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Does James teach justification by works?

In defense of the most misunderstood author in the canon of Scripture.

Most Protestants are firmly convinced of at least two, interrelated doctrines central to the gospel:

  1. That justification is by faith alone, apart from any actions or works we do;
  2. That “justification” refers to a one-time event where God makes a declaration that Jesus’ crosswork has been legally credited to us, and he therefore considers us righteous.

One rather good reason for thinking these doctrines are true is that the very best righteousness we can muster by ourselves is, colloquially, about as clean to God as a used tampon (Isaiah 64:6). Without faith, it is impossible to please him (Hebrews 11:6), because whatever does not proceed from faith is sin (Romans 14:23).

Now it follows that if faith is the basis on which our works can be righteous, then those works themselves are excluded from the outset as the basis of their own righteousness—since apart from faith they would be sin! But if the works would be sin apart from faith, then certainly we are not declared righteous on their account, but on account of the faith.

What, then, are we to make of James 2:24?

You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

Did James not get the memo?

Now, I hope that the very first thing you have done is load up your favorite Bible to open James 2 and examine the context. Obviously, removed from its larger setting, this verse seems quite clear; and if it is clear, it is clearly in contradiction to everything we believe about the nature of justification. But I’d like to suggest that when we read it the way James intended, it starts to look quite different.

Let’s trace some lines back from chapter 1—reading especially from verse 22 where he says to be “doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”

Deceiving in what way? Well, he says, in a way like someone who looks at himself in a mirror, then goes away and forgets what he was like. In other words, in a way that “forgets” or undoes or contradicts what we see in God’s word. We claim to believe the word? Good! Then we must be doers of the word; for if we hear it, but do not do as it says, we are deceiving ourselves about our belief.

This double-mindedness is the key issue James is focusing on throughout chapters 1 & 2

He is very concerned about what we say or think about ourselves, versus what we actually do. Hypocrisy. Self-deception.

His first example is forgetting our reflection; but he immediately brings it back to a practical point about the hypocrisy of religiosity:

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1:26-27

Again, the issue is hypocrisy: a religious person will actually be religious. He will do good works. To merely say you are religious, or think of yourself as religious, is worthless if you are in fact not doing anything about it.

He then diverts into a discussion of showing partiality in the first half of chapter 2. This might seem unrelated; in fact it is not, because James’ concern here, again, is with whether his readers are living according to the Scriptures that they say they believe. In this case, are they loving their neighbors as they love themselves (James 2:8)—or are they contradicting what they say they believe by showing partiality?

Now we get to the important part. James continues his thought by giving yet another example of this self-deception or hypocrisy he is so concerned about:

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in 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 good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

Let’s work through this carefully.

The analogy

First, notice how James explains what he means by giving an analogy. He compares faith without works to piously hoping for someone to be cared for while not actually caring for them. So again, the fundamental issue is hypocrisy. What kind of person says, “Be warmed and filled,” without actually offering shelter or food? A hypocrite. An insincere person. Someone who doesn’t really mean it.

In the same way, what kind of person says he has faith without having works? What kind of faith is that? It is a hypocritical faith. An insincere faith. The person doesn’t really mean it. And do you think that a hypocritical, insincere faith can save anyone? I don’t.

James presupposes salvation by faith

Second, notice what James is assuming at the outset. He is not here saying that faith is insufficient for salvation; he is in fact assuming quite the opposite! In naming two kinds of faith—the “living” faith which saves and the “dead” faith which does not—he takes for granted that one of these faiths does save. The question on his mind is not justification, but self-deception. Ie, given that we are justified by faith, how can we know our faith is the real deal? The kind that justifies? How can we know we have living faith that will actually save us? How can we know we aren’t deceived?

And his answer is: we must have a faith which produces works. Dead faith, which does not save, also does not produce works.

So the point of James’ question here is to illustrate the kind of faith which saves. By asking “can that faith save him?” he is at once implying that it cannot, and that some other faith can. Again, his point is not that faith does not save, but that the kind of faith under discussion does not. In effect, he is saying, “The kind of faith which saves is not the kind of faith which some people have.” But for that to be a sensible statement, there must actually be a kind of faith which does save.

In other words, James affirms Sola Fide. So whatever else he says immediately following, we cannot read him to be contradicting himself on this point. This scuttles any view that takes him to be affirming justification by works.

An objection from a hyper-Calvinist

James then expands his point by anticipating an objection, which today would come from a hyper-Calvinist:

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! James 2:18-19

You see how this reiterates what he has just said. He is acknowledging that there are some who have fervent faith. Their faith is not false. They really do believe. The problem is not that they fail to believe but that they fail to live by that belief. Even the demons believe that God is one (this is the Shema Yisrael, the classic Jewish statement of monotheistic faith). So what good is it to have the kind of faith that even demons have? That is not the kind of faith that saves.

To illustrate this, he then gives another example—which gets us into our key passage:

The key passage

20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. James 2:20-24

Verses 21 and 24 are broadly identical statements: they both make the problematical statement that a person is justified by works as well as by faith. But these statements act as parentheses around the text inside—they lead in, and they lead out again. So to understand them, we need to refer to the enclosed text to “decode” them. The example between them explains the point they reiterate.

So firstly, we must note that Abraham’s faith was both active along with his works, and was in fact completed by them. The implication is twofold:

  1. Abraham’s works alone would have been insufficient to credit righteousness to him—faith was a vital ingredient;
  2. Abraham’s works were in fact a result of faith—since they “completed” the faith, the faith had to come first.

Already, this looks suspiciously like the explanation of Sola Fide that I opened this article with.

