This study supplements and completes the discussion from the prior study on James 2:14-26, in relation to the doctrine (and Reformation principle) of “Justification by Faith”. The previous discussion will be supplemented by a study covering the following 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 its 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.
In between the two (parallel) arguments of the treatise (vv. 14-17, 20-26), the author includes a brief rhetorical exchange, which serves the literary purpose of transitioning between the two arguments. However, it also is pivotal for an understanding of the author’s view on the relation between “faith and works”.
“But some(one) will speak (like this): ‘You hold trust, and I hold works’; show me your trust apart from works, and I will show you the trust (from) out of my works.” (v. 18)
The author of the letter suddenly introduces a second ‘speaker’ who functions as an opponent for debate. The hypothetical (rhetorical) nature of this person is clear from the wording used to introduce him: “but some(one) [ti$] will speak…”. This figure is a type, representing a conventional way of thinking, but reflecting a person who does not really understand the truth of the situation. We might paraphrase the author’s wording as “someone will surely say (this)…”. What the responder says (lit. “speaks/utters”) is: “you hold trust and I hold works”. What is meant by this?
Commentators offer several avenues for interpretation, but, since the author is the one who is advocating for the importance of “works” as a demonstration of a person’s “trust” (faith), the statement is perhaps best understood as a characterization of the author’s position. In other words, the speaker acts as a foil who misrepresents (or misunderstands) the author’s own position. There are people who might think that the author is making a facile contrast: you hold “trust”, but I hold works. The main point of contrast, however, is that such a separation of “trust” and “works” is not possible, either conceptually, or in reality. Yet, that is precisely what someone espousing the position of ‘justification by faith alone’ might imply: i.e., you try to gain salvation through works, but I rely on trust alone.
To conceive of a separation between trust and works reflects a faulty reasoning—a point made clear by the author’s response in v. 18b: “show me your trust apart from works, and I will show you the trust (from) out of my works”. The contrast is expressed by the prepositions xwri/$ (“apart from, separate from”) and e)k (“out of”, i.e. coming from). The author challenges his ‘opponent’ to demonstrate his “trust” apart from any works. Such a demonstration is not possible, since, from the author’s viewpoint, there can be no true trust (faith) in Christ that is “apart” from works. This is the main argument in verses 14ff (and again in 20ff). By contrast, since true faith is manifested by a person’s “works”, one can readily demonstrate such trust through (or “from”, e)k) those works.
In verse 19, the author goes on to make a rather pointed (even harsh) criticism of the person who imagines that one can have any real or meaningful trust apart from works:
“You trust that ‘God is One’; you do well, and (yet even) the daimons trust (the same way) and shudder!”
By defining trust in the most general terms (for Jews and Christians), as a monotheistic declaration that “God is One”, the author makes the point most vividly: even the demons have that level of faith. He could have framed he example more in Christian terms—viz., you trust that “Jesus is the Son of God”, fine enough, but even the demons will make such a confession (cf. Mark 3:11; 5:7 par, etc). The point is that such a “trust” in Jesus, if it is not manifest in “works” —and, especially, by sacrificial acts of love toward fellow believers—is empty, and without much meaning.
The declaration in verse 24, following directly upon the Abraham example (as an illustration of a person’s trust demonstrated by “works”), is the portion of the treatise that would appear most directly to contradict the Pauline teaching on “faith and works”. This is all the more striking when one considers the importance of the example of Abraham in Paul’s line of argument (in Romans and Galatians), and the fact that he uses the very same Scripture (Gen 15:6), but uses it to make the opposite point (cf. Rom 3:27-28)!
Here is the author’s conclusion, which he draws from the example of Abraham:
“You see that a man is made/declared right [dikaiou=tai] out of [i.e. by] works, and not out of trust alone.”
