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Does James Contradict Paul on Justification?

The Challenge of James 2

James 2 has challenged the church for centuries. Based on Paul’s teaching in Romans 3:28, Reformed Protestants have confessed that justification is by faith alone apart from works. Yet James asserts that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone (Jas 2:24). So the question becomes, “Does James contradict Paul?” Since the Holy Spirit inspired both James and Paul, we must answer No. Rather, the following observations demonstrate how the two complement one another.

A context showing that saving faith and works are inseparable

We must begin with context. Verses 14-17 contrast saving faith with a phony faith-claim. Saving faith involves a real, substantive reliance upon Jesus that necessarily produces works (cf. Jas 1:3, 6, 22; 2:1, 5). A phony faith-claim produces no works because it lacks a union with Jesus (Jas 2:14). James then sharpens his point in verses 18-19.

He anticipates an objection: “Someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’” The objection assumes that works and faith can somehow stand isolated from each other. But James exposes the error in that assumption. He argues that saving faith necessarily proves itself with works: “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (Jas 2:18).

To be clear, James is not arguing for works that earn God’s favor. No, he already asserted that God’s favor rested on the church through regeneration (Jas 1:18). The Father implants a new nature that then reflects his character in speech, compassion, and holiness (Jas 1:18, 21, 25-27). Thus, the external works demonstrate internal reality. Faith and works are not equal; but they’re inseparable. In fact, to claim faith while lacking faith’s works is even demonic (Jas 2:19).

The aforementioned context determines what James means by “faith alone” in verse 24. Saving faith is never alone with respect to works. Faith inevitably works. To support his point further, he gives two Old Testament examples. The first example is Abraham, when he offered his son Isaac on the altar (Jas 2:21). The second example is Rahab, when she hid the spies before Joshua’s conquest (Jas 2:25). In both examples we’re told that they were justified by works. But what does that mean? Five observations are crucial.

1. God imputes his righteousness to us by faith apart from works.

In verse 23, James quotes from Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Crucial to note from the story is that Abraham didn’t work for this righteousness. By simply trusting in God and his promises, God counted to Abraham a righteousness that wasn’t inherently Abraham’s. God gave his own righteousness to Abraham by faith alone.[i]

Using book-keeping language, Paul offers the same interpretation in Romans 4:3-6. In terms of righteousness, Abraham’s bank account is zero. He doesn’t fill it up with righteousness by works. It’s impossible. God must do it for him. By simply trusting in God who justifies the ungodly, Abraham’s faith is credited for righteousness. That is, his faith connects him to God’s promise of righteousness now manifested fully in Jesus Christ. By simply trusting in Christ apart from works, God forgives the ungodly and imputes to them Jesus’ righteousness.[ii] By quoting Genesis 15:6, James echoes the same truth that Paul does: God justifies the ungodly by faith alone and not by works of the law. Faith unites us to Jesus’ righteousness, and based on Jesus’ righteousness alone God declares us not guilty and right with him.

2. Justifying faith is presupposed throughout James’ argument.

In verse 22, James says that faith was active along with Abraham’s works. That doesn’t mean Abraham was adding works to his faith along the way. Rather, his faith was standing in and behind the works all along the way. It’s not a matter of faith and works, but faith producing works. Hebrews 11:17-19 makes the same point. Abraham’s faith had already linked him with God’s promise before he offered up Isaac. Abraham’s faith that God was able to raise Isaac from the dead then led him to act the way he did in radical obedience to God’s word (cf. Gen 22:5). Hebrews 11:31 observes the same about Rahab. Faith stands behind their works.

James also says in verse 22 that faith was completed by works. That is, faith found its ultimate expression in works. Works are the observable fruition of justifying faith.[iii] But the point is the same: faith is presupposed; it’s beneath the works.

Paul agrees. Unlike James, he doesn’t distinguish between saving faith and dead faith. But with James, Paul regularly shows that faith necessarily leads to new obedience. Notice “the obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5), “the work of faith” (1 Thess 1:3), and “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6).

3. Christ’s imputed righteousness has an inevitable external embodiment.

In verse 23 James says that Abraham’s works fulfilled Genesis 15:6, which itself teaches that Abraham is justified by faith apart from works. Follow the logic carefully…

  • Genesis 15:6 teaches that justification is by faith alone apart from works.
  • In that justification we receive Christ’s righteousness by imputation.
  • That justification apart from works reaches its full expression in doing works.

Do you see it? Justifying faith—like we see with Abraham in Genesis 15:6—reaches its full expression in doing works—like we see with Abraham offering up Isaac. Works are the inevitable embodiment of the justifying faith that links us to Christ’s righteousness.

To be clear, the works do not increase the righteousness already received by faith alone. To say so would undermine the gospel of justification (and imputation of Christ’s objective righteousness) by faith alone. Nothing needs to be added to Jesus’ perfect righteousness. Rather, the works manifest the liberating power of Jesus’ perfect righteousness. Jesus’ righteousness won’t let us remain as we are. Powerfully, it effects change. Paul agrees. In Ephesians 4:24 he says “to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” The new self in Christ must act in accordance with what it possesses, God’s image-bearing righteousness.

4. Therefore, works manifest the presence of justifying faith.

When we think of justification, we normally think of God’s legal declaration of righteous the moment we trust in Jesus. But justification can carry slightly different nuances. For example, take Matthew 12:37. Jesus says that “by your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned.” Jesus pushes justification to the future judgment, and, in some sense, he relates that justification to our words (or works).

