Continued from part 4 «
Although I gave consideration, in part 4, to the place of works in salvation, there are a number of items which still bear discussion if I am to complete the examination of this topic. Of particular importance is a treatment of the comments which James makes about the place of works, because these are so commonly pitted against the statements Paul makes.
Now, if Scripture is clear about anything, it is clear that works cannot contribute to our justification—that is, applying the term justification in the precise way that theologians today do: works cannot contribute to our righteousness before God. This is because all our own righteousness is like a filthy menstrual rag in God’s eyes (Is 64:6)—it is so entirely polluted by sin that it is worthless. This is no less true after we have faith than before; in fact, it is only if we do have faith that it applies in a meaningful sense at all. Before faith we could do nothing to please God, regardless of how righteous it seemed to us or others, because whatever does not proceed from faith is in fact sin (Heb 11:6; Rom 14:23). It is therefore utterly impossible to have any righteousness in God’s eyes whatsoever apart from faith. The only righteousness the unbeliever can attain is self-righteousness. As I said in ‘The Means Of Salvation’ (part 3 of my series ‘On Strawmen’), anything a non-believer does, no matter how it may benefit others, is sin; because every action of his is done in defiance to God. Though he may recognize the law of God written on his heart, he does not honor its author. This law therefore condemns him, even though he follows it. It is only humanistic thinking which judges the moral value of a man’s actions by how those actions affect other humans.
This brings us back to the very point at hand: Scripture’s clear teaching that our works cannot and do not contribute to our righteousness before God. We are justified by Christ’s righteousness imputed to us—we do not need to add to this through our own efforts, for it is sufficient; and neither can we, for we are impotent:
For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin (Rom 3:20).
For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law (Rom 3:28).
Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified (Gal 2:16).
Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Gal 3:11).
I encourage you to read Romans 3, and Galatians 2-3, to understand the full context of these passages, and to see for yourself that I am using them correctly. I say this particularly because the challenge will be made, by Catholics and other false believers, as well as perhaps by misguided but genuine Christians, that this teaching is directly contradicted by James:
You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone (James 2:24).
If understanding context is vital, then it is particularly so in the case of this verse. As it stands, removed from its larger setting, it seems quite clear; and if it is clear, it is clearly in contradiction to everything I have stated so far about the nature of justification. So let me recall to your mind what I said earlier in this series about the sometimes ambiguous way in which certain words are used in Scripture. Their meanings are not necessarily consistent, even when used by the same writer. Just as in English, Greek words can have a wide semantic range, and the precise meaning must be determined from the context in which it is used. People, for some reason, often treat this elementary fact of exegesis with suspicion; as if, when I affirm it, I am trying to make an excuse, or justify interpreting a word as meaning one thing in one place, and another thing in another place. This is particularly common among unbelievers; which is to be expected. Since they are already biased toward a simple-minded and ignorant reading of Scripture, any attempt to treat it as one would a normal text written in a normal language—where nuances of meaning are typical and interpretation depends on the context—is treated as “mental gymnastics” and “twisting” and “stretching” the text, and all sorts of other absurd and emotionally loaded terms.
In the case of James 2:24, we must then firstly ask if James is addressing the same topic that Paul is in the previously-quoted verses. Now perhaps confusion is possible here, because if we say that the topic is the mechanism of being counted righteous before God, then it seems as if James and Paul are discussing exactly the same subject. But that is not really the case, because Paul is specifically talking about being counted righteous by faith as opposed to being counted righteous by following the law; while James is talking about being counted righteous by saving faith, as opposed to being counted righteous by mere belief. In other words, although the topic is, broadly speaking, justification, the specific question being addressed is entirely different.
Paul is concerned with demonstrating that it is impossible for us to do anything which will make us righteous in God’s sight. About this fact James surely is in agreement, for he says in 2:10, “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” This 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), which is what actually leads him into 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” (Rom 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). Paul says that love is greater than faith. Is he therefore saying that love justifies us before God? Of course not; I have shown that 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?
By asking these sorts of questions, we move from the topic which Paul generally discusses, as in Galatians, of faith versus law; to the topic which James is discussing, of saving faith versus the faith that even demons have. It is evident that this is indeed his topic, because he starts by saying, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? […] faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (v 14, 17). Something which is often overlooked in the question, “can that faith save him?” is that it presupposes that salvation is by faith. James is not here saying that faith is insufficient for salvation; he is saying that faith has two kinds: the “living” faith which saves, and the “dead” faith which does not. How do we know if we have living faith? If we have a faith which produces works. Dead faith does not produce works.
The key passage to examine when trying to understand James is in verses 21-24:
Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 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. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
The passage starts and ends with statements that a person is justified by works as well as by faith. These statements act as parentheses around the text inside—they lead in, and they lead out again. So in order to understand what James means by these parenthetical statements, we must refer to the enclosed text.
Firstly, we note that James states that Abraham’s faith was active along with his works and was completed by them. The implication to be drawn from this is twofold: that the works alone would have been insufficient to credit righteousness; and that the works were a result of faith—they “completed” the faith.
Secondly, we find that this combination of faith and works; of works completing faith; fulfills the Scripture which says “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”. In other words,
- faith + works = believing God = justification
What James is doing is identifying that to “believe God” in a way that God will count 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). This sort of faith, the sort of faith which hyper-Calvinists rely upon—even the demons have that! So rather than contradicting the doctrine of justification by faith alone, James is in fact explaining its meaning, and showing that we are counted righteous by a functional faith; not what might today be called “mere intellectual assent”. Now, genuine intellectual assent is faith, but a genuine intellectual assent would produce works, because works of course are directed by the mind, and only a mind genuinely in assent to the gospel will produce works. It is certainly possible to assent to the proposition that Jesus is Lord; but that is not the same as assenting to obey him and trust him, as the gospel requires.
It may seem strange to us, in a culture which is characterized in large part by its tendency to define and to categorize, that James speaks of faith and works together in this way to refer to genuine belief. Indeed, it is likely that many well-meaning Christians will read everything I have read, and say, “But Bnonn, whatever way you try to explain it, James still says that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone!” We can dispense with the latter part of the objection simply by pointing out that “faith alone” here is faith with works; and then show that the former part relies on an artificial distinction which we raise because we treat even inviolably linked things as being separate unto themselves.
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. But this is not the way the Jews thought. 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 thought of 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 intrinsically linked, such that there is no complete person without both, there is no error to the Jewish way of thinking in equivocating in this manner. Similarly, James, writing to a Jewish audience, sees no error in equivocating between works and belief: separating these two things, which together make up saving faith—and then saying that works justify just as belief justifies. However, his doing so is made a little confusing by the fact that he uses the term faith to refer merely to the belief aspect of saving faith; yet in speaking of Abraham, he uses the term belief to refer to saving faith itself. So we must be careful, as we read his epistle, to keep track of his meaning by extension, rather than intention. In other words, we must recognize that what he means by faith and belief can change depending on the setting in which he uses these words. Their meaning is not fixed within them, but without.
Simply put, then, James neither contradicts Paul or the rest of Scripture regarding the nature of faith; nor does he teach that works contribute to our redemption and standing before God. Although at a glance it is easy to construe this from his epistle, a comparison to the rest of Scripture, and a careful consideration of his words and reasoning, show otherwise. It remains that Christians, those elected by God, are those people who believe the word of God, trusting purely in the work of Christ revealed therein for their salvation, and producing good works in love, in accordance with their faith.