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Are we justified by works or not?

See also Grace in the Old TestamentSaved by grace through faith

Paul writes in Galatians:

Gal 2:16 ESV  yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

And James write in his letter:

Jas 2:24 ESV  You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

These statements appear to contradict each other. But it’s possible that the apparent contradiction can be understood by looking carefully at what each writer had in mind when they wrote these letters.

In what ways do Galatians and James agree

Both wrote to people strongly influenced by Jewish teaching

Galatians

Gal 2:15-16 ESV  We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners;  

Paul is principally concerned with the controversy surrounding gentile Christians and the Mosaic Law during the Apostolic Age. Paul argues that the gentile Galatians do not need to adhere to the tenets of the Mosaic Law, particularly religious male circumcision, [wikipedia]

James

Jas 1:1 ESV  James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.

To the twelve tribes – scattered abroad – To the Jews, whether converted to Christianity or not, who lived out of Judea, and sojourned among the Gentiles for the purpose of trade or commerce. [Adam Clarke’s commentary]

Both affirmed the importance of caring for the poor

Gal 2:10 ESV  Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.

Jas 1:27-2:6 ESV  Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.  My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.  2  For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in,  3  and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,”  4  have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?  5  Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?  6  But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court?

Both affirmed the importance of living morally pure lives

Gal 5:17-21 ESV  For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.  18  But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.  19  Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality,  20  idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions,  21  envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. 

Jas 1:27 ESV  Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

Both affirm the importance of loving each other

Gal 5:13-15 ESV  For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.  14  For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  15  But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.

Jas 3:9-10 ESV  With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.  10  From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.

Both affirm the foolishness of boasting

Gal 5:26 ESV  Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.

Gal 6:13-14 ESV  For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh.  14  But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

Jas 4:6 ESV  But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

Jas 4:13-16 ESV  Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—  14  yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.  15  Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”  16  As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.

Both affirmed the listeners’ foolishness 

This is somewhat ironic. Both Paul and James chided their readers for being foolish and not understanding these basic truths about justification. 

Gal 3:1 ESV  O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.

Jas 2:20 ESV  Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?

Both affirmed that ultimate salvation is dependent on action

It is clear that both Paul and James expected believers to live righteous lives. However, what may surprise some, is that both agree that ultimate salvation is dependent on what we do.

Gal 5:19-21 ESV  Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality,  20  idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions,  21  envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Gal 6:7-10 ESV  Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.  8  For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.  9  And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.  10  So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.

Jas 2:15-17 ESV  If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food,  16  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?  17  So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

Paul uses love where James uses works

Gal 5:6 ESV  For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

Both see ‘righteousness’, ‘eternal life’ and ‘judgment’ to be in the future

We could possibly include ‘justification’ in this list. Gal 5:4 seems to suggest that the Galatian believers were thinking of future justification. In James justification has to be in some sense future since he explicitly links justification to actions we perform.

Gal 5:2-5 ESV  Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be [future tense] of no advantage to you.  3  I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.  4  You are severed from Christ, you who would be [future tense] justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.  5  For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait [future tense] for the hope of righteousness.

Gal 6:8-9 ESV  For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap [in the future] eternal life.  9  And let us not grow weary of doing good, for [in the future] in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.

Jas 2:12-13 ESV  So speak and so act as those who are to be [future tense] judged under the law of liberty.  13  For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

Jas 4:10-12 ESV  Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will [future tense] exalt you.  … 12  There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy [future tense]. But who are you to judge your neighbor?

In what ways do Galatians and James differ

‘Works’ in Galatians refers to rituals in the Mosaic law

Circumcision

Gal 2:3 ESV  But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek.

Gal 5:1-4 ESV  For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.  2  Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.  3  I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.  4  You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.

Gal 5:6 ESV  For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

Gal 5:11-12 ESV  But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed.  12  I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!

Avoidance of Gentiles

Gal 2:11-13 ESV  But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.  12  For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.  13  And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.

Keeping of certain days

Gal 4:10 ESV  You observe days and months and seasons and years!

‘Works’ in James refers to our love for God and love for our neighbour

James focuses on loving our poor brother:

Jas 2:14-16 ESV  What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?  15  If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food,  16  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?

Similar to that, he refers to the works of Rahab who protected God’s people when they needed help:

Jas 2:25 ESV  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?

Finally, he focuses on the love Abraham had for God demonstrated by his willingness to sacrifice his son:

Jas 2:21-22 ESV  Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?  22  You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works;

Note that none of the examples given by James have anything to do with the rituals prescribed by the Mosaic law and which were unique to the people of Israel. Abraham lived before the law was given. Rahab was not under the Mosaic law. And the exhortation to love your neighbour applies to all men at all times.

Conclusions

  1. We are definitely not justified by keeping the uniquely Jewish aspects of the Mosaic law
    1. The works Paul is talking about in Galatians is circumcision, avoiding Gentiles and celebrating certain days.
    2. Doing these works makes no difference to our justification.
  2. The works James is talking about is loving our neighbour through good deeds and loving God through personal sacrifice and moral purity.
    1. Doing these works does make a difference to our justification.
  3. However both both prohibit us from trusting in, and thus boasting in, our own self sufficiency.
    1. Paul says in Gal 3:10 that ‘all who rely on works of the law are under a curse’.
    2. James describes it in two ways.
      1. First he exhorts to ‘humble ourselves’ and reminds us that God resists the proud
      2. Second, he puts it in the context of doing business (Jam 4:13-16) – we can do only what God makes possible.
  4. Both Paul and James expect us to do good works and to avoid evil works.
  5. Both Paul and James affirm our final salvation is dependent on what we do.
    1. Paul says we reap what we sow – we reap corruption or eternal life depending on what we do.
    2. James declares that our faith is useless if we do not do good works.
  6. Both seem to talk of justification, righteousness, salvation as being in the future.
    1. I think Paul sees uses the word in the past tense – 
    2. James seems to use it in the future tense – he talks about he Judge standing at the door and that fear of that judgment should motivate us.
  7. Our final salvation (or entering eternal life) is dependent on both faith and works
    1. Faith is the only reason we belong to the family of God.
      1. Or put differently, faith connects us to the vine, brings us alive, makes us members of God’s kingdom of light.
    2. It is because we are connected to the vine that we are able to do works that are pleasing to God.
      1. The most important ‘work’ is humility. There is no place for boasting in the life of a Christian.
    3. If we don’t do works that are pleasing to God, He will resist us, reject us and cut us off at the judgment seat of Christ

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