Faith vs. Works, According to Paul

Galatians 2:15-16

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.

James 2:18-24

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.

Sprinter Crossing the Finish Line

In the last post we considered the paradox that these passages present to the disciple of Christ. James seems to say that faith plus works justify us in God’s eyes, but Paul seems to say that faith without works is the means to our acceptance by God.

We noted that James was dealing with nominal (i.e. in name only) Christians. He was giving us a definition of saving (i.e. justifying) faith. He makes it clear that mere belief is not the same as biblical faith. He shows that faith is not belief in certain facts, even if they be spiritual facts. Instead, faith as the authors of the Bible understood it is relational. It implies both trust in the character of God, which naturally leads to believing what he tells us, as well as devotion to the person of God, which naturally leads to obeying his commands. The word I suggested that carries both the notion of trust and devotion is “commitment.” So only those who are committed to God through Christ are counted righteous in God’s sight. Many people claim to believe in God, but mere belief without obedience is a far cry from biblical faith. Consider the “faith” of those who confess Jesus as Lord but do not obey the commands of God in Matthew 7:21-23:

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”

It is interesting that these nominal Christians not only confessed Jesus as Lord, which suggests that they believed the facts of the Gospel message to be true and accurate, but they also had works to back up their “faith.” The problem is that they didn’t have obedience. Belief in Christ plus religious activity is not saving faith; trust in Christ and devotion to his commands is. This is why when Jesus gave the Apostles the Great Commission he told them to “make disciples … teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Christians were never meant to be identified by their belief in certain doctrines, though doctrine is certainly important, but by their devotion to the person of Christ. Jesus asks, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46)

Paul’s Definition of Works

In Paul’s letters we see that he also dealt with nominal Christianity. He often gives lists of things that people cannot do and still expect to receive eternal life. Galatians 5:19-21 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 are examples of this. But besides dealing with people who believed God’s grace meant sin was no longer dangerous, he also dealt with certain Jewish Christians who believed that their national heritage implied that they had dibs on God’s salvation. And when Paul denounces “works” in his letters he is countering this error. When he dealt with this religious nationalism his aim was not to define the nature of biblical faith as James did. Those that believed God’s salvation was only for people willing to follow the Jewish law (i.e. Law of Moses) understood that faith does not consist in mere belief but also implies obedience. His goal with these people, and those who were influenced by their error, was to clarify to what/whom they owed their devotion.

Jesus proclaimed, “Salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). God had told Abraham that he would make him into a great nation, and through that nation all the nations of the world would be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3). The Jews of Paul’s day were very aware of the special destiny God had for Israel. Their nation had been set apart from other nations so that they could remain untainted by idolatry, and the moral corruption that idolatry inevitably brought with it, until the coming of the Messiah. The Law of Moses fulfilled its purpose, but not without much help from God’s intervention. At the coming of Christ the nation of Israel was virtually idolatry free, but only because they had gone through the fiery furnace of the Babylonian captivity.

Many of the Jews that came to believe in Christ kept the special calling of Israel on the forefront of their mind. It was hard for them to let go of their “most-favored-nation status.” Since the Torah (i.e. Law of Moses) had been the instrument used to set them apart from everyone else, they couldn’t imagine the thought of it becoming obsolete in the new era of the Messiah. For this reason they felt that though devotion to Christ was necessary for salvation, it was not enough unless it was coupled with devotion to the Law of Moses. They imagined that for someone to receive salvation in the Jewish Messiah, one had to become part of the Jewish people through circumcision and obedience to all the various restrictions and customs of the Torah. They believed to become a Christian, one had to become a Jew.

In Acts 10 we read about the first time one of the Apostles was sent to a Gentile home. In order to make Peter willing to go to Cornelius home, he had to give him a vision. In fact he had to give him the same vision three times in a row! God showed him a sheet filled with all kinds of animals that were unlawful for Jews to eat, and then he told Peter to kill and eat. Peter’s response to the Lord was, “Not a chance, I’ve been a good Jew my whole life, I’m not going to destroy my perfect record now!” After the vision finished some men came to the door of the house where Peter was staying and asked for him by name. They asked him to come with them to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile (non-Jewish) man. In the vision God had told Peter not to call anything “unclean” that God had declared “clean.” When Peter heard from the men that Cornelius had seen an angel who told him to call for Peter to come preach to his family, he understood what God meant by the vision; by Jesus’ sacrifice even Gentiles could be cleansed of their sin and accepted by God, so Peter didn’t need to keep his distance from them any longer.

In Acts 15 the question of whether or not devotion to the Law of Moses was a requirement for salvation came to a crossroads in the early Church. Some of the Jewish Christians were teaching the Gentile believers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). Because of this Paul and others quickly went to the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem to get this matter straightened out. The conclusion of this Church council was that Gentile Christians did not need to be circumcised or keep the Law of Moses. But they were required to avoid immoral and idolatrous practices.

