And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
Concerning justification, Paul states, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” Romans 3:28
He tells us that, absolutely, our faith alone justifies us, apart from the law. However, what James wrote seems, on the surface, to conflict with Paul’s idea of “faith alone” for justification:
“You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” James 2;24
What is it that “he does” then that justifies a person? Either there’s a contradiction or James is speaking on an entirely different level concerning the same matter. Paul is very clear in what he means and repeats his stand of faith alone elsewhere. He makes the same exact claim four more times his epistles, Romans 5:1, Galatians 2:16, Galatians 3:11, and Galatians 3:24. These verses and there surrounding thoughts clearly point to justification (being declared righteous) by faith alone. In addition to this, his letters allude to this concept many other times.
Many commentaries state that good works will stem necessarily from salvation because of “true faith.” In other words, if you have true faith, you will naturally do “good works.” Therefore, the claim is that James is referring to good works as the “fruit” of justification or “proof of faith.” In fact, many people judge another’s salvation based on the works they do; the claim is that if there are no works, there is no saving faith. This is shallow at best and fails to recognize two things:
1) That non-Christians – all over the world – are actively doing “good works.” Many times these are equal to or better than those of saved Christians. Even self-proclaimed “atheists” go out and do good stuff for other people. Such works simply can’t be what justifies us or “prove” our justification, in any way, shape, or form. If they do, then non-believers have a right to look down on Christians who don’t do what they do and at the same level of output.
2) This doesn’t align at all with what James is saying. James is saying that a person is “justified by what he does,” not that justification is somehow proved by what he does.
Good works as a demonstration of salvation may appear to be the biblical admonition, but it is not always the biblical norm. The entire book of 1 Corinthians is written to already-saved believers (Paul never questions their salvation – even in the midst of gross immorality that was “worse than the pagans”) and yet they’re the most disorganized, haphazard bunch of people one can imagine. Good works are certainly lacking in the lives of these saved people… and yet they are saved – hence justified.
If one pursues “works as evidence of true saving faith” to its logical conclusion, then no known amount of good works could ever be enough to justify a person or prove their justification. In essence, one would be in a never-ending cycle of fret as to whether they have “appeased” God enough to prove their faith. This is the dilemma that Martin Luther was caught in. Roman Catholicism completely controlled its adherents in this respect, of which he was one. In essence, he was in complete bondage to the strict edicts and demands of the RCC.
The extra-biblical teachings of depraved men grow abundantly in such an environment – indulgences, purgatory, prayers to the saints, adoration of Mary, legalism of all types, etc. are all the natural result of leaving behind the simplicity of the Gospel of Jesus which says we are justified by faith alone.
The Roman Catholic Church, in its official canons from the Council of Trent (which are in full effect today) go beyond Scripture and actually declare the Apostle Paul anathema. You don’t need to read all of these, but each one in its proclamation clearly declares Paul anathema. This is because what’s being stated in each of these canons is 100% contrary to what he wrote. Additionally, canon 23 directly contradicts Jesus’ words and therefore, by default, proclaims Jesus anathema (oops):
Canon 9 “If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.”
Canon 10 “If any one shall say that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in the divine mercy pardoning sins for Christ's sake, or that it is that confidence alone by which we are justified ... let him be accursed”
Canon 14 “If any one saith, that man is truly absolved from his sins and justified, because that he assuredly believed himself absolved and justified; or, that no one is truly justified but he who believes himself justified; and that, by this faith alone, absolution and justification are effected; let him be anathema.”
Canon 23 “lf any one saith, that a man once justified can sin no more, nor lose grace, and that therefore he that falls and sins was never truly justified; or, on the other hand, that he is able, during his whole life, to avoid all sins, even those that are venial,- except by a special privilege from God, as the Church holds in regard of the Blessed Virgin; let him be anathema.” (Underlining added by me.)
Canon 24 “If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema.”
Canon 30 “If any one saith, that, after the grace of Justification has been received, to every penitent sinner the guilt is remitted, and the debt of eternal punishment is blotted out in such wise, that there remains not any debt of temporal punishment to be discharged either in this world, or in the next in Purgatory, before the entrance to the kingdom of heaven can be opened (to him); let him be anathema.”
Canon 33 “If any one saith, that, by the Catholic doctrine touching Justification, by this holy Synod inset forth in this present decree, the glory of God, or the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ are in any way derogated from, and not rather that the truth of our faith, and the glory in fine of God and of Jesus Christ are rendered (more) illustrious; let him be anathema.”
- This council declares that if anyone disagrees with it, they are damned.
If these official canons were true, then the message of eternal life through the work of Jesus Christ alone would be false. Further, salvation would be entirely up to the determination of the RCC. Thanks be to God however that the truth of the gospel is that we are saved, justified, sanctified, and glorified by Jesus’ work alone.
However, this still doesn’t resolve the apparent conflict between Romans 3:28 and James 2:24. Our arbitrary works based on faith can’t resolve the dilemma between what Paul said and what James said, and so the answer must not lie within us at all. Rather the good works which justify us according to James must be as Jesus declared:
Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” John 6:29
This is because –
When a man believes in me, he does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. John 12:44
Our continued faith in Jesus after saving faith in Jesus becomes the work - not a work of our own, but the work of Jesus. We believe in (have faith in) Jesus’ earthly ministry and are justified as Paul says in Romans. Our justification in what we do then (according to James) must be our reliance on Jesus' works –His continued work on our behalf as the Mediator between God and man and the future promises which we wait patiently for. If this isn't the case, then as I said above, we're in a never-ending cycle of wondering if our "works" are justifying us - even though Paul says we are already justified. By necessity it must all come back to Christ.
This is even confirmed by James:
You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. James 2:20-22
Paul states in Romans 4 that Abraham was justified (declared righteous) by faith and then he cites Genesis 15. But James in the quote above cites Genesis 22 (7 chapters and many years after the account in Genesis 15). The Genesis 22 account (which James refers to) is explained in Hebrews 11:17-19 –
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, “In Isaac your seed shall be called,” concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense.
Do you see? Abraham’s faith (By faith Abraham…) “was made complete by what he did” by demonstrating faith in God. This was the very work that James is citing. The deed is the faith in God’s provision to bring Isaac back from the dead.
From first to last, our declaration of justification is from and of Jesus Christ – what He did on our behalf. Our works of justification are faith in Him and the works He is accomplishing and will accomplish on our behalf.
“The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” John 6:29
One argument against this analysis could be that James, in most of chapter 2, is talking about actual deeds of righteousness – two examples:
1) What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. James 2:14-17
Counterargument – James gives a tangible example of food and clothing, but then turns to say “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” However, no action is specified. We’ve already determined that the action required for justification is faith. Our faith justifies us through and through.
2) Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? James 2:25
Counterargument – Rahab’s faith is what saved her. By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient. Hebrews 11:31
It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith.
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