The Debate in Christendom: Justified by Faith, or by Faith Plus Works?

July 11, 2008

by Shawn Brasseaux

Perhaps the greatest point of contention between Protestants and Roman Catholics is “justification by faith alone” (Protestant) versus “justification by faith plus works” (Catholic). This disagreement sparked what is known as “the Protestant Reformation” in the 16th century. The Protestants quote Romans 3:28 where the Bible says, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” Roman Catholics use James 2:24 where the Bible says, “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” Which group is correct? How can we resolve this conflict, seeing as to the Bible supports both views? Does the Bible contradict itself? We will examine this issue in the following study, and clear up the abounding confusion that religion has accomplished.

God is an omniscient (all-knowing) Being, so what kind of answer does God have? Let us consider the instructions found in 2 Timothy 2:15 KJV: “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”

The serious Bible student knows that God tells different things to different people at different times—this is how to solve the dilemma between Romans 3:28 and James 2:24. While this seems like a contradiction within God’s Word, it is not (undoubtedly, God’s Word is inerrant, perfect and without mistake). This is called a dispensational change, and these changes are apparent throughout the Bible. God has designed His Word to be studied dispensationally; alas, people refuse to use God’s Word God’s way so they create an unbelievable amount of confusion (see the first paragraph)!

We must be very careful about applying Scripture to us when that part of the Bible was not written to us. All of the Bible is for us, but not all of the Bible is to us or about us. For instance, when God told Noah to build an ark, obviously that was God’s message to Noah—that is not something God expects us to do. Case in point is that portions of the Bible are written to various groups of people, and we must establish the audience of the passages if we are to make sense of what the passages say. Before we claim a Bible verse/passage as though God wrote it to us, we need to understand the context and determine the audience of the verse/passage. To whom is Romans 3:28 written? To whom is James 2:24 written? This is information we need to know, so let us see what the Holy Scriptures say.

Let us look at Galatians 2:9 KJV: “And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision.” (In other words, James, Cephas [Peter], and John agree to continue ministering to the believing remnant of Israel, and Paul and Barnabas agree to continue ministering to everyone else.)

James 1:1 says that James is writing to the nation Israel (“the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad”). Paul writes in Romans 11:13 that he is “the apostle of the Gentiles” (cf. Romans 15:16; 2 Timothy 1:11). James is writing to the dispersed Jewish believers of the Gospel of the Kingdom (from Christ’s earthly ministry), and Paul is writing to members of the Church the Body of Christ. We are not Israel; therefore, James is not writing to us (refer back to Galatians 2:9, where James said he would only minister to Jews, not to us Gentiles). Romans 3:28 is written to us; James 2:24 is not.

Dispensational Bible study shows us that the nation Israel and the Church the Body of Christ are two separate entities in God’s dealings with man: things that apply to Israel may not necessarily apply to us in the Body of Christ, and vice versa. For instance, the Gospel of Grace revealed to Paul (Romans 2:16; Romans 16:25,26; Ephesians 3:1-11; 2 Timothy 2:8) was not the same as the Gospel of the Kingdom preached to Israel during Christ’s earthly ministry (Matthew 3:1-6; Matthew 9:35). Or, as a second example, Exodus chapter 20 tells us that Israel was under the demands of the Mosaic Law (cf. Galatians 4:4,5), whereas Paul writes in Romans 6:14,15 that the Church the Body of Christ is “not under the law, but under grace.” A third example is water baptism was necessary for salvation in Israel’s program (Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38), but it is totally unnecessary for us today (1 Corinthians 1:17; Corinthians 12:13; Ephesians 4:5).

Throughout the Old Testament, God gave the Jews specific requirements to follow. The Mosaic Law—the Ten Commandments and the 613 laws of Judaism—commanded the observance of the Sabbath day, the feast days, the new moons, Temple worship, the Levitical priesthood, the animals’ blood sacrifices, the tithe, the kosher food laws, and so on. We need to view the book of James in this manner: James focuses on works-religion because Judaism is the works-religion God gave to Israel.

Jesus never preached against Law-keeping in His earthly ministry. In fact, the Lord Jesus commanded Law-keeping if one was to have eternal life in Israel’s program: “but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17). So, are we to keep the Mosaic Law today if we want to have eternal life? While this is what Jesus said He never us it to us: during His earthly ministry, He was speaking to the nation Israel (Matthew 15:24; John 4:22; Romans 15:8). James is writing his epistle to coincide with the doctrine Christ preached years before in His earthly ministry.

Does Mosaic Law-keeping fit into our lives today as members of the Church the Body of Christ? According to God, “For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace” (Romans 6:15). Paul, writing to us as non-Jews, tells us that we are not bound by the Mosaic Law. We are living in “the dispensation of the grace of God” (Ephesians 3:2). This dispensation (or “economy”) does not involve works-religion or the nation Israel.

