Saved by grace. And works. Maybe.

Fine blog readers, I’m reading what appears to be a contradiction in the New Testament. Are these statements conflicting?

  1. “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”

    -Paul, in his letter to Ephesus
  2. “Show me your faith without works, and I will show you my faith by what I do. A person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.”

    -James, in his letter to the scattered 12 tribes of Israel

Interesting, both Paul and James evoke Abraham as examples of “saved/justified by grace/works”:

Paul invokes Avraham avinu,

“What shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness."”

And James uses Abraham as an example too!

“Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness," and he was called God's friend. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.”

In Christianity today, we almost exclusively hear Paul’s “saved by grace alone” rhetoric. I’ve heard Paul’s words preached to me so many times, I’ll no doubt soon have the ability to recite his letters from memory, backwards! We rarely hear James’ talk about being justified by works.

So how do we interpret Paul and James?

One possible interpretation is James is saying works must coincide with faith. However, that doesn’t seem to jive with Paul very well. Paul seems to suggest faith alone saves a person, and works have nothing to do with it.

How do you fine blog readers interpret these Scriptures?


  1. I'm a Catholic. Strictly speaking we are "saved" by Yeshua, not faith or works. Here are some quotes from the catechism that shed some light (hopefully) on the question.

    "2007.With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator.

    2008 The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man's free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man's merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit.

    2010 Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life. Even temporal goods like health and friendship can be merited in accordance with God's wisdom. These graces and goods are the object of Christian prayer. Prayer attends to the grace we need for meritorious actions.

    2011 The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God. Grace, by uniting us to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merit before God and before men. The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace. "

    A lot of people are "naturally" good(some of the time). Uniting our natural good works (when we do them) with the Grace from Yeshua makes them "supernaturally good".

    There is alot more on this on the paragraphs before and after those. Just google "searchable catechism" - its the easiest one to use.


  2. Or to put it another way:

    God does all the "salvation" and we just sort of "join in". God doesn't NEED us to "join in" but He wills it (of course, we can disobey His will) and gives us the grace to have faith and do good works. And He wills that our good works "count" when joined to Christ.


  3. The question is who's faith saves us?

    For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. - Eph 2:8-9

    I believe the Bible is without error ... so there are no contradictions. So if I cross reference that with a couple of other verses I can get the answer to this apparent contradiction.

    Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: - Ro 3:22

    Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. - Ga 2:16

    For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. - Ga 3:26

    It is the faith of Jesus Christ that actually saves me ... eternally.

  4. Judah,

    This is one of those areas where a good "connect the dots" class would help most folks. I don't mean you specifically, just folks in general.

    I use this analogy to describe what I see being explained in scripture:

    Prior to meeting the woman who became my wife, how I lived didn't matter to her. She didn't know me yet.

    After we were married and became one, everything I did mattered to her. Just as everything she did mattered to me.

    Our relationship is one of love and works. You can't have just one, you need both. Or the relationship fails.

    Remember this verse:

    "But now you do know YHVH, and, more than that, you are known by YHVH." Gal. 4:9.

    Salvation is the door to relationship. Once the relationship has begun, everything we do matters. That is how we will be judged by Messiah.

    Sometimes it causes me to tremble.



  5. Even though we cannot be saved by our works, Genuine faith manifests itself with works.
    If there are no works, then over time, the faith is questionable.
    After all, our Messiah said every tree that does not produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire...(Matt 7:20)
    Works reveal the Real Deal vs. the imposters!

  6. Hi Judah,

    Abraham was not saved by obedience (works) when he took Isaac up to the mountain to offer him as a sacrifice. James is saying that the “work” that saved Abraham took place years before, when he simply believed God (v23). James is referring back to Genesis 15:6 where Abraham was declared righteous when he believed God would so what he said he would do. Paul points to that as well in Romans 4:3. James and Paul are in full agreement.

    It is not faith and works and it is not faith or works, it is faith that produces works. On Mount Moriah, Abraham was working outwardly what had already taken place inwardly.

    For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him. Philippians 2:13

    So, there is no contradiction; our faith produces the good works and apart from faith our “good works” are naught.

    In Christ,

  7. Paul himself gives the answer in Ephesians 2:10:

    "For we are His workmanship, created in Messiah Yeshua for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them" (NASU).

