Paul’s Justification by Faith, and James’ by Works – Doug Post

Doug Post

Paul: For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness (Rom. 4:3-5).

James: And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only (Jas. 2:23-24).

Quoting from the very same passage (Gen. 15:6), both the apostle Paul and James arrive at different conclusions. Paul says Abraham was justified by faith and not by works, while James says Abraham was justified by works and not by faith only. How can two inspired men reach different conclusions regarding the same verse? This causes us to compare and contrast each of the contexts in which Genesis 15:6 is found.

In Romans, Paul is arguing that Abraham lived long before the time of Moses and the law. Therefore, he could not ever have been justified by the works of the law of Moses. The Judaizers were forcing the law of Moses upon the Gentiles, namely circumcision as a means of justification. However, the law of Moses, which included circumcision, was removed by Christ and the cross (Rom. 7:1-6; Eph. 2:11-17; Col. 2:14-15; Heb. 8:13; 9:15-17; 10:9).

Circumcision as a means of justification was only for the Jews, not the Gentiles, and was part of the law of Moses, not part of the law of faith/Gospel/the faith (Rom. 3:27; 8:2; cf. 1:16-17). Neither Christ nor His apostles, ever taught circumcision as being part of the Gospel. Within the context of Romans three, it is undeniable that Paul is discussing the works of the law of Moses, contrasting it with the law of faith (3:27), which, again, is simply a reference to the Gospel of Christ (Rom. 1:16-17), also referred to as “the faith” (3:30).

We then arrive at chapter four where Paul makes the point that the Jews viewed Abraham as their father (4:1), but they condemned the Gentiles because they were aliens and strangers to the law of Moses and the covenants of promise (Eph. 2:11-12). Paul establishes the fact that since Abraham lived before the law of Moses, He never did the works associated with the law of Moses. However, the Jews accepted Abraham as their father, but condemned the Gentiles, even though they never did the works of the law of Moses either. Paul then goes on to say:

Cometh this blessedness then upon the circumcision only, or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness. How was it then reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe (Rom. 4:9-11).

The above text explains exactly what Paul has been discussing within the context, especially as it relates to 4:2-5:

For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.

Romans 4:2

If Abraham did the works of the law of Moses, being circumcised according to that law, he had something in which to boast (glory). Note the relationship to what Paul just discussed:

To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore, we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. Is he the God of the Jews only? is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also:

There was indeed a time a Jew could boast, believing and teaching that justification for anyone, Jew, or Gentile (proselyte), could only come by submitting to the works of said law. But now, all men (Jew and Gentile) are to believe in Jesus—not Moses—and the law God gave. Now, all men are to submit to the law of faith (“the faith”)—the Gospel—for justification.

This is the exact same point Paul makes in Ephesians 2:8-9:

For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them. Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands.

In a previous article, we referred to the fact that there is a textual variant here, where a definite article is placed before the word “faith.” Therefore, “For by grace are ye saved through the faith…” One is saved by grace through the faith—the Gospel—not through works of the law of Moses. Now just here, we know this is the meaning of the passage because of the context. Paul describes how the Jews were saved first (Eph. 1:1-12). He then describes how the Gentiles were saved by the very same process following the Jews (1:13-14). The same process made one new man out of the two, being in one body (1:15-2:22). There could be no boasting of being saved by works of the law of Moses because the law, which was only for the Jews, had now been removed and taken out of the way. Instead, it was now through the faith by which grace is granted.

Do we not boast in Christ? Do we not boast in His saving message? Do we not boast in the things He has commanded us to do? To boast in Christ is to boast in everything that Christ has provided for our salvation. We boast that we are children of God because of Christ, His grace, and His word. There is nothing wrong with boasting. Context determines meaning, and in the context of boasting, the Jewish Christians at Rome were boasting out of the wrong motive, to make themselves distinct from the Gentiles, and to force the law upon them. Such boasting was seriously at odds with the Gospel of Christ.

Abraham could not boast of such a law or of such works because God did not provide such works as a means of justification. Such boasting was excluded by the law of faith (the faith).

Romans 4:3

The “works” mentioned here are the works of the context – the works of the law of Moses. In this case, “circumcision” (Rom. 3:27-28).

Romans 4:4

The one who “worketh” is the Jew—the Judaizing Christians in the church at Rome who were teaching the Gentiles had to be circumcised in order to be justified. Of course, it would also include the Gentiles who were buying into their false teaching.

