Are We Justified by Faith – or Faith & Works?

Probably the most significant rallying cry of the Reformation was the concept of faith alone.  Martin Luther, who had been an Augustinian monk in the Roman Catholic Church, had labored very hard to be acceptable to God.  He had gone on long fasts, made pilgrimages, and participated in various forms of self-flagellation in order to be found acceptable to God.  But in the end he felt no closer to God then when he had begun.  Then, one day while reading from Romans 1, Luther believed he was suddenly struck with the understanding that the only way he could ever be acceptable to God would be to put his trust in God and simply believe.  This gave way to the concept that he would champion known in Latin as sola fide – or faith alone.

The Roman Catholic Church countered the Reformation at the Council of Trent, and condemned the notion of justification by faith alone. The Eastern Orthodox Church holds a view similar to Rome.

Most Protestant (non-Roman Catholic) Churches have followed Luther’s example, and teach a form of sola fide.  However, there are some non-Catholic bodies that side more with Rome than with the other Protestant Churches.

Occasionally I hear the question being asked: are we justified by faith alone, or are we justified by a combination of faith and works?  First, let me point out that there is a difference between asking; “are we justified by faith?” and “are we saved by faith?”  Justification is a part of salvation, but salvation is more than just justification.  For example, Paul writes in Romans 5:8, “Since we have been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him” (NKJV).  This seems to suggest that salvation is past (have been justified), and future (shall be saved).  In Rom 13:11, Paul writes that “our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.”  Again, this would imply that Paul sees salvation as something that happened in the past, yet something that is still drawing near.    Similarly, Paul reminded the Corinthians that they had received (past tense) the Gospel, stand in it now (present tense), and are being saved by it (perfect present tense) [1 Cor 15:1-2 ESV].

Justification is a judicial term referring to being pardoned from our sins.  In justification we are acquitted, and have a right-standing before God.

I believe that the Scriptures teach that we are justified by faith apart from our works (I will address the objections in a bit).  There are a number of passages that would support this conclusion, but here are a few:

1 What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter? 2 If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. 3 What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.4 Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation.Romans 4:1-4 NIV

8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. Eph 2:8-9 NIV

 These verses certainly seem to suggest that Paul holds to the idea that we are justified apart from our works.  So, where would the objection come?  Well, it is from another writer of the New Testament; James.

Beginning in James 2:21, we read: 21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

 This passage seems in direct opposition to Paul.  Just as Paul seems to have taught that we are justified by faith apart from works, James seems to suggest that we are justified by faith plus our works.  What makes matters even more confusing is that James and Paul use the same man (Abraham), and same passage (Gen 12:5) as their example! (Compare Rom 4:1-4 and James 2:21-23)

So, was Abraham justified in Gen 12:5 when he believed God, or was he justified in Gen 22 when he offered up his son as a sacrifice?  Before we attempt to answer that question, we need to take a look at some additional data.

In Romans 4 Paul is in the midst of a continuing argument concerning justification apart from the law.  He had already quoted from the Prophets and the Law, and went on to make his case by quoting David in the Psalms (Rom. 4:7-8).  But he knows that an objection will be raised that David was justified – not because of his faith – but because he was circumcised.  Paul quickly moves to silence that argument by pointing out that Abraham had been justified before he was circumcised (Rom 4:9-10).

Since circumcision was given to Abraham in Gen 17, and Paul writes that Abraham was circumcised before then, we must conclude that Paul also believed Abraham to be justified prior to the incident with Isaac in Gen 22.  Furthermore, Paul’s argument to the Jewish Christian, who believes that circumcision will make him righteous, depends upon Abraham being justified before those acts of obedience.  Therefore, if we insist on having Abraham justified at the time of his obedience in Gen 22, then we nullify Paul’s argument.

In my opinion, the only way to harmonize Paul and James is to understand that James is not insisting on an exact moment of Abraham’s justification, as does Paul.  Instead, James must have something else in mind.

I believe the most natural way to understand James without defeating Paul’s case, is to interpret James as writing that Abraham’s faith became evident when he exercised obedience.  But, evident to whom?  Well, since I believe that God knows the heart of man, and that nothing is hidden from Him (Heb. 4:13), James must be writing for our benefit.

As we read the entire context of James 2, we can see that James is writing to convince his readers that whoever claims to have a saving faith must follow in obedience.  He does not write this so that God can know who is saved; because God knows all things.  Rather, he must be writing so that his readers can examine their own lives and determine if they have a saving kind of faith – one that follows with obedience.

I believe that God is capable of knowing if a person has a saving faith long before they respond in obedience.  Therefore, God can justify a person by their faith apart from their works – which will surely follow.  I do not believe – as some will suggest – that obedience is unimportant.  Obedience is not only important, but it is necessary if we are going to walk with God.  However, it is quite clear to me that God justifies based on a saving faith – alone.

Dane Cramer is a backpacker, Christian blogger, jail chaplain, and author of two books: Romancing the Trail and The Nephilim: A Monster Among Us.