    Here, he is specific in that while we are not saved by works, God has prepared good works in which we are to walk. Salvation by faith naturally does lead to good works. There is no contradiction between Paul and James.

    I do appreciate you quoting none of the Pauline passages where the term "works of law" is used. This gets more complicated because there is considerable debate in Pauline studies today as to whether "works of law" is simply akin to "observing the law" (the NIV rendering), or it represents the identity barriers of a religious community (per the work of theologians like James D.G. Dunn and N.T. Wright). I lean toward the latter view, but as of yet have not found the time to compile all of my conclusions for the relevant passages in Galatians and Romans.

  8. Judah~
    About 15 years ago, while getting a psych. MA degree from Wheaton College, I took a class on Paul. I don't remember a ton about his argument, but I remember two things about Dr. McRay: one, he had an infectious love for the Jewish people and it came across in every word he spoke; (he often pleaded with the class, saying "Paul was NOT a first century Martin Luther!") and secondly, he referenced a study that someone did on the book of Ephesians and all the uses of "us" and "them" and "you" in the first two chapters--that those pronouns were indicative of jew or gentile, not both...anyway, it was interesting. My point: in that discussion of Ephesians, it was HIS claim that the "faith" in Eph. 2:8 was actually the "faithfulness of Yeshua"....Yeshua was faithful to complete the mission to which he accepted/was assigned...and that, quite obviously, seems to be quite a huge gift of God, and not of ourselves, wouldn't you say?
    It may be a completely wrong interpretation...but I have been blessed by it. Whadya think?

  9. Almost ready to complete a study on Ephesians, I have heard the pronoun argument reflected in a number of commentaries. I understand the impetus behind it, but I personally do not feel it fits the "one new humanity" (2:15) theme of Ephesians, nor Paul's egalitarian ideal (Galatians 3:28). I think the calling of Israel is better ensapsulated by Romans 11:29, and the intense respect that non-Jewish Believers--who will largely fulfill that call via the gospel--must demonstrate toward their forebearers in Israel.

    I haven't seen the "faithfulness of..." argument in Ephesians, but it is a better translation of the clause pisteos Iesou Christou in Romans 3:22; Galatians 2:16 and 3:22. (Any Greek student can see the genitive, indicating possession, present there.) The contrast is human action achieving our justification, versus Yeshua's faithfulness to His Father achieving our justificaiton.

    It is absolutely true that Paul was not Martin Luther. Luther used texts like Galatians and Romans to refute a Medieval Catholicism that he thought was much like First Century Judaism. Big mistake...and much progress has been made in the past 30 years to correct it in Pauline studies. Get a hold on one of the many books by Dunn or Wright that address this. They open up some very important doors for our own Messianic engagement with Paul.

  10. I have often wondered if the audience to whom the letters were written might have something to do with it as well. Paul was writing to a mostly Gentile audience (being sent to the Gentiles) and James specifically says he is writing to the 12 tribes scattered.

    Could it be that there are different expectations for different audiences? I am not saying this is my belief on the subject, but I have considered this type of logic and see that there might be something to it. As much as it is credited to Paul as teaching not to keep Torah, it is hard to argue that he himself did not keep Torah. It seems obvious that he did.

    Anyway, I find it interesting that some can look at commands of the Hebrew Scriptures and say that those commands only apply to the people from that time. I have also heard that certain verses of Yeshua explained away as He was speaking at a time when that system was in place, so it does not apply to today. It seems convenient to look at certain books of Scripture and assign meaning based upon the audience and then look at other books and consider them universal instructions.

    I think, if not mistaken that this line of thought is something that Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism puts forth, and although I do not agree with everything from the Dr. Kinzer book, I do see at the very least something to consider from this line of reasoning.

  11. While James was written relatively early on (that is, if you accept genuine Jamean authorship), it seems quite unlikely that only Jews were a part of his audience. There are too many parallels that can be found not only between James and ancient Jewish moralism, but also ancient classical moralism as well. This is a good indication that there were non-Jewish Believers in his audience.

    We do have to always place a book of the Bible in its original context before applying its principles for today. In the case of the epistles, we know that there are specific audiences at work--audiences whom we are often given by name and for whom there is often a wide array of data available. The issue of women's headcoverings in 1 Corinthians, for example, is clearly one where there is Corinthian background material that *must* be taken into consideration.