Secondly, it is this combination of faith and works—of works completing faith—which fulfills the Scripture that “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” In other words, in James’ view,

Faith + works = believing God = how we are justified

James could not be more clear here. He identifies that to “believe God” in a way that God will credit as righteousness (ie, in a way which justifies us) involves more than merely having faith in the sense that some of his readers obviously are claiming (vv 18 and 20). Rather, to “believe God” in a way that credits righteousness involves producing works. James is not contradicting the doctrine of justification by faith alone expressed in Genesis 15:6—he is in fact explaining it. He is showing that we are counted righteous by a functional faith; not what might today be called “mere intellectual assent”. It is certainly possible to assent to the proposition that Jesus is Lord; but that is not the same as actually obeying him and trusting him, as the gospel requires.

Paul teaches exactly the same thing

Christians don’t have the option of thinking that James and Paul had a difference of opinion. But they do have the option of thinking that Paul has been misunderstood in Galatians 2-3 and Romans 3 and elsewhere when he seems to teach that our works cannot make us righteous in God’s sight.

But James surely agrees with Paul, for he says in James 2:10, “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” And the commands he mentions, about adultery and murder, are surely written on all hearts—not just the Mosaic code. So this accountability is why his readers, Jews, are not to act as if they were any longer under the law—because, being reconciled to God, they are now under the “law of liberty” (v 12). This is what actually leads him to his discussion about works being necessary along with faith. But does this not sound exactly like Paul? “You also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God” (Romans 7:4). What are the fruit we are to bear? They are good works.

Similarly, Paul’s discourse regarding love in 1 Corinthians 13 places a clear emphasis on works—on the sorts of fruits of the Spirit which we know Christians exhibit (in greater or lesser quantities). Indeed, Paul says that love is greater than faith! Is he therefore saying that love justifies us before God? Of course not; he is clear that we are justified by faith. But what kind of faith? Will a faith without love justify us? Would such a faith in fact be the kind of which he speaks when he says that “no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith’”? Does not living by faith imply action of some kind?

Semitic Totality

There is a final contextual factor that glues this discussion together. Unfortunately it isn’t in the text—which is why so many people struggle. We live in a culture which is characterized in large part by its tendency to define and to categorize. And so we find it troublesome that James (and Paul, as I suggest) speak of faith and works together in this way to refer to genuine belief. That they say the kind of faith which is credited as righteousness is actually belief + works.

Indeed, I’ve personally had well-meaning, thoughtful Christians say to me at this point, “But Bnonn, however you try to explain it, James still says that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone!” Well, we can dispense with the latter part of the objection because we have seen that “faith alone” here means faith without works—fake faith; insincere faith; dead faith. No one thinks that dead faith justifies.

But the former part, that a person is justified by works, is confusing to us. And it is confusing because we read it through the lens of drawing careful distinctions. As Westerners, we naturally treat even inviolably related things as separate. United perhaps, but separate.

What I mean is, we treat faith as belief, and works as actions. We recognize that works are intrinsic to real faith, but we break the two apart because we see a distinction between them; and, since it is faith which justifies, and works are separate from faith, we then say that works do not justify. So James 2:24 confounds us.

But this is not the way the Jews thought. To understand James 2:24, we need to think like Jews. We need to think like James, and like his readers. As much as we tend to separate and categorize, they tended to treat things holistically: a way of thinking referred to as the Semitic Totality Concept. We see this reflected in the way that man himself is described in the Bible. Sometimes we find that man has a soul (an immaterial mind), as in Genesis 35:18; sometimes we find that man is a soul, as in Psalm 7:2. Since the soul and body are so linked that there is no complete person without both, there is no error to the Jewish way of thinking in equivocating like this. By the same token, nausea is thought of as a condition of the soul and not the stomach (Numbers 21:5); companionship is refreshing to the bowels (Philemon 1:7); and the fear of God is health to the navel (Proverbs 3:8).

Because of this way of thinking, a man’s thoughts and actions were also naturally viewed as a totality. They were so linked as to be indivisible. Thus a man’s works were part of his thoughts; and his thoughts resulted in works. If they didn’t, they were in vain.

Understanding that Hebrews thought this way makes it impossible, in light of everything else James says, to understand him as advocating justification by works in James 2:24. He is not—he is treating works as part of faith. It is faith that justifies—and faith is living, producing works. Thus, those works “justify” also; not in the sense of earning our salvation or accruing credit before God, but in the sense of being part of the faith by which God credits righteousness to us. Similarly, when Paul exhorts us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling in Philippians 2:12, he isn’t suggesting we must do our part to be saved. We are already saved; we already have Christ’s righteousness credited to us. But we must take it, believe it—and thus, on Semitic Totality, live it.

2 comments

  1. bethyada

    Paul says’ Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness

    Clearly works does not earn someone salvation. If one wants to be saved there is no work he can do to earn it. But salvation is a gift from God for faith. But what faith is it that is not obedient to God’s commandments. If we claim to have faith, that faith results in what faith does.

    As I recently wrote on a similar point, Paul and Jesus both agree with James here. Paul says that desire is completed by doing what we desire. And Jesus says that the child who actually works for his father is the obedient one (Matthew 21:28-31).

    You cannot say I have faith in Jesus and not do what he asks. That is “faith” without works and is in fact not faith at all.

  2. William

    Actions speak louder than words. I hear James saying: if you have real faith it will show in action. We humans have an incredible capacity for self-delusion. We need a mirror to show the truth. Our actions make up that mirror.

    Great explanation, Bnonn! :)

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