Context, Context, Context
In response to yesterday’s post, which was a quotation from an excellent article by Dan Rowlands, on the proper understanding of James 2:24, a couple of readers have responded with the same question or objection: Why did James say “justify” if he did not mean to indicate that there is either a second way of justification (e.g., by works) or if he did not mean to signal that works somehow play some role other that fruit and evidence.
To refresh our memories, James wrote: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (ESV). Why would James write this? There is a cardinal rule that is often overlooked in the interpretation of texts: keep reading. In this case rule means that we need to read before v.24 and we need to read a bit after.
James begins the chapter by addressing certain sins in the Jerusalem congregation. He marks out the sin of partiality. They treated the wealthy better than they treated the poor (vv.1–7). In vv. 8–13 he turns to the “royal law of love” to convict them of their sin and to correct their hearts, minds, attitudes, and behaviors. In effect, they have violated all of the moral law. By being respecters of persons they have violated both tables. They have not loved God above all and their neighbor as themselves (Matt 22:37–40). They have not shown mercy, even though God has shown them mercy.
In vv. 14–18 he challenges their profession of faith. v. 14 is far too often overlooked in this discussion. “What good is it brothers if someone says (λέγω) he has faith and but he has no works? It is not possible for such a faith (ἡ πίστις) to save him.” To capture the sense of James’ use of faith in this context we should put it in what are sometimes called scare quotes. It is the written form of what are called air quotes, when someone makes quotation marks with their fingers in the air. When we do that we are not typically quoting someone. We are indicating a juxtaposition between the word being used and the sense being intended. In this case, the “faith” to which some in the Jerusalem congregation are laying claim is, according to James, no faith at all. It is a mere profession of faith but that profession is in doubt because it does not cohere with their life.
James gives a small but significant grammatical signal that he is, in his own way, putting “faith” in quotation marks. Earlier in v.14 the noun for faith is anarthrous, i.e., it is without a definite article. In the second part of the verse he used the definite article. In both cases he is discussing the same thing, in the same context. The use of the definite article in the second instance supports my translation, “such faith.” In other words, James is not discussing what we call “true faith” in Heidelberg 21. He is discussing historical faith, or temporary faith, or nominal faith, i.e., a faith that is so in name only. It lacks evidence and fruit.
This is why he will not allow them to say, “you have faith and I have works” (v. 18). Nonsense! he thunders. “Show (δεῖξόν) me your faith apart from your works, and I will show (δείξω) you my faith by my works.” The verb “to show” is the language of evidence. This is the category of discussion. James is not discussing our righteousness before God. He is discussing the legitimacy of one’s claim to be a believer.
This is really what James is about in chapter 2: prosecuting them for the lack fruit or evidence of new life and true faith. It is easy enough, he says, (v. 19) to stand in a congregation and recite the Shema, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” If they really believed their Shema (Deus 6:4) they would behave differently but they do not behave accordingly. Therefore, he questions their profession. The demons can recite the Shema. So what?
Abraham’s claim to faith was vindicated by his actions. He demonstrated his faith by taking Isaac up the mountain and by preparing to make him a sacrifice to the Lord (v. vv.20–22; see also Heb 11:8–12). This is why he James quotes Genesis 15:6, just as Paul does. Abraham was justified before God on the basis of the righteousness of Christ imputed to him. He received his his righteousness with God by divine favor alone, through faith alone.
A person is not justified by a mere profession of faith (v. 24). A person is justified. In this sense, Rahab was “justified” by works when she received the spies: She demonstrated that she had faith by what she did (v. 25). Faith apart from works is dead. Works do not form faith, i.e., they do not make faith justifying or saving. They demonstrate that faith exists. They vindicate one’s claim to faith. The give evidence of true faith. They are the fruit of faith. It is one of the great Romanist errors to turn Paul’s doctrine of “faith working by love” (which is James’ doctrine here) into faith “formed by love,” i.e., made a reality. Works are not a constituent of faith in justification. They are an evidence of it.
Justification And Vindication
Thus understood, there is not need to set James against Paul. They are addressing distinct but intimately related questions. James is writing about the effect of justification (and sanctification by grace alone, through faith alone: good works. He used δικαιοω/δικουν because, in a given context, it may also signal vindication, as it does in 1 Tim 3:16. Paul says: “he was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, manifested to angels, preached among the nations, believed in the world, taken up into glory.” In the progression of thought in Paul’s (liturgical/confessional) formula, Christ is not said to have been justified legally before God in his resurrection, which is the event to which Paul refers by “in the [Holy] Spirit.” It makes eminently more sense to understand Paul to be saying that Christ’s person and work were vindicated, i.e., shown to be what he said they were, righteous, in his resurrection.
