Justification in James 2

by James Akin

Over the last four hundred years, James 2:14-26 has been one of the most controversial passages in the Bible. It is important for understanding Scripture’s teachings on faith, works, and justification.

However, its role has often been misunderstood. Protestants have often thought that Catholics appeal to this passage to prove that one must do meritorious works in order to come to God and be forgiven. They have therefore expended considerable energy attempting to prove this understanding of the passage false.

But their understanding of the Catholic use of the passage is false. Without realizing it, they are beating a straw man. Catholics do not claim that one must do meritorious works in order to come to God and be justified. In fact, Catholic theology claims it is completely impossible to do anything meritorious whatever prior to being justified. Therefore, they do not use James 2 to prove what Protestants think.

So I am happy report that Protestants need not fear that Catholics claim one must merit forgiveness. One does not. That is not what James 2 says. And that is not what Catholics believe James 2 says.

Unfortunately, I must also say that Protestants bear responsibility for not realizing what Catholics believe on this matter. They have not read Catholic sources themselves, or if they have then they have not read them thoroughly, else they would realize this. Instead of trying to understand the Catholic view before criticizing it, they have simply repeated malicious falsehoods concerning Catholic teaching–usually ones they heard from the pulpit or on Protestant radio–and at most have skimmed Catholic works looking for snippets to support the rumors they have heard. I know. I used to do that when I was a Protestant.

In order to really do justice to James 2, one must conduct a careful, investigative reading of the text, without hostile presuppositions toward it. This can sometimes be a problem for Protestants since it contains several statements–and one statement in particular (“You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone”)–which Protestants find embarrassing and that has to be explained away. This can generate a certain amount of hostility and defensiveness around the text, and that can cloud attempts to draw out its meaning, as we will see.

To do a serious, unbiased interpretation of the text, one must begin by looking at the way it uses the three key terms–faith, works, and justification. Only after looking at the meaning of these three terms can the theology of the passage be understood and then harmonized with the theology of other passages in the New Testament, such as Paul’s discussion of justification in Romans.

So let us begin by examining the meaning of the term “faith” in James 2.

 

The Meaning of “Faith”

Protestants often say–correctly–that James is using the term “faith” differently than it is being used in certain key passages in Paul’s writings, so James is talking about a different kind of faith than Paul is in those passages. That is absolutely correct. There are two senses of the term being used (in fact, in the New Testament there are more than two senses in which “faith” is used). Our task is to find out what that difference is.

 

Hypothesis #1: The “False Faith” Interpretation

Unfortunately, Protestants often make the mistake of characterizing the difference between the two by saying that Paul is talking about true faith while James is talking about false faith. This is incorrect. There is no contrast between true faith and false faith in Scripture. That language is not found in this or any other passage of Scripture. It is something that has been imposed on the Bible from outside, as can be powerfully demonstrated in this very passage.

If James were talking about “false faith” in this passage then we could simply substitute that phrase whenever he uses the term “faith.” The result obtained by doing that is ridiculous:

 

14 What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has false faith but has not works? Can false faith save him?
15 If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food,
16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?
17 So false faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
18 But some one will say, “You have false faith and I have works.” Show me your false faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my false faith.
19 You believe with false faith that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe that with false faith–and shudder.
20 Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that false faith apart from works is barren?
21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?
22 You see that false faith was active along with his works, and false faith was completed by works,
23 and the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God with false faith, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”; and he was called the friend of God.
24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by false faith alone.
25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?
26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so false faith apart from works is dead.

This substitution illustrates how ridiculous the “false faith” interpretation of James 2 is. The Bible never speaks of “false faith” versus “true faith,” and this passage is no exception. If we impose the idea of “false” faith on it (whatever false faith might be), we get ridiculous results:

In verse 14, no one would want to go around claiming–boasting even–of the fact he has false faith, and James would not need to ask the rhetorical question of whether false faith can save a person.

Similarly, in verses 17 James would not need to point out that false faith without works is dead. Furthermore, his implication would be ridiculous–namely that false faith plus works is not dead. False faith would be dead whether or not it had works in addition.

In verse 18, again no one would be boasting of having false faith. Furthermore, James would not paradoxically ask someone to show his false faith without works, and James himself would not offer to show his own false faith by his works.

