Roman Catholic theologians turn to James 2:24 to argue their case that justification is according to works. There is good reason for this. James says explicitly: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). We need to get a solid grasp on this passage so we can be clear on what Scripture teaches about justification and know how to answer our Catholic friends when it comes to sharing the gospel.
First Things First
First, we begin with the conviction that Scripture, as God’s Word, does not contradict itself. Romans 3-4 and James 2 harmonize coherently; we only need to labor to discover how they harmonize. We do not say that James overrides Paul or that Paul overrides James; or that either apostle God it wrong and one was correcting the other. (If this were the case, it would have been Paul correcting James, for James wrote his letter approximately 20 years before Paul wrote Romans.) No, by giving us each text, God intends us to learn vital truths from both and to bring these truths to bear on our lives.
Second, we need to make sure to read both Paul and James in their own contexts. Each apostle is addressing specific issues in their letters, and it is helpful to our interpretation of the texts in question to understand what issues they are addressing.
In Romans, Paul is addressing the question of how one is justified. He makes clear over several paragraphs that justification is not and cannot be by our works and that it is a legal, point-in-time declaration based on the work of Christ and his righteousness imputed to us by faith alone. Paul is addressing with particular concern the issue of legalism; that is, the attempt to earn one’s justification by obedience to the law.
James is also addressing how one is justified, but his primary concern is the issue of true faith vs. false faith; or to be more specific: saving faith vs. demonic faith.
At this point one might suggest a solution that says Paul and James were simply using the word “justification” differently. I don’t think this solution is helpful because it is impossible to prove (and leads us to begging the question). Rather, I think it is best to simply take James and Paul at face value and understand that they are using justification in the same way. As we walk through James 1-2, therefore, I am taking the approach that both James and Paul mean pretty much the same thing by their use of the word justification. Specifically, they are referring to the declaration that one stands righteous before God.
The Context of James 2:24
Before we come to James 2, however, we must establish our contextual footing by starting at the beginning of the letter. We first notice that James understands that God is the source of all good gifts. Not only this, but James also understands salvation to be, on the whole, God’s work, not man’s:
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures (James 1:17-18)
James is writing to believers, and he acknowledges that their salvation was the sovereign act of God who brought them forth “of his own will” by the instrument of the gospel, “the word of truth.” While we do not want to load James’ statements with nuances he didn’t intend to make or imply, these statements cohere with other New Testament statements on the nature of conversion: namely, that a person is converted and saved at a point in time, not over a process of obedience, cooperative with God’s Spirit (e.g., Eph 2:5; Col 2:13).
Nevertheless, James is deeply concerned that those to whom he is writing live according to the faith they profess. In other words, James argues genuine faith will prove itself in doing the word (1:22), caring for the orphan and widow (1:27), guarding one’s mouth (1:26), pursuing justice and shunning partiality (2:1-11), and loving one’s neighbor (2:8). To live in a way that neglects these commands is to throw the genuineness of your faith into question.
When we come to James 2:24, therefore, we recognize that James is dealing with the problem of spurious faith. He is not, like Paul, dealing in detail with the grounds of justification and the work of Christ and its relation to the sinner’s right standing with God. James is not handling specifically the doctrine of imputation or the logic of the cross as it pertains to the righteousness of a benevolent Creator (Rom 3:21-26; 5:12-21). Rather, James is concerned with those whose faith only consists of words and is bereft of works. Consider these texts:
James 1:22: But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.
James 1:26: If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.
James 2:8-9: If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.
James 2:14: What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?
James 2:15-17: 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.
James 2:18-20: 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! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?
Not Saving-Faith Alone, But Profession-Faith Alone
For a person to claim to have faith in Christ yet have not works is to demonstrate conclusively that they do not really have faith in Christ. Whatever faith they claim to have, it is useless and unable to save them from condemnation; these folks are presently deceived about their right standing with God. It is with this context, then, that we then move into James 2:21-24 to deal with the apostle’s statements on justification.
