For what saith the Scripture that Abraham believed God
and it was counted unto him as righteousness (dikaiosunen).
Romans 4, 3
Therefore, we conclude that a man is justified (dikaiousthai) by faith
without the deeds of the law.
Romans 3, 23
Was not Abraham our father justified (edikaiosthe) by works
when he had offered his son Isaac up to God on the altar?
James 2, 21
You see then that how by works a man is justified (dikaiotai),
and not by faith only.
James 2, 24 [KJV]
Both St. Paul and St. James use the same Greek verb (dikaiow) for meaning ‘justified’ or ‘made righteous’ in the context of justification. While both apostles are concerned with freedom from guilt and being made holy in order to be saved, James is more inclined to stress what a person must do to be saved. He has in mind what a justified person is by the infusion of divine grace into his soul through how they conduct their life in faith. Paul, on the other hand, emphasizes what a person can never hope to do to be saved by any natural merit of theirs outside the system of grace or by merely observing the external ceremonies of the Mosaic Law. He looks at what a person can never hope to be without the infusion of sanctifying grace informing his deeds through faith.
The two apostles start from different departure points in their teachings but with a similar objective in mind. The justified person is one who is sanctified by the Lord and made holy through His efficacious grace and is thereby saved. Sanctification is the principle determination (formal cause) of justification. Sanctification is the inherent element that makes justification what it essentially is and allows it to fulfill its purpose (freedom from guilt) and achieve its end (salvation). For this reason, the two terms (justification-sanctification) are used interchangeably in Scripture. We can see for ourselves.
Wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his
own blood, suffered without the gate.
Hebrews 13, 12
How much more then, since we are now justified by his blood,
we will be saved through him from the wrath.
Romans 5, 9
But we ought to give thanks to God for you always, brothers loved by the Lord,
because God chose you as the first fruits of salvation through sanctification
by the Spirit and belief in the truth.
2 Thessalonians 2, 13
And such some of you were, but you are washed, but you are sanctified,
but you are justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
and the Spirit of our God.
1 Corinthians 6, 11
St. Paul tells us that Abraham was justified or made righteous by his faith, meaning his merit lay in freely placing his steadfast trust in God and believing in the greater good of God’s promise concerning Isaac. But his faith had to be put into action or else it would have been fruitless. Paying God lip service doesn’t justify the soul. Abraham believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead so that His promise should be fulfilled. After all, God was good to His word, so Abraham believed. Because of his faith in God, Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his only-begotten Son. By grace, he overcame his natural fatherly inclinations and acted in a supernaturally virtuous way to please God. Thus, he was justified by his faith insofar as it was translated into a good work that was animated by the Spirit of God who justifies the soul with His sanctifying grace.
St. James puts works in their proper perspective, that is within the framework of charity and grace and the heart of the Mosaic law. He teaches us that Abraham was justified or credited as righteous by his works, that is good works done in grace (ergois agathois) as opposed to the civil and ceremonial works of the Mosaic law (ergon nomou) apart from charity and grace. Our father in faith was reckoned as righteous because he was willing to sacrifice his beloved son in obedience to God on account of his trust in God’s goodness and hope in His promise. He didn’t merely act out of ceremony to oblige God for the acquisition of a temporal reward or blessing. Abraham believed in the greater good that should result from obeying God despite the sacrifice that was required of him. It was Abraham’s trust in God’s goodness and righteousness that prompted him to act against his natural inclinations to his credit. Abraham died to himself by denying his natural love of Isaac, and so he was found to be just because of the supernatural quality of his soul. By his good work, Abraham showed that he had faith, a faith that was justified because of the good work that proceeded from it.
Hence, St. Paul tells us the same thing James does, only his departure point is faith rather than works. He implies what James means to say, that we are justified by good works that are done in faith. Our faith justifies us provided our good works complete it. Our works do not justify us unless we obediently act in faith, that is in charity and grace. Neither faith nor good works alone justify us. We are saved by grace through faith and the good works that proceed from it by the prompting of the Holy Spirit. What we find with James and Paul isn’t an either/or but a both/and proposition. How it might appear at first glance, the two apostles aren’t contradicting each other, since Paul doesn’t say we are justified by faith “alone,” while James makes it clear that we aren’t justified by only faith. Nor does he even remotely suggest that we are justified by works alone to the preclusion of faith. Rather our good works that are done in charity (agape) and grace proceed from our Christian faith which requires these works to justify us. The faith that saves is faith put into action.