In verse 19 James would not tell people “you do well” for having false faith concerning the existence of one God.

In verse 20, James would not need to argue that false faith apart from works is barren, nor would he imply that false faith plus works is not barren.

In verse 22, James would not argue that Abraham’s false faith was active along with his works or that his false faith was made complete by his works.

Neither can verse 23 be interpreted to mean that Abraham believed God with false faith, nor could false faith be reckoned to Abraham as righteousness and result him in being the friend of God.

In verse 24, James would not say that to be justified a man needs works in addition to his false faith.

And finally, in verse 26, James would not say that false faith apart from works is dead, as if false faith with works were not dead.

These considerations dramatically illustrate that the “false faith”/”true faith” interpretation is not something being derived from the text but something being imposed on it. The whole concept of false faith is unbiblical. There are certainly different kinds of faith in Scripture, but none of them are “false” (whatever that might mean), they are simply different kinds. We must listen to the text if we wish to kind out which kind is being discussed here.

 

Hypothesis #2: The “Dead Faith” Interpretation

If the kind of faith James is talking about in this passage is not false faith, can we say that it is “dead faith”? This interpretation at least has the advantage that James does talk about faith without works being dead in this passage. However, the idea that James is talking about dead faith in this passage yields equally ridiculous results, as the following substitution shows:

 

14 What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has dead faith but has not works? Can dead faith save him?
15 If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food,
16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?
17 So dead faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
18 But some one will say, “You have dead faith and I have works.” Show me your dead faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my dead faith.
19 You believe with dead faith that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe that with dead faith–and shudder.
20 Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that dead faith apart from works is barren?
21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?
22 You see that dead faith was active along with his works, and dead faith was completed by works,
23 and the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God with dead faith, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”; and he was called the friend of God.
24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by dead faith alone.
25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?
26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so dead faith apart from works is dead.

Many of the same problems reappear. In verse 14, no one would boast about having dead faith, and James would not need to argue that dead faith cannot save one.

In verse 17, James would be making the ridiculously redundant statement that dead faith without works is dead faith, which dead faith would be even if had works.

In verse 18, someone would again be boasting of having dead faith and James would be paradoxically asking them to show their dead faith without using works, while he would be offering to show them his own dead faith by his works.

In verse 19, he would be commending them for having dead faith.

In verse 20, he would be offering to prove that dead faith without works is barren.

In verse 22, he would be saying that Abraham’s dead faith was active with his works and that Abraham’s dead faith was made complete by his works.

In verse 23, he would be saying that Abraham believed God with dead faith, which was then reckoned to him as righteousness and resulted in his being the friend of God.

In verse 24, James would be saying we need to have works in addition to dead faith.

And in verse 26, James would be saying that dead faith without works is dead.

This is thus another interpretation of the kind of faith which doesn’t work. It does get closer to what is being talked about. Rather than importing the completely unbiblical notion of false faith, it at least recognizes that in the text there is some kind of deadness being discussed in connection with faith.

But it mistakenly locates the source of the deadness in the faith itself. That is not what James says. He says faith (at least the kind discussed in this passage) is dead if it does not have works. He does not say that dead faith is without works.

There is a big difference between those two statements, just as there is a big difference between saying that bricks without straw are useless and saying that useless bricks are those which are without straw. A brick can be useless for other reasons than that it doesn’t have straw (it may not have been fired properly or at all, it may be made out of the wrong material, it may be the wrong shape or size or color, it may be too brittle, etc.). One simply cannot convert statements of the form “X without Y is Z” into statements of the form “Z-ish X is without Y.”

James does not locate the source of the deadness in the faith itself. The deadness is produced by the absence of works; it is not a product of the kind of faith being discussed, or else the above interpretation of the passage (the “dead faith” substitution) would result. The problem in this passage is not with the kind of faith being discussed but with the fact that that kind of faith is sometimes alone. (And note that the kind of faith being discussed is only sometimes alone, for James offers to show it by his works.)

 

Hypothesis #3: The “Mere Belief” Interpretation

A third Protestant interpretation of the kind of faith gets much closer to the mark than either of the previous two. This interpretation takes as its starting point verse 19, in which James says that demons have faith of the kind he is discussing.

