What We Believe: The Doctrine of Justification (V) – Can a Lonely Faith Justify? The Teaching of James (Part C)

What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so, faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. But someone may well say, “If you have faith and I have works. Show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works." You believe that God is one. You do well. The demons also believe and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works and as a result of the works faith was perfected. And the scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness, and he was called the friend of God.” You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works, when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.
James 2:14–26

Thus far in our treatment of the teaching of James 2:14–26 we have concentrated only on the question that is raised in these verses. That question is: Can a lonely faith save? Can someone who claims to have faith, but whose life is empty and devoid of good works, be saved? This question is closely related to a common complaint against the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone. If we say that we are justified by faith alone, apart from works, won't this encourage the idea that good works are unnecessary or dispensable? Since the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, this complaint has been registered against the doctrine of free justification in a variety of forms. Whether the terms cheap grace, easy believism, or antinomianism, are used, the objection is the same: the teaching of faith alone wrongly encourages people to be careless and indifferent about the way they live.

Now that we have considered this question as it is posed in James 2, we are in a position to take up the answer that this passage gives.
The answer? Only a lively faith can save!

Verses 21–23. In order to answer the question whether an empty show of faith is able to save anyone, the apostle James appeals to the example of Abraham. He does so in order to show that the faith that saves is always active in good works.

It is remarkable that James appeals in this way to the example of Abraham. Whereas the apostle Paul appeals to the example of Abraham to prove that we are justified freely, by grace alone through faith alone apart from works, James appeals to Abraham as an example of someone whose faith was lively and active in good works! Just as Paul cites Genesis 15:6, which speaks of Abraham's faith being reckoned by God as righteousness, so does James. But the point seems to be utterly different, even contradictory. When the apostle Paul cites the example of Abraham in Romans 4, he does so in order to prove the doctrine that we are justified quite apart from works done in obedience to the law. This is the point that Paul labors to illustrate throughout Romans 4: Abraham was justified before he received the seal of the righteousness of faith in circumdsion. Before Abraham had done anything in the way of obedience, his faith was reckoned to him for righteousness.

But James appeals to Abraham in order to make a different point: “Was not Abraham, our father, justified by works, when he offered up Isaac, his son, on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected. And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness, and he was called a friend of God.’ You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (emphasis mine).

What are we to make of this? What are we to understand James to be telling us in answer to the question that he has put before us? Is he teaching that Abraham found acceptance with God on the basis of his works? On a superfidal reading of James’ argument, one might conclude that he is arguing that Abraham’s standing before God rested, not upon faith alone as it embraces Christ, but upon his work.
The crux of the difficulty here can be put in the form of a question: Is James using the language of justification in these verses in the same way as the apostle Paul in Romans? If he is, then the conclusion seems unavoidable:

James is contradicting Paul. Contrary to Paul's teaching that Abraham was justified by faith alone, James is teaching that he was justified by his works. We are faced here with a flat contradiction. Either Paul is right, or James is right. But they cannot both be right! You cannot say that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law on the one hand, and then say as well that a man is justified by works using the term exactly as in the previous expression. So what must we make of this?

I would propose that we need to bear in mind the different problems that Paul and James are addressing, respectively. Paul is opposing the idea that we are justified on the basis of our works. James is opposing the idea that the faith that saves can be a dead and inactive thing. In the context of James’ argument and the question he seeks to address in James 2, James is using the term justify in one of its common senses. The term justify can be used as a synonym for demonstrate, confirm or prove true. In this sense of the term, Abraham was justified by works in the sense that his faith was proven genuine by its works. Just as a tree is known by its fruit, so faith is known by its deeds. For example, in the case of Abraham, his willingness to sacrifice Isaac in obedience to God's command was proof of the genuineness of his faith. 

There are two considerations that speak in favor of this interpretation. First, in the usage of the New Testament, the word justify is occasionally used in this way. For example, in Luke 7:35 our Lord declares that “wisdom is justified by her children” (emphasis mine). In this declaration, Jesus is saying that wisdom is known and demonstrated by its fruits or consequences. Consider the familiar proverb, a gentle answer turns away wrath. That’s a piece of wisdom that reminds us of the connection between a gentle answer and its likely result. Just as an angry and exaggerated answer does more harm than good in settling an argument, so a gentle and understated response has a way of lowering the temperature of the dispute. That’s an instance of wisdom showing itself by its fruits. Similarly, in Romans 3:4 the apostle Paul, quoting from the Psalms, says, “Let God be found true, though every man be found a liar, as it is written, that you may be justified in your works” (emphasis mine). The idea of this verse is that God may be proven true and reliable by the works that He performs. Or consider one other example from 1 Timothy 3:16, where we read: “And by common confession great is the mystery of godliness: He who was revealed in the flesh, was justified in the Spirit.” The justification spoken of in this text is the vindication or demonstration of Christ’s glory and person in His resurrection from the dead.

