James and Justification by Faith

James S. Gidley

Does James 2:24 require us to modify the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone? It reads, "You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone."

Roman Catholic theologians insist that this text expressly denies the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone, and that justification is by both faith and works. Reformed theologians have argued that James, when properly understood, neither modifies nor contradicts Paul's doctrine of justification by faith alone [see table]. In a nutshell, James and Paul address two different questions and are speaking of two different kinds of faith and two different kinds of justification.

Agreement Between Paul and James

We learn much about the relationship between Paul and James in Galatians 1–2. In a meeting with the leaders of the Jerusalem church, Paul tells us, "I ... set before them ... the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain" (Gal. 2:2). The result of this examination was that "those who seemed to be influential ... added nothing to me" (2:6), and that "James and Cephas and John ... gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me" (2:9). That is, Paul found that the apostles and leaders in Jerusalem preached the same gospel that he did.

Paul wants the Galatians to know that they reached this agreement, despite Peter's behavior at Antioch (2:11–14). Paul clearly puts the doctrine of justification by faith, without the works of the law, at the heart of the gospel. Therefore, the same doctrine of justification must have been at the heart of the gospel as it was proclaimed at Jerusalem. If that were not so, then either James or Paul (or both) was seriously mistaken or dishonest about the agreement reported in Galatians 2:9.

What was the nature of the agreement between Paul and the leaders at Jerusalem? The narrative makes it plain that Paul and the Jerusalem leaders did not reach agreement by working out previously existing differences. Rather, they discovered that they had been preaching the same gospel all along. Many evangelical and Reformed theologians would say that the two sides agreed in substance, but used different terminology—at least prior to the meeting described in Galatians 2. On this view, James 2 reflects this earlier terminology, which was used before Paul's distinctive use of the term justification became common in the Jerusalem church.

Such a view of Galatians 2 is sufficient to harmonize Paul and James and to defend the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Nevertheless, a more natural interpretation of the text is that Paul and the Jerusalem leaders found that they agreed not only in substance, but also in terminology. That is, the Jerusalem leaders, including James, preached and taught the doctrine in its Pauline form, that "a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ" (Gal. 2:16). Robert Johnstone, a nineteenth-century Scottish Presbyterian, puts it this way in his commentary on James (pp. 203–4):

The great cardinal doctrine that justification is by faith alone, was, beyond reasonable question, well known and ... fully received by the readers of this Epistle [James], as by all others of the primitive Christians.... That the full theological expression "justification by faith" was current in its well-defined sense at a very early period in the history of the church ... is shown by the language which, in Galatians [2:15–16], Paul mentions his having addressed to Peter at Antioch.

Paradoxical Terminology

But if James in fact taught the doctrine of justification by faith, without the works of the law, in the same terms as Paul did, then how could he possibly speak as he does in James 2? James assumes that his readers are quite familiar with Paul's formulation of the doctrine. But some of James's hearers were using the doctrine of justification by faith alone as a pretext for being complacent about ungodly living. What better way is there to awaken them than by using words that at first glance seem to be a shocking departure from what they have been taught? James 2 is a bombshell that explodes carnal confidence at its foundation. The complacent can scarcely be moved by anything less.

In other words, James is deliberately using paradox. Paradox is a feature of biblical wisdom literature; perhaps the clearest example is Proverbs 26:4–5:

Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.

The Letter of James is also wisdom literature, and James puts us on notice from the very beginning of his letter to watch out for paradox: "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds" (James 1:2). Perhaps these words have become so familiar to us that we forget how absurd they sound on first reading. How can we rejoice about trials? But James provides the resolution in the following two verses, and the wise will not miss his meaning.

All this is helpful in understanding James 2. We should expect the unexpected from James! Resolving the paradox of James 2 leads to the classic Reformed position: James is not speaking of the same faith as Paul, nor is he speaking of the same justification.

In James 2:14, we read of one who "says he has faith." This is not genuine faith, but a bare profession of faith. So when James asks, "Can that faith save him?" he is saying nothing against genuine faith, but only against an empty profession of faith. James gives us the test for genuine faith: like the faith of Abraham, it works. As J. Gresham Machen puts it, "The faith that James is condemning is not the faith that Paul is commending" (Notes on Galatians, p. 220).

