Justification by Faith, or Faith + Works?

There are two passages in the Bible that appear to be in direct conflict with each other: Romans 3:23-28, with verse 28 which says “One is justified by faith apart from works of the law,” and James 2:20-26, with verse 24 which says “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”. How do we reconcile these apparent differences?

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The two opposing views of justification

Salvation by faith alone, or faith plus works? The majority of Christians try to resolve this conflict by citing James 2:22 which says “You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works,” and the traditional explanation is: what James is really saying is as a person comes to faith in Christ there will be changes in his life that produce good works. This is a reasonable explanation, but is this what James is really saying? Or what he’s really saying is if a person is not performing works of God, not obedience to the law of Moses after they come to the Lord Jesus by faith, then they are not saved at all, and what James is advocating is salvation is completely by works with faith thrown in for good measure.

Conversely Paul says “And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified through faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified. (Galatians 2:16)” There are though many more instances in Scriptures that show their differences, and more importantly they are not trivial. The true meaning of the path that is narrow is not that those who travel on it must endure many trials and tribulations, but it is as narrow as being a very strict definition of how one can reconcile with God. The theology set forth by both Paul and James are different enough they cannot fit on this narrow path.

Let us consider a strong possibility that James does not agree with Paul, and vice versa. As a matter of fact, a discovery of their differences and disagreements actually helps in showing that the Scriptures is consistent in its message of salvation. On the other hand, an effort to reconcile them actually brings a negative effect: one Bible shows two conflicting paths toward salvation. But before we delve into the analysis of their differences and disagreements, let’s review what salvation is, as a frame of reference for our studies of both arguments.

What is our standing before God?

What is our current position before God? What does God see in us? Does He see Christ’s righteousness in us, or does He hold our sins against us? If He still holds our sins against us then we’re not fully justified, then there must be some changes in our lives so that we sin less and less, at least less enough to whatever degree that might be, so that God accepts us. This is generally the point of view of the majority of Christians, that we must use our works to maintain our relationship with God, and then perhaps we’ll be rewarded in proportion to the amount of good works we’ve done while in the flesh.

I don’t subscribe to this view at all. Not because it’s a philosophy that I hold, or it’s something that I feel, but because there are enough points of reference scattered throughout Scriptures to show not only that we’re saved by God’s grace, but we’re to live the remainder of our lives by that grace as well.

What is salvation?

It’s a good news, a solution to a problem. But what is the problem? The problem started in the Garden of Eden when man expressed their desire to be independent from God, to possess the knowledge of good and evil, of right and of wrong, like God. Now they would know what to do and what not to do, to function independently from God. But this independence came at a great cost: they began to die, first spiritually then physical death ensued.

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned. (Romans 5:12)

God provided a solution to this sin and death problem by sending His Son Jesus Christ to take away the world’s sins on the cross,

God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. (2 Corinthians 5:19)

and when Jesus came back from the dead he gave the Holy Spirit to man as a free gift. He gave back the life of God that had been lost in Adam. What is even more important is there will be no sins left unforgiven that would cause that life to leave, and the life that we now have is eternal life, everlasting life, something that we experience now and will carry us on until eternity.

This is the gospel. The good news is the solution to the problem. The problem is sin and death, and the solution is the forgiveness of sin and the restoration of life.

8But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 9Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. 10For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. (Romans 5:8-10)

If this is indeed the gospel, the definition of our salvation, then we are righteous, holy, and justified before our God, not because of what we have done, but because of what He did for us, because of His grace and mercies. This is of critical importance to understand because without this understanding, it’s easy for someone to believe that the work of God was not truly complete on the cross, so even though He’d died on the cross, and rose from the dead, there was so much left undone, so it’s up to you now to complete. Believe it or not, this is the teaching of most, if not all, major denominations in the world right now though their statement of faith says they believe in justification by grace alone.

Do you have enough works?

If you are among those who believe you must to have works to add to your faith, how do you know you will have done enough before you meet God? Will you be able to get all the sins out of your life? How much witnessing do you have to do to be considered fruitful? Who will define for you what is an adequate amount of works? And when will you know you’ve done enough? The answer is easy, you’ll never know when, or how much, you’ve done enough, until you meet the Lord and He will tell you of your performance. Perhaps the parable of the talents apply here. If your belief demands works, you will have to return to God exactly the double amount of talents that He gave you. And still that may not be enough, you will find out whether the quality of your works will be acceptable to Him.

This must be the reason why virtually all folks who are under the justification by faith plus works will invariably answer the question of their salvation like this: I will just try my best and hope for the best. That is a very sad way of living that amounts to almost a superstition, a worship of idols whose minds no one can know. In this mode of living, you’ll never be at peace with your God.

But there is no evidence in the Scriptures that this is how one should relate to God. What is evident is Jesus died on the cross to make you perfectly acceptable to God now and forevermore. Your salvation is based on Him, and sustained by your faith, and not on your “filthy rags” works at all.

By his will we have been made holy through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (Hebrews 10:10)

Lastly, if your salvation is based on works, your works must be performed to perfection. Jesus said “Be perfect, for your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Of course this was what He said to those who were under the law.