Such justification could not come by grace, because both circumcision and the law of Moses were now extinct. Circumcision was given to the Jews, by grace, under the Old Covenant, and to the Jews only. However, it was no longer by grace because it was no longer required for justification, not being part of the Gospel—the New Covenant—to which all Jews and Gentiles are now amenable.

No reward could ever come from God because He had not commanded the working of the law of Moses while simultaneously providing works under the law of Christ (Eph. 2:10). God dispenses grace, or favor, in relationship to the system of law and works a person lived under (Rom. 2:26-27). Abraham lived under the Patriarchal law and will be judged thusly. The Jews lived under the Mosaic economy and will be judged accordingly. We live under the New Testament law, or Gospel, which the Jews and Gentiles in Rome lived under (Rom. 1:16-17). This very same system requires works, but not works of the law of Moses:

But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God; Who will render to every man according to his deeds (works, DP): To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life: But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile; But glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile: For there is no respect of persons with God (Rom. 2:5-11, Emph., DP).

The above serves as part of the context which so many ignore when they read Romans chapter four. It demonstrates the necessity of works in relationship to the Gospel. It also demonstrates that works/obedience are necessary since God will judge all people on that very basis. The working and/or producing of “works” is connected to doing good, seeking glory, honor, immortality, and eternal life. Do we not seek these things knowing they are part of God’s judging process? Do we not boast in the gospel, so much so, we teach it? Do we not glory in this very power of God to salvation? Do we not glory or boast in the cross and in the blood from which the New Testament of Jesus Christ flowed (Matt. 26:28)? Brethren, this is appropriate boasting, not misplaced boasting. I suppose the question ought to be, why are we not boasting in these things? Are we ashamed of them? Some folks seemingly are. Note the following comments on Romans 4:4, which are typical among us:

Now to him that worketh”—It is important to realize the “kind” of work Paul is addressing. The verse itself provides the answer. It is the “kind” of work that results in the “reward” being given out of “debt” on the part of the giver. A man who works, fulfilling all the essential elements of a contract, is owed.”

The above philosophy is, unwittingly, teaching that if we obligate God to ourselves, doing “works” in order to obey Him, because we are placing God in a position where He owes us something. In other words, we are guilty of severing ourselves from Christ. Quite simply, that is repeating denominational hogwash. Yes, it is about the “kind” of works under discussion, but the context has nothing to do with “ill motive” but doing what God requires of us, which, of course, does include having the proper attitude. Paul just finished speaking about seeking glory and honor from God in doing what He asks us to do (Rom. 2:5-11). Paul already defined faith as being “obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5).

Knowing God will render to us according to our works contradicts the argument “debt owed” on the part of God. Paul just said God gives back (apodōsei) according to what we have done. That is reward, brethren: “But glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile: For there is no respect of persons with God” (Rom. 2:10-11). Remember, Paul said: “To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life.”

If God provides us a means by which we can be saved, in the form of promises and commands and, in so understanding, I do (perform) them, have I obligated to myself? If anything, God has obligated Himself to what He said and promised, has He not? If I then tell others that they, too, must do these certain things in order to be saved, of what would I be guilty? How in the world can someone understand an “if/then” proposition from God and then, somehow, ignore the results that are to follow knowing that carrying out said proposition, produces the intended results? Did not Paul say that doing good (“well doing”) is spiritually appropriate because such means one is seeking glory, honor, immortality, and eternal life? How is that sinful? The notion is preposterous.

Such a philosophy flies in the face of every passage we have quoted and dismisses every command God gives. It is a philosophy that minimizes the plan of salvation by minimizing “works.” Martin Luther condemned God’s word by calling the epistle of James a “right strawy epistle.” In much the same way, for some the plan of salvation becomes a “right strawy plan” because they are unwilling to accept that “works” are necessary for salvation.

Moreover, we are to walk worthy, and therefore we are to be worthy of the Gospel and of God (Eph. 4:1; Phil. 1:27; Col. 1:10; 1 Thess. 2:12, 2 Thess. 1:5,11). Since we are to examine ourselves and know whether we are in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5; cf. Col. 1:23, John 8:31; 1 John 1:7), we can know whether we are worthy. There is no shame in knowing this because it is exactly what God’s word teaches. We may “cringe” upon hearing this, but that is because we have been beaten down by denominational dogma concerning, grace, faith, and works.

