James, brother and disciple of Yeshua (Jesus), says that faith without works is dead. (James 2:14-26) But Paul says that we are justified by faith apart from works (Romans 3:28). So which one is right? Does the Bible contradict itself? Or could Paul and James both be right?
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. James 2:14-26
For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Romans 3:28
Let’s define Works
The topic of “works” is controversial among the Christian Community. The idea that you have to earn your salvation is contrary to everything that we believe. First, let me make this clear: there is nothing we can DO to earn our salvation. Salvation is offered free of charge to everybody who believes in Yeshua, the Son of God. Period! He died to make salvation available for the whole world.
But if our salvation is not based on works, then why does the Bible talk so much about works? Is there a place for works in our Christian walk? What are works? First let’s define works. Works refers to the things that God wants us to do. Our Bible is full of the works from God that we should to be doing. These works are outlined in the law of God, or the Torah. The word used for “Law” in the old Testament is actually the word “Torah” and it includes all of the instructions, laws, statutes, rules and precepts that God gave to man to bring life and blessings to those who obey them. The Torah includes things like not taking Yahweh’s name in vain, honoring your parents, not killing or stealing from your neighbor, keeping the Sabbath, being fair and impartial with justice, not slandering your neighbor to cause him harm, respecting your neighbor’s property, helping the widows, orphans and poor, tithing, etc.
How is Good defined?
“Good” works are things that you are to do to please God and show Him you love Him, as well as things you are to do to love your neighbor. “Bad” works are things you are not to do towards God or your neighbor. Not doing the good works and/or doing the bad works is considered sin or lawlessness. (1 John 3:4)
Now let’s define “good.” The word good could be interpreted differently by different people, so we need to let God and His Word define what is good – for His is the only opinion that matters. Deuteronomy 12:28 explains what good is in the sight of the LORD, “Be careful to obey all these words that I command you, that it may go well with you and with your children after you forever, when you do what is good and right in the sight of the LORD your God.” David says, “Turn away the reproach that I dread, for Your rules are good.” (Psalms 119:39) Paul confirms this when he says, “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” (Romans 7:12)
In Romans 2, Paul says,“For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” (Romans 2:13) But in the very next chapter Paul says that we are “justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (Romans 3:28) Wait! What?
Peter, who was part of the Jerusalem Council that oversaw Paul’s ministry, knew that Paul was hard to understand. He warned us not to twist Paul’s words and get carried away with the error of lawless people. (2 Peter 3:14-18) What some of us don’t know about Paul was that he was one of the most educated, Torah-observant Jews of his time. He was a student of Gamaliel, which meant he had to memorize the entire Torah. “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day.” (Acts 22:3) Listening to him teach was the equivalent of listening to a college professor teach Astrophysics! Most of us would be very confused.
“And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity.” 2 Peter 3:14-18
In the book of Romans, where we find the two quotes I listed above, Paul was writing to a group of Jews who were being arrogant and boasting of their law keeping. They felt God owed them salvation because they kept the law, or that salvation came from keeping the law, thus abusing the proper use of the law. “Indeed you are called a Jew, and rest on the law, and make your boast in God…” (Romans 2:17). He was trying to explain to them that the keeping of the law would not give them salvation – only faith in Yeshua could offer them salvation. But that didn’t mean there wasn’t a place for the works of the law. Several verses later he says, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.” (Romans 3:31)
In his letters, Paul also writes to the Gentiles in the Church who were proud of their newfound salvation in Messiah, but had yet to begin the process of becoming like Messiah. For even though we are saved through our faith, Paul says we were created to do good works and walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10) Paul reminds Timothy that we are “to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.” (1 Timothy 6:18)
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:8-10
So Paul and James are both correct – both faith and good works are needed in our Christian walk. First, we choose to accept the free gift of Yeshua’s atonement. As we grow in our faith, we become aware of our sins (lawlessness) and our need to repent. Our love for Yeshua and our desire to imitate Him drives us to repent of our sins, turn from them by lovingly obeying His Word and do the good works He expects us to do. Paul confirms that we are to be zealous for good works in his letter to Titus. (Titus 2:11-14)
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and Godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession who are zealous for good works. Titus 2:11-14
The Outward Manifestation
In other words, salvation isn’t dependent on our works, but good works are the outward manifestation or the evidence of our beliefs. That’s why Paul tells Titus, “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people.” (Titus 3:1-8) The apostle James clarified this point by saying: “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.” (James 2:24).
Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us. Titus 2:7-8
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. James 3:13
If you truly believe something inwardly, then the evidence of that faith will be seen outwardly. It is not our good works that will save us. It is the inward faith that will save us. Yet faith cannot exist without good works because our works are the outward proof that we have the inward faith. In other words, what you do proves what you believe. That’s why we will be known by our fruits. (Matthew 7:16-20) Faith is active along with our works and our faith is completed by our works. (James 2:22) Yeshua said that our good works bring glory to our Father in Heaven (1 Peter 2:12, Matthew 5:16), who prepared them for us beforehand that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)
You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. Matthew 7:16-20
You see that faith was active along with his (Abraham’s) works, and faith was completed by his works. James 2:22
Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. 1 Peter 2:12
In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5:16
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:10
People that profess to know God, but don’t do the works of God actually deny Him by their disobedient works. (Titus 1:16) When we profess to be a Christian, but don’t walk like Yeshua walked, do we truly believe in who He is? We are to imitate Messiah. Messiah was perfect – without sin. That means He kept the commandments of His Father perfectly. (Sin is lawlessness – 1 John 3:4) So shouldn’t we strive to keep the commandments as well – as Yeshua did?
Yeshua said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in Me will also do the works that I do.” (John 14:12) Proof that belief causes action. James equates faith without works to a body without a soul – it is lifeless. (James 2:26) He even called people “foolish” who thought faith was enough: “Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?” (James 2:20) That’s why John says to “love not in word or talk, but in deed and truth.” (1 John 3:18) Our good works prove our love for and our belief in our Messiah.
They profess to know God, but they deny Him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work. Titus 1:16
For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. James 2:26
By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. 1 John 3:16-18
Our good works are so important to Yeshua that we are rewarded or punished – upon His return – based on our works. (Revelation 2:23, 2:26-27) Paul also give witness to the fact that He will repay each of us according to our works, whether good or bad. (Romans 2:6-11) James reminds us that we are to be doers of the Word – the perfect law of liberty – and not hearers only, for we will be blessed in our doing. (James 1:22-25)
And all the churches will know that I am He who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works. Revelation 2:23
The one who conquers and who keeps My works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from My Father. Revelation 2:26-27
He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, He will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness (sin), there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. Romans 2:6-11
But be doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the Word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. James 1:22-25
Let’s Wrap this Up
To wrap it up, it is our belief in Yeshua that will save us. Our journey as Christians, however, doesn’t stop with just believing – for even the demons believe. (James 2:19) Our belief needs to move us to the next step: imitating the good works and obedience of our Messiah. When we imitate Messiah, our love will shine forth and draw others to Him. Messiah showed us how to live His Father’s instructions perfectly – He was sinless. (Hebrews 4:15) He showed us how to get rid of the traditions of man that the Pharisees were making more important than commandments of God. (Mark 7:6-9) He kept the Biblical Sabbath. (Mark 1:21, Luke 4:16) He kept the Biblical feasts. (John 2:23, John 7:14, John 7:37) He loved the poor, widow and orphan by healing them. He taught us how to serve others and selflessly follow God.
James writes, “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.” (James 2:21-24)
It is not too hard for us (Deuteronomy 30:11) to do the works of the Torah that Yeshua demonstrated (John 10:32), but it does require ALL of us. We have to believe in His love for us, humble our entire existence to His Will and love Him in return with ALL our hearts, ALL our souls and ALL our minds. (Matthew 22:37) When we love Him with ALL that we are, then our actions will follow.
Let your belief in and love for Messiah lead you to doing the works of God – good works defined by the Scriptures. For without love, we are nothing!