    Likewise, the Torah always has an Ancient Near Eastern context to be considered. How significant (or even radical) were the Torah's commandments compared to the law codes of their neighbors? This is something that many in our faith community forget to ask. Halachically speaking, it is not always wise for us to just turn the Orthodox Jewish tradition and ArtScroll for our answers.

  12. Todd,

    Let me ask a related question. If Abraham hadn't offered his son, would he still have been justified/righteous in God's sight?

  13. Efrayim,

    Wonderful analogy. Indeed, if a man claims to love his wife (faithful) yet treats her terribly (no good works), the supposed love would mean nothing.

    Thanks for that analogy.

  14. Martha,

    Thanks for visiting and commenting. I hope you stick around.

    I agree that works are the "fruit" Yeshua mentioned, and that without good works, a person claiming to be righteous is an imposter.

    I wonder, does that mean we're all imposters to some degree? Sure we have the occassional good works, but we also have lots of evil actions...hmmm.

  15. Gary,

    I knew this post would lure you out of the woodwork! :-)

    Faith produces good works, you say.

    I agree. I hope you see that is why I'm so gung-ho about Christians obeying God's commandments. They're the very definition of good works.

    One thing remains unclear to me. Given your interpretation, what does this mean? "You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone."

    It seems to read, "You cannot be righteous without works going along with your faith."

    When you said, "apart from faith our “good works” are naught", I wonder if the reverse is true; without works our faith is nothing.

  16. J.K,

    Your posts are always insightful. I'm still making my way through your Ephesians study; the last one regarding the husband as the source, as opposed to head, of the wife was very, erm, shocking to me. I've always heard it taught that the husband is to be the head, ruler, supreme being ;-) of the family. Made me think.

    Back on topic, I'll ask you the same thing I asked Gary: James seems to suggest that one is justified by works as well as faith. 2 questions there: is "justified" the same as "saved"? And if Abraham was justified only by faith, how do we interpret this statement:

    "You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone."

  17. Allison and Bryan Z,

    I need to study more of that before making a judgment call on it.

    Most I can say now is, if God requires Israel to have good works to be saved, but doesn't require the same of gentile Christians, that seems awfully like a double-standard!

    Again, I haven't studied that theology in depth, it's just my 2 minute take on it. :-)

  18. "Justified" is a very, very loaded term in the Scriptures. Both the Hebrew (tzq) and Greek (dik-) roots have a variety of connotations, including: being forgiven of sin, being in right standing before God, and being a part of God's covenant people (among the main options). Translators know that there is a field day with how to render all of the related terms, as both tzedaqah and dikaiosune are frequently rendered as both justification and righteousness.

    I think the issue with James, as can easily be seen from the larger context of his letter, is that he is talking about the right behavior that should be present in a Believer's life. Notice the kind of works he specifies: kindness, mercy, human service. These are actions which demonstrate a life of faithfulness to the Lord. Keep in mind that liberal theologians try to make James and Paul to really be at odds with one another, yet I do not believe there is any contradiction when their writings are placed in their respective contexts. I did a Bible study on James in 2005 you may wish to consult where I explore this in more detail.

    Yes, the "head" (kephale) issue in Ephesians 5 is a huge debate in contemporary theology. This is why I summarized the discussion in evangelical Christianity first, and then discussed its ramifications for the future Messianic movement, where women will undoubtedly take a much larger role.

  19. J.K.,

    Thanks for the info about "justified".

    Like you, I don't think there is a contradiction between Paul and James. (Hooray, I'm not a liberal theologian!) But I don't have a solid understanding of these bits, and that's why I wanted to hear outside interpretations.

  20. The works that justify our faith are not our works but God's work done through us. Unless a person has accepted Christ and has the Holy Spirit living in him/her a human being is not capable of doing the works of God. Good works are the outflowing of Christ living in us after we have been saved through faith in Jesus Christ. We don't earn our salvation or redemption by good works but our faith is made evident to others when they see the work of God being accomplished through us, our faith is justified.


    p.s. I think I know where you want to go with this and yes, good works will never contradict God's Law.