By your stubbornness and impenitent heart, you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day
of wrath and revelation of the just judgment of God, who will repay everyone according to his works:
eternal life to those who seek glory, honour, and immortality through perseverance in good works,
but wrath and fury to those who selfishly disobey the truth and obey wickedness.
Romans 2, 5-8
There is no partiality with God. All who sin outside the law
will also perish without reference to it, and all who sin under the
law will be judged in accordance with it. For it is not those who
hear the law who are just in the sight of God; rather those who observe
the law will be justified.
Romans 2, 11-13
For all have sinned and do need the glory of God. Being justified
by his grace through the redemption, that is of Jesus Christ, whom
God has proposed to be a propitiation, through faith in his blood,
to the shewing of his justice, for the remission of former sins.
Romans 3, 23-25
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith,
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Romans 5, 1
When St. Paul uses the word “justification,” he is focussing on one aspect of how God has offered us the gift of salvation: the forgiveness of sin and the removal of guilt. So when he says in the present tense we “have been justified,” he means that God has forgiven us our sins and removed our guilt through Christ’s atoning death on the cross, by which he restored equality of justice between God and humanity. Meanwhile, our faith justifies us provided we continue to live it by doing good works in charity and grace. Salvation is conditional and its instrumental application in our individual lives depends on how well we cooperate with God’s gift of grace in our pilgrimage of faith and baptismal commitment.
Now that we have received the initial grace of forgiveness and justification by no preceding merit of ours and have been reconciled to God by Christ’s merits upon being baptized, we are called to die to sin and refuse to let it reign over us through God’s healing grace. We are expected to subdue our sinful inclinations and selfish desires and lead a life of charity in grace as to be holy and just before God. If we are personally dead to sin just as our Lord had died to sin (Rom 6: 10-11), we are justified since “ a dead person has been absolved from sin” (Rom 6:7) by being buried with Christ.
St. Paul speaks of our justification in the present tense, but he obviously never viewed it as a once-and-for-all past event when we are baptized and initially profess our faith in Christ’s merits. He believed justification involved a daily rendering of obedience to the will of God that sanctified the soul. So, if we are in this sanctified state, we are justified in God’s sight. We are “justified” and thereby saved as we continue to grow in holiness and strive to perfectly conform our lives the best we can with the righteousness of Christ in his humanity. Thus, justification – forgiveness of sin and the removal of guilt – is the reason for our salvation, while sanctification – intrinsic righteousness – is the condition for it. These two states must not be dichotomized in the application of our redemption. As gifts of grace (divine favor and interior renewal) they are virtually synonymous in their common objective: the salvation of the human soul. For this reason, the two terms are used interchangeably in Scripture and comprise two sides of the same coin in a symbiotic relationship.
When God judges us by our deeds, it is according to the spirit of His moral law – which hasn’t been abolished but is fulfilled in Christ (Mt 5:17) who left us an example of how to live our lives in faith. God does not merely judge us on whether we have faith, that is belief in His word, but rather by the measure of faith we have as indicated by our obedience to His will and perseverance in good works. Neither a baptized Christian nor a circumcised Jew pleases God and remains in good standing with him when he fails to observe the spirit of the law in their daily conduct. Paul tells us, “Circumcision, to be sure, has value if you observe the (moral) law; but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision” (Rom. 2:25). The same can be said for our baptism: “Working together, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain” (2 Cor. 6:1).
The apostle certainly sees salvation as having three dimensions: past, present, and future. So, our failure to live up to our faith by persevering in good works done in grace can forfeit what our Lord has initially merited and produced for us by his work on the Cross, viz., the gift of salvation. Our acts of charity towards our neighbor and our refusal to commit a wicked deed on account of our love for God and the sake of His love and goodness are meritorious and deserving of a reward since our response to the word of God is made through our cooperation with divine grace in collaboration with the Holy Spirit who dwells in us.
In the reformed Protestant belief system of being justified by faith alone, the infused theological virtues of faith and charity appear to lose their essential distinctions in the justification process, as the latter is somewhat appropriated by the former becoming its inherent attribute. Sanctification itself is no longer the principal determinant of justification. Ontologically, then, charity loses its individual identity and can no longer stand as a requisite for justification in mutuality with faith. Such a notion does not square with what St. Paul meant when he wrote: “For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Gal. 5:5-6). And, “If I should have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:2). Faith is faith and love is love, the two virtues being mutually inclusive in the justification process. An idle faith does not profit the soul. Having faith isn’t enough to be justified. One must “live by faith” to be reckoned as righteous before God. For us to be declared just in God’s sight, our faith must be spurred into action through the prompting of the Holy Spirit who dwells in our hearts, even if it means putting the interests of others before our own in a spirit of self-sacrifice (Phil. 2:4).
