Do Paul and James disagree about how we are justified?

28 For we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. ~ Romans 3:28

24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. ~ James 2:24

Let’s get right into it.

The apostle Paul writes in various parts of the New Testament that people are justified by faith in Jesus Christ apart from works of the law (Romans 3:28, Galatians 2:16). To be justified is to be ‘declared righteous’, and Christians believe that before God we are declared right with Him by trusting in who Jesus is and what He has done. This means that, if you are justified, you are seen as righteous even though you are not. It means that God sees you as perfect and obedient in His sight, and will treat you as if you are perfectly obedient and lovely. Jesus died on the cross for our sins and was raised to life, proving that death could not hold Him and it will not have any hold on us (Romans 4:23-25). To be justified is to be accepted into, and acknowledged as, a member of God’s family because of a righteousness that is not our own but is completely and utterly given by grace through our faith in Jesus Christ.

We don’t work for it because we can’t. If the basis upon which we are justified had anything to do with our own actions, then Jesus’ death would have been unnecessary (Galatians 2:21). Jesus’ death on the Cross shows us that we are utterly helpless in and of ourselves to justify ourselves, which is why He needed to give His life to justify those who so desperately need to be brought back from death. This is why Protestants state that we are justified ‘by faith alone’, historically intended to refer to faith without any rituals or religious actions of our own. Adding any of our works means that we don’t really understand that we can’t do anything to justify ourselves – all we can do is trust in Jesus, who has done everything already.

Why, then, does James write in James 2:24 that we see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone? The key is in reading the first few words of the verse: ‘you see that’.

James is not saying that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone; he is saying that the only way that we can see that a man is justified is by works and not by faith alone. The only way we can know that a person is truly justified is by seeing their works.

In James 2:14-26, James is criticising the person who says that they have faith in Jesus Christ and, yet, doesn’t live a life that demonstrates it. Faith in Christ, by declaring us as righteous and making us right with God, will lead to a changed life. It will result in a growth in love and actual righteousness before God (Romans 5:1-5, Galatians 4:4-6). Justification is when we are declared righteous but, by God’s grace, we know that we will be made righteous as we grow in our faith through the power of the Holy Spirit. This will always be the case for the person who has truly been justified. Consequently, the equation that the Bible gives us is:

Faith in Christ will most certainly lead to justification and works that demonstrate a changed life. The disconnect comes when people try and say that they have faith in Christ, but have no evidence of this faith in their own lives. This is what James is opposing in James 2:14-26.

The most pointed question comes in James 2:18 where James says ‘Show me your faith without works, and I will show you faith from my works’. Works are the tangible, visible, public sign of a genuine faith. You can’t see the trust of another person’s heart, but you can see the life that they live as a result of the trust that they have. That is why James 2:24 says that we ‘see that’ a person is justified by their works! We can’t see it by their faith alone.

James has not contradicted Paul. James is saying that faith without works is useless – a dead faith – and that genuine faith will show itself through the works of a justified person. Paul is saying that to rely on works, or faith + works, doesn’t lead to justification; we are justified by faith alone, without works. I finish with some important truths to remember as we ponder these concepts:

  • If you see a friend who claims to have faith but demonstrates no evidence of it in their life, then you must speak with them. They are not justified. They need to take seriously the call to trust in Jesus and follow Him. But you must do so in a spirit of gentleness and humility; you may be wrong about your assessment and, even if you are right, your goal isn’t to tear them down but you encouragingly build them up.
  • Assurance of our justification comes through the personal reflection of our faith in Jesus Christ and communal recognition of a life of active faith. You can know you are justified through your faith in Jesus Christ. Personal assurance does not come from an examination of your own life; personal assurance is found on the basis of faith in Christ. And others can know you are justified through the works that you perform as a professing member of the family of God.
  • Christian growth and demonstrations of works are exemplified in growing in love of God, love of others, and repentance of sin (Romans 12-15:13, Galatians 5:16-26, 2 Corinthians 7:10-13). We can’t look at a professing Christian and say “LOOK! There’s still sin in your life. Therefore your works show that you aren’t justified and your faith is dead”. Communally, we look at others and see how they respond to sin, how they are growing in love, how they are serving others, and how they are being transformed over time.

I finish with a verse from Ephesians 2:8-10 that speaks about the relationship between salvation, faith, and works. Justification is part of what it means for us to be saved since, when we are declared righteous before God, we are saved from His judgement because we are no longer seen as sinful. We aren’t saved by works, but we are saved for good works.

For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift— not from works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them. ~ Ephesians 2:8-10

James Chen

James is a Philosophy graduate from the University of Sydney and is currently a teaching and learning manager of a senior high school tutoring centre. James is a member of St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Carlingford and loves reading and teaching the Bible.