  21. Hi Judah,

    There seems to be some confusion about what obedience means. You take it to mean keeping some letter of the law and it can mean that. But, what law was Abraham obeying when he took his son to Mount Moriah? Setting aside the fact that the law hadn’t been given yet, there is certainly nothing written in the law that required a man to sacrifice his first born son. Is there? No, Abraham was obedient to the internal prompting of the Holy Spirit. It was God’s Spirit that commanded Abraham to take Isaac to Mount Moriah. Abraham chose to obey.

    So it is with us! When we abide in Jesus and place our faith in Him to live in us and through us, He leads us by His Spirit to do His will, to carry out His work on this earth. He doesn’t force this on us; He gives us the opportunity to make a choice. I had a personal experience not too long ago that I would like to share. It is pretty mundane, but it is a good illustration. I passed a car parked on the side of the road with a flat tire. The driver was a man and he was getting things out of his trunk in preparation to change the tire. If it had been a woman, I would have stopped to ask her if she needed help. But as a rule I won’t stop for a man. I figure if he doesn’t know how to change a tire, now is a good time to figure it out. As I passed Him, I felt like God was telling me to go back and help him. I tried to shake it off, but the farther I drove, the stronger the urging got. So, I turned around went back. I chose to obey His command, if you will. After I parked behind him and got out, I noticed that one of his hands was bandaged. He told me it was badly burned and that he wasn’t sure how he was going to change the tire with one hand. Needless to say He was glad for my help. He was blessed…I was blessed…God is good. We both would have missed out on the blessing had I chose not to obey.

    You seem to focus a lot on how lawless we Christians are. And I don’t disagree that there are Christians out there who do live like the devil, so to speak. I think we disagree on why. If the truth were told, I suspect Messianic Jews don’t fare any better. If I am abiding in Christ and being led by His Spirit, then I will love God and love others as myself. As you know all of the Ten Commandments are wrapped up in those two commandments. My life, in turn, will look like Galatians 5:22. By faith I will be depending on the power of God to work in me to will and to do His good pleasure (Php 2:13). I know what your next question is, “what about the Sabbath, what about the feasts?” Setting aside the fact that, as a Gentile, I don’t believe that they were meant for me, I am open to the Spirit of God to change my mind concerning them. Here’s the thing Judah, you will never, never, never get me to keep the feasts by hitting me over the head with a copy of the Torah. Do you believe in the power of prayer Judah? If you do and you really believe that I should be doing the whole of the law, then pray for me. If it is God’s will, He can and will change my mind.

    You wrote one time that you try your best to keep the whole law. The thing is Judah, trying to keep the law is not the same as keeping the law. God doesn’t grade on a curve. I don’t believe that God is more pleased with us because we try really hard. God is pleased with His son Jesus and the work that He is doing on earth in and through His children. Hebrews 11:1 tells us what pleases God…faith. And what is our work?

    "Jesus told them, “This is the only work God wants from you: Believe in the one he has sent.” John 6:29

    In Christ,

  22. whoops. I meant Hebrews 11:6 instead of 11:1

  23. Gary,

    I always appreciate the thoughts of outsiders who look at the Messianic movement. Even though my candidate lost the presidential elecetion, just like him "I am willing to take on my own party." Having been in full time Messianic ministry for almost 6 years, and having been Messianic since 1995, I have done this quite a bit. I concur that if we are not careful, we can repel many people, when our goal should be to draw people to a better understanding of who God is as seen throughout the whole Bible. We should encourage people to grow in their faith as we have, guided by the power of the Holy Spirit.

    Much of the "zealousness" you witness for the Torah comes as a result of Christian people not understanding why Messianics are drawn to it. There can often be an unbridled enthusiasm, and many do not understand why some "don't get it." It would be wise for *us* to refocus some of this zealousness for not only the Sabbath or things like Passover, but also Biblical ethics and morality--things that the Torah also addresses and are quite relevant for today--lest we seem superficial. I have said many times that when the 2010s hit you will see a different ballgame in the Messianic movement, because issues that we have avoided in the Torah, be they ethical, textual, or historical, will no longer allowed to be avoided.

    I come from a very rich Wesleyan Christian tradition, and I have never forgotten it. I know that in my work as a Messianic teacher, I have to build upon the work of those who have come before me. Many of the views that I have come to adopt regarding the importance of the Torah are reflected in Reformation period theology, even though some of the elements believed to be Jewish-specific were not. We benefit today from a Jewish-Christian dialogue that will force us to reevaluate some things that the Reformers did not know to reevaluate, because they did not have this dialogue. I believe in constructively approaching the issues, rather than beating people over the head. I think *we* need to focus on areas of common agreement more often than we do.

