Justification by Faith: James 2:14-26

Justification by Faith (James 2:14-26)

As we have seen in the prior studies, the Reformation doctrine of “justification by faith” was derived largely from Paul’s line of argument in his letters to the Galatians and Romans. As it happens, there is one passage in the New Testament that could be said to contradict the doctrine: it is the short treatise on “faith and works” in James 2:14-26.

It has been a longstanding matter of dispute among New Testament scholars and theologians as to whether, or to what extent, the letter of James is opposed to Paul’s teaching on “justification by faith”. Certainly, the declaration in 2:24 would seem to contradict the Pauline teaching:

“(So) you (have) seen a man is made right/just out of [i.e. by] works, and not out of trust [i.e. by faith] alone.”

But how far was the author of the letter aware of Paul’s writings and teachings, and is the Pauline doctrine the focus of his message here? There are three possibilities:

    1. The author is not responding to Paul at all, and the apparent points of contact are coincidental
    2. The author is responding to Paul, and opposes the Pauline teaching; in which case, there are two further possibilities: (a) he opposes, but misunderstands, the Pauline teaching, or (b) he opposes and understands the substance of it.
    3. The author is responding to Paul, but is primarily concerned with believers who misrepresent Paul’s teaching, or who reference it (as a slogan) without properly understanding it.

The first option seems most unlikely. Even if James was written as early as some commentators suggest (mid/late-40s), he (the author), and other Jewish Christians, would probably have been aware of Paul’s teaching regarding the Law (Torah), in relation to the missionary work taking place among the Gentile populations in the Roman Empire. The conflict regarding ‘works of the Law’ had already come to a point some years prior to the writing of Galatians and Ephesians (cf. Gal. 2; Acts 15). Moreover, while it is possible for other Christians to use the specific illustration of Abraham (and the citation of Gen 15:6), its importance for Paul and his own teaching on ‘faith and works’ (cf. the earlier study) increases the likelihood that the author of James is responding to the Pauline teaching as well.

When we turn to the treatise in 2:14-26, we see that is comprised of two parallel parts—two arguments (vv. 14-17, 20-26), separated by a rhetorical response by a representative opponent or (fictional) interlocutor (vv. 18-19). The two arguments share a common structure:

    • Rhetorical question that states the theme (vv. 14, 20)
    • Illustration (vv. 15-16, 21-25)
    • Closing declaration regarding “faith and works” (vv. 17, 26)

In the first argument, it is a practical illustration from life experience, while the second argument uses an illustration from Scripture. The latter is an expanded into a two-part illustration, with the example of Abraham (vv. 21-23) followed by the additional example of Rahab (v. 25); in between, there is a further declaration on “faith and works” (v. 24) that relates specifically to Abraham. It is just here that the author appears to be most directly at odds with Paul, as noted above. I will be discussing the matter further at the end of the article (and in the next study).

Since the three components of each argument are similar, it is worth discussing the two arguments together at each point.

1. The Rhetorical Question (vv. 14, 20)

The first argument begins with the question:

“What (is) the benefit, my brothers, if some(one) considers (himself) to hold trust [i.e. have faith], but (yet) does not hold works? Th(at) trust is not able to save him(, is it)?”

Through this rhetorical question, the author raises the possibility that a person might claim to trust in Jesus, and yet have no “works” (e&rga) to demonstrate the reality of this trust. In such a case, the author asks whether such ‘trust’ will actually save a person (from the Judgment); it is posed in negative, and the author assumes an answer in the negative: no, clearly, it cannot.

The crux of the relation between James and Paul on this matter of “faith and works” depends, in large measure, on how each author understands and uses the terms pi/sti$ (“trust,” i.e., “faith”) and e&rga (“works”). By all accounts, there is little or no difference in how the term pi/sti$ is used. It refers primarily to Christian faith—to trust in God (generally), and trust in Jesus Christ (specifically). The author raises the possibility that a person might consider/claim to have this trust, but that (in reality) it is not a true, saving faith.