Clearly we cannot simply say that he is therefore discussing demonic faith (or else an interpretation even more ridiculous than the two above would result–people in the passage would then be boasting about having demonic faith, James would be offering to show them his own demonic faith, and verse 23 would declare that “Abraham had demonic faith in God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness and he was called the friend of God”).

So what kind of faith is it that demons have?–or more precisely, what kind of faith is it that demons share with humans, for James indicates in verse 19 that both can have the kind of faith he is discussing. He gives us a clue by indicating some of the subject matter of the faith–the belief that God is one (i.e., that there is one God).

This, coupled with the fact that he is very concerned that this faith is not always accompanied by works, gives us a much better idea of what he is talking about–faith which recognizes the truth of theological propositions (like “God is one”) but which does not necessarily result in actions.

Sometimes Protestants express this idea that the faith James is talking about is thus “mere belief” or “mere intellectual belief”–an intellectual recognition of the truths of theology, but a recognition unaccompanied by actions.

Unfortunately, though this is very close to the mark, it is not quite right, as the following substitution shows:

 

14 What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has mere intellectual belief but has not works? Can mere intellectual belief save him?
15 If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food,
16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?
17 So mere intellectual belief by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
18 But some one will say, “You have mere intellectual belief and I have works.” Show me your mere intellectual belief apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my mere intellectual belief.
19 You have mere intellectual belief that God is one; you do well. Even the demons have mere intellectual belief in that–and shudder.
20 Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that mere intellectual belief apart from works is barren?
21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?
22 You see that mere intellectual belief was active along with his works, and mere intellectual belief was completed by works,
23 and the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham had mere intellectual belief toward God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”; and he was called the friend of God.
24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by mere intellectual belief alone.
25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?
26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so mere intellectual belief apart from works is dead.

We can already see how much closer this interpretation is to the truth than the previous two. Many of the problems that plagued them have disappeared in this reading. For example, James’s questions and warnings make sense for the first time (e.g., “So mere intellectual belief by itself, if it has no works, is dead” [v. 17], “Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that mere intellectual belief apart from works is barren?” [v. 20], “You see that a man is justified by works and not by mere intellectual belief alone” [v. 24], and “so mere intellectual belief apart from works is dead” [v. 26]).

However, problems remain which indicate that this interpretation is not quite right:

For a start, in verses 14 and 18, people would be boasting of having mere intellectual belief.

Also in verse 18, James would be offering to show others his mere intellectual belief by his works.

In verse 19 he would be commending people for having mere intellectual belief.

In verse 22, he would be saying that Abraham’s mere intellectual belief was active along with his works.

And finally, in verse 23, he would be saying that Abraham had mere intellectual belief in God’s promise and that this resulted in him being reckoned righteous and made the friend of God–which is exactly the opposite point he made concerning demons having faith and exactly the opposite of the whole point of this passage.

We must therefore reject the “mere intellectual belief” interpretation of the faith James is talking about.

Still, it is much closer to the truth than any of the other suggestions have been. Its insight that the key to understanding the kind of faith being discussed is verse 19′s reference to the faith of demons is absolutely correct. So where does it go wrong?

 

The “Bad Faith” Mistake

The answer is that it goes wrong in assuming James is criticizing the kind of faith under discussion. This is the common theme of all the hypotheses examined so far. They all incorporate some kind of pejorative reference into the description of the faith–false faith, dead faith, mere intellectual faith.

The tendency to interpret the form of faith James is discussing as a bad faith is so strong in some circles that it has warped the translation of this passage in some major Bible translations. For example, the New International Version renders verse 14 this way:

 

“What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?”

Note that the back half of the verse makes explicit the idea that the faith under discussion is bad. “Can faith such as that save him? Of course not!” But the words “such as that” are not in the Greek text and has been added by the translators.

Not quite as bad is the Revised Standard Version’s rendering of this verse:

 

“What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him?”

This also adds a word not in the Greek text–”his.” The resulting translation seems to imply that the problem is with the kind of faith this man has and that someone else–someone with a different kind of faith–would be saved by it.

Worse than either the NIV or the RSV on this passage is the Contemporary English Version, which reads:

 

“My friends, what good is it to say you have faith, when you don’t do anything to show that you really do have faith? Can that kind of faith save you?”

