Are we justified by faith, or by works?

James 2:14 begins a train of thought that has puzzled readers probably ever since it was written. Here is the beginning of the passage:

What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?

He makes this startling statement (2:24):

You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.

The puzzlement arises because they seem to directly contradict what Paul wrote in Romans 3:21-24. There, it tells us that the children of God have been declared righteous and justified when they believed in Christ apart from following the Jewish laws.

This difficulty is resolved in the New Bible Dictionary, 2nd Ed., “Justification” entry, which tells us that Paul used justify as a technical term, but James used it in a general sense of being vindicated, or proved genuine and right with God and man (p. 649).

James quotes Gn. 15:6 for the same purpose as Paul does — to show that it was faith that secured Abraham’s acceptance. But now, he argues, this statement was ‘fulfilled’ (confirmed, shown to be true, and brought to its appointed completion by events) 30 years later, when ‘Abraham (was) justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar’ (v 21). By this his faith was ‘made perfect’, i.e. brought to due expression in appropriate actions; thus he was shown to be a true believer (p. 649).

Paul agreed with James’ perspective of justification by lifestyle when he wrote, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived, neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). There should be a real change of life when confessing that we are sinners before God and have repented of it. If you repent, does that not show you are serious about your profession of faith? An unchanged life shows the confession to be a lie. When Abraham obeyed God, he was shown to be a true believer. This is faith “made perfect” — when it is lived out.

John echoes this point when he writes, “Little children, let no one deceive you. He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous” (1 John 3:7). Righteous is as righteous does. Those who are practicing righteous lives in this verse are not doing good deeds to become righteous. Rather, they are acting out what God has called them to be. As an analogy, if you are promoted at work to a new position, you are usually given a new title to go along with it. It will then be your responsibility to rise up to the new title. Your practice of the duties will not promote you to the position, but will show that you have taken the promotion seriously. You are living to fulfill the role assigned to you.

So it is with righteous behavior. It shows that we have taken it on ourselves to live the life God said we now have. We are righteous children of God. We may now rest from all endeavors in which we tried to be righteous before God. We may cease from our worries of whether we are righteous enough or not. We who are “weary” of trying to be good enough and are “heavy laden” with cumbersome rules have come to Christ and found rest. Righteousness is by faith in Christ. God has imputed Christ’s righteousness to us, and we cannot by any action or thought improve on it!

Re-read the seven letters to the churches in Revelation chapters two and three. There, Jesus makes a difference between those who follow Him by their lifestyle, and those who have compromised; those who are serious about their faith and those who are not. To be a serious believer is to hear the Lord’s instruction and respond to it, as Abraham did. The Lord calls the obedient men and women overcomers in these chapters. Their lifestyles will stand out when it comes time for the Lord to hand out rewards.

Re-read Hebrews chapter 11. There, we find men and women of faith. But they are not those who merely believed at one point in their lives. No; Hebrews 11 recounts their faith with works. Noah believed God and built an ark. Moses believed God and went out with the slaves. Abraham believed God and left to go where he knew not. In every case, they heard what the Lord said to them and acted on it in trust. Their faith was not dead; they had “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6).

Jesus will say to some persons at the judgment, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). He is interested in those who have been justified by faith in Him, and respond lives of intimacy with Him. If your Christianity is very casual (like merely being a nice person who goes to church), you are in danger of a rude awakening. The Lord ties our love for Him firmly to our love for the people around us. Where we do not like the people who have been made in the image of God, to that measure we show our true colors toward God. Love is as love does.

The children of God have been declared justified when they first believed in Christ (Romans 3:21-24). But we can tell by their behavior afterward who took their faith seriously. Would your friends or family members, if asked, reply that you are serious about your commitment to Christ? This is what James is saying — our behavior should show proof of our faith. Peter wrote, “Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble” (2 Peter 1:10). We make our calling and election as the people of God sure by a living a life that has been transformed by God. Peter lists some traits of this transformation in 2 Peter 1:5-9.

We can certainly say that we were saved by faith in Jesus Christ. But God is looking for a people who love and obey Him. James, along with Peter, Paul, and John, is warning us not to be armchair Christians, but to show evidence by our holy pursuit of love that we believe and have given ourselves to the work of God in our lives. When we have the values of the kingdom, we will live like those who believe the King.

If you liked this article, I recommend following through with my book, Ready for a Reward. 

About Steve Husting

Steve Husting lives in Southern California with his wife and son. He enjoys encouraging others through writing, and likes reading, digital photography, the outdoors, calligraphy, and iced coffee. He has written several books and ebooks, and hundreds of Christian devotionals. Steve is also having a great time illustrating God's Word with calligraphy.
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