Question 39: Justification by Faith vs. Justification by Works

Gospel Dialogue, CFP, 113-123, Watchman Nee


Romans 4 says Abraham was justified by faith, while James 2 says Abraham was justified by works. How do we explain these two justifications? What is their relationship to each other?



Concerning justification, the Bible shows us two different kinds: one is justification by faith, the other is justification by works. We may prove them with the following passages from the Scriptures.

“By him [the Lord Jesus] every one that believeth is justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses” (Acts 13.39). “We reckon therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Rom. 3.28). In both passages Paul speaks of the justification by faith.

“I know nothing against myself; yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord” (1 Cor. 4.4). What is said here is basically different from the above two passages. For Paul is here speaking about being rewarded at the judgment seat of Christ. What is meant by “justified” in this 1 Corinthians verse? It means reward through having performed good works. Thus Paul mentions justification by faith on the one hand and justification by works on the other.

We know that the two Pauline letters of Romans and Galatians speak of justification by faith whereas James speaks of justification by works. Some people have speculated that in view of the apparent inadequacy of justification by faith as explained by Paul, James intends to fill up the lack by speaking on justification by works. But such a concept is most inaccurate. For when James wrote his epistle Paul had yet to write Romans and Galatians.

In Romans Paul tells us that we are justified by faith. He is afraid that some are ignorant of what God has done and of what Christ has accomplished and what the efficacy of the blood is, thereby considering faith by itself as inadequate and advocating the addition of man’s works in order to be saved. To refute such a misconcept Paul quotes the story of Abraham to prove that justification is indeed by faith. But James also quotes Abraham, yet he does so in speaking of justification by works. Hence we can assume that there must be an intimate relationship between faith and works in the matter of justification. What both Paul and James speak of is actually one thing. Let us now see what is the inner relationship between the two and how they are related.

First, let us consider Romans 4:—“If Abraham was justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not toward God. For what saith the scripture? And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness” (vv.2,3). “Is this blessing then pronounced upon the circumcision, or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say, To Abraham his faith was reckoned for righteousness. How then was it reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision” (vv.9,10). We see from this that Abraham was justified before he received circumcision. Now the Jews look upon circumcision as one of the most important works of its kind. They look down upon the uncircumcised gentiles as pigs and dogs. But before Abraham himself was circumcised, he was justified by faith.

“And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while he was in uncircumcision: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be in uncircumcision, that righteousness might be reckoned unto them” (v.11). Circumcision is like a seal stamped by God, declaring that now is one justified by faith and there will be no change forever. God told Abraham to be circumcised, yet not that he might thus be justified but that there might be a seal put upon him, thus showing how unchangeable is justification by faith. Even if later on Abraham should decline to offer Isaac, he was still justified by faith. Let us therefore rest in peace, knowing that justification by faith is sure and secure.

“And the father of circumcision to them who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham which he had in uncircumcision” (v.12). This verse indicates to us that the circumcised must also have faith, since Abraham himself was justified by faith before being circumcised.

Romans proves to us that a sinner cannot be justified by works of the law. Galatians shows us that a believer cannot be sanctified by works of the law. We are sanctified by faith as well as justified by faith. How can we begin in the Spirit and try to be perfected in the flesh? In any case, the seal has already been put on us. So then, they that are of faith are blessed with the faithful Abraham.

Now let us turn to James 2:—“What doth it profit, my brethren, if a man say he hath faith, but have not works? can that faith save him?” (v.14) What is the motive behind these words written by James? To whom does he address himself? For some people boast that they have faith, yet there is no work displayed in their lives. If they are not refuted, the church will be evilly affected. Faith should be kept before God, not to be bragged about before men. Faith needs to be accomplished by works. All who say they have faith and yet have no works cannot be saved by their kind of faith.

“Saved” in the Scriptures has several meanings. “I know,” says Paul, “that this shall turn out to my salvation, through your supplication and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1.19). Is not Paul already saved? This obviously does not refer to a believer’s receiving eternal life; it points to Paul’s being released from prison. “Who delivered us out of so great a death, and will deliver: on whom we have set our hope that he will also still deliver us” (2 Cor. 1.10), declares Paul once more. Some think that this alludes to how the Lord died on the cross to save us from the penalty of sin and is now our Advocate in heaven saving us from the power of sin and in the future will come again to save our body. Who knows for sure, say they, that these matters are not what Paul in fact is talking about here? Well, the deliverances herein mentioned pertain to Paul’s and his friends’ physical deliverances by the Lord. For by reading the entire context we learn how they had formerly been afflicted in Asia to the point of despairing even of life but that the Lord delivered them out of such a situation. For this reason, Paul believed that the Lord would deliver him out of afflictions yet further—both now and in the future.