This not only adds to the back half of the verse three whole words that are not in the Greek text–”that kind of”–which explicitly impugn the type of faith being discussed, but in the first half of the verse, the very reality of the faith is questioned (“do anything to show that you really do have faith”), thus introducing the false faith interpretation discussed above.

The only major Protestant translations I know of that accurately translates this passage in accordance with the Greek is the King James Version and the New King James Version, which say:

 

“What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him? (KJV)”

“What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? (NJKV)”

These renderings of the back half of the verse is accurate–”Can faith save him?”–no addition of words like “such,” “his,” “that,” or “that kind of” before the term “faith”–just simply what the Greek text says.

Of course the reason that Protestants with to impugn the type of faith being referred to in James’s rhetorical question “Can faith save him?” is that the intended answer is obviously, “No.” Yet since Protestants preach that faith and faith alone does save, the natural inclination is to impugn the kind of faith being discussed here and imply that something is wrong with it.

However, this solution is not necessary from the Protestant view. As we will see below, there is an alternative interpretation of the faith which is acceptable to both Protestants and Catholics and which makes sense out of the passage and does not cause the problems which have plagued the interpretations discussed thus far.

One distinct characteristic of the solution that will be offered is that it does not attempt to impugn the faith James is discussing. In fact, it is this inclusion of a pejorative element in the faith that generates so many of the problems for the interpretations already discussed. We can see this by using a substitution which specifies that the faith is bad without specifying the particular reason for its badness (whether it is false or dead or mere or whatever). This will illustrate the whole problem of assuming that James is talking about some kind of bad faith in this passage:

 

14 What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has a bad faith but has not works? Can a bad faith save him?
15 If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food,
16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?
17 So a bad faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
18 But some one will say, “You have a bad faith and I have works.” Show me your bad faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my bad faith.
19 You believe with a bad faith that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe that with a bad faith–and shudder.
20 Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that a bad faith apart from works is barren?
21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?
22 You see that a bad faith was active along with his works, and a bad faith was completed by works,
23 and the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God with a bad faith, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”; and he was called the friend of God.
24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by a bad faith alone.
25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?
26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so a bad faith apart from works is dead.

If you incorporate a pejorative element into the faith then no one is going to be boasting about having it in verses 14 and 18.

Also in verse 18, James is not going to be offering to show others his own bad faith.

Nor is he going to commend people for having bad faith in verse 19.

Nor will he say in verse 22 that Abraham’s bad faith was active along with his works and that Abraham’s bad faith was completed by his works (a phrase which would normally mean that Abraham fell under the judgment of God and went to hell).

Nor in verse 23 would he say that Abraham believed God with bad faith and that this resulted in him being reckoned righteous and called God’s friend.

Nor in verse 24 would he argue that a man needs works in addition to his bad faith.

Nor in general would he declare throughout the whole passage–to people who begin by knowing of their bad faith (vv. 14, 18, 19)–that a bad faith will not save them (vv. 14, 17, 20, 24, 26). This is the whole point of the passage–the need to argue that what his opponents are claiming for themselves will not save them–so the bad faith interpretation of the passage will simply not work.

In fact, a number of times in the passage James says very good things about the kind of faith being discussed. In verse 18, he affirms that he himself has the kind of faith under discussion. In verse 19 he commends those who have it (“You do well”). In verses 22 and 23 that Abraham had this kind of faith, and that when it was completed by works it resulted in Abraham being reckoned righteous and called the friend of God. And so on.

So whatever kind of faith he is talking about, it is not a bad faith. The problem James sees is not that the faith under discussion is intrinsically bad–in fact, he indicates it is intrinsically good. The problem he sees is that it is incomplete by itself and must be made complete.

 

Hypothesis #4: The “Intellectual Assent” Interpretation

We can combine the insights of the previous two sections–the “mere intellectual faith” hypothesis and the “bad faith” mistake–to form a solution which does justice to the text and which, incidentally, is acceptable to both Protestants and Catholics.

The key lies in recognizing that the “mere intellectual faith” hypothesis is on the right track in identifying the faith humans and demons share as one of assent to the truths of theology. The interpretation only goes wrong when it adds a pejorative element by describing the faith as mere intellectual faith. If we strip off this pejorative label, we get what is in essence the correct solution: James is talking about intellectual faith–assent to the truths of theology.

