Many Reformed Pastors and thinkers instinctively recoil upon hearing that a man will be justified by his works on Judgement Day. After all, every Reformed man knows that justification – the remission of sins – is by faith alone apart from works, as Paul so eloquently and lengthily teaches in Romans and Galatians.
We also know that the heart of Rome’s error is that they include human works with the cross as a ground of our justification. It is central to the Reformed faith that the cross is the sole ground of our justification.
More than that, when we read the standard Systematic Theologies it is rare indeed that we encounter justification language used in any other context than that of sola fide.
What then must we make of the fact that James says in so many words that we are justified by works, and not by faith only? The thing that I want to draw attention to is the fact that James uses the word “to justify” to describe God’s assessement of our actions.
It is not controversial to say that it is highly problematic to speak of a justification by works. Hysteria and surging anger are often the consequences of this kind of speech. Other words like heresy soon follow.
What, then, are we to say about James himself? Was he a heretic? Why did he use the word “justify” to describe God’s judgement of our actions? Must we say with Luther that this piece of scripture is right strawy epistle?
In my view it is impossible to decanonize this letter, or to disregard it, or to tame it by saying that James is talking about a justification of our justification. He actually says that it a man who is justified by his works, not his justification.
Here is a possible solution, and it involves the concept of an illegitimate totality transfer.
An ITT happens when we impute the entire semantic range of a word into every text where it is used. A word may have a wide range of meaning, and even have meanings that are entirely inappropriate in certain contexts. A cosmos may mean the starry sky or it may mean a lovely mauvish flower that grows at the roadside in Africa. When we say, “Look at the beautiful cosmos” our meaning will depend upon the context, not the entire semantic range of the word.
Let us apply this to Paul and James on justification.
When Paul says that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law, he has firmly in view both the remission of sins and the verdict of God that the man who believes in Christ is righteous. The semantic range that he is using includes both forgiveness and the imputation of righteousness to the sinner. He makes this explicit by quoting King David saying that the man whose sins are overlooked is blessed.
The Reformed faith has used the justification word group almost exclusively to refer to Paul’s teaching of sola fide.
This is where the problems begin, because we illegitimately transfer Paul’s semantic range directly into James’s letter.
James uses the word in a slightly different way, but it makes all the difference in the world. He has retained the meaning of a forensic, legal imputation of righteousness, but the idea of forgiveness and remission of sins is nowhere in sight. In using the word in a different context he has tweaked the semantic range to suit his purposes.
That means that he can say that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone without in the least bit contradicting the apostle to the Gentiles, because he is not discussing how a sinner is forgiven. He is explaining how the man who has been forgiven – or justified by faith alone – experiences another justification by works.
How do we know that forgiveness is not in view when he says that a man is justified by works? Well, he refers to Genesis fifteen where Abraham was justified before God simply by believing, and then shows how this faith was fulfilled when he attempted to sacrifice Isaac in obedience to the divine command, resulting in his justification by works.
Clearly Abraham was already forgiven in Genesis fifteen, as well as when he first believed and obeyed in Ur – Genesis twelve. Abraham was therefore already in a state of grace when he was justified by works in Genesis twenty-two. This is important for determining the semantic range of the word “to justify” in James. James does not include forgiveness. Abraham was not forgiven because he obeyed, but he was accounted righteous because he worked.
When this is understood the difficulties involved in speaking of a justification by works disappear. Clearly it is only those who have already been justified by faith alone who are capable of being justified by works. Clearly the second justification is different from the first one in a most significant way – it does not mean that our works earn for us the remission of our sins.
Positively it means that the faith that justifies necessarily produces the fruit of obedience, and that this evangelical obedience is a true justification, namely, a judgement by God that those believers who obey him are actually righteous on the basis and ground of their works.
So then, a man is justified by faith only apart from the works of the law – forgiven and accounted legally righteous – as well as being subsequently justified by works and not by faith alone. Indeed the proof of our justification by faith alone is our works, which gains for us a second justification – a righteous assessment, but sans forgiveness – that is by works and not by faith only.