Galatians 2: Paul visits Jerusalem

1Then after fourteen years I went up to Jerusalem again with Barnabas, taking Titus along too. 2I went there because of a revelation and presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did so only in a private meeting with the influential people, to make sure that I was not running - or had not run - in vain. 3Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, although he was a Greek. 4Now this matter arose because of the false brothers with false pretenses who slipped in unnoticed to spy on our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, to make us slaves. 5But we did not surrender to them even for a moment, in order that the truth of the gospel would remain with you. (Galatians 2:1-5)

Paul went up to the church in Jerusalem to present to them the gospel that he preached among the Gentiles, which was different from, and in direct conflict with, what was being preached by the apostles. Paul only did this with the influential people because the differences must be significant enough to potentially cause problems had it been presented to the entire congregation and put them in a difficult situation.

There were people at this church whom Paul called “false brothers” who spied on Paul and Titus, trying to find faults with their freedom. Their intention was to put them again under the bondage of the law, but Paul did not yield at all. He kept Titus from being forced to undergo circumcision in compliance with the Old Covenant laws.

Had Paul allowed Titus to be circumcised, he would have been sending conflicting messages concerning the gospel. To the Galatians church, he taught that justification is by faith alone, but allowing Titus, a Gentile, to be circumcised would implicate that justification is by faith plus works. In other words, all his effort to teach them the truth of the gospel would have been in vain, but his being unyielding to the lawkeepers allowed the truth of the gospel to remain with them.

In Acts 15 there is a historical record, given by Luke, which explains further the reason for Paul’s trip. Let us take a detour to this Acts passage to get a fuller context before we return to chapter 2 of Galatians.

Acts 15: Historical record of the visit

1Now some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2When Paul and Barnabas had a major argument and debate with them, the church appointed Paul and Barnabas and some others from among them to go up to meet with the apostles and elders in Jerusalem about this point of disagreement. … 5But some from the religious party of the Pharisees who had believed stood up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise the Gentiles and to order them to observe the law of Moses.” (Acts 15:1-5)

Paul travelled to Jerusalem to meet with the church’s leaders including Peter and James who is the head of the church there. The important thing when we read the passage above is we must pay attention to differences or disagreements between Paul and the leaders as reported by Dr. Luke. These differences are not matters of styles or preferences, but of critical importance in relation to justification.

There were people from Judea who sincerely believe that unless the believers, Jews or Gentiles alike, are circumcised and obedient to the law of Moses, their salvation is in peril. A major debate broke out between Paul and Barnabas againts those who advocate the keeping of the law of Moses. In order to resolve the conflict, the church appointed Paul and Barnabas to go to Jerusalem to discuss the matter with the church’s leaders. The core issue in the debate is: is justification by faith alone, or is it by faith and works—being circumcised and obedient to the law of Moses?

It is the first time here at chapter 15 that they began to debate the matter of justification. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t until chapter 11 that they began to acknowledge that the Gentiles could be saved, therefore it goes without saying that from chapter 1 through 10, salvation for the Gentiles was completely excluded.

The meeting with the apostles and elders

6Both the apostles and the elders met together to deliberate about this matter. 7After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that some time ago God chose me to preach to the Gentiles so they would hear the message of the gospel and believe. 8And God, who knows the heart, has testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9and he made no distinction between them and us, cleansing their hearts by faith. 10So now why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they are.” (Acts 15:6-11)

During this meeting, we saw that Peter affirmed Paul’s messages to the Gentiles that their salvation is not conditioned upon their keeping of the law of Moses. That the cleansing of the believers’ hearts was by faith—not by works. Peter was bold to acknowledge that neither they nor their ancestors were able to bear the weight of the law, so there is no reason why they should impose such condition upon the Gentiles. And ultimately, why would God give the Holy Spirit to someone who is not fully acceptable to Him?

James’ resolution didn’t go far enough

After much discussion and listening to points of view of Paul, Barnabas, and other apostles and elders, James decided to resolve the dispute by asking others to stop bothering the Gentiles, but just write letters to tell them to “abstain from things defiled by idols and from sexual immorality and from what has been strangled and from blood (Acts 15:20).”

James refrained from enforcing the whole law, but he left enough of what amounted to being the “yeast of the Pharisees.” James did not go as far as saying that the Gentiles do not have to be circumcised. He did not even mention circumcision which was the key issue in the debate. In skirting the issue, James implicitly stated that his stand on justification was that it was based on faith perfected by the keeping of all of Mosaic laws.

James showed his hypocrisy when he tried to impose the keeping of the laws on the Gentiles that neither he nor his ancestors ever could. But the key point to take away from here is this shows a profound disagreement between him and Paul. And you have to decide who is more in line with Scriptures and choose one, because they’re definitely incompatible. So incompatible to the point that Paul wrote this in Galatians:

You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. (Galatians 5:4)

I hope by now you stop trying to reconcile James and Paul, or rather you should stop trying to say that James’ teaching is full of grace.

