The question of “faith vs. works” has often baffled—and even enraged—biblical interpreters. Different Christian groups (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, etc.) proclaim different views, sometimes fighting with each other over the correct interpretation. All of them contrast their own position with the “old” Jewish way of thinking. So where does all this conflict and confusion come from?

An apparent contradiction lies at the root of the controversy. Saul/Paul of Tarsus writes, “For we hold that one is justified by faith (πίστις; pistis) apart from works of the Law” (Romans 3:28, ESV; cf. Rom 5:1; Gal 2:16, 3:11, 3:24). But then Jacob/James of Jerusalem says, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith (πίστις; pistis) alone” (2:24, ESV). Some Christian theologians take one side or the other in this “debate,” while others try to show that the apparent contradiction is not really a contradiction.

Yet for all the argument and discussion, one of the most important factors is often neglected completely. Both Jacob/James and Saul/Paul were actually first-century Jews who lived in a hybrid Hebrew-Greek environment. Like others in this situation, they struggled to express and discuss Hebrew ideas in the Greek language. Just before Jacob/James states that becoming “just” involves “works” rather than merely “faith alone,” he exclaims, “You foolish fellow, can’t you see that ‘faith’ apart from works is useless?!” (2:20). This outburst reflects the fact – difficult to convey in Greek – that the Hebrew word for “faith” (אמונה; emunah) means a lifestyle of steadfast reliability.

Saul/Paul was no less frustrated with his audience when it came to understanding the Jewish idea of “faith” – he even calls the Galatians “mindless” (Gal 3:1) with regard to this topic. In context, he was arguing that the way to be considered “just” is to live a lifestyle of steadfast reliability in the way of truth, and that this doesn’t depend on whether one is Jewish and follows the Torah of Moses, or is a Gentile and therefore not obliged to keep all the same commandments.

Both authors found themselves limited by the language they had to use. Each chose a different angle or tack in employing Greek words to express Hebrew/Jewish ideas. This created the impression of a major contradiction, one that would even cause religious schisms! Thankfully, today we have many tools for understanding the original Jewish-Greek context and decoding the deep meanings of such ancient letters.

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92 COMMENTS

  1. The Galatians appear to be not mindless, but confused. They were Celts, at least many of them, although there were probably some Jews among them in the synagogues and then in the first Christian congregation. They had originally come from Gaul and could still speak Gaelic– that is how that province got its name. They traded with their brethren in Gaul, and in all respects were neither Greeks nor Romans, but a separate culture altogether. Their own native religion, prior to coming in to contact first with Judaism and then Christianity, had been animistic.

    • Thank you for the comment, Phillip. In Hebrew there wasn’t such a thing as “faith” without deeds (action, lifestyle), and I think this is why Jacob was so frustrated with the argument that there could be such a thing.

  2. I haven’t gotten finally the meaning from the original Jewish-Greek context. I for one have come to believe that faith alone is enough to justify man. The inclusion of works would mean the justification was actually earned or awarded; just like a wage out of our works; not by Grace of God. Then I think that would imply that the imputation of righteousness on us by God would be baseless, out of play so to speak; because our works anyway would be there to justify us. But the question is, who really would be justified by works?

    • Thank you for the comment, Faith. The point here is that our word “faith” doesn’t reflect well what Jews of the first century were trying to communicate. In Hebrew there was no such thing as “faith” without deeds (action, lifestyle). Biblical emunah means something like “living faithfully in a right way.” There was no exact equivalent for this in Greek (or in English today). As a result, it was difficult for these authors to communicate the biblical idea. (I would argue that “justification” is also a misleading word, but that will have to be another topic for another day.)

    • I think that faith justifies us before the true God as it applies to God. It is a personal relationship with God. Good deeds justify the faith as a natural outcome of a fervent faith. Faith and works are married together.

    • Faith, Facing that same controversial question, I’ve minded it in the most simple methafora. Let’s imagine we want to enjoy a cake (justification). So, we have the recipe in one hand (Faith) and ingredients (works to do) in the other. It is a must having both to get cake done.

