JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH AND WORKS
(A Textual Interpretation)
All biblical quotations are from the HOLY BIBLE (NIV)
“It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.” Apostle Paul says this at Romans 15:20. Certainly, by “someone else’s foundation” he is referring to the work of the other Apostles. Why does he refuse to continue to build on the others’ pioneering efforts but always start in virgin territories? Does he have doctrinal differences with the other apostles? What are the issues informing those differences, if any?
To begin with, let us explore what Paul states about his doctrinal standpoint. At 1Corinthians 2:4-5 he says, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.” In other words, his message, which is the essence of what he preaches, advocates man’s faith in and dependence on God but not on the efforts of humans. These efforts he categorises as “works”; so that he puts “faith” and “works” in different compartments. (Romans 9:32).
This compartmentalisation of “faith” and “works” appears to us as one of the causes of disagreement in doctrinal discourse among the Apostles. The seriousness of the disagreement is such that Paul accuses Simon Peter of hypocrisy on matters of principle and in a rejectionist and disdainful mood refers to “James, Peter and John” as “those reputed to be pillars”. (Galatians 2:13, 9) On his part, Peter concedes that Paul’s “letters contain some things that are hard to understand” (2Peter 3:16). James concedes nothing to Paul as he declares, in opposition and in forthright terms that “faith without deeds (works) is dead (James 2:26).
In their discourse on “faith” and “works”, the Apostles are concerned with justification (righteousness) and raise the question whether justification comes by faith or by works or by both. The stance of Paul is that justification involves no human effort. Only in that way does man glorify God; else man will boast and claim that glory as a personal feat. Justification comes as an unearned gift of God through faith in him. He says that if it is possible that righteousness (justification) is achievable through works (observance of the Law) then there will be no need for grace (God’s act of favour whence faith comes).
Paul relies on Scripture texts as the grounds for his stance. That Scripture says, “The righteous will live by faith.” (Habakkuk 2:4 or Romans 1:17). He goes on to quote from Genesis 15:6 that “Abraham believed in God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” By relying on the latter as a concrete instance of the former Scripture, Paul does not stretch himself beyond those texts to prove his case. He does not consider any deed that Abraham might have ever undertaken even in obedience to God as an act that might have contributed to the righteousness credited to him. His faith is sufficient!
James has problems with this doctrine. He waxes rhetorical at James 3:21-22 thus, “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.” Loaded! James sees in Abraham’s act of obedience to God’s command to him to sacrifice his only son, born in old age, not only the action of taking Isaac to the altar but also the exercise of faith through that obedience. For, it is not possible to obey without faith in the one obeyed. They go together.
James does not stop there. He adds that what Abraham did was the fulfilment of the same Scripture that Paul quotes above: “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (James 3:23). The question is, what did God say that Abraham believed him – that he would have a baby born to him in his old age or that he would be asked to sacrifice his boy Isaac to God? Certainly, that verse is connected with the promised birth of the baby Isaac but not the sacrifice of the boy Isaac. James is definitely being ahistorical here – not being chronological. And this is where Paul comes in again.
He says that the sheer faith that Abraham had in God that the promise of Isaac’s birth would be fulfilled in spite of his old age and his wife’s womb condition is the reason for righteousness being credited to him. That was the historical context. Hence, although James holds that faith needs to be made complete by some action and that “faith without deeds (actions) is dead” (James 2:26) Paul sees faith as such complete in itself – requiring no human action to make it complete. In spite of this Paulian consistency, we find other texts from him that seem to be a huge concession to James regarding sacrifice.
For instance, what do we make of the following verses within the context of the foregoing discussion? “By faith Abel offered a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings.” (Hebrews 11:4) Certainly, the relevant Scriptures at Genesis 4:2-7 do not refer to “faith” in the story of Cain and Abel. Is Paul influenced by James’ argument that suggests that the act of sacrifice involves the exercise of faith so that faith finds its completeness in action? And does righteousness hence come by faith and action “working together” as James puts it?
Paul, by his “great learning” (Acts 26:24) and “knowledge” (2Corinthians 11:6), cannot be thus influenced by those whom he appears to see as opponents. He rather contends that faith in God is the state of man for being justified. He remains on the grounds of the Abraham story to re-state his case. He says that when Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice he had faith that God would raise him from the dead to enable God’s fulfilment of the promise of Isaac being the one through whom Abraham’s descendants would come. This means that the attempted sacrifice was an act of faith but not a consummation of faith – that is, not making faith complete as James contends but an exercise of faith.
This is how Paul puts it at Hebrews 11:17-19: “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, ‘It is through Isaac that your offering will be reckoned’. Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.” By this sophisticated application of principles, Paul sustained the integrity of faith and showed that sacrifice is not an act to make faith complete but an act that is predicated (stands) on faith if it is to be credited with righteousness; else, sacrifice is nothing.
Clearly then, Paul does not discount “works” or “deeds” in worship but insists that they should be founded on faith. Although we find “faith” and “works” working together here it is not in the sense that James sees them doing so. For Paul, the presence of faith is a sufficient condition for being credited with righteousness; but sacrifice (works or deeds) needs faith as antecedent condition to qualify for righteousness. Hence, it is in the interest of sacrifice alone to work together with faith since without the latter sacrifice achieves nothing. Faith, on the other hand, requires no such assistance to achieve justification.
In the light of the foregoing, when James concludes that, “… a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone”, (James at 2:24) he does not appear to be careful enough. He even worsens his case with the assertion that, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” (James 2:26). That assertion is not logically elegant. At best, it can only be properly stated in this way: ‘As the body without spirit is dead, so deed without faith is dead.’ The logical correspondence of ‘body’ with ‘deed’ and ‘spirit’ with ‘faith’ is then observed. The result, however, ends in strengthening Paul’s case.
Our anxiety here has been to demonstrate through the Apostles’ discourses how the Scriptures handle the process of justification by way of the relationship between faith and works (deeds). We have found that justification comes by faith in its integrity or by an act of faith, which involves a deed based on faith. We also found that those who submit that the Old Testament justifies based on rules and regulations (works) while the New Testament does that based on faith need to revise their understanding of the Scriptures. For, citations by the Apostles to make their case for the stances they take show no such dichotomy.