Evangelicals are firmly convinced of at least two, interrelated doctrines central to the gospel:
- That justification is by faith alone, apart from our working to fulfill God’s moral requirements;
- That “justification” refers to a one-time event where God makes a declaration that Jesus’ moral standing has been legally credited to us, and he therefore considers us to be in the right.
One rather good reason for thinking these doctrines are true is that the very best moral standing 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 pleasing to God, then those works themselves are excluded from the outset as the basis of their being so pleasing—apart from faith, they would be sin! But if the works would be sin apart from faith, then certainly we are not declared in the right 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?
Let’s start by tracing 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 being religious.
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.
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. In modern parlance, virtue-signaling. 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. I.e., given that we are initially justified by faith—that we are declared in right standing with God upon our confession of faith in him—how can we then know that our faith is the real deal as we seek to live it out? How can we know that our initial confession was the kind that really does receive a declaration of right standing? We did not, after all, hear God’s declaration—so as we now seek to live out our faith, how can we know that we will hear it on the final day? How can we know we aren’t deceived?
And his answer is: we must have a faith that does something in our lives. Dead faith, which does not initially justify, does not do anything else either.
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 Yahweh’s exclusive demand on their lives). So what good is it to have the kind of faith that even demons have? What good is it to believe that God has an exclusive demand on your life if you don’t then give your life to him? That is not the kind of faith that saves.
To illustrate this, James 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 claim 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:
- Abraham’s works alone would have been insufficient to credit righteousness to him—faith was a vital ingredient;
- Abraham’s works were in fact an outworking of faith—given that they “completed” the faith, the faith had to come first.
James therefore cannot be saying that Abraham wasn’t justified by faith in Genesis 15:6. Rather, he is showing that this initial belief was indeed the kind that God credited to him as righteousness, because it was completed by being lived out in Genesis 22:9–11. Abraham did not receive right standing only when he completed the work of Genesis 22:9–11; rather, that work was the completion—the “livingness”—of the faith on which basis God had already declared his right standing in Genesis 15:6.
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” (Genesis 15:6) In other words, in James’ view, taking the whole life into account rather than focusing on the initial confession by which God first declares us righteous:
Initial faith + faithful 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 involves, over the whole Christian life, more than merely reasserting the initial belief that some of his readers obviously were claiming (vv. 18 and 20). To “believe God” in a way that receives God’s declaration of right standing involves, in the ordinary course of Christian living, producing works. If our initial faith (à la Genesis 15:6) is not completed by works (à la Genesis 22:9–11), then our initial confession was not the kind that receives a declaration of right standing; and we will thus not hear that declaration on the last day. Conversely, if our faith is completed by works, then we can have confidence that our confession was the kind that justifies, and that this justification will be reiterated on the last day.
James is not contradicting the doctrine of justification by faith alone expressed in Genesis 15:6—he is in fact explaining what that faith looks like over time. He is showing that we are regarded as righteous by a working faith, 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
You might think this contradicts what Paul says in Romans 2–5 and in Galatians. Surely faith is the opposite of working. Romans 4:2 says that Abraham was not justified by works, and verse 5 says that “to the one who does not work, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” But Paul is here speaking of earning right standing before God by fulfilling his moral requirements—and James 2:10 agrees with him that “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” The commands James 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 by their initial faith, they are now under the “law of liberty” (v. 12). This is what actually leads James 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 the works of faith.
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 God declares us righteous because of our love? 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?
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 initially credited to us as righteousness is something that actually turns out to be belief + believing 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 western lens of slicing and dicing. 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 Semitic Totality. 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 that faith is living, working. Thus, those works justify also. They do not justify in the sense of earning us moral standing before God, for faith itself does not earn us moral standing before God! Rather, the works are part of the faith by which we receive Jesus’ moral standing from God. 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 justified. We are already justified; we already have Jesus’ righteousness credited to us. But we must take it, continue to believe it—and thus, on Semitic Totality, live it.