A Reformed View of James 2:24, Part II

I previously presented and rebutted one of what I’ve found to be the clearest and most charitable Reformed presentations of James 2:24 (or perhaps more accurately, the entire second part of the James 2). My rebuttal is right here, and probably is needed reading to make sense of the response below. Anyways, I sent my response to the original author, Ben Maas, and he’s replied with a lengthy, well-though out response. Apparently, he’d already noticed some of the things which I criticized in my earlier post, and his reply accounts for that. To ensure that the dialogue doesn’t devolve into sniping back and forth, he’s asked that we limit our answers to one apiece, of any length. Here are his thoughts below, and I’ll begin work on a reply worthy of this level of charity, clarity, analysis, and faithfulness. If anyone has anything which they think needs to be added, feel free to mention it in the combox, or by e-mail at joseph(dot)heschmeyer(at)gmail.com. Without further ado, here is Ben’s reply, with only very slight (stylistic) editing from me:

In the first place, I would like to make note that the original post of that thread was not my “final draft” of my argument. I made a few corrections, one of which was mentioned in post #85 of the thread (no worries to anyone who had not the time to read all of that), and another which I corrected in my mind after having participated in the thread: (1) I mistakenly said that justification in James 2 is something spoken of as purely before men, i.e. proving one’s faith before men. On the contrary, I should have said that James uses “justification” in the sense of vindication, i.e. proving oneself to be genuine. The “audience” is not particularly man or God. (2) I said that according to Reformed theology, saving faith is the cause of good works, but this is not the case: regeneration is the cause of both saving faith and good works. According to Reformed theology, when the Holy Spirit sovereignly opens the hearts of wicked sinners to respond to the Gospel, He has opened their hearts both to salvifically trust in Christ and to follow God’s law (cf. Ezek. 36:26-27).

I would like to add that an understanding of justification must necessarily involve a specific view of man’s freedom and God’s sovereignty. It is no mistake that a Roman Catholic view of free will accompanies a Roman Catholic view of justification, just as it is no mistake that a Reformed view of God’s predestining sovereignty and sovereign control over the human heart accompanies a Protestant view of justification. I will attempt to invoke these concepts of freedom a bit later, when necessary.

At this point I will try my hand at responding to your Roman-numeral points:

I.
Introducing the fact that I differentiate between James’s specific use of the word “justification” (or its related words) and between the concept typically conveyed in the Bible by the word “justification,” you set up the trichotomy that either James is wrong, Reformed theology misunderstands justification, or Reformed theology misunderstands James. Seeing as Reformed theology maintains plenary Scriptural inerrancy, each of the three options yields the falsity of Protestantism. But I contend that your trichotomy is false, particularly with respect to the first option. If James uses a word differently from someone else, it does not follow that he is using the word incorrectly, for to say that a word must carry the exact same denotation, irrespective of context, is to commit a large fallacy. Take for example the word “charge.” Depending on the context in which it is used, it can refer to the imposition of some price, to a surge of electrical activity, to something’s aggressive running at an object, etc. The context helps determine the denotation, and therefore the fact that James uses the word “justification” does not ipso facto establish that he is discussing one’s legal standing before God. It must be proven by context.

As I mentioned in my initial defense, I contend that James uses the word “faith” in the passage to denote a mere profession, and that this profession can be true (saving, as evinced by good works) or false (non-saving, as evinced by a lack of good works/habitual sin/etc.). This implies that one who has a false profession does not have any saving faith, but it does not at all imply that such a person has no faith in any respect – for I would still say he has a profession, and therefore has “faith” in the sense that James uses the term! It is unwarranted for you to cast my position as saying that a person who has a mere profession has no faith whatsoever, especially when I have explicitly stated that I believe James is using “faith” to refer to a mere profession – which is something, not nothing. James, when speaking of “dead” or “useless faith,” is referring to an existent entity, and that entity is a profession or a claim, as v. 14 says.

Due to the two corrections I made above, and due to the fact that much of the critiques in (I) are based on saying that faith is dead rather than nonexistent, I will move on to (II). I will later provide a paraphrasing commentary to show how I interpret each verse of James – or at least the ones in which it would be helpful for me to do so.

II.
I would say the reason for understanding that works necessarily stem from a regenerated heart is because then one can know those who are in Christ, including oneself. If an attendee of a church actually runs a pornography business and is entirely impenitent about it, then much evidence leans towards the verdict that he is outside of Christ and that his profession is false.

As for the purpose of knowing whether other sinners are saved, Paul often talks about the immorality of others in the churches to whom he is writing, and how it should be improved. He wrote that we should expel the immoral brother. He wrote to beware of heretics and false gospels. All this involves seeing the actions and hearing the words of other men, and judging such actions/words to be in accord with God’s law or not. (It doesn’t necessitate a judgmental or holier-than-thou attitude, by the way.) Add to this the fact that we can observe our own actions, and it becomes very understandable why James would say that we ought to prove our professions genuine.