There is nothing wrong with this kind of faith. It is in itself a good thing. One needs to assent to the truths of theology. However, it is by itself incomplete. Intellectual assent to the truths of theology is not enough to save one, so James criticizes those who think that merely having intellectual assent is sufficient.

This interpretation of the faith allows us to make sense out of both the positive and the negative remarks in the text, as the following substitution shows:

 

14 What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has intellectual assent but has not works? Can intellectual assent save him?
15 If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food,
16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?
17 So intellectual assent by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
18 But some one will say, “You have intellectual assent and I have works.” Show me your intellectual assent apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my intellectual assent.
19 You assent that God is one; you do well. Even the demons assent to that–and shudder.
20 Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that intellectual assent apart from works is barren?
21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?
22 You see that intellectual assent was active along with his works, and intellectual assent was completed by works,
23 and the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham assented to God['s promise], and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”; and he was called the friend of God.
24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by intellectual assent alone.
25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?
26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so intellectual assent apart from works is dead.

This makes sense of the entire text. In the first half of verse 14, someone would indeed go around claiming that he intellectually assents to God’s truth. In fact, people often go around claiming precisely this: “I believe everything God says, no less and no more; I take seriously whatever God says. He is the only ultimately reliable source of truth, so I give absolute assent to his utterances and to his alone.”

And in the second half of verse 14, James could still ask his negative rhetorical question, “But can intellectual assent save him?”, leading him to conclude in verse 17 that “intellectual assent by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

Again, in verse 18, someone could be claiming to have intellectual assent and James could ask his paradoxical question for them to show their assent without works, while offering to show his intellectual assent to the truths of theology by his works.

In verse 19, James can both commend the person for having intellectual assent to the fact there is one God, yet point out that this does not save the demons.

In verse 20, he can still be arguing that intellectual assent is not enough, and in verse 22 speak of how Abraham’s intellectual assent was active with his works and was completed by them.

In verse 23, he can point to Genesis 15:6, where Abraham assented to God’s promise that he would have offspring like the stars of heaven, and this assent was consistent with him being reckoned righteous and called the friend of God (cf. Rom. 4:18-22).

And, finally, James can draw his conclusions in verses 24 and 26 that man is not justified by intellectual assent alone and that intellectual assent which is alone is dead.

This solution thus makes sense out of the entire passage, and as a happy coincidence, it is acceptable to both Protestants and Catholics since both agree that one is not saved by intellectual assent alone, as per James’s negative rhetorical question in verse 14.

We must bear this solution in mind when we discuss the passage in public and resist the temptation to say that James is talking about false faith, dead faith, or mere intellectual faith, for none of those are true and each leads to gross distortions of his argument.

We must force ourselves to accurately describe the kind of faith he is describing as intellectual assent (even the phrases “intellectual faith” or “intellectual belief” have a pejorative connotation to them, though they are denotatively correct). Only in this way can we be accurate in our discussion of the passage and avoid hopeless confusion when trying to interpret it.

This is especially important for Protestants who are discussing the passage, because the phrase in verse 24, where James says man is not justified “by faith alone,” is embarrassing and the Protestant will be tempted to impugn the type of faith being discussed.

But if it is kept fixed in mind that James simply means “intellectual assent” by “faith” then this verse becomes no more problematic than ones in which Jesus says things like, “The Father is greater than I” (John 14:28). Jesus is speaking in that passage of the Father having a higher position than he does in the economy of salvation (the Father is the one who sends the Son and who receives the offering of the Son, etc.), not of the Father as belonging to a greater order of being than the Son.

Thus in John 14:28, like in James 2:24, once the difference between the two usages of the key term is recognized (greater in the economy of salvation rather than greater in the order of being, and faith as intellectual assent rather than faith as full, justifying faith), the problematic aspects of the statements vanish.

Having this shown that the faith James is talking about is intellectual assent (though not “mere” intellectual assent, for it was the “mere” aspect we got rid of when we rejected hypothesis #3–by the term “faith” James just means intellectual assent, without reference to whether it is accompanied or unaccompanied intellectual assent), we can now move on to examine the second of the key terms that needs to be looked at: “works.”

