righteousness in the heavenly court room. This is I believe, where many people get tripped up when reading James. When he uses the word justification, he’s not actually talking about the way we are justified in God’s sight. Rather, he is using the word justification in the sense of proving, demonstrating, or vindicating a claim. 

Another clear example of this can be found in Psalm 51:4, in which David prays to God saying, “Against you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words…” Though once again we find the word justification, we do not have an example of the doctrine of justification, since the one being justified happens to be God himself, and God is not a guilty sinner who needs to be declared righteous. What we have instead is another case of the word justification being used in the sense of vindication.

So in verse 24, James is saying that “a person is vindicated by works and not by faith alone.” The point he’s is making is that we prove ourselves to be genuine believers before the eyes of others, not by a bare profession of faith alone, but by the fruit of our faith. This, as it turns out is completely consistent with the teaching of Paul. For recall what he says in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” And Paul goes on to say in verse 10 that “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Though our justification before God is not on the basis of our good works, all those who are justified have been foreordained to walk in good works.

In the first verse of Romans 8 Paul declares that “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” If justification (before God) is truly on the basis of good works, how could he make such a declaration? For in that case, the verdict would have to wait until all our works (whether good or bad) have been completed. But the reason there is now no condemnation for all those in Christ, is due to the fact that Jesus’ works have been completed. He bore our iniquity and fulfilled all righteousness. This is why the gospel is not a list of instructions for us to perform, but instead is a declaration of good news that we’re called to believe.

Let’s finish our brief survey of James’ chapter 2 by picking up again at verse 24. James writes, “You see that a person is vindicated by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute vindicated by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” 

Here in this final section, James brings Rahab into his argument. And yet, here is a person who offered sexual gratification for money. Can such a woman be justified on the basis of her works? In verse 10 of chapter 2, James stated that “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” So clearly Rahab cannot be justified by God by her works, even if she later ended up turning over a new leaf. But if we look at Rahab’s story from the perspective I’ve been advocating throughout this article, we discover a woman who, though she previously lived a life of shame, when she heard about the God of the Israelites, she found herself believing in him. And this faith of hers was justified (in the sense that it was vindicated as a living and active faith) by what she did later when she harbored and protected the men whom Joshua had sent to Jericho. 

So Rahab ends up being a perfect example of a guilty sinner who truly believed the promise. In fact, her faith was later vindicated by the things she did, which is precicely what Hebrews 11:31 tells us, “By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.” The fact that she protected Joshua’s men was evidence to all that her faith was living and active. God, however was not in need of this evidence, since he was the one who had implanted the seed of faith in her heart to begin with.

Those who interpret James to mean that we are actually justified by God on the basis of our own good works need to recognize that this idea is completely contrary to other clear statements of Scripture (cf. Ps. 143:2, Is 53:5-11, Rom 3:20, 4:1-5, Gal. 2:16). In Genesis 15:6, for example, we’re told that Abraham “believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” So if God justifies us by our own works, then how are we to understand this foundational passage? Did God end up crediting Abraham with his own righteousness? And even if that somehow made sense, wouldn’t that be more like receiving a paycheck than a gift (cf. Rom 4:4-5)? And if it’s true that “no one is good” (Lk. 18:19, Rom. 3:10-12), how would anyone to qualify to receive such a wage in the first place? Finally, if we’re really justified by God on the basis of our own good works, how many good works will actually suffice, and how much sin is simply too much? Questions of these kind end up driving people into deep introspection and despair, which reveals that they haven’t actually received good news. The good news is that there is now, no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). In other words, at the end of the day the gospel isn’t about us;  it’s about the person and work of Jesus Christ on our behalf. 

The key to the seeming contradiction between James and Paul is to understand the different ways that each author uses the word “justification.” Paul is talking about the way sinners are justified before an infinitely holy God (Rom 4:2). In this sense, we’re justified on the basis of Christ’s own righteousness which becomes ours through faith alone. James, on the other hand, is talking about a person who merely “says he has faith” (Jas. 2:14), but offers nothing else to show whether this claim is actually justified. In saying this, he’s is not talking at all about how a person is justified before God, but whether “bare assent” can ever vindicate a person as a true believer in the eyes of other believers (Jas. 2:18). Keeping these important distinctions in our minds will prevent us from confusing the gospel and undermining the doctrine of justification sola fide.