In Galatians 2:11-21 we read about another incident with Peter. In Antioch he had become accustomed to freely fellowshipping with Gentiles, even eating with them, if they were living in commitment to Jesus Christ. Though they had not been circumcised and submitted to all the dietary restrictions of the Torah, he had no problem treating them like family.

But when some Jewish believers who were zealous for the Torah came from Jerusalem he was afraid of what they would think about his choice of table partners. So he stopped eating with the Gentiles and ate exclusively with the Jewish Christians. In Paul’s eyes this was a serious matter. It wasn’t just a matter of ignoring some people and favoring others, it was an important theological statement, one that could not be tolerated. By separating himself from the Gentiles during meal times, Peter was implying that devotion to Christ was not enough to make someone his brother or sister. He was showing with his actions that faith in Christ alone was not enough, obedience to the Law of Moses was also necessary to be part of God’s holy people. Paul rebuked him publically saying, “How can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Galatians 2:14) He continued, “We know that a person is not justified by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:16).

It is in this context we can understand better what Paul is saying. He is not saying, “A person is justified by belief alone, there is no moral effort involved.” Instead he is saying, “A person is justified by their devotion to Jesus Christ, not by their devotion to the Law of Moses.” For Paul “justified by faith” is shorthand for “justified by faith in Jesus Christ.” And for Paul, just as for James, faith is relational, it implies both trust and devotion; it is not mere intellectual belief in a fact. And “works” for Paul is not the same thing as “moral effort,” but is shorthand for “the works of the Law of Moses.” Paul makes it abundantly clear in his letters that moral effort is an absolutely essential part of the Christian life. He is in complete agreement with the letter of Hebrews that says “without holiness no man will see God” (Hebrews 12:14). But accepting the Law of Moses with all its national distinctives like circumcision, food restrictions and Sabbath days is not a necessary part of the Christian life.

Paul teaches in many places (Galatians 3-4, Romans 9-11, Ephesians 2-3, etc.) that God’s holy people are no longer unified around their devotion to the Law of Moses, but around their devotion to the Messiah Jesus. Circumcision is no longer the identifying mark that one belongs to God, but trusting commitment to Christ is. It is no longer one’s physical ancestry from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that makes one a member of God’s elect, but in the New Covenant Israel is defined by her devotion to “the Seed” of Abraham, Jesus Christ. It is not “doing the works of the law” that justifies one before God, but “faith in Jesus Christ.”

When Paul wants to refer to devotion to the Law of Moses he calls it “doing the works of the law,” or simply, “works.” But when he wants to contrast devotion to the Torah with devotion to the Messiah he uses the phrase “faith in Jesus Christ,” or simply, “faith.” Devotion to the Law is commitment to a thing and is clearly expressed by the word “doing.” But devotion to Christ is relational, and for that reason is better expressed by the word “faith.” If we ignore this context we will imagine that Paul is contrasting faith in Christ with moral effort. This will lead to much confusion, not only when we read what James has to say about faith and works, but also when we read about the moral effort that Paul demands and even makes a condition for ultimately inheriting eternal life (Galatians 5:19-21 & 1 Corinthians 6:9-10).

Ephesians 5:5-6

For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.

James tells us that belief without moral effort (works) is useless. Paul does not contradict this. He tells us devotion to Christ alone, including the moral effort that devotion is part of that sincere devotion, is all we need to accepted by God both now and on the day of Judgment. We do not need to add devotion to the Law of Moses, and the works of the Law, to our faith in Christ. We are justified by our faith in Jesus Christ alone, not by the works of the Law.

-James contrasts intellectual belief with relational commitment in order to define biblical faith.

-Paul contrasts devotion to the Old Covenant Law of Israel with the New Covenant devotion to Jesus Christ.

-Both James and Paul define faith as “trust and devotion to the character and person of God through Jesus Christ.”


2 thoughts on “Faith vs. Works, According to Paul

  1. I cannot agree with your explanation regarding James versus Paul. It assumes (without warrant, by the way) that “save” = “justify” in terms of basic their meanings.

    Just start with the English meaning of justify. It carries with it the idea of approval or acceptance from the viewpoint of another. The disobedient Jews sought to “justify themselves” (Luke 16:15 or even “justify God.” as in Romans 1, 2 where it says “That thou mayest be justified…”

    The word save, in all of its variations, means deliver, rescue, help, aid, heal—whether from danger, or sin, or sickness, or injury. And, as a transitive verb, what is being saved might be a person’s physical life, as illustrated when Peter asks Jesus, “save me” as he is sinking next to Jesus on the stormy Sea of Galilee.

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