Do Works Justify?

Recently I criticized the use of a certain word by James, in his epistle addressed to the 12 tribes. In chapter 2 of this epistle James writes:

Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. (Jas 2:24)

I stated that when James used the word, “justified,” he chose a wrong word and stated that this faulty word has resulted in false conclusions about justification. Works have nothing to do with how we are justified before God and this directly contradicts what Paul says in Romans 3:20:

Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. (Rom 3:20)

The fact that I dared to criticize the use of this word by James, caused a storm of protest on Facebook, and among other things it was said that “my hero” Paul, said exactly the same thing as James did in Romans 2:13, when he wrote,

“(For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.” (Rom 2:13)

I completely disagree with this assertion. Paul does not agree with James on this issue of justification and this verse in Romans 2 is certainly not an indication that he believed in being justified by doing the law. This is another example of the way people read the Bible without understanding, looking at verses in isolation, but failing to understand the broader context of what is being discussed. People fall into this trap especially when reading the writings of Paul.

Romans chapters 1-3 are part of one extended argument where Paul is trying to prove that every single person in the world is in need of salvation. If you miss this overall picture you will mess up what Paul is saying pretty badly as most people are doing.

In Romans chapter 1, Paul demonstrates what everybody already knows, that is, that the Gentiles are great sinners. He mentions their rejection of God, even though they are able to see evidence of his existence in the things that are created, and he says that as a consequence, they embrace homosexual practices along with other depraved behaviors. He concludes by saying that the judgment of God is that those who practice such things are worthy of death.

Then in chapters 2 and 3 Paul sets out to prove something else which is more difficult to establish, and that is, that the Jews are also EQUALLY guilty, and equally in need of salvation. This part of Paul’s letter is addressed to Jews and his arguments are based on the beliefs of the Jews in relation to their attitude to the law and their understanding of it. It takes careful reading to follow Paul’s line of reasoning and as I said, most people only read verses, they don’t see the connection between thoughts, ideas and the illustrations used. This limited approach contributes to massive misunderstanding of Paul’s writings.

1. First of all, Paul says that having the law means nothing if those who have it do not keep it. (Rom 2:25)

2. Then he shows that the Jews do not keep the law and that therefore they are condemned by the law itself (Rom 2:17-23; Rom 3:9-20).

3. He reminds them that it is not those who hear the law who will be justified, but those who do the law

“(For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.” (Rom 2:13)

Is Paul here teaching justification by law-keeping? No, Paul does not contradict himself. What he is doing is using the Jews’ understanding of justification, he is actually making reference to something said in the law, which formed the basis of the Jews’ understanding of salvation.

“Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments: which if a man do, he shall live in them: I am the LORD.” (Lev 18:5)

This is what the law teaches, that if a man DOES what the law says, he will live. The law teaches acceptance, or justification on the basis of what we do. Paul comments on the same verse in Galatians chapter 3 where he says,

“But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith. And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them.” (Gal 3:11-12)

The law does not teach faith, it teaches DOING, so Paul says, it is NOT OF FAITH. But how do the just (those who are justified) live? “The just shall live by faith,” not by doing. This is Paul’s argument and he is not saying anything different in Romans 2:13.

In essence, Paul is saying, “the law which you base your entire religion on, says that those who do it, will live, will be justified, will be accepted by God, but NONE of you actually keep the law, you only possess it in writing. Therefore, you are in the SAME boat as the gentiles, because having the law is not what matters, it is DOING it that counts.”

Behold, thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God, (Rom 2:17)

Thou that sayest a man should not commit adultery, dost thou commit adultery? thou that abhorrest idols, dost thou commit sacrilege? (Rom 2:22)

And thinkest thou this, O man, that judgest them which do such things, and doest the same, that thou shalt escape the judgment of God? (Rom 2:3)

Careful examination demonstrates that Paul does NOT teach justification by works.

(Source: David Clayton from Restoration Ministry)