Compare this with Paul’s statement in Romans 3:28:
“For we consider a man to be made/declared right [dikaiou=sqai] by trust, apart from [xwri/$] works”
The two statements would appear to be contradictory. Paul even uses the very expression, “apart from works” (xwri\$ e&rga), that the James treatise categorically refutes. The Pauline expression in the translation above, however, is incomplete; for the full phrase is “…apart from works of the law [no/mou]”. Paul’s teaching in Galatians and Romans is that the regulations of the Torah (the Old Testament Law [of Moses]) are no longer binding for believers in Christ (and especially for Gentile believers). In the Pauline idiom “works” is a shorthand for “works of the Law” —meaning performance or fulfillment of the Torah regulations.
In the James treatise, “works” does not have this specialized meaning. This is clear from the context of 2:14-26, where “works” primarily refers to acts of love (care and compassion) shown to fellow believers in their time of need. Paul would affirm the importance of this as well, though almost certainly he would not have expressed it the way our author has. It is also quite possible that the author’s view of the Law—that is, the believer’s relationship to the Torah regulations—was not all that different from Paul’s. Though he does not treat the matter as forcefully (or as distinctively) as Paul does in Galatians and Romans, etc., there is no sense in the letter that the author views the Torah regulations as in any way binding on believers. Indeed, he shares with Paul (and with other early Christians) the view that the Torah is effectively summarized (and/or replaced) for believers by the “love command”, reflected in the teaching and example of Jesus. For more the Law (Torah) in the Letter of James, see my recent article and notes in the series “The Law and the New Testament” (and esp. the note on James 2:8).
The Pauline doctrine of “justification by faith” is well summarized by the statement in Rom 3:28 (cf. above). A person is “made right” (vb dikaio/w) in God’s eyes through trust alone—that is, through trust in the person and work of Jesus, his sacrificial death and resurrection (as God’s Son). The verb dikaio/w can also be understood in terms of being declared right (i.e., righteous, innocent), in a forensic or judicial sense. This aspect better fits the eschatological context of the coming end-time Judgment—of believers being saved from God’s Judgment on humankind. However, it is probably better to retain the more general meaning of the verb. Things are “made right” between human beings and God, and as believers we are “made right” (by God), through our faith in Christ.
In James 2:24, the verb dikaio/w perhaps should be understood in the sense of “being recognized as right(eous)” by God. That would certainly fit the context of the Abraham example, and of the wider principle that a person’s trust, if it is genuine, will be demonstrated by his/her actions. God recognizes the right(eous)ness that is reflected by such behavior. However, the author is also not unaware of the eschatological Judgment-aspect, and he surely would affirm that believers are saved from the coming Judgment by their faith—a faith that is manifested in works.
If the author of the letter was aware of Paul’s teaching, and is responding to it in some way, as seems likely, then it is possible his main concern is that the Pauline doctrine could be (or has been) carelessly reduced to a general “faith without works” slogan. Without the context of Paul’s arguments regarding the Torah, and a proper understanding of his use of the term “works” (e&rga) as a shorthand for “works of the Law” (e&rga no/mou), a person might mistakenly infer that no “works” of any kind were necessary for believers. The author clearly affirms that acts of love and care toward fellow believers, and similar “good works”, are necessary, at least in the sense that they will be present in the life of anyone who has true faith.
Whether or not there is a deeper opposition to Paul’s teaching in the letter of James (the treatise in 2:14-26) is difficult to say. The fact the author uses the same Abraham example (and Scripture, Gen 15:6) as Paul, only to make virtually the opposite point, does seem to suggest a more fundamental difference in outlook. If ‘James’ was aware of Paul’s writings, then the contradictory use of the Abraham example, etc, would have to be regarded as intentional, meant as a contrast to Paul’s teaching. But is there a real contradiction, at the theological and doctrinal level, between James and Paul? To give an answer to this question, we must briefly examine another important Pauline statement on “faith and works”, in Ephesians 2:8-9.
“For by (the) favor (of God) you are (one)s having been saved, through trust—and this (does) not (come) out of you, (but is) the gift of God—(and) not out of works, (so) that one should not boast (of it).”
