What does James mean that we are justified by works and not by faith alone? How are Abraham and Rahab examples of this? We answer these questions in this portion of our commentary on James.
22 You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected;
James’ teaching here simply amounts to that we should not view Abraham’s faith as mutually exclusive to his works as Joe Heschmeyer claimed, as “faith was working with his works.”
As Bede writes:
Although the apostle Paul preached that we are justified by faith without works, those who understand by this that it does not matter whether they live evil lives or do wicked and terrible things, as long as they believe in Christ, because salvation is through faith, have made a great mistake. James here expounds how Paul’s words ought to be understood. This is why he uses the example of Abraham, whom Paul also used as an example of faith, to show that the patriarch performed good works in light of his faith. It is therefore wrong to interpret Paul in such a way as to suggest that it did not matter whether Abraham put his faith into practice or not. What Paul meant was that no one obtains the gift of justification on the basis of merit derived from works performed beforehand, because the gift of justification comes only from faith (p. 31).
Unlike more modern Catholic interpreters, who believe that Abraham like all believers is justified several times, Bede does not allow for this. In his exegesis justification referred to “good works in light of his faith,” not an additional justification.
Other early commentators recognized this, commenting that Abraham’s works were the literal outpouring of his faith and remaining silent concerning the idea that there are multiple justifications:
On the one hand, the blessed James says that Abraham was justified by works when he bound Isaac his son to the altar, but on the other hand Paul says that he was justified by faith, which appears to be contradictory. However, this is to be understood as meaning that Abraham believed before he had Isaac…[W]hen he bound Isaac to the altar, he did not merely do the work which was required of him, but he did it with the faith that in Isaac his seed would be numberless as the stars of heaven, believing that God can raise him from the dead (Cyril of Alexandria, p. 32).
Abraham is the image of someone who is justified by faith alone, since what he believed was credited to him as righteousness. But he is also approved because of his works, since he offered up his son Isaac on the altar…[H]e remained firmly anchored in his faith, believing that through Isaac his seed would be multiplied as numerous as the stars (Oecumenius, p. 33).
Abraham was justified not by works but by faith. For although he had done many good things he was not called a friend of God [James 2:23] until he believed, and every one of his deeds was perfected by faith (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 5, Chap 5).
What does it mean that “faith was perfected?” Let’s use the example of an emergency worker learning how to use the jaws of life to rescue someone. He can learn how to do it from watching videos, and believe the jaws work. However, when he puts that belief into practice, his knowledge of the jaws of life is perfected because his knowledge has ascended from the merely theoretical to the practical.
When we put our faith into practice, we perfect the said faith. However, we are not culpable if we die before having the opportunity (like the thief on the cross), for we do not have any indication from the Scripture, or traditions for that matter, that we have multiple justifications. Most of us avoid dying as quickly as the thief. Those of us that God allows to live on will grow increasingly, in faith and the knowledge of God, the longer we walk with Him.
23 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.
The Scripture is clear: Abraham was credited righteousness as a result of his belief and not of works. Belief in specifically what? Simply trusting in God about any old thing does not save. We can be Deists and trust God to make the sun rise tomorrow. Such trust does not save.
Abraham was saved because he trusted God when He told him:
This man will not be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir…Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them…So shall your descendants be (Gen 15:4-5).
Why is it significant to believe that God will give him an heir and through the heir, many descendants? It is because through this descendant shall come the Christ, and His bride will be made up of innumerable descendants.
Abraham’s faith contained within it the form and image of this great mystery. For when he was ordered to sacrifice his only son, he believed that God would raise him from the dead. Moreover, he did not believe this of Isaac only, but also of his seed, which is Christ (Commentary on Romans quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on the Scripture, New Testament VI, p. 124)
So does Ambrosiaster:
What did Abraham believe? He believed that he would have a descendant, a son in whom all the nations would be justified by faith while they were still uncircumcised as Abraham was (Commentary on Paul’s Epistles quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on the Scripture, New Testament VI, p. 115).
What was James referring to when he said that Abraham was called the friend of God? In Isaiah 41:8, God calls Abraham “my friend.” From this, James surmises that at the time of his belief, God called Abraham His friend and hence he was made right with Him.
24 You see that a man is justified [dikaioutai] by works and not by faith alone. 25 In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified [edikaiōthē] by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?
We may surmise that verse 24 is not speaking of justification before God in an absolute sense because Rahab the harlot “in the same way” was edikaiōthē, which we have shown is all of its usages means “vindicated.”
The preceding conclusion may be reached for three reasons. First, we need to interpret the Scripture consistently. Abraham cannot be justified by faith without works and also justified, in an identical sense, by works. Second, as we already covered, Clement uses the term dikaioutai to mean “vindicated” in a nearly identical context in 1 Clem 30. This gives us good reason to believe we are justified in drawing the same inference about the same situation Clement wrote about. Third, all the early interpreters of the passage in question speak of works not justifying but serving as a means of confessing God, which in fact is the action which justifies.
There is no need to belabor the point that the Scripture categorically denies that we can be justified by works wrought in holiness of heart or otherwise. “For by grace you have been saved through faith…not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:8-9). Further, “to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Rom 4:5). Hence, works cannot under any circumstance merit salvation without putting Scriptures such as these into contradiction.
So, what may we conclude from the Scriptures? Christians are, in effect, like Rahab. We led lives of complete wickedness, but after trusting in God we repent of our former ways and work righteousness. “By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish along with those who were disobedient, after she had welcomed the spies in peace” (Heb 11:31). Those of us who produce fruit of the Spirit are shown to be justified, like her, by our deeds.