James’ gospel: impossible for salvation

The gospel according to James is impossible to live by. His insistence on a faith that requires the keeping of Mosaic laws makes it so. In verse 1 of chapter 15 above, James was recorded as saying this: “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved. (Acts 15:1)”, but Paul emphasized the implication of lawkeeping with this: “Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. (Galatians 5:3)”

Let’s us not forget that no one ever could keep the entire law: “why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? (Acts 15:10)”. Additionally, if you insist on keeping the law to get right with God, you have to fulfill at least two of these requirements: 1) “Be perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), and 2) “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)” Keep in mind that Jesus said these things only to those who tried to get right with God through their own self righteousness.

Galatians 2 revisited

6But from those who were influential (whatever they were makes no difference to me; God shows no favoritism between people) - those influential leaders added nothing to my message. 7On the contrary, when they saw that I was entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised just as Peter was to the circumcised 8(for he who empowered Peter for his apostleship to the circumcised also empowered me for my apostleship to the Gentiles) 9and when James, Cephas, and John, who had a reputation as pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we would go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. 10They requested only that we remember the poor, the very thing I also was eager to do.
11But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he had clearly done wrong. 12Until certain people came from James, he had been eating with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he stopped doing this and separated himself because he was afraid of those who were pro-circumcision. 13And the rest of the Jews also joined with him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray with them by their hypocrisy. 14But when I saw that they were not behaving consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “If you, although you are a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you try to force the Gentiles to live like Jews “
15We are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, 16yet we know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified. (Galatians 2:6-16)

Now we’re still in the same context with Acts 15, where the apostle Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles and leaders to discuss why they they wanted to impose Mosaic laws on believers, both Jews and Gentiles.

Starting at verse 6, Paul declared that “those influential leaders add nothing to my message,” and he called them out, James, Cephas (Peter), and John. What Paul said amounted to this: justification is by faith alone, therefore whatever James and other apostles were teaching can be disregarded without any danger to one’s salvation.

Later in Galatians Paul was much more firm in expressing his disagreement: “Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all (Galatians 5:2).”

In this same passage we also notice an incident involving Peter that shows Paul’s disagreement with other apostles. It was when Peter showed his hypocrisy by quickly distancing himself from the Gentiles believers when he saw James’ pro-circumcision people arriving on the scene. Even Barnabas was vulnerable to the pressure from James’ influence. When in Jerusalem, Paul was restraint in expressing his disagreement, but here in Antioch, the Gentile world, he made it known in the face of Peter and the believers, those that Paul worked so hard to keep their faith pure, that their behavior was inconsistent with the gospel. Paul had to go all out to let everyone know the serious incompatibility between the two systems of salvation: justification by faith, and justification by faith plus works.

And here it was in Acts 15, many years after Christ rose again the church debated for the first time whether salvation was by faith alone. We often make the mistake of thinking that all of the Bible is always about good things to learn and apply. No, this is not true at all. It records good things that we can learn from and bad things that we should avoid, good theology that is consistent with the whole of Scriptures and bad theology that even apostles embraced despite their years spent with their Lord.

Here Paul made it clear that his gospel applies to both Jews and Gentiles alike when he said: 15We are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, 16yet we know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ.”

The differences are clear

James’ justification

You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his work (James 2:22)

Paul’s justification

And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified. (Galatians 2:16)

You’re fully accepted by God

In James’ version of justification, though you may be saved through faith, you’re not yet perfect, or rather your faith is not yet perfect until a certain amount of works is added to bring that faith to completion. God loves you but He hasn’t fully accepted you yet. There’s more work to do before you become more holy, more sanctified, becoming more like Christ. As already discussed earlier, since you cannot meet God without being perfect, when will you be perfect enough to meet God according to James?

On the other hand if justification is entirely by faith, you will know without any doubt your place in the heart of God and His kingdom. Because your perfection is not based on you, but on Christ, and in Him God has given all you need to stand against that day.

21Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. 22But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant. (Colossians 1:21-23)

Yes, indeed, in Christ you have been made perfect.


I wrote an article on this same topic several years ago when the reality of God’s grace began to grow in my heart. I titled it “Faith, Salvation, and Works—the Cycle of Frustration.” In that first writing I tried very hard to reconcile James with Paul. I was looking for grace, pure grace, in James’ writing but the book of James had become a dark side of God that made me afraid.

Praise God that I found in the radio archive of Living God Ministries a series of four broadcasts on Faith and Works that answered my nagging question whether there is a fine print under John 3:16. Just after listening to the introduction of the series where brother Aaron Budjen talked about the proven disagreements between James and Paul, I knew this was what I had been looking for, that there are apostles that are preaching another gospel. I didn’t dare to think this not too long ago.

This article is very much based on Aaron’s messages with occasional injection of my own thoughts. However the thoughts expressed in this writing do not necessarily reflect Aaron’s theology or beliefs, I might have misinterpreted or misunderstood some points from the original messages, but I hope to communicate as closely as possible what Aaron wanted to convey to the listeners. For a much more complete explanation of this topic please click on the link above to access the audio files of this radio series. Eternally grateful, brother Aaron.

Nghi Nguyen

- Scripture quoted by permission. All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.

Disclaimer: This is my own opinion on the topic, which does not necessarily reflect the church's theology, or beliefs of the individuals in it — Nghi Nguyen

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