Furthermore, Romans 4:4 may be translated as, “to the now working one the reward is not reckoned according to favor but according to what is due.” The “now working one” was the one to whom Paul is writing, who was performing works from an extinct law, expecting justification. However, they were actually perverting the Gospel (cf. Gal. 1:6-9; Acts 15). The one who “worketh not” is the Gentile, who is not relying on the law of Moses for justification. Like Abraham, the Gentiles had no part in the law of Moses, not being subject to circumcision.

Finally, I would like to note that the Jews wandered from God. They were not keeping God’s law—the law of Moses. Instead, having violated the law many times, they also added to the law many traditions. These traditions voided God’s law (15:9). What they were actually keeping was terribly hybrid, placing more stock in their traditions than God’s word. However, they were staunch supporters of circumcision.

James 2:14-26

Now we come to James who is, most certainly, discussing a different kind of “works.” These works were separate and distinct from the works of the law of Moses. The works under consideration in this context are those things God desired of Abraham, i.e., the works God wanted the Patriarch to perform. Quite simply, God desired obedience from Abraham (Gen. 22:18, 26:5; cf. Heb. 5:9; 11:8). God had assigned works for Abraham to carry out. This is Bible faith (Rom. 1:5; 16:26). Like Abraham, God has assigned us works to carry. One universal work assigned to us is “faith” itself (John 6:29; Rev. 2:19; cf. Heb. 11:6).

The obedience of faith must produce repentance, confession, and baptism, and faith must endure by continuing in the word of God. Of course, love is the greatest work of all (1 Cor. 13:13; Rev. 2:19). Faith works through work of love: “For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love” (Gal. 5:6). Of course, Paul also said, “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God” (1 Cor. 7:19).

Abraham was not assigned works of the law of Moses because he did not live under Moses, but some 400 years and more before Moses. Of course, we live under Christ, not Moses. The works Christ has assigned were not under that law. As was true with the Gentiles in the church at Rome, it is also true for Christians today. We have been assigned works today, but they are not the same as Abraham’s, nor are they the same works that were assigned to the Jews to perform. We, as Christians, carry out the works assigned to us because we are amenable only to the law of Christ—the gospel (the faith).

It must be noted that when Abraham believed God it was counted to him for righteousness. It was not by “faith alone” or “faith only.” Rather, it was faith and works together. The word faith is often used as a figure of speech, called a synecdoche, where a part stands for the whole. However the Holy Spirit teaches us that: 1. Faith works (Gal. 5:6) 2. Faith is, itself, a work (John 6:29, Rev. 2:19) 3. Faith involves obedience (Rom. 1:5; 16:26). Anything less is not Bible faith—the faith God demands. For instance, when Paul came across some disciples in Ephesus, he asked them:

Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed? And they said unto him, We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost. And he said unto them, Unto what then were ye baptized? And they said, Unto John’s baptism” (Acts 19:2-3).

Aside from other doctrinal matters here, I simply want to show the relationship faith has with works. The phrase “since you believed” is equated, by Paul, with “Unto what then were ye baptized.” Paul is pointing out that if they had “believed” it was because they were “baptized.” The word “believed” (faith) is a synecdoche for having been “baptized” (Mark 16:16). Moreover, it is a synecdoche for having been “saved.”

Of course, some will claim baptism is not a work of man but of God, based upon Colossians 2:12. Certainly, the forgiveness of sins (washing by Christ’s blood) is connected to baptism. On one hand, baptism is considered a passive act (Acts 2:38), because God does the forgiving of sins. On the other hand, baptism is an action on the part of the one being immersed. The person who does not bring him or herself to be baptized does not have the forgiveness of sins (washing away of sins). Paul was commanded to arise and be baptized, and that is what he did (Acts 22:16). He brought himself to the spiritual cleansing (forgiveness of sins) by virtue of being physically immersed (middle voice) in water. When an activity is in the active or middle voice, the subject is the one doing the acting, but when the activity is grammatically passive, then the subject is being acted upon. Therefore, when it comes to baptism, it not either/or, but both/and.

Finally, we note how the relationship between what Paul said (Romans 4), and what James said (James 2) harmonize. The phrase, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness” (Rom. 4:3) is equivalent to, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works…” “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only (Jas. 2:21, 24).

Just like Abraham, (not the Jews), we, too, are justified by works, and not by faith only.” So, as Paul said, let us “walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised” (Rom. 4:12; Gal. 3:6-9).

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