Catholic apologists (as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Eastern Orthodox, Mormons, and other works-salvation groups) will use James 2 as evidence that we are saved by works, and not by faith alone.
Now, being saved and not by faith alone should not be scandalous. After all, that is what James 2:24 says word-for-word. However, how do we square this with Rom 4:4, 5 which states, “Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness?”
Are we justified by works, yet made righteous by faith without works as Rom 4:5 says, at the same time? No. This would be a contradiction.
Now, there is a lot of Scripture that mitigates any understanding that man can contribute anything whatsoever to his own justification. Chief among them is John 14:6: “”I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” Jesus did not say “mostly Me and a little bit of you.” Christ’s work, and His work alone, on the cross, makes a man righteous, not his own attempts at righteousness.
So, how do we deal with James 2? We will exegete the text while responding to a Catholic defense of Faith+Works salvation from the Shameless Popery blog.
The rest of James 2 has some pretty clear justification before God statements that don’t make sense if he just means justifying yourself to men.
And, as we shall see, a correct understanding of James 2 does not compel us to believe that works add to Christ’s work on the cross.
Before responding point by point, the following is a synopsis of the “tough parts” of James 2:
Christian orthodoxy teaches that we are justified by faith alone, but we are judged by works. Judgement by works is explicit in the Scripture:
And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds (Rev 20:12-13).
Indeed, we are judged by works. Let’s read James 2. In verse 22, were his works ever divorced from his faith?
No, and that is exactly James’ point. Abraham believed God. And then he lived according to his beliefs. The belief occurred first. It is common sense. People don’t act a certain way, and then as a result believe because of their actions. Instead, people have a belief, and their actions are informed by their beliefs. Beliefs precede actions.
Here’s a simple example: Let’s say we really like chocolate. So, when we see it we reach for it and then eat it. The desire for the chocolate preceded the eating of it.
Likewise, the faith of Abraham in God preceded doing the good works out of faith (by as much as 20 years in the case of Isaac). James makes this point to show that we are saved by faith alone, but not by faith that is alone. That is why he says in verse 18, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
The fact that James speaks of works as something that shows faith instead of something that is needed in addition to faith speaks volumes. James is never saying we need something in addition to faith. He is saying that his faith is something you can actually see (i.e. it is not imaginary.)
Does this interpretation hold up? We have James 2:21-23 where Abrhamam’s believing in Gen 15 is conflated with his near-sacrifice of Isaac, two events 20 years apart. Clearly, James’ point is NOT that Abraham was made righteous by faith 20 years previously and then lost it and regained/maintained it by doing the good work of listening to God’s request for sacrifice.
James is merely reiterating what he said in verse 18: I’ll show you my faith by what I do. Isn’t it clear to all, even 20 years later, that when Abraham believed God that He really meant it? Of course! He was willing to offer up Isaac specifically because “when put to the test [Abraham] offered up Isaac” after he had “considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead” (Heb 11:17, 19). Did you catch that? Abraham did the good work, because he believed God’s promise that his descendants would be through Isaac (Heb 11:18), and he believed this so much that he figured even if he were to kill Isaac, God would have certainly raised Isaac from the dead in order to fulfill His promise! Have you even seen such faith? I know I have not!
Now let’s look at verse 25: “..was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?”
What do we know about Rahab? When she received the spies, she told them that she heard of the mighty works of Jehovah, how he humbled Egypt and the kings east of the Jordan, and she knew that no one can deliver her or her family from Israel’s hand because God was with Israel (Josh 2:8-11). She then asks that the Israelite spies “swear to me by Jehovah” that they will spare her family when they come to take the city of Jericho (Josh 2:12).
Clearly, her beliefs were behind her actions. She didn’t merely say she believed something, and did nothing about it like so many false Christians. She feared the Lord and lived in accordance with that Godly fear. See Heb 11:31: “By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish along with those who were disobedient, after she had welcomed the spies in peace.” Notice that? She received the messengers “by faith.” Her works, therefore, are synonymous with her faith and not some additional criteria she had to bring to bear for her own salvation with God.
With this in mind, let’s respond to Shameless Popery’s rebuttal to one reformed thinker’s take on James 2.
[A] claimed faith, without works, doesn’t exist. That is, that it’s not faith. James clearly disagrees, calling it “that faith.” This is reinforced by James 2:20 and 2:26.
