Your donation helps provide answers and spread the gospel. GIVE NOW! Matching gift doubles your donation.

How do Protestants deal with James on faith and works?


Nothing Paul wrote about Abraham contradicts what I’ve said. As a matter of fact it affirms what I’ve said.

What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in[a] him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:

7 _
“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
_ and whose sins are covered;

_8 _
blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” Romans 4:1-8

10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. Romans 4:10-11

20 No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” 23 But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. Romans 4:20-24

4 Did you suffer[b] so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? 5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— 6 just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? Galatians 3: 4-6


That Abraham was tested for our benefit is not absurd. God didn’t need to test Abraham so that He would know. He tested him and it was recorded in Scripture so we would know. You are part of the audience by reading the Bible. It is also the way it was interpreted by some in the early church.

And he shows another thing too, by saying that “God tempted Abraham.” What then? Did not God know that the man was noble and approved? Why then did God tempt him? Not that God might learn but that God might show to others and make his fortitude manifest to all. And here also he shows the cause of the trials, that they may not suppose they suffer these things as being forsaken of God.
John Chrysostom, On the Epistle to the Hebrews, 25. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament Volume 10, Hebrews, Erik M. Heen and Philip D.W. Krey ed., InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2005, pg. 192
In this statement it is usually thrown out against us that God says “now” He had learned that Abraham fears God, as though He had such as not to have known previously. God knew, and it was not hidden from Him, since it is He “who has known all things before they come to pass”. But these things were written on account of you, because you too have indeed believed in God.
Origen, Homilies on Genesis, 8.8, Ancient Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament, Volume 2, Genesis, Mark Sheridan, ed., InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2002, pg. 107


Jesus obeyed the Father through faith/obedience alone, but His mission was to show us how to come back to heaven. And it isn’t easy. The way to come back is by faith and works both. He lived that way, and we also.


Except, that I did not say or even allude to Abraham being tested for our benefit. I said:

Being justified and having something performed for our benefit are two very different things. Saint James didn’t write his epistle merely to show the benefit of Abraham’s response of action, but that justification comes not solely through faith, but through faith and works working together.


That’s not what I asked.

Let me repeat myself: Why does James use the same verse Paul used on Abraham to prove his point?


According to the flesh alludes to circumcision and other works of the Mosaic law pertaining to bodily observances, not to works of charity! Otherwise, this would make no sense:

“For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” - Romans 2:13

Justification is a gift, not something that is due to us from earning. But, that doesn’t mean that after receiving the free gift of justification, we do not have to perform works of charity to complete our gift of faith.


We are told that Abraham was justified when he believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. That was before Isaac was even born. James cites when Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac as when he was justified by works. At that time Abraham was already justified before God. Paul tells us that Abraham was not justified by works before God in Romans 4. James must be speaking of Abraham being justified by works before a different audience. That would be that he was justified before men.

With respect to justification by works we have Chrysostom saying:

God’s mission was not to save people in order that they may remain barren or inert. For Scripture says that faith has saved us. Put better: Since God willed it, faith has saved us. Now in what case, tell me, does faith save without itself doing anything at all? Faith’s workings themselves are a gift of God, lest anyone should boast. What then is Paul saying? Not that God has forbidden works but that he has forbidden us to be justified by works. No one, Paul says, is justified by works, precisely in order that the grace and benevolence of God may become apparent.
(Homily on Ephesians 4.2.9. Mark J. Edwards, ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament VI: Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998), p. 134.)