When it comes to the term e&rga (“works”), on the other hand, we do find a fundamental difference in how the word is used, between Paul and James. The noun e&rgon denotes an action—i.e., something that is done, a work/task that is performed, etc. It can also connote something being made active (i.e., made to work). In Paul’s letters, and especially in Galatians and Romans, “works” (e&rga) functions as a shorthand for the expression “works of the law” (e&rga no/mou), by which is meant performance/fulfillment of the regulations and requirements in the Old Testament Torah.

For a detailed discussion on Paul’s view of Torah, in terms of the new religious identity of believers in Christ, cf. the relevant articles in the series “The Law and the New Testament” (Paul’s View of the Law). The expression “works of the Law” was not coined by Paul, but is traditional, as can be seen by the corresponding Hebrew terminology in a now-famous text from Qumran (the so-called “Halakhic Letter” [4QMMT]). That James has a rather different point of reference for the term “works” (e&rga) will be discussed below.

The rhetorical question in the second argument (v. 20) is as follows:

“And do you wish to know, O empty(-headed) man, that the trust (that is) apart (from) works is (itself) without work?”

There is a play on words in the Greek here that is typically obscured in English translation: trust that is “apart from works [e&rga]” is, quite literally, “without work” (a)rgh/). The adjective a)rgo/$ is derived from the root of the noun e&rgon (“work”) with the privative prefix a)– (i.e., “without”). In other words, the faith that has no “works” to back it up is ineffective and useless—it simply doesn’t work. This is another way of stating the claim in v. 14, that such ‘trust’ is not the kind of genuine faith that will save a person from the Judgment.

The idea of separation of trust from works is indicated the adverb xwri/$ (“with space [between], apart”), used in the grammatical sense of a preposition (followed by a genitive). Interestingly, Paul uses the same word to make essentially the opposite point regarding the relationship between faith and “works” (Rom 3:21, 28; 4:6).

2. The Illustration (vv. 15-16, 21-25)

In the first argument, the illustration used by the author (vv. 15-16) is a practical one, taken from life experience. It involves the situation where a fellow believer is in need. The use of the terms “brother” and “sister” makes clear that this refers to other believers, and not to needy persons in general. How does one respond to this situation? In the illustration, the person only gives lip service to the fellow believer’s need, without offering any real assistance—and the author askes “what [is] the benefit [of that]?”. Of course, this example matches the situation of the Christian who claims to have faith, but fails to demonstrate that faith in action. For the author, the point is self-evident, and leads to the conclusion in verse 17 (cf. below).

In the second argument (vv. 21-23), the illustration is taken from Scripture, focusing on the person of Abraham, much as Paul does in Galatians 3 and Romans 4 (cf. the earlier study). However, the author of the letter here makes rather the opposite point, using the example of Abraham to demonstrate that he was “justified” by his works, rather than by his faith alone. The author’s use of the very same Scripture (Gen 15:6), also used by Paul, to make this contrary point, would seem to be strong evidence indeed that he is responding to Paul’s teaching on the subject of “faith and works”.

The line of argument here has three components:

    • V. 21: Reference to the traditional narrative of Abraham’s willingness to offer Isaac as a sacrifice (Gen 22:9-18)
    • V. 22: The application to the subject of “faith and works”
    • V. 23: The Scripture citation (of Gen 15:6)

It was the act of offering his son Isaac that truly demonstrated Abraham’s trust in God. The author summarizes this within his argument as follows:

“…was not our father Abraham made/declared right [i.e. justified] out of [i.e. by] works (in his hav)ing brought up his son Yiƒµaq (and putting him) upon the (place of) slaughter [i.e. the altar]?”

The action, in this instance, is marked by the verb a)nafe/rw (“bring/carry up”). This most extreme of actions, indicating a willingness to put his son to death as a sacrificial offering, demonstrates the depth and extent of Abraham’s trust in God. The author uses this to show the relationship between trust (faith) and “works” for the believer:

“…the trust worked (together) with his works, and the trust was made complete out of [i.e. by] the works” (v. 22)

We have here another bit of wordplay, with the verb sunerge/w (“work [together] with”), a compound verb related to the noun e&rgon. The example of Abraham illustrates the opposite situation of the person “without works”. In that instance, the person’s trust was “without work” (a)rgo/$), proven to be ineffective and useless. By contrast, in the case of Abraham, the trust is effective since it “works together” with works. Moreover, the trust is made complete (vb teleio/w) by works. This implies that a person may begin with genuine faith, but, without the realization and manifestation of it through “works”, it will never become complete, never develop into true and saving faith.

The verb sunerge/w (synergéœ) is the basis for the theological term synergism, which relates to the idea that God and human beings “work together” in the process of conversion and salvation. Protestant theologians have tended to be opposed to theories that are framed in synergestic terms, and are often reluctant to emphasize the role of human “work” in the saving process. However, it is possible to characterize the line of thought in James 2:14-26 as “synergistic”, particularly in the way that the author applies the Abraham illustration, referring to faith being made complete by our actions, a dynamic for believers that ultimate results in saving faith.

It is in this light that we must consider the author’s use of Genesis 15:6 (v. 23), which clearly is applied (and interpreted) in a very different way than Paul has used it in Galatians and Romans (on this, cf. again the earlier study in this series). It was through Abraham’s demonstration of his trust that he was considered to be right and just (di/kaio$) in God’s eyes. For the author of this treatise, pi/sti$ (“trust”) is demonstrated by action; Abraham trusted (vb pisteu/w) God, and acted on that trust.

Following this example of Abraham, a second Scriptural illustration is offered—the example of Rahab (Josh 2:1-22; 6:23), who offered shelter to the Israelite spies in Jericho during their time of need. While seemingly a rather minor illustration, it confirms the significant point that the author is decidedly not using the term e&rga in the Pauline sense (as a shorthand for “works of the law“). Rather, as is clear here, and in the earlier practical illustration of vv. 15-16 (cf. above), e&rga refers to acts of kindness and mercy that are shown to God’s people (believers) when they are in need. Admittedly, the Abraham example has something of a different emphasis, but the overall context is one of “good works”, defined as acts of love demonstrated by the care shown to fellow believers. This “love command” was alluded to in the prior section (vv. 1-13, cf. my recent note on verse 8), and was very much part of the wider tradition among early Christians. The Johannine First Letter has an even stronger emphasis than does James on the importance of showing love to other believers, with trust and love being related as a binding command that Christians are obligated to follow (1 Jn 3:23-24, etc). The person who does not demonstrate their trust by such love cannot be regarded as a true believer.

As noted above, the declaration in James 2:24 seems especially to contradict the Pauline doctrine of “justification by faith”. Before proceeding to further discussion on this point, let us consider the final component the author’s overall argument.

3. Concluding declaration on “faith and works” (vv. 17, 26)

In the first argument (v. 17), this is:

“So also th(is) trust, if it should not (also) hold works, is dead by itself.”

The corresponding conclusion of the second argument (and the treatise as a whole) is:

“For just as the body apart from (the) spirit is dead, so also the trust apart from works is dead.” (v. 26)

In both instances, the declaration is made in the starkest of terms: faith apart from works is dead. This goes a step further than the idea that the faith no longer works, or is useless (cf. on verse 20, above)—it is actually dead! The lack of works is compared with the absence of an animating spirit or breath (pneu=ma) in a living body. It is a natural image to use, given the importance the author here places on action (i.e., animating movement) as a sign of a true and living faith.

In order to gain a proper understanding of how James 2:14-26 relates to the Pauline (and Reformation) doctrine of “justification by faith”, we must supplement the study above with a detailed examination of three areas:

    • The short rhetorical dialogue (vv. 18-19) that comes between the two arguments of the treatise
    • The specific declaration on “faith and works” in verse 24, with it seemingly direct contradiction of the Pauline doctrine, and
    • A consideration of Ephesians 2:8-9, as a broad statement of the Pauline doctrine, which is more relevant to James (and to the Protestant teaching) than Paul’s specific line of argument in Galatians and Romans.

This will be the basis of our next study, which will bring to a close our examination of Scriptural basis for the Reformation principle of “Justification by Faith”.

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