The Dispensation of Grace began with Paul, with Israel’s Dispensation of Law diminishing over a period of a few decades in the first century A.D. Believing Jews of Christ’s earthly ministry (the “little flock;” Luke 12:32) were confusing believing Gentiles of Paul’s ministry (the Church the Body of Christ). Jews, who did not understand the dispensational transition from Law to Grace, were now attempting to force Law-keeping on the Church the Body of Christ, but this is not what God intended. The Body of Christ was separate from Israel’s religion of Judaism, and God wanted to keep it that way. This is why, in Acts chapter 15 and Galatians chapter 2, Israel’s apostles met with the Apostle Paul and Barnabas and they agreed—Paul and Barnabas would go to the Gentiles and James, Peter, and John would minister to Israel (see Galatians 2:9).

The book of Galatians warns us not to fall into the trap of legalism like the poor believers in Galatia were doing. In that epistle, Paul wrote that if we are justified by faith plus works, “Christ shall profit us nothing” and we have “fallen from grace” (Galatians 5:2,4 KJV). It is not that we were saved and then lost, but rather we have given up on grace, and preferred works-religion. We want to go back under Israel’s performance-based acceptance system of obeying God to get blessings and getting the curses when we disobey God. If we are to be saved by grace, then works cannot save us too! Romans 11:6 KJV tells us: “And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then it is no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.”

Just like we are saved by faith today, so was Abraham. Romans 4:2,3 KJV: “For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.” The Law of Moses did not come until 500 years after Abraham, so Abraham was not justified by Law-keeping. By the same token, because the Law of Moses was put to death with the Lord Jesus Christ on Calvary (Colossians 2:14), the Law of Moses cannot condemn us today and the Mosaic Law cannot justify us today!

In Romans 4:4, Paul wrote that if we attempted to work for salvation by meriting favor with God, then “the reward [salvation] is not of grace [unmerited favor], but of debt.” By working for salvation, you are demanding that God owes you something—this is contrary to grace, which is unmerited favor. “But to him that worketh not, but believeth [trusts] on him [Christ] that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness” (Romans 4:5 KJV).

We do not expect James to agree with Paul’s statement because they are writing to different groups of people under different circumstances. James is writing from the legalistic standpoint because Judaism is all that he knows, and this is all that God expects him to know. Both Paul and James are correct in their doctrine, as long as we keep Paul’s epistles within the Dispensation of Grace (today) and leave James’ epistle with Israel—this is how God says we solve the so-called “contradiction” between Paul and James. Leave the verses in their proper dispensations, and all the confusion goes away.

It is extremely important for us to understand that no one was ever saved by simply doing good works. In every dispensation, from Adam to the end of time, faith is the primary issue. But, every dispensation demanded good works to follow that faith (except our dispensation, the Dispensation of Grace). For example, Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel were—by faith—expected to sacrifice animals’ blood for remission of sins (Genesis 4:4). They could not be saved by faith alone. Noah built an ark by faith (Genesis 6:22). If Noah had faith alone, and no works (building the ark), he would have drowned!!! By faith, the nation Israel followed God’s instructions regarding the Mosaic Law—tithe, Sabbath day, kosher food laws, animal sacrifices, and so on. In Christ’s earthly ministry, repentance (change in mind) and water baptism were to follow faith.

In Israel’s program, “Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone” (James 2:17,20) and “Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect” (James 2:22)? A person of faith in Israel’s program would believe what God said and then do what God said. Faith would motivate that person to do what God said to do. If that person did not do what God said to do, it was a visible sign that the individual did not have any faith in God, and was therefore an unbeliever (see John 7:29,30)!

Most of my own community and family are steeped in works-religion to this very day; over 90 percent of my region adheres to Roman Catholicism. Good works by themselves never saved anyone, even in Israel; God always required faith first (Hebrews 11:6)! The Law condemns everyone, the Jews and the Gentiles (Romans 3:10,19,20,23). God designed the Mosaic Law to prove to us that we are sinners (Romans 7:5-12). Why can you not get to heaven by “keeping the Ten Commandments?” If you commit one single sin (such as telling a “white lie”), according to James 2:10, you are guilty of breaking every commandment.

Today, in the Dispensation of Grace, we are under a totally different set of circumstances. The Law has been put to death with Christ and is taken out of the way (Colossians 2:13-15). We do not have any Mosaic Law to keep today; we as believers in Christ have the indwelling Holy Spirit to show us right from wrong (Romans 7:1-6). Romans 1:16, Romans 3:26, 1 Corinthians 1:21, Ephesians 2:8,9 say that salvation is given to everyone who believes in Jesus [that is, trusts/has faith in the Gospel of 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, that Christ died for our sins, He was buried, and He was raised again the third day]. There is nothing in these verses about works needed for salvation—no tongues, no repenting, no water baptism, no tithe, no confession of sins, no sacraments, nothing but faith. Also see Romans 10:4, 10. The Apostle Paul said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:30). No works are necessary for salvation!

Instead of us being under the demands of the Mosaic Law, God tells us that we should place our faith in Paul’s Gospel, the Gospel of the Grace of God: “Christ died for our sins, [His blood was shed,] He was buried, and He rose again the third day” (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). God will not make any exceptions for anyone who hears this Gospel and denies it: if you are not “in Christ” (indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and sealed by the Holy Spirit) the moment you die, God demands that you not be allowed into heaven. You have no place to go but the everlasting lake of fire!