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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101 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 interesting comment, Johanna! Since the Gauls had come to the area hundreds of years earlier, it would seem that the Galatians of the first century were quite fluent in Greek. However, you're right that every extra language/culture adds yet another dimension and more complexity to any transfer of ideas!

      + More answers (3)
    • We are glad that you are finding our articles enlightening. You’ve already started your path into Scripture, but there’s so much more that awaits you! Consider enrolling in our immersive online courses: The Name of God or Exploring Jewish Interpretation. We guarantee that they will deepen your understanding of Scripture and enrich your faith experience.
    • 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.
    • Thank you for the comment, Bruno. Part of your point is essentially what the article states: In Hebrew there was no such thing as “faith” without deeds (action, lifestyle). Biblical emunah means something like "living faithfully in a right way." As there was no exact equivalent for this in Greek (like in English today, probably Dutch too?), it was difficult for these authors to communicate the biblical idea. Regarding your question: These very short articles are designed to stimulate people's thinking on the original Jewish-Greek context and meanings of the texts (not to give all the answers to theologically-motivated questions).
    • We are glad that you are finding our articles enlightening. You’ve already started your path into Scripture, but there’s so much more that awaits you! Consider enrolling in our immersive online courses: The Name of God or Exploring Jewish Interpretation. We guarantee that they will deepen your understanding of Scripture and enrich your faith experience.
    • Bruno if the first work of Faith is Baptism? then how do you explain the "thief on the Cross" who expressed his Faith verbally in Jesus - "remember me when you come into your Kingdom"? no time for baptism in his case! SALVATION is ALL ONLY about JESUS NOTHING ADDED.
  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, Rae. That's a great point about quantity vs. quality! Should be kept in mind when interpreting these texts.
    • 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.
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