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Justified by Faith or by Works?

When it comes to supposed contradictions in the Bible, a classic example is Paul vs. James on the subject of justification. Paul says, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28). James says, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).

The tension between the two seems irreconcilable at first glance: either a person is justified apart from works or they aren’t; either Paul is right or James is. They can’t both be right; that would be irrational, postmodern thinking in which truth is relative and, therefore, meaningless. But not necessarily. We have to remember that a single word can have more than one meaning, depending on the context in which it is used. The same word can even be used in seemingly opposing statements and yet both can still be true. (My favorite example is “cleave,” a word that has two directly opposed meanings.)

For example, if I say, “Man is an animal,” this is true in one sense. Man is, biologically speaking, a living creature, created on the same day and with a physiology very much like other mammals. On the other hand, if I say, “Man is not an animal,” this is also true. In a spiritual sense, he is not an animal. Man constitutes a distinct class of creature, one who is moral, fallible, redeemable, and made in the image of God.

This may be a weak example, but you get the point: both of these statements can be true even though, at face value, they seem entirely contradictory to one another. The difference is the sense in which the word is used—whether we’re speaking about being “animal” in a biological sense or a spiritual sense.

When it comes to the apparent contradiction between James and Paul we have a similar situation. Two senses of the idea “justified by works” are in play. John Piper explains:

For Paul, “justification by works” (which he rejects) means “gaining right standing with God by the merit of works.” For James, “justification by works” (which he accepts) means “maintaining a right standing with God by faith along with the necessary evidence of faith, namely, the works of love.”

… When Paul teaches in Romans 4:5 that we are justified by faith alone, he means that the only thing that unites us to Christ for righteousness is dependence on Christ. When James says in James 2:24 that we are not justified by faith alone he means that the faith which justifies does not remain alone.

These two positions are not contradictory. Faith alone unites us to Christ for righteousness, and the faith that unites us to Christ for righteousness does not remain alone. It bears the fruit of love. It must do so or it is dead, demon, useless faith and does not justify.

To read Piper’s full explanation of this apparent contradiction, check out the rest of the sermon, “Does James Contradict Paul?