    • James said faith without works is dead. Paul tells us righteousness is by grace without the Law, for no flesh was saved by the Law. When we come to Jesus through faith we are born again so it Christ through us that does the work. No conflict.

  3. As soon as you get to the point you stop?
    Faith in “faith” alone does not exclude works, it actually include works as in Eph 2:10, but the pre-eminence is given to faith. While the works in James (Jacobus in Dutch) is about proof of justification. So the order is faith first, works come (automatically) afterwards. The difference is that we are not saved (salvaged) by works but by faith. The first work of faith is baptism.

  4. Good article. If we truly trust and love our Heavenly Father we will desire to do what pleases Him. As with love, there is passive and there is active love. Our God didn’t just say he loves us He acted by sending His only begotten to be our saviour. So if faith doesn’t show itself in our works what is the use. Surely that is empty faith as I think Dr Yeshaya is saying. Thank you Dr.

  5. Regarding faith v works, James’ epistle was the very first NT epistle (circa 50AD). Four years later, Paul wrote his very epistle to the churches in Galatia. It was to Paul that the vision of God’s NT economy/plan was given. When James wrote his epistle he did not have an understanding of God’s NT economy. So. why was James’ epistle included as God’s inspired speaking? I believe its purpose is to demonstrate to us that God works within the limitations of His people. Without Paul, we would have no clear vision concerning God’s NT economy — something that James lacked.

    • Thank you for the comment, Christian. The date of the letter is not known for certain, though your view is one possibility. Regarding the other points, you present one theory for dealing with the apparent contradiction in a theological way (see what I wrote about this in the article). What I’ve tried to suggest is that something is going on at the basic level of language, and that this should be considered first (before theology) if the goal is to understand the texts in their original contexts.

  6. There is no doubt about the fact that faith and work goes together. The point is that our justification came by grace through faith. We never worked for it. However, the faith we have is what produces work and not the other way around. If anyone believes in his or her heart and then confesses with the mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord, he or she shall be saved. The believing is the faith while the confessing is the work. True faith will always produce work. In actual sense, the faith comes so we can do the work.

    • Thank you for commenting, Jerry! You’ve expressed a traditional Christian theological interpretation that seems to “work” (no pun intended!) in English. Ironically, however, Saul/Paul’s argument in Galatians is almost the opposite! When he talks about being/becoming “just,” he juxtaposes emunah/pistis with “the works of the [Mosaic] Law.” He explains that the purpose of that Law was to bring about the lifestyle of real emunah/pistis (see esp. Gal. 3:24). So in this particular case, at least, the “works” lead to the “faith” — but “faith” not in the English meaning, but as a holistic way of living-doing-thinking-believing-acting. Does that make sense?

  7. I also think that “works” tends to be interpreted as “how much”(quantity) rather than “what kind” (qualitative).
    If we try to “justify” our faith by doing “more for the kingdom”, we become empty and exhausted! But if we are justified by faith( believing & living in Christ), then what we “do” and how we do it will be reflecting that faith. Not only are
    we a “new creation” but we also have a new attitude in our “actions” (works, etc.)

    • Thank you for commenting, Bill. That’s a nice image! Interestingly, though, Hebrew emunah is in some sense more like the burning candle (a continuous lifestyle) — or maybe both parts together… This shows once again how difficult it is even to discuss the biblical idea in another language.

  8. Wow! Amazing article, as all of them are. This seems to be so simple. What is faith? Is it an emotion? It certainly at times has emotion associated with it, but it is not an emotion. Is it a mere mental resolve? It certainly must have that, but if that were all that it was it would disappear upon the mind being shaken by some catastrophic event. Is it a gut level sense? The gut or “bowels” if you will is that deep seated place in all of our lives where lies conviction, that paradigm of what we call truth.

  9. But if that were all that it was was then it would not be a true paradigm. How can any of these expressions be evidenced in a believers life without works? What to me seems to be going here is the attempt to separate the words “faith” and “works”. The truth is though you can’t separate what faith really is. To the Jew if you have real faith then you will live a “lifestyle of steadfast reliability. If you live a lifestyle (works) of steadfast reliability then you have real faith. Thank you for the article.

