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Justification by Works or by Faith Alone? James or Paul?

Perhaps the most famous catch-cry of the Reformation is ‘faith alone’!  We are justified not by what we do but by faith alone.  The cry is taken from Romans 3:28 where Paul states that ‘we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law’ (ESV). Luther famously added the words ‘faith alone’ to his translation of this verse.  To those who pointed out that the words were not in the Greek, he responded:

I know very well that in Romans 3 the word [alone] is not in the Greek or Latin text—the papists did not have to teach me that. It is fact that the letters [a-l-o-n-e] are not there. And these blockheads stare at them like cows at a new gate, while at the same time they do not recognize that it conveys the sense of the text—if the translation is to be clear and vigorous, it belongs there. I wanted to speak German, not Latin or Greek, since it was German I had set about to speak in the translation. So much for translating and the nature of language. However, I was not depending upon or following the nature of the languages alone when I inserted the word [alone] in Romans 3. The text itself, and Saint Paul’s meaning, urgently require and demand it. For in that passage he is dealing with the main point of Christian doctrine, namely, that we are justified by faith in Christ without any works of the Law. Paul excludes all works so completely as to say that the works of the Law, though it is God’s law and word, do not aid us in justification. […] The matter itself and the nature of language requires it.

James: Epistle of Straw?

Because of this strong heritage, Protestant readers have always been a bit more nervous about James, who famously insists ‘that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone’ (2:24).  In fact this is the only place where the phrase ‘faith alone’ appears in the NT—and it is denial of the fact that justification is by faith alone.  More than that, there appears to be a direct contradiction between Paul and James here.  Where Paul insists that justification is apart from works, James is certain that a person is justified by works.

‘Faith alone’ is James’ term for ‘bogus’ faith – a concept of faith that Paul, too, would reject, seeing as he suggests that the faith that justifies leads to obedience and love.

Luther famously labelled the epistle of James ‘a real strawy epistle’ since ‘it has no evangelical character about it’.  While critical commentators have suggested that Paul and James simply contradict each other, evangelical writers have rightly argued James and Paul are using the words ‘faith’ and ‘justify’ differently.  That is, James is criticising a ‘faith that a person “claims” to have (v.14); a faith that is, in fact, “dead” (vv.17 and 26) and ‘useless’ (v.20)’.[1]  ‘Faith alone’ is James’ term for this type of ‘bogus’ faith—a concept of faith that Paul, too, would reject, seeing as he suggests that the faith that justifies leads to, for example, obedience (Romans 1:5) and love (Galatians 5:6).  Similarly, Paul and James are using ‘justify’ to mean different things: Paul is referring to ‘the initial declaration of the sinner’s innocence before God; James to the ultimate verdict of innocence pronounced over a person at the last judgment’.[2]

Ancient Commentary     

While this argument is common amongst evangelical commentators, it can sometimes seem as if it is special pleading.  Rather than avoid a contradiction, we simply say that James and Paul are using the same words to mean different things.  It can seem too neat and convenient.

However, interestingly, Clement a bishop writing early in the 2nd Century, can employ both Paul and James’ meanings of justification in the same letter within a few paragraphs of each other.  So, in 1 Clement 30:3, the bishop exhorts his readers to ‘join with those to whom grace is given by God’.[3] This involves ‘being humble and self-controlled, keeping ourselves from all backbiting and slander’ and crucially ‘being justified by works not words’.  However, a few paragraphs later in 32:4 Clement states that ‘we’ are ‘not justified through ourselves or through our own wisdom or understanding or piety, or works which we have done in holiness of heart, but through faith’. So, for Clement believers are ‘justified by works’ (30:3) and not justified by works (32:4). 

Join with those to whom grace is given by God, being justified by works not words … not justified through ourselves or through our own wisdom or understanding or piety, or works which we have done in holiness of heart, but through faith.

Clement of Rome

Two things to note. Firstly, patently Clement can use the same word ‘to justify’ in very different ways in the same letter in very close proximity.  He expects his readers to understand the different ways he is using justification language in each context.  If Clement can do this in one letter, it is not unreasonable to argue that Paul and James are doing the same thing.  In fact, it may well be that Clement is drawing on James in 32:4 and Paul in 30:3.  Secondly, in each context the understanding of justification fits the explanation we have given above regarding Paul and James.  In 30:3, Clement is a countering a faith that consists only in ‘words’ but does not result in action.  This kind of false faith will not result in end-time vindication by God.  However, in 32:4, Clement is countering an idea that our own acts can bring us into right relationship with God.   They cannot—God has always only justified by faith (32:4).

We don’t need Clement to understand Paul or James. But his first letter helps us to see that it is perfectly reasonable to understand Paul and James to be in perfect harmony with one another – criticising as they do different misunderstandings of faith.  As Calvin puts it, ‘as Paul contends that we are justified apart from the help of works, so James does not allow those who lack good works to be reckoned righteous’.[4]


 Photo:  Adam Cohn, flickr

[1] Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James (PNTC; Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2000), 141.
[2] Ibid., 141.
[3] All English translations from Holmes – with minor changes indicated
[4] Calvin, Institutes, 3.27.2 cited in Moo, James, 142.

Dr Peter Orr lectures in New Testament at Moore College. Originally from Northern Ireland, Peter also taught at Melbourne School of Theology and has been on the ministry team of a parish in Sydney. Peter is married to Emma and they have four young boys, Benjamin, Oliver, Jonathan and Daniel.

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