Faith vs Works

Published by DonDavidson on

Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (NASB translation)

On the other hand, James 2:14 says: “What use is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him?” And he adds in James 2:20: “But are you willing to acknowledge, you foolish person, that faith without works is useless?”

Did Paul and James disagree about the value of “works”? No. They are simply using the word in different ways.

James gives two examples of what he means by “works”: Abraham offering to sacrifice Isaac, and Rahab the prostitute protecting the Hebrew spies in Jericho. (James 2:21-25) Neither of those examples involved righteous living or services to the poor. But both involved actions based on their beliefs. James is pointing out that merely believing that Jesus is the Son of God is not enough. We must also act on that belief. “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.” (James 2:19) If your “belief” in God never impacts the way you live your life, then James would say that your “belief” will not save you.

Now what about Paul? When Paul speaks about “works,” he means the requirements of the Jewish Law, as contained in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). The Law required not only righteous living, but also circumcision of all males, ritual sacrifices, and observance of the Sabbath and certain religious days of the year. So when Paul says, “For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Romans 3:28), he simply means that trying to obtain salvation by obeying the Jewish Law won’t work. Why? Because no one (except Jesus) can actually do it: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) James says essentially the same thing in James 2:10: “For whoever keeps the whole Law, yet stumbles in one point, has become guilty of all.” Trying to earn God’s favor and salvation through our behavior won’t work because our behavior will never be good enough.

The inability of the Jews to perfectly conform to the requirements of the Law was why Peter implored the Christian leaders in Jerusalem not to impose those burdens on Gentiles converts: “why are you putting God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our forefathers nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10) For that reason, those same leaders didn’t impose any burdens on Gentile Christians other than to “abstain from things contaminated by idols, from acts of sexual immorality, from what has been strangled, and from blood.” (Acts 15:20 and 15:28-29)

The thief upon the cross beside Jesus had not performed any righteous deeds before Jesus told him, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43) But the thief had demonstrated his faith by defending Jesus, by acknowledging his own guilt, and by then asking Jesus to “remember me when You come into Your kingdom!” (Luke 23:40-42) The thief was saved by grace through his faith, but he also had “works” in that he had acted on his belief that Jesus was the Christ.

I discuss this topic at greater length in Chapter 6 of my book, Beyond Shallow Faith, which you can read here. The book is available in both paperback and e-book formats on (The e-book is only 99 cents.)


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