One of the perennial puzzles for preachers is how to best communicate the statements about justification from James and Paul. On the one hand, James writes, “A person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). Yet Paul says, “One is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom. 3:28). To make it even more complicated, both of these apostles appeal to Genesis 15:6: “And he [Abraham] believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” To understand these passages rightly, it is important to dispel misunderstandings of what each of them are teaching about faith and works.
Misconception #1: Old Testament Saints Were Saved by Works
Some sincere Christians assume that before Christ came, God’s people were somehow saved by works. But we must teach that this idea doesn’t work when we read about Abraham, the prime example of what it means to follow God in the Old Testament.
After he had first appeared to Abraham in Genesis 12, God came to him again in a vision to reassure him of His promises (15:1). Abraham wasn’t quite sure how this could happen, since he still did not have a son. God brought Abraham out under the night sky and asked him to count the stars—an impossible task, of course. He assured Abraham that his offspring would be the same way: uncountable (15:5). In response to God’s promise, Abraham believed God (15:6).
When Abraham believed these promises, God counted him as righteous. Rather than declaring him righteous on the basis of what Abraham had done, God granted him the status “righteous” because of his faith. To be declared righteous and to be justified are simply two ways of talking about the same reality, so this is the first clear statement of justification by faith in the Bible. Justification by faith is not just a New Testament doctrine; it is found all the way back in Genesis.
Misconception #2: James Denies Justification by Faith
Even if our people recognize that the Old Testament teaches justification by faith alone, they might be confused by the letter of James. But this would be a failure to read the text carefully.
We must remind them that James points to Genesis 15:6 to demonstrate that for God’s people, trust in Him has always resulted in transformed lives. As he applies the example of Abraham, he is looking back from Genesis 22 over the course of several decades to Abraham’s confession in Genesis 15. By the time we reach Genesis 22, it had been around forty years since God called Abraham. James is asking us to consider what Abraham’s faith looked like after many long years of perseverance.
To anyone who might point to Genesis 15:6 in isolation from its context, James is saying, “Do you want to talk about Abraham’s faith? Let’s think about Abraham’s faith forty years after he first believed God’s promises.” His faith was active and alive and resulted in obedient action. In verse 23, James says that Abraham’s obedience in his willingness to offer Isaac in Genesis 22 was the fulfillment of Genesis 15:6. Faith that saves gives us a status that has to be “fulfilled” through good works. In other words, Abraham’s righteous status inevitably resulted in his righteous conduct and character.
As we preach and teach from James, we should emphasize that he is not arguing for justification based on works or a blend of faith and works. When James says that justification is not by faith alone, he is not denying that faith is the only way that we are granted a righteous status before God. Instead, he is saying there is a kind of “faith” that is not really saving faith. This “faith alone” that does not produce good works is no saving faith at all. It is a useless, dead faith (v. 26).
Misconception #3: Paul Denies the Need for Good Works
Finally, some might say that the apostle Paul denies the need for good works or at least makes them less important than James does. But this understanding fails to read the fuller context of what Paul is teaching.
In Romans 3:21–31, Paul declares that all people are justified through faith alone. As he continues to explain God’s great gift of justification in Romans 4, Paul turns to Genesis 15:6. Abraham was declared righteous (Genesis 15) before he was circumcised (Genesis 17). If Abraham had done anything to earn his status before God, it would not be a gift. He would be earning a paycheck (Romans 4:4). Instead, because Abraham believed God, he was counted as righteous (Romans 4:3; Genesis15:6).
Toward the end of the chapter, Paul reiterates this truth again. Abraham’s faith was counted to him as righteousness, but the way Paul describes Abraham’s growth in faith here sounds very similar to James. Romans 4:20 tells us that Abraham “grew strong” in his faith. He did not doubt God’s promise, even when he had every reason to do so. He was about one hundred years old and Sarah was ninety. Yet he was “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Romans 4:21). Note the next verse: “That is why his faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness.” What is “that”? It is a maturing faith, a faith that is fully and increasingly convinced of God’s promises. Paul saw a growth in Abraham’s faith from the moment of his belief to the birth of Isaac and beyond. He was counted righteous because he had true faith, the kind of faith that grows and is demonstrated by good works.
How then should we teach about faith and works? Should we emphasize justification by faith alone or the necessity of faithful good works in our preaching? If we want to be faithful to the Bible, the answer must be both. Paul and James, along with the rest of Scripture, insist that we are declared righteous by faith alone, but true saving faith can never remain alone. In our preaching ministries, let’s help people see how these great truths do not contradict each other but gloriously fit together.
CHRIS BRUNO (PhD, Wheaton College; MDiv, Southern Seminary) is the author of Paul vs. James: What We’ve Been Missing in the Faith and Works Debate (Moody Publishers, July 2019). He serves as assistant professor of New Testament and Greek at Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, MN. He previously taught Bible and theology at Cedarville University and Northland International University and served as a pastor at Harbor Church in Honolulu, Hawaii.