Justification in James: Catholic-Protestant Dialogue

Justification in James: Catholic-Protestant Dialogue May 19, 2016
[Uploaded from public list discussions by Dave Armstrong on 8 May 2002. My opponents’ words will be in green and red; other citations will be in purple, with biblical citations in blue]

What is not biblical at all is “faith alone.” We know this because James expressly denies it (and so does Paul, repeatedly, but not as succinctly and concisely as James does, in one statement):

James 2:24 (RSV) You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.

James 2:14 What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but has not works? Can his faith save him?

James 2:17 So faith by itself [alone], if it has no works, is dead.

James 2:22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works.

James 2:20 . . . faith apart from works is barren.

James 1:22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.

James 2:26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.

James is emphasizing the works-aspect of saving faith, and Paul emphasizes the faith part. Neither denies the other aspect, like Luther did, with his false dichotomies, which have characterized Protestant theology ever since. I don’t see any arbitrary compartmentalization in James of works and faith in their neat little theological constructs of “sanctification” and “justification.” No, what I see here is an organic unity, precisely as in the Catholic view. And there is much similar teaching in Paul, which I will bring out as this dialogue proceeds.

Yes and Protestants affirm that there is a dichotomy between faith and works in justification or one entering into a right relationship with God.

We agree about the first moment, but of course we think justification and salvation are ongoing endeavors, not a one-time event, as Protestants think. Obviously, if it is an instantaneous event, there is no time for works at all, so works are irrelevant and meaningless in any discussion of justification in that sense. Therefore, the instantaneous claim has to be scrutinized as the falsehood it is, as well.

James 2 is pivotal chapter as is Romans 3,4 and others. We don’t believe faith and works are necessarily separated, but they are clearly distinguished as the means to justification.

I will have to be shown this. I highly suspect that it is a scenario much like sola Scriptura: Protestants claim it is all over the Bible, but when pressed to offer a single compelling verse, they come up with a big zero.

There are times when “either/or” is true, just as there are times when “both/and” or true. However, again this the what the debate is about. Of course we believe James 2:24 in context and harmonized with the rest of Scripture does no damage to justification by faith alone. However, we do believe John 5:24, Eph 2:8-10, Romans 3:27-4:25, and others do much damage to the Catholic position.

We will examine all these in the depth they deserve as we go along, I hope. I will give counter-interpretations of your proof texts, and I hope you guys will return the favor.

Thanks for your exposition of James 2. I disagree totally, but I appreciate the effort you put into it. I was quite familiar with that, having once believed the same thing myself. I don’t buy it, anymore, obviously. Ultimately, this passage and all the others related to this topic have to be interpreted as a coherent, self-consistent whole. In my opinion, once all the Pauline teaching is scrutinized, the entirety of biblical teaching on justification and salvation is in accord with Catholicism, not Protestantism. I contend that we can explain your proof texts variously, in harmony with our favorite proof texts; you cannot explain all of ours alternately. When all the evidence is in, and with all due respect, I believe it is much more plausible to interpret James as I have, not as you have.

The long and the short of it is: I think Protestants are engaging in eisegesis, when they interpret James as you do. They must do so because to take any different view would immediately be fatal to sola fide. We all interpret in light of some larger system of thought; there is no avoiding it. And we change our larger paradigm when there is enough cognitive dissonance of contradiction pointed out, so that our system (and our espousal of it) can no longer bear the strain of that burden, and all the annoying anomalies, and we ditch it.

I did want to counter-exegete one passage you brought up, because it affords an excellent opportunity to elaborate upon one of my points:

Romans 4:5-6 However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. 6 David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works…

Paul is talking about the Jewish works of the law here (not works, period), as he often does. It is a specific, technical application of “works,” with a particular purpose. This is easy to demonstrate in the context. Paul is fighting the Judaistic notion that observance of the Mosaic Law will save anyone. He says that it is faith, derived from grace, not human effort, or the marks and rituals of ethnic identity.

In 2:21 he refers to the “righteousness of God” which is “manifested apart from law . . . ” (RSV) 3:28-29: “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also . . .?” In v. 3:30 he says that (in effect) circumcision doesn’t justify: faith does. He goes on to talk about Abraham, but he lived before the Law was given, so that couldn’t be mentioned in discussing Abraham himself. Nevertheless, the entire context is clearly discussing Jewish Law. Paul speaks about Abraham’s circumcision (4:10-12), as ultimately irrelevant to his justification. He contrasts law and faith in 4:13-14,16. Conclusion: justification (what we Catholics consider initial justification) is by faith, not the Jewish works of the Law. After that, we are expected to do good works which is in organic relationship to our faith (James 2:21-24 relates this aspect to Abraham himself).

But is James talking about justifying faith?

Yes; of the sort that is ongoing, after initial justification.

You have admitted that initial justification is by faith alone, so it cannot be completely unbiblical even according to your theology.

That’s one aspect. One can’t isolate this from the rest. It may work for the thief on the cross, but not for most of the rest of us, who will have to do something if we hope to attain to eschatological salvation.

Therefore, maybe you should be more specific of what justification you are talking about when making such charges.

One keeps clarifying. It’s an endless process in this discussion. because the misunderstandings are so overwhelming and it isn’t the simplest subject in the world in the first place.

As far as the statement James makes I’m sure you would agree that it has to be taken in context and harmonized with the rest of Scripture. Which is what it seems like we are about to do :-)

I do agree.

James 2:24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

“You see”. James has just proven a point in regard to Abraham and his justification. He uses Abraham’s incident in Gen 22 as proof of Abraham’s good work. The question I posed to you is, “Was Abraham justified before Gen 22?” If yes, then James is not dealing with how one becomes right with God ( unbeliever), but instead how someone who is already right with God will do good works to vindicate their justification.

Not quite. That doesn’t take all of Scripture into account. Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin wrote:

. . . We find the different temporal dimensions to justification illustrated very well in the life of Abraham. To begin with, Gen 15:6 clearly teaches us that Abraham was justified at the time he believed the promise concerning the number of his descendants. Paul confirms this when he quotes Genesis 15:6 to show that Abraham was justified at that time:

Romans 4:2-3 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’ 

But if justification were a once-for-all event, rather than a process, that means Abraham could not receive justification either before or after Genesis 15:6. However, Scripture indicates that he did both. First, the book of Hebrews tells us that:

Hebrews 11:8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was to go. 

Every Protestant will passionately agree that the subject of Hebrews 11 is saving faith — the kind that pleases God and wins his approval (Heb. 11:2, 6) — so we know that Abraham had saving faith according to Hebrews 11. But when did he have this faith? The passage tells us: Abraham had it “when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive . . . ” The problem for the once-for-all view of justification is that is that the call of Abraham to leave Haran is recorded in Genesis 12:1-4–three chapters before he is justified in 15:6. We therefore know that Abraham was justified well before (in fact, years before) he was justified in Gen. 15:6. But if Abraham had saving faith back in Genesis 12, then he was justified back in Genesis 12. Yet Paul clearly tells us that he was also justified in Genesis 15. So justification must be more than just a once-for-all event. Abraham also received justification after Gen 15:6, for the book of James tells us,

James 2:21-23 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”; and he was called the friend of God. 

[This is great stuff: the Apostle James is practically equating the faith and works; they are so organically-related, since what he calls “justification by works” is the “fulfillment” of the OT passage “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him . . . “]

. . . In this instance, the faith which he had displayed in the initial promise of descendants was fulfilled in his actions (see also Heb. 11:17-19), thus bringing to fruition the statement of Genesis 15:6 that he believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Abraham therefore received justification–that is, a fuller fruition of justification–when he offered Isaac. The problem for the once-for-all view is that the offering of Isaac is recorded in Gen. 22:1-18–seven chapters after Gen. 15:6. Therefore, just as Abraham was justified before 15:6 when he left Haran for the promised land, so he was also justified again when he offered Isaac after 15:6. Therefore, we see that Abraham was justified on at least three different occasions: he was justified in Genesis 12, when he first left Haran and went to the promised land; he was justified in Genesis 15, when he believed the promise concerning his descendants; and he was justified in Genesis 22, when he offered his first promised descendant on the altar. As a result, justification must be seen, not as a once-for-all event, but as a process which continues throughout the believer’s life.

This is something that many Protestants have recognized . . .

[e.g., James D.G. Dunn; even Luther to some extent, according to Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther]

James 2:14 What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but has not works? Can his faith save him? 

“If a man says he has faith”. Saying one has faith does not mean you have justifying faith. James is refuting those who claim to have faith, but no works yet claimed to be justified. That is a no no, because the God who gives life to the dead does not give dead faith as a gift. Those who
are in Christ are create for good works (Eph 2.10), they are a new creation. Therefore, for one to claim they are in Christ, but have no good works goes against the witness of Scripture and this is what James is refuting.

Not bad. Very good, in fact. However, the last clause is your downfall, I think. If we paraphrase that as “can his faith alone save him?’ then the answer is “no.” He must have works. So in a very real sense, even in the Protestant (even the Reformed) paradigm, “faith alone” as some sort of principle or slogan is untrue. Even you say the saved person must do good works to illustrate and prove his saving faith. So this is yet another instance where abstract theology gets into the way of acknowledging the simple fact that faith and works go hand in hand. They cannot be separated. You want to say works have nothing to do with salvation? Great; go ahead. But you still say that the believer must do good works. So the net, concrete result in both systems is the same. I rejoice in that fact, and I wish more could see it.

James 2:17 So faith by itself , if it has no works, is dead. 

Yes, a faith without works is a dead faith. Do you believe God gives as a gift a dead faith or a faith that works?

I agree with you. But why can’t you and other Protestants see that this organic connection is all we’re talking about when we deny “faith alone” and speak of good works as a normative part of the Christian life?

James 2:22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works. 

Yes, and this is justifying faith as was proven by Abraham who was justified before Gen 22, but manifested and vindicated his justification by his works (e.g. Gen 22).

He was justified at least three times, as shown above, from Scripture. There is no way out of it. The citation by Paul is the clincher.

James 2:20 . . . faith apart from works is barren. 

Amen! But what about that rules out justification by faith alone?

Faith alone has no works! How simple is this?!

We are justified by faith alone (faith is the sole means of our justification), yet that faith is a faith that works.

That’s precisely what we Catholics are saying! Thanks so much.

James 1:22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 

James 2:26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.

Yes we agree. You will also notice that in 1:2-3 James speaks of justifying faith that perseveres and produces good work. Therefore, the faith that James is refuting is not what he or traditional Protestants would call justifying faith.

He is opposing that which both Catholics and the best Protestant thought opposes.

Almost correct. James is emphasizing how a justified person (one that is already right with God) will produce works, whereas Paul is emphasizing how an unbeliever becomes justified (right with God).

And we agree on this. We only disagree that works must be isolated from salvation altogether, and separated into the category of sanctification, away from justification.

Neither denies the other aspect as long as they are kept in their proper place. Now, if you claimed that one is made right with God even through grace-infused works,

Not made right with God initially, but in order to maintain the right relationship, works must be present (and we can agree that they are the fruit of true saving faith).

then you will get the same St. Paul that you see in Galatians. Remember, the Judiazers were not claiming they were doing their works outside of grace, but instead they were claiming the works were a necessary supplement to their faith and the grace of God in Christ.

As in several parts of Romans, Paul is contrasting not works and faith (he often connects those elsewhere), but rather, a false belief that the Law or being Jewish can save, with grace alone and justifying faith, which applies to Gentiles as well as Jews. This is indicated, among other things, by constant use of “works of the law” or simply “law” (2:16, 19, 21; 3:2, 5, 10-13, 17-19, 21, 23-24; 4:5, 21; 5:4, etc.).

Sir, I pray that one day you will drop everything you “have”, and embrace Jesus with two empty arms.

What makes you presume that I haven’t done so?

I continue to maintain that you are special pleading with James, and imposing preexisting Protestant categories onto it. To me, your exegesis appears very desperate. But that’s just my opinion. No big deal.

I think your exegesis of a mere “justification in man’s eyes” collapses utterly by a rather simple consideration. James 2:21 says, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?” Now, was this before men? I’m not aware that anyone else was present to see this, except for God. So other men observing it had nothing to do with it. Scripture says he was justified in that very act, with no one else around, except for the Angel of the Lord. Therefore it could only have been a justification from God’s standpoint, not man’s, because it happened at that instant. Note that your all-important clause “you see” is not present here. Abraham was justified by works. Period. End of argument.

Then in verse 22 says that Abraham’s “faith was completed by works.” Again, if this work “completed” his faith, no one saw it (most observers wouldn’t have even known he had faith previously, or about his dealings with God), so this artificial, contrived notion of “justification before men” just doesn’t fly here. The thing exists in and of itself, whether anyone else sees it or not. It is — bottom line — an invisible, spiritual reality.

The real clincher comes in verse 23, though:

and the scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’ . . .

Now note what has occurred here. If the “fulfillment” of Abraham’s “faith alone” act of “believing in God” is in a work, which no one else saw, then three things, it seems to me, follow:

1) Faith and works (belief and action) are shown once again to be two sides of the same coin. The very interpretation of the Pauline “belief reckoned as righteousness” is grounded — equated — with a work, and authoritatively so, since one Apostle interprets the same passage that another has interpreted, based on an Old Testament passage. For those who believe that Scripture is God-breathed in its entirety, there can be no contradiction between them.

2) Thus, the “faith alone” concept which is built upon the Abrahamic verses having to do with faith, among others, cannot possibly be interpreted as excluding works altogether (i.e., not from justification). It simply can’t be done. And there are many more indications in Paul of this connection also, which we will get to in due course in this thread.

3) The work and the act of faith, of which it is a fulfillment, both occurred outside the gaze of men. They are of a piece. This strongly goes against both faith alone and “justification before men.”


Meta Description: The old debate about the relationship of faith & works is often approached via various analyses in the book of James, as here.

Meta Keywords: Catholic soteriology, Faith Alone, grace, grace alone, heaven, imputed justification, infused justification, Justification, merit, Salvation, sanctification, soteriology

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