Was Abraham Justified by Faith or by Works?

Answering 439 Bible Contradictions: #2

Answer: Abraham was justified by faith before God and by works before men.

Problem: Paul and James seem to contradict each other when speaking of justification. Paul says, “For if Abraham were justified by works, he would have something to boast about, but not before God” (Rom 4:2), and later: “therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law” (Rom. 3:28). James, however, asks “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the alter” (James 2:21; cf. v.24)? So which is it?

Explanation: Paul and James use three key words differently: justification, faith, and works. These men differ in terminology not theology. Everyone understands that the same word may have a different meaning depending on the context, as when the lumberjack says the trunk on the mountain was full of termites and the mother says the trunk in the attic was full of dresses.

If the lumberjack responds that this just cannot be true—“I’ve never once found a dress in my thirty years of chopping”—then we must sit down and teach him some rules of interpretation.

When Paul uses “justification” or “justify”, it means to declare righteous. “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly…” (Rom. 4:5). For Paul, justification is “before God” (Gal. 3:11) and “in His sight” (Rom. 3:20). But justification can be used in another way, such as to demonstrate or show righteousness. For example, Jesus tells the Pharisees in Luke 16:15 “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts.” They were trying to demonstrate their righteousness to others. In Luke 10:29, after the lawyer had heard the demands of Jesus, Scripture tells us that “he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor’.” He wanted to show Jesus just how good of a person he was. This is the way James uses the word. Justification is before men. He says, “You got faith? Show me.” “You see then that a man is justified (i.e. he demonstrates his righteousness to others) by works, and not by faith only” (James 2:24).

If grace is water in the well and faith is the bucket that brings it to us, Paul’s bucket is in good condition—it alone can do the job—while James’ bucket may have holes. Both agree that sturdy (saving) buckets alone can bring grace to the sinner and both agree that leaky buckets are worthless. It’s just that Paul speaks of the former and James of the latter.

For Paul, “faith” comprises all the essential elements to save. Thus, “by grace are you saved, through faith… not of works” (Eph. 2:8-9). He powerfully defends sola fide in Romans 8, Galatians 2-3, and 2 Corinthians 5. But James often uses the terms faith and belief differently. James’ definition is clear from 2:19: “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!” Demons have a leaky bucket. Their belief cannot saves because it is merely intellectual. They only know the facts about Christ; they even “believe” in the deity of Christ (Matt. 8:29). But this faith lacks the essential elements to save. For James, faith alone cannot save because deedless faith is dead.

James compares deedless faith to a man looking into a mirror and then forgetting what he saw (James 1:23-24). Should we believe a man who says he’s been married for twenty years but can’t pick his wife out of a lineup? No, nor should we believe a man who says he’s been saved but has no fruit.

For Paul, “deeds” or “works” are meritorious efforts to earn standing with God. Paul denies these can earn the sinner right standing before God (Titus 3:5). The “works” in James, however, are those that come from real faith and demonstrate its genuine nature. These works are not meritorious because they have no part in the salvation process. Rather, these works are the fruit of genuine faith. Thus, “by works faith was made perfect” (James 2:22).

John Gerstner has said:

Justification with God is apart from the merit of works. That does not mean that justification is apart from the existence of works. Christianity teaches justification apart from the merit of works. Easy-believism teaches justification apart from the existence of works. Faith without the existence of works is dead. Faith with the merit of works is legalism.

Paul may have given most of his time defending justification by faith alone, but he agrees with James that saving faith will work. Christians cannot embrace the facts about the gospel and then live unholy lives. Paul spoke of “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). In 1 Corinthians 6:9 he said, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived.” Then he follows with 10 characteristic sins of those outside the church.

The Reformers gave their lives to defend salvation by grace through faith plus nothing. They were also famous for asserting that justification is by faith alone but not by faith that is alone. True saving faith will work.

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