Justified by Works and Not By Faith Alone?
by Mike Gendron at proclaimingthegospel.org
As we share the Gospel of grace with Roman Catholics, there is one particular verse they often quote to justify their position. It is James 2:24, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” When this verse is taken out of context, it appears that James is teaching something inconsistent with the rest of Scripture.
However, when we study the context of chapter two, we see that James is not teaching us how to be justified, he is contrasting two kinds of faith – a faith which saves and one which does not. There is spurious faith and genuine faith. There is intellectual faith and heart faith, a man-generated faith and a God-given faith. There is dead faith and living faith.
James is dealing with a problem that is widespread in the church. We have many professors of Christ who do not possess Christ because they have never been born again. They are victims of the worst kind of deception, believing they are Christians when they are not. The most terrifying words professing Christians could ever hear would be Jesus saying, “Depart from me, I never knew you” (Mat. 7:23). That’s why James exhorts his readers to “be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (Jas. 1:22).
James is making it clear that a mere profession of faith does not result in salvation. But he is not teaching that salvation is earned by works. In fact, he already wrote in chapter one: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (1:17). Faith and salvation are included in that perfect gift of God’s grace (Eph. 2:8-9). That is why he says, “show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18).
Since faith is an invisible relationship between God and man, its only visible evidence are the works produced by faith. James is declaring that genuine faith will be accompanied by good works. We are justified by faith alone, but faith that justifies is never alone! Those with God-given faith have also been given a new heart and a new nature that produces a changed life which, in turn, bears fruit for the glory of God (John 15:4-8).
True believers may have times of unfruitfulness in their lives, but the pattern and direction of their lives will be characterized by an increasing pattern of righteousness and a decreasing pattern of sin. This process of sanctification is not about sinless perfection, but a righteous direction. Righteous behavior is what distinguishes counterfeit faith from genuine faith. We enter into salvation by faith apart from works (Eph. 2:8-9), but after we are saved then we do the works God has prepared for us (Eph. 2:10).
We also need to know that the word “justified” has two meanings. One is an act of God’s grace whereby He pardons and declares a person righteous. It is a legal or forensic declaration by God to those who have faith. Paul wrote: “having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). The other meaning is “to vindicate” or “to show” that someone is righteous. Abraham was justified (vindicated) “when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar” (James 2:21). His obedience to God vindicated or displayed his genuine faith. Abraham did not need to be legally declared righteous again because God had justified him by faith many years before (Gen. 12:1-7; 15:6).
Some will ask why does James appear to contradict Paul who wrote: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). We need to explain that Paul is dealing with the means of salvation, whereas James is dealing with the outcome of salvation. Paul is dealing with the nature of justification, while James is dealing with the nature of faith. When Catholics say that James 2:24 is the only place in the Bible where the words “faith alone” appear together. We must explain that James is not teaching how to be justified. He is declaring that believers are vindicated by their works as a demonstration of their living faith.