 

The Meaning of “Works”

Unfortunately, in this passage James does not give us nearly as much material to work with concerning the meaning of this term as he did the previous one. However, one this is clear: He is not talking about the same kind of works that Paul does when discussing justification in his epistles.

We will get more into this in the final section of this work, but suffice it to say that Paul in those passages is talking about “works of the Law” (Greek, ergon nomou), and the Law he is discussing is the Mosaic Law, the Torah.

Thus when he says, in Romans 3:28, “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law,” he immediately follows it up in the next verse, 3:29, by asking, “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also?”

This can be brought out even more clearly if one takes the simple step of using the Hebrew term for the Law – Torah

 

“For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of Torah. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith.”

Recent work in the Dead Sea Scrolls, including the recently published and very important MMT document, which served as the Constitution or Declaration of Independence for the Qumran community, reveals an enormous preoccupation on the part of first century Jews with “works of Torah.” The phrase “works of Torah/the Law” is used repeatedly and confirms this interpretation.

But none of this is present in James. He does not use the phrase “works of the Law,” and in any event could not, especially in the Christian age, say that we are justified by intellectual assent and works of the Torah, no matter in what sense the term “justification” is taken. Thus he is not talking about the same type of works Paul is when he discusses justification.

When we turn to the text of James, we find that he does give us some examples of the kind of works he has in mind. In 2:15-17, James says:

“If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of 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 does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

In this passage there is a three-part parallelism between James’s description of what a work-less person does and how a work-less faith is to be evaluated:

 

“you say ‘Be warmed and filled,’ 

without giving them the things needed for the body, 

what does it profit?” 

“faith, 

if it has no works, 

is dead.” 

Here the works that the faith lacks are identified with “giving them the things needed for the body,” in other words, the corporal works of mercy, which is a species of the good works Paul talks about.

A similar conception is found in 2:21-22, where we read:

 

“Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works.”

Here we have the offering of Isaac identified with the works James is talking about, and so again we find James talking about a species of good works.

The same is found in James 2:25:

 

“And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?”

Here again works are identified as a species of good works in that Rahab’s assistance of the spies in their escape was a good work (and, in fact, a corporal work of mercy). We also see this identification of works as good works outside James 2. In James 1:25 we read: “But he who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer that forgets but a doer that works, he shall be blessed in his doing.” Here the works are identified as actions in accordance with the perfect law of liberty (which is not the Mosaic Law since Christians are not subject to that). And in James 3:13 we hear: “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good life let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.” So again the works are identified as manifestations of a “good life” of “meekness and wisdom.” In other words, the works James is talking about are good work, not Paul’s works of the Torah.

And this is something even Protestants recognize, as virtually every exposition of James 2 that one hears from Evangelicals interprets the works in this passage as good works. Unfortunately, while they get the meaning of the final term we will consider – justified – dead wrong.

 

The Meaning of “Justified”

The normal thing one will hear in Evangelical expositions of James 2 is that the justification being discussed is something called “justification before men” rather than “justification before God.” Justification before men is said to be the knowability by men that one is justified by God. In other words, if one is justified before men then men know that one is the recipient of God’s justification.

Unfortunately, this interpretation is completely impossible. The only point of evidence offered for it is James 2:18b, where James says: “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” James’s declaration “show me,” is taken to be an assertion that it is this “justification before God before men” that is under discussion. However, this proves nothing since the exact same statement bears an alternative interpretation. James’s point is that faith without works is impotent (“dead,” “barren,” without “profit”), and as an illustration of this he points out that faith cannot even be demonstrated to exist without works — that is how impotent it is!

Because 2:18b can bear different interpretations, it cannot be cited as evidence in favor of any one interpretation. However, the “justification before God before men” view can be positively ruled out as completely impossible based on ten points in the text.

First, in 2:14, James asks: “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can faith save him?” Here James shows us that the kind of profit he is interested in is salvation. The kind of faith plus works James is talking about profits toward salvation, which pertains to justification before God, not men. His question, “Can faith save him?” sets the tone for the whole discussion (as it should since it is in the first verse of it). The subject at hand is one’s relationship with God, not one’s reputation among men.

Second, in 2:15-16, James says: “If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of 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 does it profit?” Here James repeats the term “profit” from his previous argument, and again the subject is actual, substantive profit–having one’s needs taken care of–rather than a non-substantive profit of a justification before men.

