Some years ago, I read an article in which the author argued rather vigorously against the teaching that believers are justified by grace alone through faith alone on account of the work of Christ alone. According to this author, the single reference to "faith alone" in the New Testament is found in the words of James 2:24: "You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone." How, the author wrote, could it not be more clear that Abraham, who is the exemplar of one whose faith was "credited to him for righteousness" (Gen. 15:6), found his right standing or acceptance with God upon the basis of his works, especially in his readiness to sacrifice his son Isaac in obedience to God's command?
As I read this article, I immediately thought of the Apostle Paul's words in Romans 3:28: "We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law." In this verse, Paul clearly draws a sharp line of distinction between faith and works. Since all fallen sinners, Jews and Gentiles alike, fail to do what the law requires, no one can claim to find favor and acceptance with God upon the basis of works performed in obedience to the law. Shortly after this, the Apostle observes that the believer's pardon and acceptance by God depend upon faith alone, and not upon the righteousness of works, in order that it "may rest on grace" (4:16). If works were to play a role in the believer's justification before God, then the believer's acceptance by God would no longer be a gracious gift, but would be like a payment granted to a wage-earner.
What are we to make of this contrast between James and Paul? Are believers justified by "faith plus works" or by "faith alone"? The answer to this question requires that we carefully distinguish between, without separating, faith and works in the believer's response to the gospel promise in Jesus Christ. The old adage, "He who distinguishes well, thinks well," is most appropriate when it concerns the important question of the relationship between faith and works in the life of the believer.
Contrast Between Faith and Works
The contrast, even antithesis, that exists between faith and works has to be understood within the context of the great religious question that the doctrine of justification addresses. Justification answers the question, How can guilty sinners be received into favor with God? Since all human beings have failed to do what the holy law of God requires, they are all by nature justly subject to condemnation and death. "None is righteous, no, not one," the Apostle Paul says (Rom. 3:10). And for this reason, the Apostle observes that no one can be justified (that is, declared righteous) in God's court on the basis of their works.
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Rom. 3:19-21)
In these verses, the Apostle paints a remarkable portrait of all sinners in the presence of God's judgment seat. In the whole world, no one can be found who, by the standard of perfect obedience that the law requires, is able to offer a case upon the basis of their works that would exonerate them from God's condemnation. Left to themselves, all sinners must acquiesce to the sentence of condemnation and death. This is what we deserve from God, and none of us can speak a word in our defense that would establish our innocence. Nothing sinners have done or will do could possibly warrant the pronouncement of their righteousness before God.
And yet, the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that God justifies—declares righteous—those who embrace the gospel promise by faith alone. Out of sheer grace, God the Father grants and imputes to believers the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Through faith, believers are united to Christ and become partakers of Christ's righteousness, which consists in His perfect obedience to all that the law of God requires and in His substitutionary endurance of the law's penalty in the atonement.
When it comes to the believer's justification, faith is the exclusive instrument that finds in Christ and in His saving work a full and complete satisfaction of all of the requirements of the law. Faith is not a human achievement, but the end of all boasting before God (Eph. 2:9). For this reason, John Calvin speaks of faith as a "passive" reception of what Christ has done to secure the believer's right standing and acceptance before God. Calvin adds that faith is like an "empty vase" that is filled with the righteousness of Christ as the only ground of the believer's right standing before God and inheritance of eternal life. When faith sings, it always sings of Christ alone: "Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling."
Inseparability of Faith and Works
While it is true that faith alone justifies, this does not mean that faith is ever alone in the justified person. Though faith may be "the alone instrument of justification," it is "not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love" (WCF 11.2).
Though the grace of free justification is received by the empty hand of faith alone, it may never be severed from the grace of sanctification. Christ is not given to believers for righteousness without also being given to them for sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30). Whenever Christ indwells the hearts of believers, He always begins to renew them in the way of obedience to His law. In the fullness of His office as mediator, Christ is not only a priest, whose atoning sacrifice and continual intercession assure believers of their acceptance with God, but also a king, who rules in the hearts of His people by His Spirit and Word.
The solution to the apparent contradiction between the teaching of James and Paul lies in their different uses of the language of "faith" and "justify." When James contrasts "faith" and "works," he is contrasting an empty show of faith, the kind of faith that produces no fruit, with a living faith that necessarily and invariably produces works of obedience. When Paul contrasts "faith" and "works," he is contrasting faith that rests in Christ alone for the assurance of acceptance with God and the unbelieving boast of those who would seek to obtain favor with God by their works. But Paul, as much as James, also affirms that the faith that alone justifies is always a faith that "works by love" (Gal. 5:6).
Likewise, when James speaks of a "justification by works," he is not speaking to the issue of the believer's right standing before and acceptance by God, which is the focus of Paul's doctrine of justification. When James speaks of justification, he is speaking of the way in which believers demonstrate or prove to others that their profession of faith is not merely a matter of the tongue but is confirmed by the works that faith produces. In the memorable words of Thomas Manton, "By the righteousness of faith we are acquitted from sin [justified], and by the righteousness of works we are acquitted from hypocrisy [confirmed to be justified by a true faith]."
While no theologian has ever fought more valiantly for the doctrine of "faith alone" than Martin Luther, in the preface to his commentary on Romans, he writes: "O, when it comes to faith, what a living, creative, active, powerful thing it is. It cannot do other than good at all times. It never waits to ask whether there is some good work to do." When it comes to our justification before God, there is a sharp contrast between faith and works. When it comes to our sanctification by the Spirit in the way of new obedience, faith and the works it produces are inseparable.