Are Christians justified by faith or by works? Is salvation received by faith alone or by good deeds, or both? The theological debate over the question of whether salvation is by faith or by works has caused Christian denominations to disagree for centuries. Differences of opinion are still common among Christians today. Some even say the Bible contradicts itself on the matter of faith and works.
Justified by faith alone? These are just two of many Bible verses from the Apostle Paul stating clearly that man is justified not by the law, or works, but solely by faith in Jesus Christ:
- “Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe” (Romans 3:20-22 NKJV).
- “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8 NKJV).
Faith plus works?
Interestingly, the book of James seems to say something different, if taken out of context: James 2:24 “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only” (NKJV).
Reconciling faith and works
The key to reconciling faith and works is understanding the full context of these verses in James. Let’s look at the entire passage, which covers the relationship between faith and works:
James 2:14-24: “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead …. Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only” (NKJV).
In the above passages, Abraham being “justified by works” can also be translated as being “seen justified by works.” In other words, we see a painting supposedly by Picasso. Experts examine it and judge it as a real and valid work of Picasso. Their examination and judgment do not make it real; they only verify its authenticity. In the same way, Abraham’s faith was verified by his works; his works did not save them. Here James is comparing two different types of faith: genuine faith which leads to good works and empty faith which is not faith at all. Both faith and works are important in salvation. However, believers are justified, or declared righteous before God, solely by faith. Jesus Christ is the only One who deserves credit for doing the work of salvation. Christians are saved by God’s grace through faith alone. Works, on the other hand, are the evidence of genuine salvation. Good works demonstrate the truth of one’s faith. In other words, works are the obvious, visible results of being justified by faith. Authentic “saving faith” reveals itself by works.
James and the Canon of Scripture
There have been many attempts over the centuries to explain the emphasis on faith plus works that we seem to see in the Book of James. Because of the fact that James seems to be saying that faith alone does not save us, James was almost not included in the Canon of Scripture by the Council of Carthage in the year 397 A.D. It is clear that Martin Luther had his doubts about whether the Book of James was divinely inspired. But one way to view the few verses which, when taken out of context, seem to contradict the clear teaching of the Apostle Paul in his 16 books which comprise the majority of the New Testament, is to see them as a specific and targeted correction to a doctrinal heresy that James was trying to address. As we are driving down the road on a straight highway, we may drive for hundreds of miles with few if any course corrections, provided we stay in the center of our lane. But when we begin to drift off course, we apply a limited and specific course correction to the left or right to get back on course. The clear teaching by Paul of salvation by faith throughout his 16 major books can be considered the normal course down the straight highway, and the relatively minor Book of James with its five short chapters can be considered the course correction for those who assume that dead faith with licentiousness can save them, or that the other extreme, legalism and reliance on works alone, can save them without faith.
Good works as evidence
Sunday School and catechism teachers sometimes compare faith and works to the engine of a train (faith), pulling the cars and caboose (works). However, that analogy falls a little short as it is possible to have a train engine running down the track by itself without any cars. Perhaps a better way to explain it is that a saving and vibrant faith can be compared with the sun with its life-giving heat and light which sustain life on earth. Since its creation, it has had its self-existence which is not a product of the heat and light that it gives off. But the heat and light can be compared with the good works that James is writing about. If the sun or any heavenly body do not produce any heat or light, they are like a dead planet, burned out or having become a black hole. The heat and light are simply evidence that the sun is a life-giving source; they are not the source of that energy or life.
Faith at work
So a live and vibrant faith will always have good works as evidence of true and saving faith. We are saved by faith alone, but it is and must always be a faith that produces fruit and good works, as in the clear teaching of Jesus in Matthew 7:18-20 NKJV: “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.”
Bob Woods has worked as an engineer at AECOM Technical Services and HBC Engineering, and is a published Christian author. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.