III.
You initially state that James and Paul agree with the Roman Catholic view that justification and sanctification need to be conflated, citing 1 Cor. 6:11 as an example, and then you assert that the Reformed notion of justification as a purely forensic or legal standing is without Biblical support. Seeing as this is not strictly relevant to the discussion – which has to do more with whether a given text is consistent with the Reformed understanding, not whether the Reformed understanding is supported elsewhere – I will merely state my (obvious) disagreement with this claim, and move on.

You then attempt to demonstrate why justification is not actually a crucial matter, because according to both Roman Catholics and Reformed Protestants, both faith and works are present in God’s elect. But here is where I must vehemently disagree, and it is precisely because of the aforementioned views of human freedom and divine sovereignty. I agree that in a free-will framework, in which the ability of contrary choice ceteris paribus is essential unto moral responsibility, Protestant and Roman Catholic views of justification would be basically the same. (I actually would contend that such a notion of free will logically implies a Roman Catholic view of justification.)

But Protestants do not believe in free will; we believe that freedom does not necessitate the ability of contrary choice (which even God does not possess), but rather that God is in sovereign control of the human heart. According to Reformed theology, the Holy Spirit revives the hearts of God’s elect, granting them faith and repentance. Faith is the instrument of justification by which the perfect righteousness of Christ is credited, i.e. imputed, to believers, whereas believers’ sinfulness is credited to Christ. Then, since God is the one who regenerates human hearts and sustains them from falling (cf. Jude 24), those who have been regenerated will necessarily carry out good works, because their hearts have been graciously oriented towards the Lord, and will never return to the dominion of sin precisely because the Lord Himself is maintaining that orientation.

On the other hand, a belief in free will necessitates man’s insuperable ability to reject any grace in any situation, meaning that man himself must singlehandedly accept grace and sustain himself by continuing to cooperate with grace. Since man must work to continually cooperate with grace, it follows that good works (the continued cooperations with grace) are the cause of increasing justification.

Thus, we can see the huge differences between the two theologies, namely because Protestantism is monergistic, wherein God saves sinners singlehandedly, while Roman Catholicism is synergistic, wherein man must cooperate with God in order attain salvation.

IV.
As I may have implied earlier, I don’t believe that Roman Catholics – or any synergists, really – can ever make a claim to salvation by grace alone. Suffice it to say that if it is necessary that man accept God’s grace, and since man’s acceptance of God’s grace must itself be apart from the empowering God’s grace (lest everyone would be saved), then it follows that man’s acceptance is also causally related to salvation – and therefore salvation is not by grace alone, but by a conjunction of God’s grace and man’s acceptance.

I will now do a verse-by-verse paraphrasing to show how I understand this chapter:

  • James 2:14: A mere profession of faith, without good works to prove that profession genuine, is false, useless, and dead. Also, James here defines “faith” as a profession.
  • James 2:17: If a person professing Christ has no good works showing that he really loves Christ (cf. John 14:15), then his “faith is dead”; i.e., his profession is false.
  • James 2:18: Again, a mere profession with good works is useless; moreover, good works without a profession of Christ are useless (cf. Isaiah 64:6).
  • James 2:19: Even demons have an intellectual assent; therefore a mere profession is insufficient.
  • James 2:22: Abraham’s profession was proved true by his actions, for he both professed his love of God and proved it with his good works.
  • James 2:23: With Abraham’s good works, it was proved that he was initially righteous at the point of believing. I would contend that this particular verse heavily supports a Reformed view of justification. It’s not as if Abraham was initially justified by his belief, and then he free-wiledly decided to increase his justification with a good work – no, it’s that he was already righteous by virtue of his believing, and this was fulfilled with his good works precisely because his ensuing good works necessarily followed from the initial righteousness. (At any rate, this verse clearly does not work against Reformed theology, so this is a minor diversion from the point at hand.)
  • James 2:24: A person is proved to be a genuine believer, not just by professing Christ, but by having good works in addition.
  • James 2:26: A claim to love Christ without a good-works-proof of that love evinces a false profession.

For the record, I believe it is evident that James is combating justification by profession alone, not sola fide, in this chapter. Also, if you are unclear as to how I interpret some verse in James 2 that I omitted above, then please say so. I tried to leave the “obvious” ones out for the sake of brevity.

Thank you for your charitable tone throughout. By God’s grace, I hope both to have matched your level of charity, and to have adequately responded to your points. Even though I previously said that I will try to limit my interaction to one response, I am going to renege on that claim, namely because I introduced a slightly different position (with the two corrections at the very beginning) than on the original post of the Catholic Answers thread, in which case it would not be fair for me to issue what is essentially only an opening statement.

Blessings,
Ben

So that’s the whole she-bang. Feedback’s always appreciated, of course. I’m aware that non-Calvinist Protestants will probably bristle at the claim that “Protestants believe x,” but in the context, I think he pretty clearly means Reformed Christians. Obviously, much of what he’s said conflicts with Catholic teachings, but I’ve decided to present his initial case without immediate response because it’s good for all of us non-Calvinists to have a better idea where they’re coming from.

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