John Chrysostom also had this to say on works:
Therefore, I ask, let us not become careless about keeping the commandments, but let us control our thoughts, First, then, let us try to win over our neighbor with love [brotherly affection] [cf. Rom 12:9f] and according to the blessed Paul, ‘outdo one another in showing honor’ [Rom 12:10]. For this is, indeed, what holds together and preserves our life; and in this we are distinguished from the animals and the beasts, that we can, if we will, keep the appropriate order in us, and show great concord with our fellow men, and restrain our thoughts, and crush anger, that untamed beast, and always have before it the struggle of the awesome judgement. For it is not fitting for us to simply spend the time without purpose; but every day and hour we should have before our eyes the judgement of the Lord, and also those things which can give great assurance, and those things which emphasize punishment. And thus recalling these things in our minds, let us overcome our base passions. Let us restrain the temptations of our flesh and ‘put to death,’ in the words of blessed Paul, ‘What is earthly in you’ [Col 3:5] that we may be able to receive the ‘fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, etc.’ [Gal 5:22]. For the grace of God makes us more sturdy than a diamond and in every way invincible, if we would will it. Let this be the difference between a Christian and the ungodly person: that he [the Christian] wishes to bring forth the fruit of the Spirit. Let us not pride ourselves in name only, nor be conceited on account of external appearance. But even if we would possess the things, we should not be greatly conceited, but rather should we humble ourselves even more. Scripture says: ‘when you have done all, say we are unworthy servants’ [Lk 17:10]. If we would think thus and be concerned about our own salvation, we will be able to benefit ourselves and also rescue from the future hell those who have us for their teachers, so that when we accomplish with strictness this course of life, we may be deemed worthy of God’s love for mankind in the future age. [69]


“Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works.”

His faith being completed by his works indicates that his faith was incomplete, insofar as it working through love in action, before the sacrifice of Isaac.

The works Saint Paul is referring to in Romans 4 are works of the Mosaic Law, i.e. circumcision. Read all of Romans 3 and 4 together and see how many times Saint Paul references circumcision! Saint Paul is writing to Jewish Christians having a hard time letting go of external works of the body, e.g. circumcision. He is saying that Abraham was not justified by circumcision, but by faith!

“Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.” - Romans 4:9-12

Saint Paul is not referring to works of charity, i.e. obeying the Decalogue, but ‘works of the law’, i.e. the Mosaic Law that was binding to Jews for justification up until Christ and Holy Baptism!


If you look at the verses following Romans 2:13 You will see that Paul refers to the prohibition theft and adultery are under the Law. This is not speaking of the dietary and other ceremonial matters. So when Paul indicates that we are justified by faith, not by the works of the Law it is not limited to things like circumcision. This is also made clear by Romans 3:31 where Paul says the Law is not nullified by faith but established by it. It is not the ceremonial and dietary laws that are established here but the moral law.

As for the doers of the Law being justified, that would be true if could keep the law but Jesus tells us that the standard for that is perfection. “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We can not be perfect in this life which is why we need to be counted as righteous by faith and not works.


Exactly! Under which ‘Law’, the moral ‘Law’, not the Mosaic Law, otherwise he would have been referencing circumcision instead of ‘prohibition, theft, and adultery’!

“If thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to keep his commandments and his statutes which are written in this book of the law, and if thou turn unto the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul. For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.” - Deuteronomy 30:10-14

“LORD, I hope for Your salvation,
And I do Your commandments.
My soul keeps Your testimonies,
And I love them exceedingly.
I keep Your precepts and Your testimonies,
For all my ways are before You.” – Psalm 119:166-168

“I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” - Philippians 4:13


I do not know of anyone who says that we are not to do good works. The question is whether we are justified by them.

I think much of the apparent difference in views comes down to different definition. Most Reformed Christians restrict justification to our being considered righteous by God. Catholics have a broader meaning that would include increasing justification by good works. Reformed view the doing of good works as part of sanctification as we strive to be more righteous. Salvation is still a process and we must still work it out salvation but we call that process by different names.


This undermines and empties the transforming and sanctifying power of the Cross of Christ! To realize that Christ humbled Himself to our flesh and to be born of a Woman, and to suffer the most indescribable agony, and that He gives us His very flesh and blood from that Cross, and to say that we cannot be empowered by His Spirit to obey His commandments and become perfect in this life is to mock and ridicule the power of the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery!

Did God really say, “Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect”? Yes, he did! And we are to trust in God’s written Word in that He would not command something that we could not do without His all-empowering grace that comes from the Cross!


“Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?” - James 2:21-25

Now, if you were to read Scripture alone, and interpret Scripture alone without adding this ‘justification before men’, you would understand that we are justified by works!


So Justification is like a box of legos. God is like someone who gives us a box of legos for our Birthday and gets mad and takes them back if we don’t build what is on the box.


But we are also told in Psalm 143:2 that no man living is righteous in God’s sight.

