Are Christians Justified by Faith or by Works?

Reconciling the Doctrines of Faith and Works

Young man helps homeless person by giving him some food.

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The theological debate over the question of whether salvation is by faith or by works has caused Christian denominations to disagree for centuries. Differences of opinion are still common among Christians today. Some even say the Bible contradicts itself on the matter of faith and works.

Common Questions About Faith and Works

  • Is justification for salvation accomplished by faith or by works, or both?
  • Does a person need faith in Jesus Christ and also a holy lifestyle and good deeds in order to enter the kingdom of God?
  • If only faith matters for salvation, how do works fit in?

Justified By Faith Alone

The Apostle Paul stated clearly that man is justified not by keeping the law, or works, but solely by faith in Jesus Christ. Here are just two of many Bible verses that solidly back up the belief:

Romans 3:20
"For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight ..." (ESV)
Ephesians 2:8
"For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God ..." ​(ESV)

Faith Plus Works?

Interestingly, the book of James seems to say something different. James asserts that a person is justified by works, and not by faith alone:

James 2:24-26
You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. (ESV)

Reconciling Faith and Works

The key to reconciling the doctrines of faith and works is understanding the full context of these verses in James. Let's look at the entire passage, which covers the relationship between faith and works:

James 2:14-26
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
But someone will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?
You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness"—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. (ESV)

In this passage, James is comparing two different types of faith: genuine faith which leads to good works, and empty faith which is not really faith at all. True faith is alive and backed up by works. False faith that has nothing to show for itself is dead.

Abraham’s faith was not merely an empty confession but a principle of action. He showed his faith through his willingness to offer Isaac. The same was true of Rahab, who demonstrated her faith by helping the spies. Faith and works cannot exist separately or alone. They must go together. As one commentator aptly put it, “Faith and works are as inseparable as sun and sunlight. Faith is the sun; good works are its rays."

In summary, both faith and works are important in salvation. However, believers are justified, or declared righteous before God, solely by faith. Jesus Christ is the only One who deserves credit for doing the work of salvation. Christians are saved by God's grace through faith alone.

Works, on the other hand, are the evidence of genuine salvation. They are the "proof in the pudding," so to speak. Good works demonstrate the truth of one's faith. They are the obvious, visible result of being justified by faith. Authentic "saving faith" reveals itself through works.

Sources

  • 1500 illustrations for biblical preaching (p. 141).
  • The Teacher’s Bible Commentary (p. 783).