Third, in 2:17, as a conclusion to vv. 15-16, James says: “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” Here the term “dead” is introduced as an antonym for “profit.” James thus says that faith without works is dead, the ultimate form of impotence, the ultimate lack of power with respect to the “profit” he has discussed in the preceding three verses. He says faith without works “is dead,” not “dead before men.”

(Verse 18 is here omitted in this exegesis because when taken in isolation it can semi-plausibly bear a different interpretation than the one we are advocating.)

Fourth, to show the impotence of faith alone toward one’s relationship with God, James asks in 2:19, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe–and shudder.” Demons have the faith James is talking about — intellectual assent to the truths of God — but it does not stop them from shuddering at the prospect of God’s wrath. This is what James has in mind. He is not saying that demons shudder at the prospect of not having a good reputation among men or that because they have faith alone they lack justification before men. His focus is on the impotence of the demon’s faith to help them before God.

Fifth, in verse 20 James asks, “Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that faith apart from works is barren?” Here the term “barren” is taken as the antonym to “profit” and the synonym to “dead” in the preceding verses, meaning that this introductory statement to the arguments which follow shows that the arguments to come are to be interpreted in the light of what has come before, which had definitely not been dealing with “justification before men.”

Sixth, in verse 21, James says, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?” This absolutely cannot be read as some kind of justification before men since Abraham and Isaac were the only ones up there on the mount and their drama was played for God’s benefit. He was the witness, not Abraham’s contemporaries.

Seventh, in verse 23a, James says, “[A]nd the scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’” Who in that Scripture did the reckoning? Was it men or God? It was not men, but God. Thus justification before God.

Eighth, in 23b James states: “[A]nd he was called the friend of God.” Important question: Who called Abraham God’s friend? God himself did: “But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend” (Isa. 41:8). Thus justification before God.

Ninth, in verse 26, James says: “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.” Again, James does not say that the body appears dead before men but that the body is dead without the spirit.

Tenth, the whole “justification before men” argument rests on a linguistic slight of hand trick where one phrase is used to mean something completely different. By speaking of “justification before men” and “justification before God,” the argument creates the illusion that the same kind of justification is being spoken of in both cases, simply the audience is different, being men in one case and God in the other.

However, in actuality, in the phrase “justification before men” the term “justification” is taken to mean “justification before God.” This is why advocates of this interpretation speak of one’s good works showing before others that one is justified before God. The concept of justification before God is stuffed into the concept of justification before men. The concept is actually “justification before God before men.” While it would be possible to imagine the single Greek term “justified” representing “justified before men,” there is no way that the single Greek term “justified” can represent the enormous, complex phrase “justification before God before men.” This is a case of raw lexical word-stuffage, where a single Greek word is being used to represent a long and complex string of words and in which this usage is not paralleled anywhere else in New Testament, classical, koine, or patristic Greek anywhere. In other words, it is a blatant attempt to cobble together a theory to explain the term “justified” over against the obvious sense the term has in the Greek text.

Thus we must conclude that the term “justified” in this text means “justification before God.” However, because Protestants have the unbiblical notion that there is only one kind of justification before God (see the piece, The Justifications of Abraham), this creates a problem for them with the text. James clearly states that man is justified before God by faith plus works in this text, but if the only kind of justification before God that is available (on the Protestant view) is initial justification by which one comes to God then one ends up with the false statement that one is initially justified and has one’s sins forgiven by faith plus works.

The Catholic, because he is not boxed in by this unbiblical assumption that there is only one kind of justification before God, is able to allow the text to flow naturally and recognize that this is a subsequent form of justification, one which applied to Abraham years after he was justified in Genesis 15:6, and still further years after he left Haran by the faith which obtained for him a good report (justification) with God (Heb. 11).

So in this passage James tells us that (after one’s life with God has begun), a Christian is further justified — that is, he continues to grow in righteousness — not just by intellectually assenting to the truths of the faith but by doing the good works God’s grace leads him into and which God chooses to reward.

This happens to be exactly the sense in which the Council of Trent takes the text (Decree on Justification 10) — that in James 2:24 we are being told about the growth in (actual) righteousness that occurs over the course of the Christian life.

Those guys at Trent sure knew what they were talking about.

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