How do these two fit together? They fit together in that one is the public manifestation of the other. Sometimes “to justify” refers to being “shown to be righteous,” or “proven to be righteous” (e.g., Matt 11:19; Rom 3:4; 1 Tim 3:16). In this case, good works are the “inevitable external badge of…internal justifying faith,” to use the words of Greg Beale.[iv]

This is why theologians like Jonathan Edwards and others would make a distinction between declared justification and manifested justification. Declared justification is when God declares a sinner righteous in the moment he trusts in Jesus. Manifested justification speaks to God giving proof that a person is righteous by their works. Their works become the necessary evidence of internal, justifying faith.[v] The Bible usually pushes manifested justification to the future judgment.[vi] But James sets the manifested justification within Abraham and Rahab’s lifetime. Manifested justification occurred when their faith took action.

So, how does this work out?

The only way a sinner can enter a relationship with God is by receiving the imputed righteousness of Christ through faith alone. In that moment of trust, God makes a legal declaration of righteous in Christ. The righteousness of Christ then liberates us to obey God. Standing right before God opens up a whole new life where we can and we want to obey God by the Spirit. Then throughout the Christian’s life God looks upon our works that are rooted in his liberating, justifying grace and says, “This one is righteous. I declared her righteous when she believed in my Son. And this work over here, and that work over there—they’re all miniature testimonies that my Son lives in her, and that justifying faith is present and active and will in fact vindicate her on the last day. I will see them through at the judgment and they will stand!”

In sum, James’ concern with justification isn’t to explain how someone gets right with God. That is certainly Paul’s concern in places like Romans 3:28, where he says that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. But that is not James’ concern. James’ concern is to explain the inevitable results once someone is right with God. Thus, justification by works in Romans 3:28 means gaining a right standing with God through works, which we should deny. Justification by works in James 2 means evidencing a right standing with God through works, which we should affirm. Those two things are not contradictory but complementary. To use the words of the Reformed tradition, we’re justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that remains alone.[vii]

5. Friendship with God is the goal of justifying faith.

James 2:23 says of Abraham, “and he was called a friend of God.” What does it mean to be a friend of God? James 4:4 says that friendship with the world is enmity with God, and that whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Therefore, to be a friend of God means that you’re no longer part of the world’s system of evil and rebellion against God. Your inner person has fundamentally changed such that you want to enjoy God and obey his ways.

Such life is the goal of justifying faith. The goal of faith isn’t just forgiveness and freedom from punishment. The goal is to be God’s friend. We were made to walk with our Maker and live as he created us to live. We can’t do that when trapped in our sins. But by trusting in Jesus—whose death liberates us, and whose righteousness transforms us—we can now live as we were once created to live, as God’s friend. Good works are the inevitable outworking of our friendship with God. Good works do not earn a friendship with God. Rather, God becomes our friend upon declaring us righteous in Christ, and good works are the inevitable fruit of that friendship.

Is friendship with God the goal of your faith? Are you professing to know Jesus just because you don’t want to go to hell? Are you a Christian merely because you think it’s the best philosophical answer to the world’s problems? It certainly is the best answer. But the goal isn’t a mere mental assent to the truths of Christianity. The goal is friendship with God—knowing him, and, more importantly, him knowing you.

Jesus’ blood and righteousness have given you free access to God by faith alone. If you’re trusting in Christ, your friendship with the world has ended. Walk now with your Maker. You were saved to have God and commune with God and walk with God and obey God in all that you do.

[i]Especially helpful is the treatment by O. Palmer Robertson, “Genesis 15:6: New Covenant Expositions of an Old Covenant Text,” WTJ 42 (1980): 259-89. In addition to Genesis 15:6, Robertson gives other examples from the OT where similar vocabulary appears, like Genesis 31:15 and Numbers 18:27, that also show how a person is reckoned something he is not.

[ii]For a fuller treatment of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, see the following sermon I preached for our 2016 Reformation Day:

[iii]Cf. also the use of the same verb (teleiow) in 1 John 4:12, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” Moo rightly notes that “our love does not ‘complete’ God’s love in the sense that the love of God is inadequate or faulty without our response. It is rather that God’s love comes to expression…when we respond to his grace with love toward others.” Doug Moo, James, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 137. See also the comments by Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 2, trans. George Musgrave Giger (Philipsburg: P&R, 1994), 682.

[iv]G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 524.

[v]Jonathan Edwards, Justification by Faith Alone (Morgan: Soli Deo Gloria, 2000), 140. John Owen made a similar distinction. He argued that a person’s “evangelical righteousness”—his good works—flows from his “legal righteousness”—his right standing with God by faith alone. John Owen, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith Through the Imputation of the Righteousness of Christ Explained, Confirmed, and Vindicated (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2006), 169. Ronald Fung adds yet another set of clarifying labels, namely, “forensic justification by faith” and “probative justification by works” (i.e., probative in the sense of giving proof to something). Ronald Y. K. Fung, “‘Justification’ in the Epistle of James,” in Right with God: Justification in the Bible and in the World, ed. D. A. Carson (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1992), 146-62.

[vi]E.g., see Matt 12:37; Rom 2:13; 3:20; cf. 1 Cor 4:3-5; Rev 20:11-15.

[vii]E.g., see “Of Justification” in the WCF 11.2.