    At the same time, many Christian theologians do have much to answer for when it comes to the Mosaic Law. Having conducted a Galatians study in the past year, and now finishing up an Ephesians study, I have seen some contemporary commentators make some really, really stupid remarks about the Law. Saying things like "we no longer need the moral law of the Old Testament to guide us" have inflicted massive damage on today's Church. The homosexual agenda speaks for itself on this issue. We do have a responsibility to call people out on this one.

    I offer you these thoughts in the hope that more reasonable dialogue can ensue on this, or any other forum.


  24. Gary,

    I believe today -- in modern times to this generation that has already witnessed God's miraculous restoration of Israel after nearly 2000 years -- God is restoring His commandments to His people, Jews and gentiles. I believe this is in perfect accordance with Messiah's own commandment to keep all the Torah, even the least of the commandments. (Matthew 5).

    It is a matter of discipleship. A disciple does not say, "Master, I'm unsure whether to obey the things you've commanded, or act the way you act. So instead I'll just do my own thing and be led by you in Spirit."

    Do such a thing, and the Master would rebuke that disciple: I never knew you. Get away from me, you worker of lawlessness!'

    Instead, a disciple follows the Master in the tiniest of tiny details without question. A disciple imitates the Master.

    The Master told us how to live with very practical, concise commandments -- His Law. Then, He showed us how to live -- Messiah, who followed God's Law perfectly and even strengthened God's commandments by applying them inwardly.

    *God told us how to live through Torah.

    *He showed us how to live through Messiah, who lived by and strengthened Torah.

    Now some are saying all that doesn't matter, and the only thing that matters is being led by the Spirit. In essence, those people are saying that Israel's punishment for disobedience over the last 3000 years was all a waste; God doesn't hold us to that old standard anymore.


    Gary, there are Christian ministers here in Minneapolis that run openly gay churches and welcome all kinds of sexual immorality. These lawless Christians claim to be "led by the Spirit", too.

    If you understand only 1 principle from my ramblings, let it be this: God's Spirit will never lead you to do something contrary to God's commandments. If it is, the spirit you're hearing is not God's.

  25. To add to this, one Romans commentary I have from a prominent evangelical only says this in its remarks on Romans 1:

    "Vv. 26-27 are about as clear a condemnation of homosexual and lesbian behavior as exists in the NT."

    I agree with this conclusion, of course, but there is a glaring error: no engagement of any kind with any Old Testament passages. Makes his conclusion seem very weak, doesn't it?

  26. If you go with the Roman Catholic explanation, that will indeed contradict Paul.

    The other options using "declared righteous" as the definition for "justify." No one is declared righteous by faith alone but need works. So justification could be used in two different senses. One before God and one to show what's the inner reality before man.

    The other option, which I think works pretty well, is that James is using a different definition of "faith." James is using "mere intellectual ascent". That's the same faith demons have. Do you have the same type of faith demons have? Or is the faith Paul speaks of more of a trust (which he specifically contrasts with works and not working, see Romans 4)? Demons don't rest/trust on Jesus.

    Now, here's the kicker. What is James trying to correct there? Easy-believism. Imagine this scenario: they were taught something akin to Paul/the Reformation. It morphed into easy-believism. James had to correct it. That makes sense as to why James had to write what he wrote.

    But what does that show? They were originally taught something akin to Paul.

  27. I believe this may put a different light on it. We are used to reading Galations 2:16 as

    "knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified."

    However the NET bible renders the verse as

    "yet we know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified."

    Their (long) notes on the rendering can be found here:

  28. Sorry for the double post, but something else also occurred to me. It seems common that in the Hebrew the same verse can hold complimentary, or even opposing meanings.

    For instance, the Talmud points out that Amos 5

    "1 Here this pronouncement that I recite over you in lamentation, O house of Israel:
    2 She has fallen, and will no longer rise - virgin of Israel; she has been abandoned upon her soil, with no one to lift her up."

    Can also be read,

    "She has fallen, but will no longer; rise up, O virgin of Israel"

    It could be possible that Paul and James are finding something similar here.