14 What doth it profit, my brothers, if a man say he hath faith, but have not works? can that faith save him? … 20 But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith apart from works is barren? 21 Abraham our father—was he not declared righteous out of works, having brought up Isaac his son upon the altar? 22 dost thou see that the faith was working with his works, and out of the works the faith was perfected? 23 and the scripture was fulfilled that says, And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness; and he was called the friend of God. 24 Ye see, then, that out of works is man declared righteous, and not out of faith only. (Jas 2:14, 20–24)
James 2 is transparently, indisputably, obviously dealing with forensic justification by faith.
In verse 14, the question is the kind of faith that saves. “Can that faith save him?”
So how does faith save us? We know it is by being the instrument of forensic justification (Ro 5:1). We are declared righteous on account of our faith—not because our faith merits anything, but because it unites us to Christ, whose merit then becomes ours as a gift.
James is therefore presupposing sola fide, “faith alone,” and instructing us on the nature of the faith that results in being declared righteous by God.
This is confirmed beyond doubt by his appeal to the locus classicus of forensic justification: “and Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness” (Ge 15:6). James says this was fulfilled when Abraham offered Isaac on the altar.
In other words, Abraham was declared righteous by faith when he did the work of offering Isaac.
Given the explicit connection to Genesis 15:6, it is impossible that James is referring to anything other than Abraham himself being declared righteous. In other words, he is using the word justified in the same way we normally do. This is why Young’s Literal Translation, which I am drawing on above, translates it as “declared righteous.” Young was tracking with the very basic logic that James uses to connect verses 21 and 23.
If you are unable to follow this connection, without slicing it through your systematic theology and making it come out as anything except forensic justification, then you are unable to rightly divide the Word—and your understanding of systematic theology is defective.
Systematic theology does not stand in judgment over scripture. Scripture is the source and judge of systematic theology.
How can James say that Abraham was justified by works, if he is presupposing sola fide? Young’s translation of verse 18 is helpful: “I will show thee out of my works my faith.” It is the works that reveal the faith, that embody the faith, that express the faith, that host the faith. The faith is “in” the works, and “shown out of” them, just like the spirit is in the body, “for as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also the faith apart from the works is dead” (v. 26). Works are the animating principle of faith—faith in action—just as the spirit is the animating principle of the body—the body in action. James straight-up tells us that faith is something like a living person. The body and the spirit can be distinguished—but they are both proper parts of the whole. What the body does, the spirit does, and what the spirit does, the body does.
In the same way, faith does things. The works are not separate from the faith—they are the faith in action. Sacrificing Isaac was Abraham doing faith. He was declared righteous by his works because they were the material expression of the living, doing faith by which he was united to Christ, and received Christ’s righteousness as a free gift.
This is neither complicated nor difficult. You might not like talking this way about faith and works. But too bad—the Holy Spirit does. Reform your mindset. Stop finding it alien to see physical things embodying spiritual meaning, and start thinking like God does. Stop insisting that physical forms don’t express spiritual realities, and see that God designed them that way.
It is a fact that internal states and their external actions are inseparable in scripture. By denying that works are faith doing, many pastors in NZ have become the very people James warns about. Simply apply their logic to love, and you will see this clearly: imagine if they denied that works were part of love. “Be warmed, be filled,” they might say—without giving any clothes or food.
And then, worse, they would condemn anyone who said that giving clothes and food is actually doing love, and instruct their flocks to divide from such people.
Such a view of love is obviously defective—and so is such a view of faith. Again, this is explicit in James; I’m not making these analogies up, they are the ones supplied by the Holy Spirit.
There are Reformed pastors in NZ teaching dead faith—and treating this as a badge of honor and a mark of orthodoxy. They are dividing from those, like myself, who affirm biblical language and categories.
This is shameful. Shame on any teacher of the church who is unable to discern the incredibly basic logic of what James says. Shame on any pastor who condemns another for preferring the natural language of scripture for faith and justification, rather than the artificial language of systematic theology. Shame on any theologian who is unable to distinguish between earning our own righteousness by doing works of the law, and receiving an alien righteousness by doing a working faith.
What a sad state our churches are in. What a dangerous thing for the sheep to be instructed that faith does not do anything—and that they should avoid those who say otherwise. Woe to those who teach dead faith to the faithful. Let us rather heed the great Puritan, John Owen, who exhorted us to always consider how we ought to act faith on Christ:
Let none be guilty practically of what some ware falsely charged withal as to doctrine;—let none divide in the work of faith, and exercise themselves but in the one half of it. To believe in Christ for redemption, for justification, for sanctification, is but one half of the duty of faith;—it respects Christ only as he died and suffered for us, as he made atonement for our sins, peace with God, and reconciliation for us, as his righteousness is imputed unto us unto justification. Unto these ends, indeed, is he firstly and principally proposed unto us in the gospel, and with respect unto them are we exhorted to receive him and to believe in him; but this is not all that is required of us. Christ in the gospel is proposed unto us as our pattern and example of holiness; and as it is a cursed imagination that this was the whole end of his life and death,—namely, to exemplify and confirm the doctrine of holiness which he taught,—so to neglect his so being our example, in considering him by faith to that end, and labouring after conformity to him, is evil and pernicious. John Owen, The Holy Spirit: Its Gifts and Power