Much time has been spent on reconciling Paul and James on justification. Too often James’ point is exegeted away into a vague and vacuous theory that he is just saying that works justify our justification.
While it is entirely true that works fuflill and complete our faith, James’s point is radical. He has the audacity to say that Abraham and Rahab were justified by works.
Ja 2.24 You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.
This is the bold statement that Reformed theologians and commentators would rather die than say. After all, everyone knows that a man is justified by faith alone, apart from works, that this is the central doctrine of the Reformation, and that anyone who says different is a damnable heretic.
Here is a test of whether a man has rightly understood James: ask him if he believes that Abraham was justified by works.
There is only one correct answer, and that is yes.
My purpose in writing this article is to compare and contrast Paul and James. Both use the word group for “to justify” to mean that a man is declared righteous in God’s judgement. Almost everything else that they mean is different.
Paul is speaking of a sinner, whether Jewish or Gentile, and this means that the remission of sins is right at the heart of his usage of justification, because a sinner has to be forgiven at the same time that he is declared righteous, in the nature of the case. James is speaking of a righeous man, and takes two righteous examples, namely, Abraham and Rahab. Righteous people do not need to be forgiven, but they can still be assessed by God and declarede righteous.
Here is another point at which Reformed men baulk. After all, there is no-one righteous, no, not one, as Paul says. Well, that is only true if one is not speaking of those who have died, been buried, and then raised with Christ to walk in newness of life. Such people are truly righteous. They are not sinless, but they are righteous, because the Bible tells me so.
So then, Paul and James have different men in view – the unregenerate sinner and the converted believer.
Then there is the cause, or ground, of their respective justifications. The sinner is justified because Christ died on the cross for his sins, and he takes hold of that dual gift of forgiveness and righteous declaration by faith alone. That is sola fide
The righteous man is already in possession of the remission of his sins, and has been spiritually resurrected through baptism into Christ. The ground of his second justification is his works, plain and simple.
That does not mean that his works earn for him the remission of his sins. That honour belongs only to Christ and the cross. However, his works earn for him God’s righteous judgement that he is indeed righteous on the ground of his works.
At this point the Reformed theologian gets ants in his pants. But we have the obligation to take the Bible seriously, which means to take it at its word in its grammatical, plain sense. God spoke to Abraham after the testing in the matter of sacrificing Isaac and said:
Gen. 22:15 Then the Angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time out of heaven, 16 and said: “By myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son— 17 blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies. 18 In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”
What God calls blessing James calls justification, in a clear identification of the two things. God blessed Abraham and confirmed it with an oath because Abraham obeyed. Obedience is the stated reason for the blessing.
Can we take this text at face value and incorporate it into our theology? We had better, if we wish to remain faithful to the inerrant and inspired word of God.
Does it contradict sola fide? By no means. They are different justifications with different semantic domains, two different causes, and two different kinds of men. Pauls man is justified without working, and James’s man is justified by works and not by faith only. Paul’s justification ensures the sinners entrance into grace, and James’s justification is the completion of the sinner-become-righteous’s faith. Paul’s justification includes forgiveness, and James’s does not.