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You see then that a man is justified by WORKS, and not by faith only.

James 2:24

Two apparently contradictory statements by Paul and James. Paul said a person is justified by faith apart from works. Whereas James said a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. So how can both be correct if the two statements from these prominent figures are to be taken as Biblical truth?

In fact, both Paul and James were right. Neither were wrong when they said what they said. The confusion sets in because of the English translation of our Bibles. Romans 3:28 in the NIV Bible for example, what Paul said was written as “… justified by faith apart from the WORKS of the law.” And in James 2:24 of the NKJV Bible, James said, “… a man is justified by WORKS …”

Traditionally, whenever we hear preachers presenting sermons on justification not by works, most of them tend to give credence to their explanation without looking into the very fabric of translation of the word “works”. And most people took it as the WORKS mentioned by both Paul and James are referring to the one same thing.

Now, let’s consider the same verses again. Romans 3:28 in NKJV says, “… a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.” And James 2:24 in the NIV Bible reads as, “a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.”

Do you see the difference? Take a closer look again between Romans 3:28 and James 2:24 in both versions of the NIV and NKJV Bibles. Yes, Paul was referring to the “deeds of the Law” whereas James was talking about “what they do (the people, not the Law)”.

Now let me dive in deeper and explain the difference between the works of the Law and the works of the people.

The Works Of The Law

During the times of the Second Temple, the Great Sanhedrin met in the Temple in Jerusalem, and they convened every day except on festivals and the Sabbath day. The Sanhedrin is the sitting together or assembly or council, made up of either twenty-three or seventy-one elders. After the destruction of the Second Temple, these procurators were then known as Rabbis. They are those appointed to sit as tribunals in every city in the ancient Land of Israel, enabling people to bring disputes to them for resolution according to God’s laws.

The Sanhedrin and these procurators are systematically similar to our modern legal infrastructure comprising of judges, lawyers and the law enforcers; police. Today, if one breaks the law, he shall be arrested by the police, brought before a judge and a trial commences against him. The prosecutors will present evidence of wrongdoing whereas the lawyers for the accused shall defend and try dent the evidence brought against their client in order to free him from judgment.

When Paul mentioned “the works of the Law”, he was talking about the legal system of Sanhedrin, the works of the Sanhedrin, the works of the assembly of procurators who handled the affairs of others. And the emphasis of Paul’s words during his time, clearly identified the mass rejection by the Jews, of Christ as the only way to God. Instead, the Jews believed the works at the Sanhedrin is what leads to eternal Life.

Paul was on an uphill battle, preaching to the Jews in Rome, who thought they could be saved without Christ.

The Works Of The People

Now, let’s consider what James said. To make it easier to understand what he said “that man is not justified by faith alone but by his works”, we shall need to read a little more than James 2:24 alone. Let’s consider the entire context from James 2:20-24:-

“You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father 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. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.”

Do you see it now? Yes, James was talking about the deeds of the individual and not about the works at the Sanhedrin (or the works of the Law as mentioned by Paul). The deeds of the individual are the things we do from our heart that pleases God. And the things a person does that are pleasing God are those that are opposite to things like stealing, lying and coveting. In short, the things we do in our daily lives that refrains from sin, is pleasing to God.

Faith in Christ involves the turning away from bad deeds to doing good deeds. In this way, we become acceptable to Christ. Faith without works is dead because true faith transforms a life. It is also true that works without faith are dead. Our faith is evidenced by the way we live; our works.

And to clarify further, the good works we are talking about here is not our charitable works, how much time we spend to serve in our churches or how much money we give to the poor. The works that James was referring to is about not sinning and not doing things that makes God angry with us.

It only becomes a problem when our deeds are not pleasing to God, and as a result of our misdeeds, we become unknown to Christ (Matthew 77:22-23) and we end up in “the works of the Law” to be tried and judged by it. And to make matters worse, most churches ends up with members understanding this as though once a person profess to believe in Christ, he shall always be counted saved, and his denial against repentance is no longer an obstacle to salvation.