Thus, the full application of our redemption in Paul’s soteriology is comprised of three key components: justification, sanctification, and the forgiveness of sin. Justification is the process by which the sinner is made right with God through the remission of guilt; sanctification is the simultaneous process by which a person is actually made holy and righteous through the infused graces and interior gifts of the Holy Spirit that enable the soul to be pleasing and just in God’s sight. It involves growing in grace and progressively conforming to the divine image through daily renewal so that we remain right with God in His grace. Forgiveness is the pardoning of sin. The sins that are forgiven are totally blotted out of the soul thereby restoring it to a sanctified state which renders it just and pleasing to God, but not without our cooperation.
Central to all of this is what we read in Proverbs 16:6: ‘Through love and faithfulness sin is atoned for.’ Spiritual works of mercy (forgiving, consoling, comforting, etc.) and corporal works of mercy (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick or imprisoned, etc.) are deeds of justice pleasing to God which sanctify the soul that lives by faith in Jesus Christ The peace of Christ reigns in the soul that is justified by embracing what is good and rejecting all that is evil (greed, malice, slander, etc.) (Col 3:1-17).
What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but
has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is
ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go
in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things
needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has
no works, is dead.
James 2, 14-17
You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith
alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot
justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them
out another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead,
so faith apart from works is dead.
When St. James asks in reference to Abraham, “Do you see how a man is justified by his works?”, he is asking a rhetorical question, given for his audience to understand that it is by works done in grace through faith – and not faith alone – that a person is justified or declared righteous by God. The Bishop of Jerusalem is addressing the Jewish Christians scattered abroad outside of Palestine (Jas. 1:1). During severe poverty and persecution, many of them had begun to languish in their faith. Because of the trials which they had to suffer, their faith had grown cold. As a result, many of them despised the poor in their community; there were breaches of brotherly charity; others were guilty of slander and bearing false witness (detraction); there were contentions and lawsuits among them; some indulged in swearing and using abusive language towards each other, while others neglected their prayers and worship.
James wrote his epistle with a moral purpose. His main intention was to exhort the Jewish Christians to be constant in the faith despite their terrible trials and to console and encourage them as well. He urged them to conform their conduct to the tenets of their espoused faith to extirpate the evils and abuses that plagued their communities. Unless they did as he exhorted them to do, their faith would not save them. Their newly found Christian faith (“the faith”) was not in principle the same as that adhered to and preached by Jesus and his apostles, and so it was a faith that had tragically become “dead” and “useless” as a means of salvation (Jas. 2: 17, 20). Their faith should avail them nothing because their acts did not synchronize with what they professed to believe in. Believing in the one God (that is in all He morally stood for) wasn’t enough to be credited as righteous, for even the demons believed in Him (Jas. 2:19).
St. James compares idle faith to a lifeless body. For the body to be animated, it must be united with the soul or spirit. Faith is just as dead and inert as a corpse is when unanimated by charity and grace. Obviously, charity is no more an attribute of faith than the soul is an attribute of the body. A human being is a composite of soul and body just as faith and charity are the essential attributes of a justified person. James, moreover, isn’t referring to people who imagine that they have faith while not having it at all, as many Protestants contend, since it would be senseless of him to presuppose by his analogy that the body could never exist without the soul. A dead or lifeless body is something that exists, but only as unanimated physical matter. Hence, the apostle perceived faith and charity as two distinct theological virtues operating in cooperation with each other to complete the justification process of the believer. This process begins with faith and reaches its completion when faith is informed by charity (agape) and grace. Likewise, our humanity begins with our physical conception in the womb and is brought to completion through the infusion of the soul by the grace of God.
Moreover, James exhorts us that “faith by itself” does not save without the compliment of doing good works in charity and grace. In fact, not doing good works when required is a sin of omission (Jas. 4:17), and one cannot be just and thereby saved while in a state of grave sin. The soul that lacks charity is deprived of sanctifying grace which renders the charitable soul just. Nor does a charitable predisposition alone save. It isn’t enough for one merely to feel compassion towards the needy or know and accept what the right thing to do is but not do it (Jas. 2:15-16). We are called to be both “hearers” and “doers” of the word of God, not unlike Abraham, to be reckoned as just before Him (Jas. 1:22).
And so, both St. Paul and St. James teach that faith initially justifies, but good works that are done in charity (agape) and grace complete justification. We are justified by faith and works acting together by the grace of God. Neither faith nor works alone justify us. Faith is indeed the minimum requirement without which we can never please God (Heb 11:6), but spiritual and corporal works of mercy perfect faith, rendering it beneficial for our salvation. Paul teaches us that faith is the root of justification and that faith excludes the external ceremonial ‘works of the law’ by which we can never hope to be reconciled to God by any natural merit of ours (Eph 2:8-10). But these works of the law differ from the works James has in mind which must be coupled with faith for us to be justified. By “works of the law,” Paul means the law of Moses taken as a legal system through which one might presume to place God in their debt by observing its civil, ceremonial, and moral precepts (Rom 3:28; Gal 2:16, 21; 3:2, 5, 10).
James, on the other hand, is referring to good works done in charity and grace through faith in Christ, grace being an unmerited and gratuitous gift from God in His mercy produced for us by the merits of Christ alone. We are justified if we, by the prompting of the Holy Spirit, forgive someone out of kindness and humility, console someone out of compassion, or feed the hungry out of love with no thought given to obliging God to reward us openly.
As we have seen, Paul’s phrase for ‘works of the law’ in Greek is ergon nomou in reference to the Mosaic legal, ceremonial, and moral teachings which gave the ancient Jews the knowledge of sin but no escape from sin or personal guilt. The phrase James uses is ergois agathois which refers to different works. So, the two apostles aren’t contradicting each other or opposing faith and works against each other. Paul concurs with James when he says that the righteousness God seeks in us doesn’t come from observing the Mosaic law for its own sake (Rom 4:9-17). Righteousness must be pursued through faith in Jesus Christ, not works of the law outside the system of charity and grace (Rom 9:31-32).
The Gentiles who haven’t been given the Mosaic law must pursue this righteousness as well since it is based on the grace of Christ apart from any legal ordinance or collective moral consciousness (Rom 11:6-11). Thus, faith in Christ and adherence to his teachings must be behind all our good works for our deeds to be works of grace and not legal works of obligation that makes God our debtor, He who can never be obligated to us in view of our sinfulness (Rom 3: 20, 28). Works apart from grace, that differ from the spiritual and corporal works of mercy required of all Christians who live by faith, do not justify us. Doing morally civil works and meeting our legal demands for the sake of maintaining social harmony and law and order for our own sake as part of a social entity doesn’t justify us before God and save our souls from eternal death since there isn’t any sacrificial love motivating us to conform with the rest of society but more or less self-interest.
St. Paul is clear that we are in no position to obligate God and demand any just payment from Him by observing the works of the law. Our relationship with God is not one between a creditor and a debtor. Rather, as Christians, we are in a covenant relationship with God our heavenly Father as His adopted sons and daughters. All that we rightly merit by our deeds is granted by God’s grace in our personal relationship with Him (Rom 11:35; Rom 8:14; Heb 12:5-11; Gal 6:8-9). Paul assures the Jewish Christian community that they are now discharged from the law or from having to perform the works of the law since we are now called to serve God in faith working through love (Rom 7:6; Gal 5:5-6). Christ is the end of the law and we are justified by living our faith in him (Rom 10:4). We fulfill the new law of Christ – the law of love and freedom – by loving each other (Rom 13: 8, 10). The Mosaic law with all its prescribed works is of no use to any of us if we hope to be saved. We must embrace the new law of Christ which is faith working through love (Gal 5:4-6, 14: 6-2).
St. James accurately describes what the new law of Christ involves for our justification (Jas 1:27; 2:15-17, 25). The apostle clearly teaches that faith by itself without good works is dead or useless. Good works done in charity and grace are a cause of our justification. Good works aren’t an effect of having been justified by the merits of Christ alone, as most Protestants erroneously believe. There is no such thing as a “saving faith” either, though faith saves when coupled with good works. One either has faith in Christ and his teachings or doesn’t by not observing them. In other words, faith isn’t qualified by good works. Faith and works are distinct and must accompany each other in a synergistic fashion (Jas 2:18). Faith and works cooperating together produce an effect that is greater than either of these two agents taken separately, namely justification.
So, neither faith nor works alone justify. Taken individually apart from each other, faith or works alone is unproductive. There is no sign of having no faith or a non-saving faith, which is a contradiction in terms. Faith saves, but only if it is accompanied by good works which proceed from having faith. Faith is the root of justification, but good works that are done in grace perfect, and complete justification. To be unfaithful, we must first have faith, so if we act unfaithfully, our faith or what we profess to believe in does not justify us. Our good deeds that arise from having faith do reckon us as righteous before God, for we are acting faithfully in accordance with the teachings of Christ. Observing the divine commandments that are inscribed in our hearts requires a righteous interior disposition and the righteous deeds which proceed from it by the grace of God through our faith in Him. Faith is far more than an intellectual belief in Christ’s external merits since even the demons believe (or know) that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior (Jas 2:19). Faith and belief, in fact, are two different constructs altogether although intricately connected.
Anyway, James addressed an audience whom he assumed had embraced the faith. He wrote his letter to Jewish Christians. But the problem was that many of them merely heard and accepted the word of God without putting what they professed to believe in into practice. Their faith was idle or inactive – lifeless, so to speak. One can only presume that these wayward Christians didn’t have any faith at all in the first place. However, James doesn’t address these believers on such a presumption. He simply states that it’s the “doers” who are justified, not the “hearers” (Jas 1:22-25). These wavering Christians did have faith in what they heard preached, but they had to couple their faith with good works. The faith they possessed had to be put into action or regulate how they conducted their lives if they hoped to be reckoned as just before God (cf. Rom 2:13). James made his point loud and clear: “A man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jas 2:24).
Early Sacred Tradition
“Seeing, therefore, that we are the portion of the Holy One, let us do all those things that pertain
to holiness, avoiding all evil-speaking, all abominable and impure embraces, together with all
drunkenness, seeking after change, all abominable lusts, detestable adultery, and execrable pride …
Let us cleave, then, to those to whom grace has been given by God. Let us clothe ourselves with
concord and humility, ever exercising self-control, standing far off from whispering and evil-speaking,
being justified by our works, and not our words.”
St. (Pope) Clement of Rome, Epistle to the Corinthians 30
“But He who raised Him up from the dead will raise up us also, if we do His will, and walk in His
commandments, and love what He loved, keeping ourselves from all unrighteousness, covetousness,
love of money, evil speaking, false witness; ‘not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing,’ or blow for
blow, or cursing for cursing, but being mindful of what the Lord said in His teaching: ‘Judge not,
that ye be not judged; forgive, and it shall be forgiven unto you; be merciful, that ye may obtain
mercy; with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again; and once more, “Blessed are
the poor, and those that are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of God.’”
St. Polycarp, To the Philippians, 2
“‘And other sheep there are also,’ saith the Lord, ‘which are not of this fold ‘–deemed worthy of
another fold and mansion, in proportion to their faith. ‘But My sheep hear My voice,’
understanding gnostically the commandments. And this is to be taken in a generous and worthy
acceptation, along with also the recompense and accompaniment of works. So that when we hear,
‘Thy faith hath saved thee, we do not understand Him to say absolutely that those who have
believed in any way whatever shall be saved, unless also works follow. But it was to the Jews alone
that He spoke this utterance, who kept the law and lived blamelessly, who wanted only faith in the
Lord. No one, then, can be a believer and at the same time be licentious; but though he quit the
flesh, he must put off the passions, so as to be capable of reaching his own mansion.”
St. Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, 6:14
“Terrible in good truth is the judgment, and terrible the things announced. The kingdom of heaven
is set before us, and everlasting fire is prepared. How then, some one will say, are we to escape the
fire? And how to enter into the kingdom? I was an hungered, He says, and ye gave Me meat. Learn
hence the way; there is here no need of allegory, but to fulfil what is said. I was an hungered, and ye
gave Me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took Me in; naked, and
ye clothed Me; I was sick, and ye visited Me; I was in prison, and ye came unto Me. These things if
thou do, thou shall reign together with Him; but if thou do them not, thou shalt be condemned. At
once then begin to do these works, and abide in the faith; lest, like the foolish virgins, tarrying to buy
oil, thou be shut out.”
St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 15:26
“Now we have a woven work, when faith and action go together. Let none suppose me to be
misguided, in that I made at first a threefold division, each part containing four, and afterwards a
fourfold division, each part containing three terms. The beauty of a good thing pleases the more, if
it be shown under various aspects. For those are good things, whereof the texture of the priestly
robe was the token, that is to say, either the Law, or the Church, which latter hath made two
garments for her spouse, as it is written’–the one of action, the other of spirit, weaving together the
threads of faith and works…. Faith is profitable, therefore, when her brow is bright with a fair crown
of good works. This faith–that I may set the matter forth shortly–is contained in the following
principles, which cannot be overthrown.”
St. Ambrose, On the Christian Faith, II:11, 13
For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his
Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done.
Matthew 16, 27