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Catholic Culture Solidarity

Salvation by faith or by works? James and Jude speak

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 07, 2020 | In Scripture Series

In my commentary on the books of the Bible, we now turn to the brief letter of St. James and the even briefer letter by his brother, St. Jude. After spending so much time with St. Paul, this makes for a healthy combination. For if Paul repeatedly emphasizes the necessity of faith in Christ, both James and Jude warn us not to forget the importance of the works that we do. It is not that Paul himself does not say a great deal about how Christians are to conduct themselves, but a few of his most famous passages were seized upon by a neurotic Martin Luther so he could stop worrying about his manner of life, and these have often been interpreted in isolation under the misleading slogan of “sola fide”, or “faith alone”.

Before I take up the Letter of James, which Luther is said to have torn out of his Bible and discarded as apocryphal—along with Jude, Hebrews and Revelation—I should briefly explain the Catholic distinction between justification and sanctification, so that there need be no misunderstanding. The Church teaches that the sacrifice of Christ for our sins has justified all persons before God, through Our Lord’s superabundant acceptance of the punishment due in justice for sin. Justification, then is universal. God’s Son paid the debt for sin; he did so through a supreme act of mercy which demonstrates that justice and mercy in God, though often viewed by us so differently, are really always the same thing, both expressions of the same Love.

But God’s purpose in creating us is not completed by justification but by bringing those who are willing into a union of Love with Himself. The sacrifice of Christ tells us only about God’s love—not our own! Consequently, God wills that we be joined to Christ’s body on earth to live ever more fully in Christ, growing in grace as we learn God’s will and develop the habit of following it, for He “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). For most of us, self-evidently, this is not the work of a moment.


The ordinary manner of receiving the benefit of Christ’s sacrifice is through the sacrament of baptism which joins us to his body the Church. The ordinary way of responding well to this and all of God’s free gifts is to imitate Christ himself, who said from the very beginning, “Behold, I have come to do your will, O God” (Heb 10:7). And of course we have many words of Christ which emphasize the importance not only of our faith in Him but of our deeds, in particular his teaching on the final judgment (e.g., Mt. 25:31-46).

Now this whole spiritual process of our lives, should we not die before we are capable of sin, is called not justification but sanctification. It is the process of drawing into an ever-deepening union with God through that love which engenders fidelity to His holy will. Thus God’s plan for all includes justification, but for most of us it also includes sanctification, by which—again through his gratuitous mercy and love—we are invited to participate ever more richly in the Divine life.

To refuse this participation decisively is, of course, to make it impossible for God to save us for Himself. And so, for all who have been given the natural opportunity to respond to God’s love, the working out of our salvation (which St. Paul reminds us to do “in fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12)) includes an acceptance of God’s free gift (justification) and a determination to respond to this supreme act of love by permitting Him to draw us to Himself—to make us holy, that is, sanctification.

Abraham: Works complete faith

It is just here that the Letter of James rounds out the picture presented by St. Paul. For St. Paul had pointed out that those who accept Christ are really following in the line of Abraham, who lived by faith in God and His promises. This, and not the impossible adherence to the entire Jewish Law or the repetition of ritual sacrifices, is what makes us true children of Abraham. It is through our acceptance of God’s gift and our trust in Him, then, that we embrace our justification. As St. Paul says of Abraham:

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

As we have seen, however, there remains a response to be made to this gift, a genuine appropriation of the gift in our lives. St. Paul himself warns against sin, and backsliding, and a failure to live in Christ once we have received this gift. But it is James who explains this work of sanctification most fully and clearly, using the very same example of Abraham:

What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead…. Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”; and he was called the friend of God…. For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead. [James 2:14-26]

James goes on to warn against the many ways in which men pervert their works and weaken their faith. He considers how powerful is the human tongue which, like a tiny rudder on a huge ship, can guide it either safely or onto the rocks. He talks about true and false wisdom, the one which is mere human prudence and directed toward selfish ambition, and “the wisdom from above” which is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity” (3:17). He also warns against worldliness:

Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is in vain that the scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit which he has made to dwell in us”? [4:4-5]

And so, through the rest of his letter, James insists, just as St. Paul so often did, on a truly Christian way of life, with very severe warnings.


St. Jude, in a letter which makes fascinating use of apocryphal literature known to people at that time, completes the picture painted by his brother. James’ letter was addressed to “the twelve tribes of Israel” and it is clear that Jude is addressing a similar audience. The purpose of his letter is to warn believers that God expects sustained faith, love and obedience. He emphasizes that the Jews, after first following God, rebelled against Him in the desert, and so were forced to wander until that generation died, never to enter the promised land. Similarly, he reminds everyone that those angels who, created in God’s Presence, chose not to serve him, were all cast out into the darkness. In exactly the same way, he warns against those among them who lead them astray from the teaching they have received:

They are blemishes on your love feasts, as they boldly carouse together, looking after themselves; waterless clouds, carried along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the form of their own shame; wandering stars for whom the deepest darkness has been reserved for ever. [Jude 12-13]

The response in love to Christ’s gift of justification, through a life of sanctification, is the fullness of God’s plan—in other words, faith fulfilled and completed by works. No wonder James warns:

Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you men of double mind. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord…. [James 4:8-10]

The Cross brings with it no guarantees unless, in accordance with our opportunities, we are willing to take it up daily in a living, fruitful union with Christ.

New Testament Series:
Previous: Hebrews: Old covenant fulfilled and eclipsed by the New
Next: Peter’s letters proclaim the Faith

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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