The ostensible crisis that so many seem to face is the fruit of a kind of rationalism that assumes a priori> that δικαιοω/δικουν must> have the same sense in both James and Paul. It is entirely unnecessary in terms of semantics, hermeneutics, and exegesis. R. C. Sproul explain it thus:
I’m convinced that we don’t really have a conflict [between Paul and James] here. What James is saying is this: If a person says he has faith, but he gives no outward evidence of that faith through righteous works, his faith will not justify him. Martin Luther, John Calvin, or John Knox would absolutely agree with James. We are not saved by a profession of faith or by a claim to faith. That faith has to be genuine before the merit of Christ will be imputed to anybody. You can’t just say you have faith. True faith will absolutely and necessarily yield the fruits of obedience and the works of righteousness. Luther was saying that those works don’t add to that person’s justification at the judgment seat of God. But they do justify his claim to faith before the eyes of man. James is saying, not that a man is justified before God by his works, but that his claim to faith is shown to be genuine as he demonstrates the evidence of that claim of faith through his works.
This is the understanding of James and Paul of the Reformed churches as reflected in Belgic Confession art. 24.
Was Paul Opposing James?
In the wake of the recent post on James 2:24 a correspondent proposed to me not just that Paul and James disagree but that Paul was consciously opposing James. On such a view we have within the canon two distinct, opposing doctrines of justification. Any Christian who believes the Scriptures to be God’s inspired, infallible, inerrant Word, who believes in divine simplicity, and that the Spirit superintended the revelation of God’s Word cannot accept any such proposal. Any Christian who holds the ancient, ecumenical, and Reformed doctrine of the Scripture as the canonical Word of God, cannot accept any such theory. A hermeneutic that supposes that they are at odds, both under the inspiration of the Spirit, is a non-starter.
The canon as God, through the Apostles, has imposed upon us is not open for debate. It is the rule. That is what canon means. The church is not the rule. Our feelings are not the rule. Scripture is the rule of the Christian faith and the Christian life.
Relationship Versus Courtroom?
Finally, recently it was proposed, on Twitter, by a Reformed theologian, that there is not much courtroom language in the New Testament and that the New Testament is more interested in healing relationships than in courtroom metaphors.
The juxtaposition of the relational to the legal is an unfortunately popular trend in our time. It is gratuitous and incoherent. Neither Scripture nor experience teach us to set these two aspects against one another. A marriage is a relationship that is founded in law. Parents have both a personal relationship and a legal relationship.
Our relationship with God was healed because Christ Jesus satisfied the demands of the law for us. God is our Father because Christ was our substitute. Our filial relation to God is premised on a right legal standing with God.
As to the New Testament’s interest in courtroom language, we have good reason to reject the notion that courtroom language is foreign to the New Testament. We should rather think that it is basic to the New Testament’s presentation of the faith.
Our Lord said,
- “for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt 12:37; ESV).
- “but he, desiring to justify himself…” (Luke 10:29)
Where else is one “justified” or “condemned” but in a courtroom?
- “This man went down to his house justified” (Luke 18:14).
- For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified (Rom 2:13–14; ESV).
- Because by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified before him. For by the law is the knowledge of sin (Rom 3:20; ESV).
- For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin (Rom 3:20; ESV).
- And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness… (Rom 4:5; ESV).
This is just a smattering. The New Testament is positively replete with references and allusions to courtroom imagery and metaphors.
The verb to justify occurs about 45 times in the NT. Many, if not most, of those uses are legal in nature and allude to a courtroom. Our Lord himself explicitly invoked the courtroom in Matthew 5:25. Judgement related words occur 96 times in the ESV in the New Testament and more than 100 times in the NASB. Matthew 7:1–2 comes to mind.
In John 8:24:–30 Jesus said,
I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” So they said to him, “Who are you?” Jesus said to them, “Just what I have been telling you from the beginning. I have much to say about you and much to judge, but he who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him.” They did not understand that he had been speaking to them about the Father. So Jesus said to them, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me. And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him.” As he was saying these things, many believed in him (ESV)
That is legal imagery.
The very notion of salvation presupposes a judgment to come and the greatest need of those facing judgment is salvation from judgment. This is what Jesus gives to all who believe in him.
It is fundamental to Paul’s gospel (Rom 2:16) that Jesus is coming again to judge the world. The good news is that those who are in Christ, by grace alone, through faith alone, are justified already and shall be vindicated at the last day.
That our adoption is grounded in our legal status before God, in Christ, is no imagination. It is Paul’s doctrine: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (“Rom 5:1).
It is those are have been declared just, who have been redeemed, who are adopted:
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God (Gal 4:4–7; ESV).
Abba! is the sign of an intimate relationship, one that is impossible among those who are legally at odds.
Praise God for our legal righteousness with God, in Christ, through faith alone.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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- “The Benefits of Christ: Double Justification in Protestant Theology Before the Westminster Assembly,” Anthony T. Selvaggio, ed., The Faith Once Delivered: Celebrating the Legacy of Reformed Systematic Theology and the Westminster Assembly (Essays in Honor of Dr. Wayne Spear). (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007), 107–34.
- Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant: The Double Benefit of Christ. Rutherford Studies in Historical Theology, ed. David F. Wright (Edinburgh: Rutherford House, 2005). Reprinted 2008 by Reformation Heritage Books in the Historical-Theological Studies series.
- Covenant, Justification and Pastoral Ministry: Essays by the Faculty of Westminster Seminary California (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2006). (Apple Books edition).