In like manner the word “save” used by James above has reference to being profited through environment. This is clear if we read the verses which follow: “If a brother or sister be naked and in lack of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Go in peace, be ye warmed and filled; and yet ye give them not the things needful to the body; what doth it profit?” (James 2.15,16) The “one of you” points to those who brag emptily of having faith. They do not supply food and dress to the brothers and sisters in need, but instead they vainly pronounce to the needy: Go in peace. The problem involved here is not one of going to heaven, but is one that is concerned with the warmth and the filling up of the body today. What James means to say is that you cannot simply say you have faith and yet do not supply the needs of your brothers and sisters.

“Even so faith, if it have not works, is dead in itself” (v.17). This is a verdict given by James. He means that if you believe that those needy ones will be warmed and filled and yet you do not lend a hand to supply their needs, such kind of faith without works is not faith at all; it is dead. A living faith believes in the heart that the God of mercy would not permit those needy brethren to go cold or hungry; and at the same time this living faith causes us to distribute various physical supplies to them.

“Yea, a man will say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: show me thy faith apart from thy works, and I by works will show thee my faith” (v.18). Those who brag vainly of their faith will be challenged by others, who will say: You say you have faith but where do you express it? You can only say with your mouth; you will not even lift a finger at the time of real need. Where then is your faith? You pretend to believe for others, though you yourself have not faith. If you have faith, why do you not give all that you have? Your brother or sister is now naked and in lack of daily food. Why do you not give what you have to him since you yourself are warmly clothed and well-fed? You say you have faith, but how are you going to prove your faith? But as a matter of fact, your faith is but empty word, your faith is dead. It does not profit the needy ones. On the other hand, though, I have works, and by my supplying the needs of brothers and sisters I prove my faith. I believe that God would not cause us to suffer cold or hunger, therefore when I see the needs of brothers and sisters around me I share all that I have with them. My works are based on my faith. My works are the expressions of my faith. By my works I show forth my faith.

“Thou believest that God is one; thou doest well: the demons also believe, and shudder” (v.19). The children of Israel believe in one God, and this is right. But the demons believe also in one God, yet they remain as demons. What James infers from this fact is that faith without works is like demons who remain demons though believing in God.

“But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith apart from works is barren?” (v.20) Vain man is but another name for the one who brags emptily of his faith. It can be said that he really does not have faith in his heart. Only he who supplies others in a practical way can demonstrate his faith to people. First faith, then works. True faith produces true works. The one who boasts of his faith yet has no works is proven to have a dead faith. Since his heart errs before God, his faith is also dead.

“Was not Abraham our father justified by works, in that he offered up Isaac his son upon the altar?” (v.21) If James had not quoted the story of Abraham, some readers of Romans and Galatians would consider outright that James is in error in what he says, for had not Paul spoken of justification by faith, and therefore faith is sufficient without the need of works? Yet what James maintains is that Abraham was indeed justified by faith but he was also justified by works. James does not overturn Abraham’s being justified by faith; he only proves by his offering up of Isaac that Abraham’s work is the expression of Abraham’s faith. So that he was not only justified by faith but also justified by works.

Instead of overturning justification by faith, James actually strengthens it with justification by works in proving what true faith is. Abraham’s offering up of Isaac is a work, and this work is reckoned to him as righteousness. But what kind of work is it? It is a work of faith. “By faith, Abraham, being tried, offered up Isaac: yea, he that had gladly received the promises was offering up his only begotten son; even he to whom it was said, In Isaac shall thy seed be called: accounting that God is able to raise up, even from the dead; from whence he did also in a figure receive him back” (Heb. 11.17-19). In quoting the offering up of Isaac by Abraham, James shows us that true faith must be accompanied by works. Abraham gladly received the promises of God. He believed in what God had told him, notably that “in Isaac shall thy seed be called” (v.18). Eliezer was not the one, nor was Ishmael, nor was any son who might later be born of Sarah; Isaac alone was to be the heir of the inheritance and the promises.