It is also true that the justification of which James speaks is not the justification of which Paul speaks. One indication of this is the timing. Abraham was justified by works "when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar" (James 2:21). This was about thirty years after he had been justified by faith (Gen. 15:6). James shows that he is sensitive to timing when he says in 2:23 that Abraham's justification by works "fulfilled" Genesis 15:6. He speaks of Genesis 15:6 as a prophecy, and of Genesis 22 as its fulfillment. Prophecy and fulfillment do not occur at the same time and are not the same thing.

What then is the nature of justification in James? James indicates this plainly in 2:18: "Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works." He is speaking about demonstrating the genuineness of faith.

In Romans 4, Paul addresses the question, How was Abraham justified? In this question, "justified" means "reckoned righteous before God," and Paul's answer is: by the imputation of Christ's righteousness, received by faith alone. But when James asks how Abraham was justified, he is assuming that Abraham already had faith. So his question really is, How was Abraham justified in claiming to have faith? In this question, justified means "judged to have made a valid claim," and James's answer is: by producing good works. The questions are different, the answers are different, the justifications are different.

Paul speaks of a justification that comes by faith and not by works, while James speaks of a justification that comes by works and not by faith. Paul teaches us that we are constituted righteous before God by faith alone. James teaches us that the genuineness of our faith is demonstrated by our works.

Faith Completed by Works

I will not attempt to answer all the remaining questions that arise from James 2, but there are two that require some comment. First, what does James mean in 2:22 when he says that Abraham's "faith was completed by his works"? In the Roman Catholic interpretation, this is taken to mean that there is a deficiency in faith as a means of justification that must be compensated for by works.

But this interpretation rests on a misunderstanding of the verb that James uses, translated "completed" by the ESV. It means "to bring something to its conclusion" or "to bring it to fruition." James is not saying that faith is deficient as the means of justification, but that it comes to its intended goal when we produce good works. This is exactly the thought that follows when James explains the completion of faith in verse 23.

Justification by Works

There remains the text with which we began, James 2:24—the classic text for all who wish to deny the doctrine of justification by faith alone: "You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone." By now, it should be clear that the whole context drives us away from thinking that this verse is speaking of the same justification of which Paul speaks.

But a closer look at the verse itself will show that, even when it is taken out of context, it does not say what Roman Catholic interpreters wish it to say. The key to this verse is the word "alone." In the English translations, this may look like an adjective modifying the word "faith." It is not. It is quite clear from the Greek text that it is an adverb.

At first glance, this might appear to be a grammatical quibble. But it is much more than that. If "alone" were an adjective modifying "faith," then the most straightforward interpretation of the text would be that there is one justification, but that more than one thing is needed as the means to obtain it. But "alone" here is an adverb, modifying either the phrase "by faith" or the verb "justified."

Thus, the most straightforward interpretation of the text is that the justification that occurs by faith is not the only justification. We could paraphrase verse 24 as follows: "You see that a person is justified by works; he is not only justified by faith." Or to amplify the text even further: "You see that there is a justification by works, and not only a justification by faith."

Listen to James!

Before leaving James 2, we must take care that we have truly listened to what the Holy Spirit is saying through James. We may be tempted to heave a sigh of relief and say, "Whew! That was a close one! I thought we might lose a doctrinal controversy to the Roman Catholics, but our Reformed doctrine is right after all." If that is all we get from the text, then we are in great danger of a fatal self-deception.

The Spirit of God is blaring a trumpet blast against complacency! What will become of us if we are content with a bare profession of faith and do not produce good works? A faith that does not produce good works is not genuine faith! It is the pretense of faith; it is not saving faith, it is dead faith. Dead faith is all that people who are dead in trespasses and sins can produce. Living faith comes from the almighty power of the Spirit of God, giving life to the dead and redeeming them from their dead works to serve the living God.

The Westminster Confession of Faith says it well in chapter 11 ("Of Justification"), section 2:

Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.

The author is a ruling elder at Grace OPC in Sewickley, Pa., and the president of the Committee on Christian Education. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 2005. See also accompanying table.