Justification by Works in James
by Matthew W. Bassford
Earlier, I wrote about Paul’s discussion of justification by works in the first four chapters of Romans. In it, he says that justification by works requires perfect obedience to God, which no one but Jesus has achieved. Thus, Christians must seek salvation by faith apart from works. Similarly, baptism for the forgiveness of sins is an expression of faith, not an attempt to justify oneself by works.
In response, I received a question about justification by works in James. In his epistle, James appears to directly contradict Paul. After all, in Romans 3:28, Paul says that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law. In James 2:24, James says that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.
What gives? How can it be that two inspired writers would say such different things?
The key to resolving the question is to recognize that Paul and James don’t mean the same thing either by “works” or by “faith”. In context, this is obvious. Throughout Romans, Paul uses “works” as shorthand for perfect Law-keeping (or perfect righteousness by a Gentile). In Paul’s terms, justification by works requires a lifetime of perfection.
James, however, doesn’t use “works” to mean a lifetime of perfection. Instead, he uses it to refer to specific righteous actions. In his discussion of the issue, he cites two examples of justification by works: Abraham offering up Isaac (James 2:21) and Rahab saving the spies (James 2:25).
Neither of those people was justified by works in a Pauline sense. Abraham lied because his faith was weak. Rahab also lied, and she was a prostitute besides. Both sinned and therefore fall short of the glory of God. However, both also revealed their faith through their behavior, and by those faith-filled works, they were justified.
Interestingly, James’ definition of justification by works is quite similar to Paul’s definition of justification by faith. Paul’s two examples, Abraham and David, were justified by faith (David being fully as imperfect as Abraham was), but neither was a spiritual do-nothing. Both believed in the promises of God and acted in accordance with those promises. Indeed, Paul goes on to make the point in Romans 6 that our receipt of grace through faith requires us to transform our lives. Pauline faith works.
Not so with Jamesian “faith”. His two examples of faith without works are the Christian who doesn’t help a brother or sister in need (James 2:15-16) and the demons (James 2:19). Both acknowledge that God exists; neither honors Him as King through obedience.
James’ most telling comment about them appears in James 2:14, where he observes that such a one “says he has faith”. Though he’s not going to debate the point, James doesn’t really think that the non-worker has faith either. The Pauline analog, as per Romans 6:15, is the one who sins because he is under grace, not law.
As we would expect, there is no contradiction between Romans and James. The two epistles address two different problems. The former is concerned with Judaizing teachers who bind circumcision even though doing so only makes sense as part of an attempt to justify oneself by works. The latter is concerned with Christians who don’t think they have to follow Christ. Additionally, both epistles have the same bottom line. We must seek salvation through faith, but we also must live lives of obedience that show that our faith is genuine.