The declaration reads like a theological expansion of the Pauline teaching on “justification by faith” (see on Rom 3:28, above). The core Pauline doctrine is certainly contained at the heart of Eph 2:8-9: “…having been saved (= “made right”/justified) through trust…and not out of works”. The exact relationship to the Pauline teaching, however, depends on one’s view regarding the authorship of Ephesians. For many critical commentators, it is pseudonymous, though still a product of the Pauline Tradition, representing a (secondary) development of Paul’s teaching. For commentators who maintain the traditional-conservative view (that the letter is genuinely written by Paul), Ephesians still shows important signs of development in Paul’s thought and manner of expression, suggesting that it was written some time after Galatians and Romans, etc.
The points of development can be seen in the elements that have been added to the core doctrine, forming the expanded statement of Eph 2:8-9:
- The emphasis on the favor (xa/ri$) shown to us by God. While the term xa/ri$, used in this soteriological sense, is very much part of the Pauline vocabulary (cf. Rom 3:24; 11:5-6 etc), its close pairing here with pi/sti$ (“trust, faith”) is clearly intended to give a deeper (and clearer) theological formulation to the Pauline doctrine. One is saved/justified by faith, but only insofar as we were first shown favor by God; the idea of favor (or ‘grace’) is primary.
- The same point of emphasis is seen in the parenthetical clause that follows the expression “by trust”. As if to reinforce the idea that our salvation derives primarily from God’s favor shown to us, rather than simply by virtue of our trust, Paul (or the author) declares unequivocally: “this is (does) not (come) out of [i.e. from] you, (but is) the gift [dw=ron] of God.”
- The final purpose/result clause also reinforces the idea of our entire dependence on God (and his favor) for our salvation. Since it does not come from (“out of”) ourselves, by our own effort and intention, we certainly cannot rightly “boast” of it. The wording suggests that this is part of God’s very purpose in arranging things this way: “…so that one should not boast (of it)”.
- Another minor sign of development is the use of the perfect participle (of the verb sw/zw, “save”) to characterize believers as “(one)s having been saved” (sesw|sme/noi). In contrast with comparable statements by Paul in Galatians, Romans, (and 1 Corinthians), Ephesians never uses the verb dikaio/w; instead, the verb sw/zw occurs here, and in something of a specialized sense.
Perhaps most significant of all, in the context of Eph 2:8-9, the noun e&rgon (pl. e&rga, “works”) does not necessary refer to “works of the Law,” as the term consistently does in Galatians and Romans. While Ephesians clearly affirms Paul’s view regarding the Torah (2:15), this is not given much emphasis in the letter. Rather, the meaning of “works” here appears to be more generalized, referring to any action taken by a person. The parenthetical statement “and this (does) not (come) out of you” would seem to confirm this point. Our salvation (having been saved by God) does not depend on anything we do (i.e. our “works”), but comes about as a result of the favor God has shown to us.
This more general formulation of the Pauline doctrine is closer to the Reformation principle of “justification by faith” than are Paul’s arguments that deal with the Torah (in Galatians and Romans). In its generalized formulation, the doctrine is adapted to mean: we are saved by trust (faith), and not by any effort of our own (“works”). But this adaptation, it may be argued, also places the doctrine more squarely in contradiction with the letter of James. As we have seen, in the James treatise, “works” does not refer specifically to “works of the Law”, but to other kinds of “good works” —especially, acts of love and charity to fellow believers who are in need. Moreover, the wording in verses 14 and 24 suggests that such works will save a person and “make them right” (i.e., justify them) before God.
A proper understanding of the James treatise would recognize that the faith and works of a believer go hand-in-hand and function together (“work together with [each other]”, v. 22)—they cannot be separated. Works are required, in the sense that they will be present in the life of a true believer, and will effectively demonstrate the living reality of a person’s faith. It is in this light that one can speak of works “saving” a person; in truth, it is the reality of believers’ faith, manifest in their actions, that saves them. Such, at least, is the view expressed in the James treatise. It is not necessarily incompatible with Paul’s viewpoint, though doubtless Paul would have expressed himself differently on the matter, using different imagery and lines of argument to make a comparable point.