As we already covered the second point while exegeting verse 21, let us move on to the third so as to show that the Church has historically taught that verse 24 does not teach that works literally justify someone.
Most commentators, when discussing the verse in question, emphasize faith so as to prevent the misunderstanding that James literally meant that works justify a man in a soteriological sense.
Bede wrote that “[t]he works mentioned here are works of faith. No one can have perfect works unless he has faith, but many have perfect faith without works [i.e. thief on the cross], since they do not always have time to do them” (p. 33).
Cyril of Alexandria wrote the following in response to verse 24: “The person who in faith honors the God and ruler of all righteousness has his reward” (p. 33).
These men emphasize faith, because works are not the means of justification. As we quoted Bede earlier: “[T]he gift of justification comes only by faith” (p. 31).
Victorinus, a fourth century Church Father, shared the same understanding in his Commentary on Galatians: “For faith itself alone grants justification and sanctification. Thus any flesh whatsoever—Jews or those from the Gentiles—is justified on the basis of faith, not works or observance of the Jewish Law (Gal 2:16).
Let’s stop beating around the bush and state the obvious: the reason why James 2:24 is contentious is not because of works. Everyone other than antinomians affirms Christians ought to do good works and that their outward righteousness is in effect a testimony to the world. Reformed Theologians like R.C. Sproul are fond of saying, “We are saved by faith alone, but not by faith that is alone.” No Protestant in the Reformed tradition will argue that we don’t work out our salvation in fear and trembling, that we pray, that we repent, that we receive sacraments from the Church, and that we practice righteous living.
Rather, the issue under contention is that of the role and efficacy of sacraments. Catholics use the verse in question to substantiate the idea that the performance of Catholic sacraments are necessary for salvation. As the Douay-Rheims Study Bible puts it:
To these purposes the holy Doctors say sometimes, that only faith saves and serves: but never (as Protestants would have it) to exclude from justification and salvation, the co-operation of man’s free-will, dispositions and preparations of our hearts by prayers, penance, and sacraments, the virtues of hope and charity, the purpose of well-working and of the observation of God’s commandments.
The key difference between Catholics and Protestants is that Catholics believe that the absence of the performance of a sacrament has potentially disastrous effects on the believer. Catholicism stresses Apostolic Succession because of the importance of “valid” sacraments and stresses the regular observance of sacramental rites. In the Catholic view, faith alone cannot be sufficient, not because it lacks good works but because it lacks a sacramental rite performed through the intercession of a Catholic priest.
For example, let’s take the issue of the sin of theft. Christians can sin by committing theft. According to the Catholic, simply repenting from the sin and paying the person you wronged an indemnity, though well meaning, is insufficient to absolve sin. Rather, the penitent is better served by going to a Priest and performing a penance that he directs. This penance might not even include restitution, as the priest may advise only the performance of prayers. Hence, the action of going to the Priest is seen as so absolutely necessary, that the literal performance of repentance can be turned into something unnecessary, and secondary to, the sacramental rite.
If the issue that is being debated is the role of sacraments, we must ask the obvious question: are sacraments even on James’ radar? The obvious answer, it would seem, is no. Nowhere does James explicitly conflate good works with sacraments. In James’ mind, as we can see in the first two chapters of his epistle, good works are how we directly relate with the Christian brethren and personal morality. Hence, they do not pertain to religious observances whether ceremonial or sacramental.
The early Church understood this. The Fathers that stress the works element of James 2:24, such as Augustine in several of his works (On Grace and Free Will, Chap 20; Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Love, Chap 67; On Continence, Chap 30), never passes comment on sacraments being the works James had in mind. In fact, if we go by what James (or the rest of the New Testament) classifies as good works, it has nothing to do with sacraments. Rather, virtues like hospitality, lack of partiality, guarding the tongue, and forgiveness are spoken of. Things that Catholics consider good works, such as Holy Unction as spoken of in James 5, is not spoken of in the context of good works. Yet, Roman interpreters have conflated the sacraments with good works.
However, this is not how the Fathers treated the sacraments. In fact, Ambrose in his book On the Death of Satyrus conflates the sacraments with “faith alone:”
He, before being initiated in the more perfect mysteries, being in danger of shipwreck when the ship that bore him, dashed upon rocky shallows, was being broken up by the waves tossing it hither and there,fearing not death but lest he should depart this life without the Mystery [of baptism], asked of those whom he knew to be initiated the divine Sacrament of the faithful; not that he might gaze on secret things with curious eyes, but to obtain aid for his faith. For he caused it to be bound in a napkin, and the napkin round his neck, and so cast himself into the sea, not seeking a plank loosened from the framework of the ship, by floating on which he might be rescued, for he sought the means of faith alone. And so believing that he was sufficiently protected and defended by this, he sought no other aid (Chapter 43).
Without a valid sacrament performed by a properly ordained priest, the man in question attains to the benefits of what baptism represents by simply desiring to do what is right in pursuing the sacrament. Hence, the sacraments pertain to faith, not works. Further, the literal existence of a given sacrament or validly ordained priest is ultimately unnecessary, as faith alone here sufficed. However, as we can see in the example, true faith desires obedience even in the face of sudden death. It is for his desire to do God’s will, “declaring that there was no greater duty than thanksgiving,” (Chap 44) that Satyrus is extolled.
So, is Rahab extolled in the same way? As Satyrus was shown to be righteous in that his dying desire was to show thanksgiving to God, “was not Rahab the harlot also justified [edikaiōthē, shown to be righteous] by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?”
Clearly, James is speaking of how the actions of Abraham and Rahab show us that they had real faith in contradistinction with faith that is pretend.