  10. shalom brethren,i think what James is sharing with us is not works of the law of the flesh but works of faith in the LORD .this is what (works) one can do to make the LORD see his / her faith in HIM.see faith with works in math:7:24,26 .can some one ask for help from a baby of two month old? he can not why because it is obvious he can never ever believe that. Most of the people who got their miracle during the time of the lord on earth believed JESUS was able to heal them some TOUCHED

    • Thank you for the comment, Moses. “The law of the flesh” is a customary English translation of one of Saul/Paul’s idiosyncratic expressions, found in Romans 7. There he seems to mean something like “the driving principle/practice of the baser bodily impulses.” Here in Galatians 3, however, when he talks about “the Law” he means the specific Law/Instruction of God given through Moses (see esp. 3:17). He argues that the purpose of this Law was to produce a lifestyle of real emunah/pistis/”faith-fulness” (see esp. 3:24). Meanwhile, Jacob explains the Biblical Hebrew idea of emunah/pistis/”faith-fulness,” which simply can’t be separated from deeds/actions/behavior.

  11. Wrestling spiritually for our positions in Messiah is a good thing, Gen 32:24-32 for all involved. We may exit the match with a limp but, “It is better for you to enter into life maimed or crippled…”. HE’s able.
    To think of Paul and James back then experiencing the same linguistical difficulties of our day, as manifested in the comments to this and your previous article. You say this is just a study in linguistics and it is through linguists we have the many translations that exist today. Jewish-Greek, huh? Act 17:19-20.
    J.

  12. This is very, very interesting. I have traced the replacement theology that I experienced to a big, big language problem. (I was reached with the 10 Commandments (unchurched) and later converted to Christianity (churched). What stands out to me is yes, the law gave me knowledge of sin, but something else was being manifest (made known?) Rom 3:21. How was this something made known and what was it? I thought I was praying at the time (unchurched) and Jesus was not part of my vocabulary. I am curious what the word manifest means in Hebrew 🙂

    • Thank you for the comment, Kat. I think that biblical translations and theologies have reinforced each other for so many centuries now that it can be very hard to break out of the cycle. However, as we gain more insight into different aspects of the original contexts (history, language, society, and so forth), glimmers of a different light begin to shine into the “cave of shadows” (to use Plato’s famous metaphor).

    • Regarding your question about Rom. 3:21, the word often translated as “manifested” or “revealed” is πεφανέρωται (pefanerōtai), which literally means something like “has become visible.” It looks like this verb is not commonly used in the Jewish-Greek Septuagint (LXX), but it does appear in the LXX version of Jeremiah 40:6. Interestingly, that verse also mentions pistis (the topic of our article): “Behold, I bring upon her healing and cure, and I will show (fanerōsō) them, and will heal her, and make both peace and pistis.” Brenton translates pistis here as “security,” with a footnote saying that the Greek means “faithfulness.”

  13. thank you Dr Yeshaya Gruber for your comment on my comments on the topic question.i have always thought that there was no contradiction between the two Paul and Jacob.i can now say you perceive the contradiction to be there. allow me share this that the two did not discuss the same topic.Paul talked about things concerning the old and the new testament unlike Jacob who talked about things ONLY concerning the new testament. i really don’t see where the contradiction can arise since the two didn’t discuss the same topic. James 2:14-26 talks about performance actions of love to fulfill

    • Moses, thank you for continuing the conversation. I think you may have misunderstood something I wrote: I’m not arguing for a contradiction. However, I do disagree with you about “Old Testament” and “New Testament,” which are later theological terms that (in my opinion) distort the original meanings.

  14. When you deeply love someone, your wife, husband, or children, you would do anything to make them happy. That is all he asks of us. That is the kind of ‘works’ we offer up to God when we receive his gift of grace. No longer a chore, but a joy. It is a confirmation of our love for him. We are his hands and feet in this world as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:12-20. It is a gift of love honoring the commitment of God to us, and us by faith giving back to God.