It has been ascribed to Luther the quote, “‘We are justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone.” So, whether or not he really said it is besides the point. The idea is repeated by Reformed Theologians such as R.C Sproul, and it is a pretty good explanation as to what James is really talking about in James 2:24. I do not believe James’ calling it “that faith” means he is equating it with saving faith, a faith that actually exists in the mind of someone and affects every facet of that person’s life. Obviously, Abraham and Rahab were two good examples of this.
While the Reformed claim that a saving faith results in works, the Catholic (and Biblical) view is more nuanced: we view faith and works as interconnected…[This is] why James says that Abraham’s “faith was active along with his works” – because the works he was doing were works of love done out of faith.
So far, such a differentiation would literally be nominal. So, the problem is not terminology (nor’s James’ terminology) but our application of what he taught. How does Shameless Popery interpret what it means to do works of love out of faith?
So rather than a simple causality, like in science, this is more relational: we must believe in God to obey Him, but obeying Him proves to us that He’s trustworthy, and we begin to trust Him more; this, in turn emboldens us to obey Him about things which might have seemed unrealistic before.
Is it just me, or does this read like nonsense? How does obeying God prove that God is trustworthy? Doesn’t it prove that our faith is trustworthy? What does God’s trustworthiness have to do with our works? This is simply not a sensible application, it does not make sense.
The notion that James is becoming image-obsessed, and wants to make sure everybody looks good publicly by playing good Christians just isn’t supported either by the text or basic New Testament doctrine. Thus, it is quite evident how James 2:24 is understood by Protestants.
Does Shameless Popery really believe this? Has my pretty run-of-the-mill defense of Sola Fide resorted to such argumentation? Perhaps “Shameless” is the name of the website for a reason.
Calvinists claim that justification refers only to the initial act of being justified (forensic justification), and that everything after that is sanctification and not justification…Yet both James (as seen here) and Paul (as seen in 1 Corinthians 6:11, e.g.) seem to think of them as co-occurring….the Calvinist notion that justification is merely forensic, and precedes sanctification, lacks obvious Biblical support.
While 1 Cor 6:11 may be grounds for Calvinists to perhaps change the terminology of what we call the “sanctification process,” it hardly proves his point. Justification is not an ongoing process. Paul uses the past tense to refer to it. In fact, Rom 4:9-10 makes it abundantly clear:
We say, “Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.” How then was it reckoned to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised.
Did you catch that? Before Abraham was circumcised and before he was obedient to God’s command to sacrifice Isaac, he was justified. How much more clear can Paul be? The only consistent way to read the Scriptures on this point is that Abraham was already justified before the Isaac episode and therefore, we are compelled to interpret James 2:24 as consistent with this fact. James is making a point about how nominal faith is not faith at all, not how works are needed on top of nominal faith because both have salvific qualities.
Shameless Popery claims any distinctions made about justification is “making a mountain out of a mole hill.” However, simply put, the question is whether good works are the basis of our salvation.
The answer is yes, good works ARE the basis of our salvation: Christ’s good works, specifically His sacrifice and resurrection! Our good works cannot possibly add anything in the least to our justification in light of what Christ has done for us. God demands perfection from His people (Deut 18:13). If your good works are in anyway imperfect, they are no good, and they are filthy rags to Him (Is 64:6).
Hence, if I am saved upon belief in Christ, then God gets all the glory and no longer do I work for my own salvation. If I need to maintain a saved state, as Catholicism teaches, then Christ’s works was only good enough to get me in the game and I have to now exert myself to win it.
This is no molehill. The very Gospel is at stake in this issue. So yes, true faith will result in good works. And works, the proof of real faith save and not faith in name only alone. But, in the grand scheme of things faith alone justifies, faith alone results in good works, and faith alone saves, to Christ’s glory. Amen.
It is worth noting that the writer of 1 Maccabees concurs with the explanation given by me concerning Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac: the work showed his faith and it was not an additional criteria that Abraham needed to fulfill to be righteous:
And call to remembrance the works of the fathers, which they have done in their generations: and you shall receive great glory, and an everlasting name. Was not Abraham found faithful in temptation, and it was reputed to him unto justice (1 Macc 2:51-52)?
Obviously, those who are faithful are credited as just in God’s eyes, and only those who maintain the faith maintain that righteousness. However, the Scripture promises that those who are credited righteousness can never lose this status because “all that the Father has given me I shall lose none” (John 6:39). So, one’s faith is either legitimate, given by the Father, and thereby irrevocable…or it is counterfeit and that faith does not save.
Christ, be found faithful in temptation. This fruit of your work is a sign that the Holy Spirit has sealed you for eternal life.