Are We Justified By Faith or Works?

In this claim of Biblical contradiction, there’s an alleged disagreement between Paul and James regarding one’s justification in the eyes of God. Are we justified by faith or by works?

The topic of faith vs. works is not an uncommon discussion among believers (and non-believers, if only in the context of finding a discrepancy in the Scriptures) and one I thoroughly enjoy. Although the purpose of this article is to tackle the claim of Biblical contradiction, we’ll also take a look at how faith and works are harmonized in the life of the believer. Here are the two verses in question,

Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law (Romans 3:28).

Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only (James 2:24).

Before we delve into these verses it is important to note the ancient rubric of Semitic Totality which both Paul and James understood as an essential concept of faith (although hardly exclusive to the word). In brief, under the definition of faith as loyalty, Semitic Totality states that loyalty and works are synonymous. As we look into these verses it’s important to keep in mind that living faith logically implies active service. James, whilst addressing his Christian audience, says that,

…, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone (James 2:17).

This is the lesson James is aiming to teach his believing audience. Faith, without works, is dead, whilst faith that leads to works is living. (On a side note, skeptics who use the “No True Scotsman” fallacy to argue for the legitimacy of the faith of those such as Hitler need to keep this in mind.) James is discussing the outward signs of his faith and is doing so with a believing audience. He is teaching justification by the law after conversion.

In Romans, Paul is speaking of justification before conversion with reference to an unbeliever (that is, a non-Christian, not an atheist). In part two of my article on harmonizing the OT law with the NT, I noted that,

“What Paul is referring to in these passages (Romans 6:15-16) is not the validity of the law itself, rather he is showing our ability to obey it as ineffectual for salvation. This is why Paul calls the law a “curse” in Galatians 3:13 and why we need to be dead to it. We’ve all sinned and fallen short which is why Jesus had to become a curse for us so we wouldn’t have to rely on the law for salvation. Paul wasn’t talking about the credibility of the law, he was stating a fact.”

Moreover, Paul makes his point clear in Romans 3:20,

Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.

One aspect of sin is a deliberate denial and rejection of God’s transcendent moral code. Since all have sinned, we cannot be justified by the law simply because we do not and cannot follow it perfectly.

In Romans 3:1, Paul is addressing strict observation of the Jewish law, such as circumcision, in order to be saved. The legalists in Paul’s time believed that by strictly adhering to the Jewish law they would earn favour from God. But as Paul goes on to say, that wasn’t the purpose of the law. The law was a written expression of God’s moral code, a code that was/is embedded in each and every one of us. Why write it down when a person consciously knows what is right and wrong? The purpose of the law was to increase consciousness of sin (Romans 3:19-20) and to provide order. That is why following it, without accepting Christ’s atonement, was a hopeless venture. Atonement was never its purpose.

This is also why Paul points to Abraham in chapter four. He addresses the question of how Abraham was justified and counted as righteous if he never had the opportunity to accept Jesus’s atonement. He notes that it is his faith that justifies.

Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness (Romans 4:4-5).

Abraham was counted as righteous before Moses even established the law. How? His faith in God made him righteous.

So are we justified by faith or works? Paul agrees that we are justified by faith as we come to God. James adds that obeying God’s law is a sign that that faith is living. They are in complete agreement.