Now God tested Abraham in order to see what his heart was toward God and how real was his faith. God asked him to offer up on the altar his son Isaac—the one who was divinely appointed to be his heir—and there to be slain and burnt. Yet how would God’s promise ever be fulfilled if Abraham loved God and burned Isaac? If he wanted to fulfill God’s promise he could not comply with God’s request. According to man these two, far from being unified, are contradictory to each other. Yet to a living faith they are unified and not contradictory. It is God who promises, and it is God who requires. God will never contradict himself. Between promise and request God will open a new way, that is to say, the way of resurrection: “accounting that God is able to raise up, even from the dead” (v.19).

Abraham’s faith is thus defined. Even though I slay Isaac and offer him as a burnt-offering, I still believe Your promised word—“in Isaac shall thy seed be called”—will be fulfilled, for you shall raise up Isaac from the dead. So when he went off to the appointed place to offer up Isaac, he went with a determined heart. He actually bound Isaac and raised high his knife. His heart toward God was absolute, there being no reservation. His faith in God was firm and void of doubt. And when the angel of the Lord called to him and said, “Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him” (Gen. 22.12), he “did also in a figure receive him back” (Heb. 11.19). Abraham’s offering up of his only begotten son was a work of faith. And this is called justification by works.

“Thou seest that faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect” (James 2.22). This continues on from the preceding thought. Due to the fact that by offering up Isaac on the altar Abraham was justified by works, we come to realize that faith runs parallel with works, or, to phrase it another way, that faith and works operate together. Abraham’s work is performed through his faith, and faith is perfected by his works. A faith which has not been tested is undependable. By his offering Isaac, Abraham’s faith is both proven and perfected.

“And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness; and he was called the friend of God” (v.23). “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness”—this word is recorded in Genesis 15.6. What is the relationship between the offering up of Isaac in Genesis 22 to that word? Why should James quote it in his epistle when he suggests that the offering up of Isaac is a justification by works? And he even adds that the scripture was fulfilled. The relationship is simply this: that justification by works fulfills justification by faith. It appears as though justification by faith is a prophecy and that justification by works is the fulfillment of that prophecy. He who has faith must have works, for works explain the reality of faith. Abraham believed in God, he was reckoned as righteous, and he was also called the friend of God. Hence Abraham’s work in offering up Isaac is the fulfillment of Abraham’s faith in God. In short, his offering up of Isaac demonstrates to us his faith in God.

“Ye see that by works a man is justified, and not only by faith” (v.24). Since Genesis 22 is the fulfillment of Genesis 15, and since works are the expressions of faith because faith without works is dead and faith is made perfect by works, therefore a man is justified by works and not only by faith. Let us notice that James has not said that a man is justified by works and not by faith; he merely says that a man is justified by works and not only by faith. And by this he means to say that after a man is justified by faith he needs to prove and to be made perfect in that faith through justification by works, even as Abraham after he was justified by faith was tested by God and thus was justified by works.

“And in like manner was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works, in that she received the messengers, and sent them out another way?” (v.25) James first cites an excellent person such as Abraham to show that he was not only justified by faith but also justified by works. Next, though, he cites a bad woman such as Rahab to show that she too was justified by works. For she received the messengers and sent them out another way. What kind of work is this work? “By faith Rahab the harlot perished not with them that were disobedient, having received the spies with peace” (Heb. 11.31). This work is also a work of faith. Faith and works are inseparable; they are the two sides of one thing. With respect to this one and same thing it is called faith in Hebrews and works in James. Works are the expressions of faith whereas faith is the source of works. To say that there is faith and yet there be no works of faith shown, that faith is dead. Consequently, after there is a justification by faith there must also be the justification by works.

“For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, even so faith apart from works is dead” (v.26). In Chapter 2, from verse 14 onward, James speaks of the relationship between faith and works. There is a kind of faith which has no works, being nothing but a vain boast; and it is dead. But there is another kind of faith which has works; and it is living. Works prove the faith, and works make perfect the faith. James uses what Abraham and Rahab did as evidences to prove his point. And finally, he uses this other illustration: “As the body apart from the spirit is dead, even so faith apart from works is dead”: living faith is always accompanied by works: so that just as the body without the spirit is dead, faith without works is also dead.