    • Thank you for the comment, Linda. It’s important to note that here ‘works’ (ἔργα; erga) just means ‘what you do’ (actions, behavior). So these could be things that are hard or easy. I think your point about love is a good one; at the same time, to live in that way is probably not always easy (and true love is more complex than just making the other person happy). Sometimes it is hard to do what benefits even a family member — let alone someone less loved!

  15. I struggle with a million voices out there teaching a million different ways of looking at Scripture. Why does God then not plain speak to us in any language? This may seem simplistic to many but I am His child who just wants to know the truth and please my Father without navigating through all this minutia or constantly wondering if my theology is even right so one can feel secure in my salvation. How do we know whose interpretation is right? What if people believe a lie or differing theology? Does not having full understanding of “theology” disqualify me?

  16. Hi Dr Gruber interesting article. Like I have also mentioned on a post of Dr Eli, there are christian groups who does not accept paul/saul and his teachings…and this is a good example why…he is not teaching what those before him taugh, he was not one of the original 12 and he is self proclaimed. He changes rules and laws as he pleases. The example above is a good one, another one is 1Cor 9:11 where he says that since they are sowing spiritual seeds they can reap material things from you, that is AGAINST what Jesus/Yeshua taugh

  17. Cont… on my previous post, Yeshua/Jesus taugh ” you have received freely, now give freely” this is not the same as Paul teached, Paul is a controversial character and we should not take anything he taught as fact..he changes things to his liking he is a dangerous biblical character. I am very wary of him…of someone is preaching and teaching things that are not of Yeshua/Jesus then he is not of Yeshua.

  18. Can we consider that Paul might have been an agent or imposter? Especially since his teachings moves away from instructions that where given by Yeshua himself, the 12 REAL apostles and other prophets? If you think about it the whole Christian religion can be based on this one man’s vision…and not on Yeshua/and the Most High.

  19. Is Saul/Paul saying he was saved prior to Damascus (based on who God is). We learned that faith is based on who we are.

  20. It almost sounds as if the Jewish understanding was more cyclical and works led to faith, which led to works and more faith! In other words, it was a lifestyle of both works and faith!

    • Thanks for the comment, David. I would say that the Biblical Hebrew concepts are just different than the modern English ones. The concept of ’emunah’ means something like ‘living faithfully’ (by what you do). But I would agree that this could create a virtuous cycle! 🙂

  21. Agree in majority of this teaching, but there is but one law: Exodus 12:49 One law shall be to him that is homeborn, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among you. Also:Numbers 15:16 One law and one manner shall be for you, and for the stranger that sojourneth with you.

    • Thanks for the response, Linda. The verses you quoted refer to very specific regulations in the Torah that were supposed to be the same for native-born citizens and for foreign residents (of Israel). However, other regulations specified clear differences between different groups of people (e.g., Deut. 14:21, Lev. 7:6, etc.). Moreover, in the first-century context many Jews and Gentile God-fearers lived outside the Land of Israel, which further complicated these questions.

  22. Mario…Yeshua implied much the same, that those who minister would be remunerated by those who receive their ministry. Read Luke 10:1-9. Paul could not say that Yeshua was Messiah and preach His life, death, and resurrection, except he received it from the Ruach haKodesh. Study for yourself. Be blessed.

  23. Even in western cultures, indigenous peoples have said “if you don’t know our language, you can’t understand our concepts”. Fully grasp them, that is. But even then, given the way that languages evolve over time, our understanding can get way off track unless a comprehensive historical/cultural context can be accessed.

    • Dorothy, what a great summary of what we at Israel Bible Center seek to do in our courses and writings, to the extent possible!! Why not join us in this pursuit?

  24. I believe your starting point is wrong. We are save by grace. Grace is gratis. The moment I add my effort, works, and merit than it is not grace anymore because I have contributed. It cant be free if I have to contribute. What I have is by grace.

  25. Rom 11.6 says. “If it be by grace, than it is no more of works”. Again Titus 3:5 says “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy He saved us”.We are saved by grace through faith in Christ and not by works.

    • Thanks for the comments, Nosey. You are expressing the usual ideas that come from reading/interpreting traditional Christian English translations today. But here we are trying to get back to the more original meanings as expressed in the first-century Jewish context. Join us in our courses for a fuller explanation of these things, and I think you will be surprised and excited!

