Can we boldly proclaim, “Sola Fide,” meaning, faith alone? Can we claim a justification that is rooted in Christ’s works, not our own? Can we encourage one another in Christ knowing James 2:24 exists? “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
This article serves to give you tools to read James 2:14-26 for its proper application, to help you avoid pitting James’s epistle against Paul’s letters.
Our first tool is understanding before whom we are justified according to Paul and James’s contexts. Our second tool is defining saving faith.
“James’s concern is the demonstration of faith... It is appropriate in the context of demonstrating saving faith to say that Abraham is ‘shown to be righteous/justified by works…’”
First, in Romans 3:20, we read, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight…” or Romans 4:2, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.” or 4:16-17, “That is why it depends on faith… to the one who shares the faith of Abraham… as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’ —in the presence of the God in whom he believed…”
In this context Paul says, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Justified to whom? The context of justification is faith alone in his sight and before God and in the presence of God. We are justified by God through God in His Son Christ Jesus, works excluded (Romans 3:21-26).
This is called imputed righteousness. It is the idea that the righteousness of another (Christ) is credited to your account. The theological opposite of imputed righteousness is infused righteousness. Infused means it is a righteousness that changes you, and therefore you are justified by newly infused righteous accomplishments. This a gospel of works - a false gospel - most commonly expressed in Catholic theology.
But you might object and ask, “Doesn’t God change us and make us holy?” Of course! The problem is one theology makes personal holiness the basis of your justification before God (infused righteousness), the other makes personal holiness the result of your justification (imputed righteousness). In more common categories, it is the difference between justification and sanctification.
In James’s epistle, he is not answering the question, “How am I justified before God?” Rather, in the context James supplies, he gives a definition of saving faith. James’ concern is faith demonstrated to him and other believers.
14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?
The answer to all of these questions are: “No good at all!”
17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
Our first tool is recognizing context. James writes to “my brothers” (v. 14). Paul wrote against all flesh who believed they could stand before God on the basis of works. Our 2nd tool is defining saving faith. Just as Paul objects, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law”, James asserts, “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” Two different contexts - incredibly consistent theology.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.
Context determines meaning. The brother shows his faith to James and his fellow believers! This is in contrast to Paul, who said repeatedly, “in the sight of God.”
19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?
Context determines meaning. “Do you want to be shown…” James’s concern is the demonstration of faith. Faith that “does no work” does not save. It is appropriate in the context of demonstrating saving faith to say that Abraham is “shown to be righteous/justified by works…” James is finishing his argument from 2:18, “by my deeds I will show you my faith.” Here Abraham has shown his faith by works and therefore is shown to be righteous or justified.
Genesis 22:12 supports this. “(God) said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”
God knew Abraham’s faith and credited it as righteousness (Gen 15:6; James 2:23). Here, Abraham’s faith demonstrates itself through works to God and everyone who reads Genesis. “It is the demonstration of that faith in Abraham’s actions that draws James’s attention and application.”1
22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God.
Context is set with, “You see…” James’s concern is the demonstration of faith to believers. We are called to see Abraham’s obedience working alongside faith. James recognizes Abraham’s imputed righteousness, quoting Genesis 15:6. James is drawing attention to a different aspect of faith. The faith that justifies is the faith that will inevitably demonstrate itself in deeds. Faith is the instrument of our justification and our sanctification.
We must see one another’s faith worked out in obedience. We are not called to a deedless faith, but a living faith, eager to serve a living God.
Saving faith is “completed” is another way to say: “faith works together with deeds.” Our second tool to avoid confusing Paul and James is defining saving faith. James is not adding anything to faith. He is defining what faith does. “The perfection of faith by deeds did not change the faith, but showed it was real faith…”2
24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
Out of context, this verse seems to fly in the face of Sola Fide. However, we have defined what these works are! These works are not what justify us before God (unlike Paul’s use). These are works that demonstrate our righteousness through faith to the brothers, all so that we might see and show a faith working together with deeds. Any “alone faith” is a dead faith, a faith James condemns. Therefore James closes his argument with verse 26:
26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.