If this is the sense of the term to justify in James 2, then Calvin is correct in paraphrasing James’ point as follows: “Man is not justified by faith alone, that is, by a bare and empty knowledge of God. No, man is justified by works, that is, his righteousness is known and proven by its fruits.” The genuineness of Abraham's professing to believe is confirmed or justified by his works.

Now the second consideration is that this demonstrative use of the language of justify nicely fits the context of the argument in James 2, and the way in which the example of Abraham is cited. It’s important to notice that the example offered in these verses, as it sets forth Abraham’s act of being willing to sacrifice Isaac upon the altar, comes seven chapters later than Genesis 15:6, where it is said that Abraham’s faith was reckoned to him for righteousness. What we have in Genesis 22 is a record of Abraham's work that demonstrates or confirms the genuineness of his profession of faith.

Accordingly, we may conclude that the term justify in James 2 has, to use the language of theology, a probative or demonstrative meaning. Such a meaning is in harmony with the question posed in these verses, namely, how the genuineness of faith is manifested before others. That’s also why James concludes this appeal to Abraham by saying “and the Scripture was fulfilled.” Abraham’s act of faith in being willing to sacrifice Isaac, which is recorded in Genesis 22, was a fulfillment, a confirmation, of what was earlier declared about him in Genesis 15:6. Though Abraham was justified by faith alone, the faith by which he was justified proved itself genuine in his act of obedience.

Verse 24. In verse 24 James brings his argument to a conclusion: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” A man is not justified, nor does he find favor with God, when his faith is the kind of faith that is like a barren desert, a desolate place, that produces nothing in the way of fruit. No, true faith exhibits its character in the way it works. Just as a tree expresses itself and is perfected by its fruit, so also faith. An apple tree is known, not by its lovely blossoms, but by the apples that it produces. So it is with the man of faith.

In short: James is not arguing against the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone. He is not joining the apostle Paul in arguing against self-righteousness or legalism, the teaching that we are justified before God on the basis of the works of the law. Rather, he is opposing the error of the person who makes an idle boast of faith, but whose faith is not productive. An empty or infertile faith, one barren of any good works, is demonstrably false. Such a lonely faith cannot save.

Two Concluding Observations

On the basis of our treatment of the argument in James 2, there are two concluding observations that would like to make.

The first conclusion has to do with the relation of Paul and James. Contrary to the suggestion of some, they do not contradict each other. Their teachings can be harmonized. When the apostle Paul teaches that faith alone justifies, he is not speaking of an empty show of faith. As he says in Galatians 5:6, true faith works through love. When the apostle James, on the other hand, teaches that Abraham was justified by works, he is not speaking of justification in the sense of our right standing with God. He is speaking of the confirmation of the genuineness of Abraham’s faith in his act of obedience in the sacrifice of Isaac.

Throughout the history of the Christian church, there has been a considerable debate regarding the precise relation between James and Paul. Some argue that James, writing after the apostle Paul, deliberately seeks to correct Paul’s erroneous teaching. Others take just the contrary position: Paul, writing after the apostle James, deliberately seeks to correct James’ erroneous teaching. Still others maintain that James is only seeking to correct a wrong understanding of Paul’s teaching. In this last view, James does not disagree with the apostle Paul, but only wishes to emphasize the indispensability of good works in the Christian life. 

In my view, none of these proposals is correct. Each of them mistakenly reads the writings of Paul and James as though each was directly answering the other. A better approach is one that recognizes that they are not replying in any direct way to the teaching of the other. They are addressing different questions and facing off against quite distinct opponents. One commentator has suggested that Paul and James should not be viewed like two men in a ring fighting each other, but rather like two men standing back to back, one addressing the evil of legalism, the other the opposite evil of antinomianism. Both affirm that the faith which justifies can only be a living and active faith.

