Are we justified and saved by faith ‘alone’, are we justified and saved by ‘faith and works’ or are we justified and saved by only ‘works’? This is an all important question for which we should the scriptural answer clearly and precisely. Otherwise our salvation itself is in danger.
PAULS’ ARGUMENT IN THE BOOK OF ROMANS
In the book of Romans, Paul’s entire aim from chapter one to chapter five is to build up the argument for justification by ‘faith alone’. And true faith implies believing in Jesus Christ as the Bible says. After building up his argument in chapters 1, 2 and 3 he starts to give his verdict from Romans 3:20,
20 Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. 21 But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, 26 to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.27 Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law. 30 since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.
We see very clearly Paul teaching in this portion of scripture, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that justification is by faith ‘alone’ apart from works. He is making it clear that by the deeds of the law (works) no flesh will be justified.
And in v 28 he says, ’we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law’. Martin Luther did not make it up, it’s in the Bible!
In Romans 4 Paul continues the argument on justification by faith alone,
1 What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”4 Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. 5 But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness…
Here Paul is stating clearly that Abraham was not justified by works. And his conclusion is that faith and works are opposite to each other. If it is by work then God is indebted to us and then it is no longer by grace. But if it is only by grace and faith then righteousness is imputed or freely given into our account without works.
He sums up this truth beautifully in Romans 11:6,
6 And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work.
Again, in Romans 5:1 the Bible says – ‘Therefore, having been justified by faith, we havepeace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’.
PAULS’ ARGUMENT IN THE BOOK OF GALATIANS
While in Romans Paul is stating the truth on justification to the Church in Rome, in the book of Galatians we find Paul rebuking the Galatians for going back to the works of the law to be justified.
Galatians 2:16 : knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.
Galatians 2:21 : I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.”
If we try being justified by our works we nullify the work of Jesus on the cross!
Paul says in Gal 2:18, ‘For if I build again those things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor’ and again in Gal 5:4, ‘You have become estranged (separated) from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.’
Paul very clearly saying that not only do we nullify he work of Jesus on the cross if we try to justify ourselves with works but we become sinners again in God’s eyes and are cut off from Christ, as no amount of good works can make us righteous before God!
WHAT DOES THE BOOK OF JAMES SAY?
So, if Paul is so clear in his writings that justification is by faith alone what does James mean when he says, ‘A man is justified by works’. James 2:14-26 says,
14 What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 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? 17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! 20 But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22 Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? 23 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. 24 You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. 25 Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? 26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
The key to understanding this passage is verses 14, 18 and 19.
In verse 14 James writes, ‘If someone says’.
In verse 18 he writes, ‘Show me your faith…I will show you my faith by my works’.
And in verse 19 he writes, ‘You believe in one God…even the demons believe’.
James is writing about a person who only says that he has faith in Jesus Christ but his works (actions) do not show it. This passage is talking about name-sake Christians who say they are Christians just because they were baptized or just because they made a prayer of salvation. He is talking about those who only have a mental faith, like the demons who also believe but have never repented or believed in Jesus as their Savior! Such a Christian’s faith is not a faith in the heart that moves them to good works (v 15,16), surrender and sacrifice (v21) or value and respect for servants of God (v 25). If a person truly puts his faith in Jesus and has been justified by his faith, his works will show it, just as Abraham was declared righteous first and then his works demonstrated/showed it.
There are those who say that they have faith but their works show otherwise. If anyone says he has faith but continues to live in sin willfully without any regrets and has no intentions of repenting such a person never really put his faith in Jesus. He only believed in his mind and confessed with his lips but his heart is still far away from God. It’s just a mental faith, a belief in the mind. There are certain others who once had genuine faith but because of carelessness and hardness of heart they have walked away from what they once professed and lived in and hence now their faith is dead and hence there are no works to show forth, and in fact might be in bondage to grave sins.
FAITH VS. GOOD WORKS
A person who has genuine faith will produce good works but a person showing forth good works does not imply that he has truly put his faith in Jesus! A person without faith also can do good works. That persons’ good works will not save him. Our good actions or works cannot bring us into a right relationship with God but true faith from the heart in Jesus will justify us before God and bring us into a relationship with Him as sons and daughters. And once we have a relationship with God and are born again the outward demonstration will be a life of good works; in fact, good works will flow, because God abides in our hearts once we are born again! Faith produces good works.
A person is justified by FAITH ALONE. Whether or not a person has truly put his faith in Jesus will eventually be shown by his works. Our works prove our faith, but our works do not make us right before God. True faith in God will be demonstrated by our actions.
Therefore when we study Romans, Galatians and James we understand that justification cannot be by a combination of ‘faith and works’. It can be ‘only by faith’ or ‘only by works’ because faith and works are contrary to each other with regard to justifying us before God (Rom 4:2,3). With Paul’s arguments from the books of Romans and Galatians it is made absolutely clear that justification is by faith alone – sola fide, but from the book of James we understand that true faith will show itself in works and hence will prove our justification, even as in Abraham’s case. The thief on the cross was saved by faith alone; he did not produce any good works. But, had he been released and set free we can be sure that he would have demonstrated his faith with works as James says!
If we hold on to any other view other than ‘faith alone’ we are in serious error and grave danger of losing our salvation itself, because Paul said in Gal 5:4, that if we try to justify ourselves with our works we are cut off from Christ!