Justification: by grace or works?

Saint Paul

Saint Paul / Bartolomeo Montagna (1481)

Does the Bible contain contradictions? It can appear so.

Paul wrote, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28), and a few lines later, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God” (Romans 4:2).

James, on the other hand, wrote, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? . . . You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:21, 24).

Upon close examination of these verses in context, however, the apparent contradiction disappears.

What is justification?

Saint James, brother of Jesus

James, brother of Jesus

“Justification” has a technical meaning in Scripture. We can’t possibly understand either Romans or James without understanding it’s Christian meaning. It’s a variety of grace: God’s unmerited favor.

There are three levels of grace: prevenient grace, justification, and sanctification.

“Prevenient,” related to “prevent,” at root means “to go before.” Every human is born into Adam’s sinful condition as a rebel against God. Every human at birth owes allegiance to Satan, the god of this world, and destined to destruction.

How can Jesus’ work on the cross reach people if they start life with a heart of rebellion? God’s prevenient grace goes before each person to assure that everyone has a chance to repent and turn to God. No one can possibly sin so much that God can’t forgive.

Justification is the turning point, when a person repents, abandons the ways of the world, and turns back to God. At that moment, God delivers the person from the domain of darkness and transfers him to the kingdom of Jesus. The process of sanctification follows, as the person becomes more Christ-like.

How does justification happen?

What are works?

The apparent contradiction between Paul and James comes from their very different meaning of “works.”

In Romans 3:28, Paul proclaims justification by faith apart from works of the law: the Ten Commandments and all of the rest of Jewish legal tradition. Much of the law is based on prohibitions.

Jews are a holy people, that is, set apart from everyone else. Sabbath observance, dietary restrictions, circumcision, etc. make that separation evident to all.

The law prohibited Jews from working every day of the week. It prohibited them from eating what other people did. They could not be considered part of the holy community apart from the ritual of circumcision.

Modern holiness movements advocate a different list of prohibitions: “Don’t drink or cuss or chew or go with them that do.”

So if someone manages to live a life that successfully observes all of these prohibitions, does that make them a good person in God’s sight? Does it justify them?

No. It does not. And James never advocates such works.

The book of James might be the oldest part of the New Testament. In fact, he might have written what he did about justification to contradict what he had falsely heard about Paul’s teaching.

But Acts 15 describes a council in Jerusalem, after which Paul and James were in complete agreement—against those who continued to teach that following ancient Jewish law was necessary to salvation.

Abraham believed God

The Vision of the Lord Directing Abram to Count the Stars / Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1860)

What works did James advocate as grounds of justification?

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. – James 1:26-27

“Religion,” by the way, does not mean “Christianity” or “church.” The word James uses specifically means outward, ceremonial observance. In other words, outward display of piety that is pure and undefiled is works of charity. Faith without this kind of work is dead. And anyone who has faith is already justified.

Paul, by the way, completely endorses works of charity. One example out of many: When he reminded the Galatian church about the outcome of the council described in Acts 15, he wrote, “ Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do” – Galatians 2:10.

What about Abraham?

Sacrifice of Isaac / Rembrandt (1635)

Sacrifice of Isaac / Rembrandt (1635)

So was Abraham justified by works?

According to Genesis 15:6, “And he [Abram] believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” Paul quotes this verse twice (Romans 4:3, Galatians 3:6) and James once (James 2:23.)

Paul focuses his attention on that time, when Abraham was 75 years old. Isaac, the promised child through whom God would fulfill what Abram believed, was not born until 25 years later.

Paul lays great stress on the fact that Abraham continued to believe the promise through all this agonizing waiting.

James, on the other hand, points to a much later time, with Isaac on the cusp of manhood. God commanded Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt offering.

Abraham obeyed without hesitation. Just as he began to plunge his knife into Isaac’s body, God stopped him. He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Genesis 22:12).

Paul points to the time when Abraham first expressed his faith and entered the grace of justification. No act of his earned his justification. Nothing he had ever done gave him the right to think God owed him anything.

James points to the time when Abraham demonstrated (by an act of obedience, not ceremony) that his faith was real.

Justification is like a coin. Paul described heads and James described tails. They do not contradict each other.

Photo credits:
Saint Paul. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Saint James. Source unknown. The search “James brother of Jesus” returned this image. It appears in numerous places on the Web, not once, a far as I have been able to find, with proper identification.
Vision of the Lord. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Sacrifice of Isaac. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.


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