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. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead (James 2:21-26)
Here James uses two phrases that immediately create tension for those who are familiar with and love the doctrine of justification exposited by Paul in Romans. First, James says that Abraham and Rahab were “justified by works.” Second, as if that wasn’t enough, he gives his conclusion: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
But what does James mean that Abraham was justified by works? First, it is important to recall what we’ve just covered. James’ main concern is with the person who mistakes demon faith for saving faith. When he says, therefore, that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone, he is referring to the faith described above that is merely notional, intellectual, and without the evidence of works. That kind of faith will not justify a person. “Faith alone” in this sentence is not “saving faith alone” but “profession faith alone.” Profession faith alone—other wise known as demon faith—will not justify a person, no matter how well they talk about Christianity.
So, James would say that a person will not be justified—that is, declared righteous by God—by a faith that is merely notional or intellectual. God will not justify a person who only believes right doctrine but doesn’t embrace Jesus Christ for salvation (see James 2:1). No, God only justifies those who embrace the whole Christ, a Christ who calls them to follow him and all he has taught (Luke 9:23; Matt 28:18-20).
This does not imply that God waits until a person begins his life of obedience to justify them. Justification is still a point-in-time declaration that cannot be altered or lost. God justifies the ungodly (Rom 4:5), which means that he does not take into consideration even one particle of the believer’s obedience before he justifies them. But the faith that justifies is the faith that will produce good works like an apple tree produces apples. Faith and works are distinct, but they cannot be separated in the life of the justified Christian.
The Example of Abraham
James appeals to two Old Testament believers in order to prove his point. First, just like Paul, he considers Abraham. James asks, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?” Before we dig into James’ question, however, we must note that the event in Abraham’s life to which he is pointing comes in Genesis 22, several years after he was reckoned righteous by God:
And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:5-6)
Why is this order significant? Well, it’s unlikely that James is challenging Moses’ point in Genesis 15:6 that at the point that Abraham believed the Lord’s promise he was accounted righteous. James’ interpretation of Genesis 22 in light of Genesis 15:6, therefore, is not meant to contradict the earlier passage, but to, given what he has already said in his letter, illustrate what true faith looks like in practice.
Earlier in chapter two, James tells the person who believes that their mere profession of faith is adequate for salvation to “show me your faith apart from your works” (2:18). In other words, James is implying that it is impossible to prove that you have faith apart from works because works are the visible evidence that your faith is genuine; otherwise, there is no way of knowing for sure if you truly believe in Christ.
In the case of Abraham, James is saying that his works of obedience (in this case, obeying God’s command to kill his son and heir) fulfilled the earlier declaration by God in Genesis 15:6. In other words, God had declared Abraham righteous by faith in alone in Genesis 15:6, and Abraham walked in the practical righteousness (not perfectly, as we all know) of obedience to God’s commands by offering up Isaac as a sacrifice. Likewise, Rahab the prostitute demonstrated that her faith in the God of Israel was genuine by receiving and protecting the Jewish spies from her people.
In neither case do the works of obedience serve as the grounds or basis of justification. Rather, the works serve as evidence of true faith and indicate that the declaration of justification was legitimate. Conversion and salvation in James’ understanding is God’s work alone (1:18). But the proof that one has been wrought upon God and has saving faith is found in their works.
A question that I think helps us resolve Paul’s and James’ individual points into a coherent synthesis is this: What kind of faith is Paul talking about, and what kind of works is James talking about? As becomes clear in Romans, Paul is not talking about a faith that is void of works. Indeed, the fruit of perseverance (5:1-4; 8:32-39), holiness (6:1-11), and practical obedience (12:1-15:14) flow out of the life of the justified (Rom 12:1-2). Similarly, James is not talking about works that are bereft of faith. No, true works are the fruit of conversion (James 1:18) and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ (James 2:1).
I am confident that Paul and James would have been in hearty agreement with each other, for they are both concerned about the necessity of works in the Christian life (see Rom 2:6-16; cf. James 2:14) and they also recognized that salvation was a monergistic work of God and that spiritual fruit can be borne from genuine faith. There is no contradiction between Paul and James, nor between justification by faith alone and the necessity of good works.