Speaking to this point, John Owens, in his Faith and Its Evidences, says, “The design of the Apostle James is not at all to explain the meaning of Paul in his epistles, as is pretended, but only to vindicate the doctrine of the gospel from the abuse of such as use their liberty for a cloak of maliciousness and, turning the grace of God into lasciviousness, continue in sin under a pretense that grace had abounded unto that end.”

Though using more difficult and precise language, Francis Turretin offers the same kind of explanation in his comments on this question: “The question is not whether solitary faith, that is, separated from the other virtues, justifies, which we grant could not easily be the case, since it is not even true and living faith; but whether it alone concurs to the act of justification, which we assert: as the eye alone sees, but not when torn out of the body. Thus the particle alone does not modify the subject, but the predicate. That is, faith alone does not justify, but only faith justifies; the coexistence of love with faith in him who is justified is not denied, but its co efficiency or cooperation in justification.” What Turretin is arguing is that, put grammatically, the “alone” in faith alone justifies is adverbial, not adjectival. It is faith that alone justifies. It alone acts and is operative with respect to justification. But this is not the kind of faith that can be denominated an “alone faith.” That’s the point that Turretin labors in this somewhat complicated sentence. But it becomes clear, doesn't it, when he says, “The eye alone sees”? That’s its function; that’s its assignment; that’s its office. But it would be an absurd thing to have an eye that saw, apart from the remaining members of the body as an organism. So also, the faith that justifies is never by itself.

Or to cite one last comment, this one from Thomas Manton: “By the righteousness of faith, we are acquitted from our sin, and by the righteousness of works, we are acquitted of hypocrisy.” That says it well, and in a way that can be easily understood.

My second concluding observation has to do with the significance of James 2 for combating the error of antinornianism. Within the evangelical church today, there are indications that this error has been given new life. What is particularly distressing is that the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone has been linked in our time with the most objectionable kind of antinomianism. This is evident, for example, in the recent debates regarding lordship versus non-lordship salvation. Zane Hodges, a defender of the non-lordship position, has argued that a person can be justified by a faith that is inactive and dead. He has even argued on the basis of James 2 that people can be saved, though their faith is unproductive or unfruitful! What makes this so distressing is that Hodges maintains that his teaching is nothing more than a defense of the Reformation doctrine of free justification by faith alone.

However, none of the reformers, including Luther, ever taught that the faith that alone justifies could ever be an unfruitful thing. Luther, in his preface to his commentary on Romans, speaks of faith as a living, active thing. “Faith overflows,” says Luther, “in good works.” True faith is always a fides viva, a “living faith.” No reformer ever taught that you could tear asunder justification and sanctification. None would disagree with what we have argued regarding James 2.

And so we have to be as firm in our opposition to antinominianism as we are to legalism. We must defend the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone, on the one hand. But we need also to preach James 2 in a way that emphasizes how God’s work of grace is not only a work outside of us (extra nobis) in Christ, but that it is also a work in us (in nobis) by the Holy Spirit, on the other. The believer’s salvation includes both the conferral of Christ’s righteousness in justification, and sanctification.

Calvin offers us some helpful comments at this point. Calvin often insisted that you could no more tear apart justification from sanctification than you can tear apart the two natures of Christ. Though distinct, they are nonetheless inseparable. Calvin also maintained that you could no more separate justification from sanctification than you can separate Christ and His Spirit. Whenever Christ indwells the hearts of believers, He always subdues them to obedience by His Spirit. In the fulness of His office, Christ is not only a priest but also a king. And as king He rules in the hearts of His people by His Spirit and Word. That is the teaching not only of James but also of all the leading reformers in the sixteenth century. It is also the teaching of the Reformed confessions and represents the consensus conviction of the Reformed tradition. May it be our doctrine as well.

For a survey and analysis of this debate, see Michael Horton, ed., Christ the Lord: The Reformation and Lordship Salvation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), and Ernest C. Reisinger, Lord & Christ The Implications of Lordship for Faith and Life (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1994).

For a presentation of Zane Hodges’ non-lordship position, see his The Gospel Under Seige: A Study on Faith and Works (Dallas, TX: Redendon Viva, 1981) and Dead Faith: What is It? (Dallas, TX: Redendon Viva, 1987).

Dr. Cornelis Venema, a contributing editor of The Outlook magazine, teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana.

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