Augustine indicates:

This being the case, ever since the time when by one man sin thus entered into this world and death by sin, and so it passed through to all men, up to the end of this carnal generation and perishing world, the children of which beget and are begotten, there never has existed, nor ever will exist, a human being of whom, placed in this life of ours, it could be said that he had no sin at all, with the exception of the one Mediator, who reconciles us to our Maker through the forgiveness of sins
(On Merit and the Forgiveness of Sins, and the Baptism of Infants, Book 2 Chapter 47)

He also says:

Therefore the first commandment about righteousness, which bids us love the Lord with all our heart, and soul, and mind (the next to which is, that we love our neighbour as ourselves), we shall completely fulfil in that life when we shall see face to face. But even now this commandment is enjoined upon us, that we may be reminded what we ought by faith to require, and what we should in our hope look forward to, and, “forgetting the things which are behind, reach forth to the things which are before.” And thus, as it appears to me, that man has made a far advance, even in the present life, in the righteousness which is to be perfected hereafter, who has discovered by this very advance how very far removed he is from the completion of righteousness.

Forasmuch, however, as an inferior righteousness may be said to be competent to this life, whereby the just man lives by faith, although absent from the Lord, and … it may be without absurdity said, no doubt, in respect of it, that it is free from sin; for it ought not to be attributed to it as a fault, that it is not as yet sufficient for so great a love to God as is due to the final, complete, and perfect condition thereof….And do they prove this to be wrong which is written, “In Thy sight shall no man living be justified?” and this: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us?” and, “There is no man that sinneth not;” and again, “There is not on the earth a righteous man, who doeth good and sinneth not” (for both these statements are expressed in a general future sense,—“sinneth not,” “will not sin,”—not in the past time, “has not sinned”)?—and all other places of this purport contained in the Holy Scripture? Since, however, these passages cannot possibly be false, it plainly follows, to my mind, that whatever be the quality or extent of the righteousness which we may definitely ascribe to the present life, there is not a man living in it who is absolutely free from all sin; and that it is necessary for every one to give, that it may be given to him; and to forgive, that it may be forgiven him; and whatever righteousness he has, not to presume that he has it of himself, but from the grace of God, who justifies him, and still to go on hungering and thirsting for righteousness from Him.

(On the Spirit and the Letter, Chapters 64-65)


Well, we may lose our justification, viz. baptismal grace/innocence, through mortal sin; thank God for the Sacrament of Reconciliation to that baptismal grace! God grants us the liberty of allowing Him to live in us whereby we get the grace to participate in the life of Christ, or, rejecting His grace and/or sinning against His gift of justification.


We can strive to be perfect but in this life we are not able to achieve it. It is only because of faith that we can do so. Hebrews 10:1-2 tells is that if we were perfect we would not consciousness of sins. We will only be perfect in the next life.


Do you not trust God in that He has the power and the willingness to make you perfect in this life? If no one can reach perfection in this life, then why did the Eternal Word of God descend to this life and give His life for our lives?! He might as well have stayed in Heaven, gifted us faith, and only declared us to be perfect.

He went through all that suffering, agony, and anguish to make you perfect in this life! Why do so many not reach perfection in this life, is because of a lack of trust in God’s mercy and transforming graces. Anything is possible with God, anything! Even reaching perfection in this life!


Looks like the thread exploded while I was away. I have to go back to this point:

I very strongly disagree, friend. Every English language bible, both Protestant and Roman Catholic that I am aware of, makes a distinct switch from faith (the “complete belief” that is a gift from God) to belief (the mere intellectual assent, which even the demons have). This switch is even richer in the Greek, as it’s no longer even the same part of speech; it becomes a verb, and takes on a different tense and mood. Since “faith” in Greek is feminine, and the following verb is done by “you” (neuter), one could even make the case that the gender changes too! No, the logical conclusion is that James is intentionally using a linguistic device to demonstrate that faith has components of which mere intellectual assent --belief-- is only part. He’s simply preaching against antinomianism.

The point the article makes, and which a poster in this thread misunderstood severely, is that in English the two can be synonyms in common speech, and that leads to imprecision in theological matters. This is why some people prefer to use the term ‘saving faith’ to differentiate from the mere belief of demons, etc. The article says this ambiguity is why the Roman Catholic Church shies away from the term ‘Faith Alone,’ even though it would concur that we are saved by Faith Alone.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit