By Matthew Everhard
There is no doubt that James 2:24 presents a difficulty to those who hold the Reformed doctrine of Sola Fide (that is, that believers are justified by faith alone apart from works of the law). This present writer is one such man who holds firmly to Sola Fide without compromise. Briefly, how is it that we can hold firmly to the doctrine that justification is given by God as a gift through faith alone when James specifically says, "You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone"? Does this single verse present a mortal wound in the Reformed understanding of justification by faith?
Worse still, many have attempted to show that the Apostles James and Paul are at irreconcilable war with one another. Paul, has written clearly, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law” (Romans 3:28). Because of this apparent discrepancy or contradiction, some have thrown out the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture altogether. While Martin Luther certainly did not throw the “baby” of inerrancy out with the “bathwater” of this troubling text in James, he certainly was befuddled by the perplexity of this difficulty. He called James the “epistle of straw!”
However, when viewed in light of their respective literary contexts, James and Paul can both be understood to be holding swords—not against one another—but standing back to back to defend the gospel against different foes.
Paul’s primary concern is to defend the gospel of faith alone against a deeply entrenched (and misguided) Jewish understanding of a man’s right standing before God. Many had assumed they there were “in” merely because of their ethnic heritage. In Romans 1-3, Paul labors to show that all of humanity has fallen. This includes both Jew and Gentile. Because even one sin disqualifies us from salvation (a statement upon which James and Paul would certainly agree; compare Romans 2:23 and James 2:10), all of mankind stands in desperate need of salvation. Paul argues forcefully that salvation cannot be attained by obeying the Law (i.e. performing “works”) since no man can fully uphold the Law. Condemned under the weight of the Law, mankind is helpless and needs a Savior. This Savior is none other than Jesus Christ who died to atone for the sins of all who believe, satisfying the righteous requirements of the Law and propitiating the wrath of God.
James’ primary concern however is to defend against the error commonly called today “easy believism.” That is, that a person can be saved by merely reciting a creedal statement with no more commitment than mental assent to the facts of the gospel. James refutes the theoretical possibility by showing that any one who claims to have such mere “faith” (note James says claims in verse 14), yet demonstrates no real life change, cannot truly said to be a believer. James fights against a different enemy than Paul—one who would suggest that mere words are enough “faith” to save. No, the Apostle’s point is that saving faith—true, sincere saving faith—always consists of a radical renewal of the inner nature.
The point of discrepancy, however, is most acutely felt in the use of the word “justify” and its variants. Paul says we are justified by faith alone (Romans 3:28) and James says it is by works (James 2:24). This dilemma dissolves easily when we simply understand that the word “justify” has different meanings in different contexts.
We all know that words may have different meanings. For instance, the dictionary contains over 20 definitions for the word “run.” Sometimes words even change over a matter of a few years. Recall for example that the English language contains the word “gay” which until recent decades meant “happy.” How that word has changed! Obviously, context is everything.
When Paul uses the word “justify” he is taking this word in the most technical, theological sense. He uses it in its forensic (or legal) sense of declaration. He commonly uses the word to denote a man’s being DECLARED righteous before a holy God. Without the atonement of the cross, wiping away a believer’s sin, this declaration would be impossible. Only when the righteousness of Jesus Christ is given to a believer through faith is a man justified (that is, considered and declared righteous before God.)
However, when James uses the word “justify” and its variants in James 2, he is NOT taking it in its technical theological (or legal, forensic) sense. No, he is using it in its more common connotation of “proving,” “defending,” “showing,” “revealing,” or “authenticating.” Another such usage of the same verb appears in Luke 10:29. James’ point is simple: a man of faith PROVES the reality of his conversion by his corresponding outward behavior.
In conclusion, we find that both James and Paul are in agreement: we cannot separate Jesus Christ as the Savior from Jesus Christ the Lord of our lives. True salvation always and necessarily results in a life-change spilling over into a joyful response of obedience and the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). Understanding that Paul and James use the word “justify” differently causes the apparent contradiction to melt and disappear altogether.
The analogy of a fire may be helpful. A fire emits heat and light as a result of combustion. The light is not given off not as the cause of the combustion, but as its effect. Similarly, we are saved exclusively by the grace of God through the agency of faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). Yet the inevitable effect of this saving power is good works which radiate from the believer as light inevitable emanates from a fire.
Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, Florida. Friend him at www.facebook.com/pastor.everhard or follow him on Twitter @matt_everhard.