  26. James chapter 2 talked a lot about faith and works being connected, context of James 2:24 is found in the chapter it’s found in. Our faith is proved by our works. When we have believing faith our life changes and we start doing things that that a believer should do.

  27. We need live our live in faith and show good works as Jesus lived while on earth. He was here to save us and be an example to follow His footsteps. He has faith in the father and also did good works to show us how to follow him.

  28. If you have faith, does it not show with works? If you follow YESHUA (JESUS ARAMAIC NAME)should it not show with works? Just muttering of a old man

    • Alvin, this sounds like what James/Jacob says (in translation). But the problem is that the English words “faith” and “works” may not reflect well the original meanings of these writers (who did not know or write in English, of course).

  29. Fantastic teaching. Faith involves action, as Abraham demonstrated. I think that many want “sloppy Agape”. They have forgotten the covenant involves both the Bridegroom and the Bride. We, as the Bride, have to actively draw nigh to Him. The churches in Revelation are known for their deeds… active faith. Thanks

  30. Thank you. I’ve read similar articles regarding Paul’s use of “faith,” and how it probably never meant the easy believe-ism some teach, that faith for Paul was something more like faithfulness, steadfastness, or “covenant faithfulness.” One author suggested the word “allegiance.” One’s “works” would play a vital role expressing this.

  31. Salvation is by Faith apart from works. We didn’t save ourselves, Jesus saved us, what we do is believe in His work on the cross and we obtain salvation but when it comes to my daily life as a Christian I must show goods that line up with the faith.

  32. So I don’t think Paul and James contradict each other, Paul was talking about the spiritual aspect, you can’t say you got saved because of good works it was by faith and James challenges believers to show their faith with good works, he is saying we should be practical.

  33. Well, neither Paul nor James were so simpletons not to express their thoughts in Koine. And there is also no reason to assume both of them had the same word in Hebrew in their mind. Maybe they had really different opinions…
    There is an old saying: Traduttore traditore.

  34. Would it, then, be reasonable to say:
    “emuna” is to “faith”
    as
    “shema” is to “hear” ?

    That is, the simple (simplistic?) one-word translation captures only the first layer of meaning, leaving out the presumed-inevitably-resulting-action layer altogether. ??

  35. This looks like another attempt to whitewash the differences in the New Testament Church between James and Paul. It’s obvious even from pro-Pauline accounts like Acts and Paul’s own words in Galatians (2:11-21) that James had serious issues with Paul and his theology (eg meat sacrificed to idols).

  36. I think language gives us multiply complex problems here. Paul and James struggled to put into language of their time concepts from of old. Translation from Hebrew through Aramaic to Greek was difficult enough, then we translate to modern English (or other modern languages), and find —

  37. –there are no exact equivalents, even between modern English and KJV English. Perhaps we should just remember the main point: God’s grace is a gift, not our purchase. We must faithfully live it.

  38. Paul and James are teaching about two different matters. Paul’s concern in Romans and Ephesians is about “saving faith”. James’ concern is about “living out” one’s faith through good works.

  39. Please, decipher also what Paul meant: Gal.5:6b “Faith working through love.” and also Gal, 5:13b “Serve one another through love.” “To serve” is “to work”, right?

  40. It seems to me we should “listen” to God to show us the answer. We can get into all kind of trouble when we worry about language, and different translation, etc. Just let God show us the answer we need. That means we have to be in tune with Him.

  41. Hi Dr. You cannot grow in spirit without works, not works like in religious ceremonial laws, but works in love and mercy towards everybody. Salvation is only through our Redeemer, but must be accompanied by the law of the tabernacle of today.

  42. May I share this article with my church community through a free paper that is prepared and shared quarterly?
    It would be properly accredited and this web address provided
    Elizabeth Nikitin, volunteer
    Christian Spiritual Ministries Inc., Toronto Ontario Canada

    • Elizabeth, thanks for your interest and for asking about sharing! Yes, that would be fine so long as you credit the source appropriately, as you mentioned.

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