Works or Faith?
This is an argument that you will often hear from a cult member and we must be able to answer it satisfactorily.
“because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight…” – Romans 3:20
“For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” – Romans 3:28
But in James 2:24-26 we read,
“You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone… so also faith without works is dead.”
Which is it? Are we justified by faith or by works?
It is a fundamental evangelical Christian belief that we are justified by faith. Justification means that God declares a sinner righteous and treats them as such. This has to be by faith because we will never be righteous in ourselves. How then can we explain the verses in James that appear to teach that we are justified by works?
The key to the answer is to look at it in its context. Therefore, let us look at the context of James 2:24 which says that a man is justified by works.
We can summarise the verses as follows:
14 – What use is it if someone says he has faith but no works?
15 – If you see someone in need
16 – and you do not give him what he needs – What use is that?
17 – therefore faith with no works is dead
18 – however someone says “I will show you my faith by my works.”
19 – you believe in God? Good. The demons do too.
20 – faith without works is useless.
21 – Abraham was justified by works when he offered Isaac
22 – faith was working with his works.
23 – Scripture says, “And Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”
24 – you see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone.
25 – Rahab, was justified by works
26 – faith without works is dead
First James is talking to those who already have faith – those that know Christ as their Lord (2:1). When he gets to verse 14, he uses the example of someone who says he has faith but shows that it is empty if not expressed by works (vv.15-17). This faith is not much better than that of the demons (v.19). James then gives two examples of living faith – Abraham and Rahab – that is those that expressed the faith that they already had within by works that were seen outwardly.
James is examining two kinds of faith: one that leads to godly works and one that does not. One is true, and the other is false. One is dead, the other alive; hence, “faith without works is dead.” – James 2:20.
This is consistent with Romans and indeed that other great passage in Ephesians 2:8-10,
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
We are saved not by works but once saved there are good works to express what has happened to us.
We cannot work to our salvation but we must work out our salvation – see Philippians 2:12.
In summary we can say that you cannot separate true faith from works. First comes the true faith and then works follow.