Catholics are often befuddled at how Protestants can believe in justification by faith alone, when James 2:24 says, “See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” And in fact, I remain convinced that it’s a pretty open-and-shut argument against the doctrine. But in looking for some Reformed (Calvinist) views on the verse, I came across one guy, a certain Ben Maas, who expressed the classic Reformed view very well on Catholic Answers Forum, both in terms of clarity and charity. The only editing I’ve done is number the paragraphs, for easier consultation:
- Often, James 2:24 is invoked to counter the Reformed doctrine of sola fide, usually with such a statement that “the only time the Bible speaks of justification by faith alone is in denying it!” or something similar. From my findings, however, this verse does not deny sola fide.
- First of all, justification refers to one’s standing before God. Using the word “justify”in any context therefore does not necessarily imply that such a concept of justification is involved. In fact, this is exactly what I would say about James 2:24. The context shows that it is not speaking of sinners’ standing before God, but rather before men.
- Verse 14 clearly refers to the validity of a man’s claim to having faith without having deeds — it does not ask what good it is for man to have faith without deeds, but to claim faith without having deeds. The entire context is of one man speaking to a hypothetical other person. The entire context, therefore, involves how man stand[s] before other men, and not before God.
- Historic Reformed theology maintains that the faith that justifies necessarily produces good works (Ephesians 2:8-10), but the faith itself without works is what justifies. Therefore, if good works are absent, it follows that someone who claims faith is a liar, and that he doesn’t actually have faith. But these good works do not themselves justify the person before God; they just prove that someone’s faith is genuine before men.
- Thus, it is quite evident how James 2:24 is understood by Protestants. A faith without works is not saving faith. This is because a saving faith necessarily produces good works, not because good works make faith salvific. That is the crucial distinction. With that understood, it is very easy to see James 2:24 from a Protestant perspective — before men, if we have faith but not good works stemming therefrom, then we are liars.
- I understand that this does not subvert Roman Catholic teaching, and it is not my intention to “infiltrate” or “attack” the teachings held dear to most of the members of this forum. But I nonetheless want to make certain that the Reformed doctrines which are repudiated by Roman Catholicism are properly understood. No one likes a straw man.
This is one of the best defenses of the Reformed view that I’ve seen, so I’ll try and make the Catholic arguments against it (rather than against a straw man that says works aren’t important at all).
I. The Biblical Context of James 2: Justification Before Man or God?
First, while it may not be apparent at the outset, the second paragraph is the most important, because it contains his definitions. He says that “justification refers to one’s standing before God,” but that James uses it to refer to one’s standing before men. So either (a) James is wrong, misusing (or at least, loosely using) a nuanced theological term; (b) the Reformed understanding of justification is wrong; and/or (c) the Reformed view of James is wrong, and James is, in fact, using justification to refer to one’s standing before God.
I think that both (b) and (c) happen to be true, but (c) is the only one relevant for this part (since the Reformed are right that justification does refer to one’s status before God – we just part ways over whether it is merely forensic in nature). Ben is right that James refers to proving our faith publicly in James 2:18. But that’s it. The rest of James 2 has some pretty clear justification before God statements that don’t make sense if he just means justifying yourself to men. For example:
- James 2:14. “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” While Ben correctly points out that the distinction being drawn is between someone claiming to have faith, and a saving faith, he holds, with historic Reformed thought, that a claimed faith, without works, doesn’t exist. That is, that it’s not faith. James clearly disagrees, calling it “that faith.” This is reinforced by James 2:20 and 2:26, where this same faith is considered “useless” and “dead,” not “nonexistant.” (There’s an important distinction between a dead body and an imaginary body, as any detective will tell you).
- James 2:19-20. “You believe that God is one. You do well. Even the demons believe that and tremble. Do you want proof, you ignoramus, that faith without works is useless?” – James calls the faith useless. He’s not disputing that it exists (in fact, he acknowledges it in v. 19). Plus, he compares it to the faith of the demons. They have more than a nominal faith – they have, in fact, a surety of the existence of God, sadly coupled with a refusal to obey. So what’s the use that James is talking about? I imagine that both Reformed and Catholics would agree that the use has to be the faith’s salvific potential. That is, a surety of the existence of God (and even a fear of God), by itself, isn’t enough to save the demons, and it isn’t enough to . So faith alone = useless, faith plus works = saving.
- James 2:21. “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?” – I’ve argued elsewhere that James uses the examples which he does to correct a misinterpretation (probably antinomianism) of St. Paul’s works, since Paul uses Abraham and Rahab (James 2:25) as his examples. Suffice it to say, if James meant justifying one’s faith before men, he chose the single worst example. Abraham and Isaac were alone before God. So this is about as clear as possible a way of saying “justified before God.” Why doesn’t he include “before God”? Because like Ben’s paragraph 2 mentions, that’s what justified means in the Biblical context: it would be redundant.
- James 2:22. “You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by the works. “ While the Reformed claim that a saving faith results in works, the Catholic (and Biblical) view is more nuanced: we view faith and works as interconnected. The only works worth considering are those which are acts of obedience towards God. That’s the point of Ephesians 2:8-10 – the only works which count are the ones God has planned for us. Conversely, works done for any reason other than love, obedience, and service to God are pointless – hence Paul’s dismissal of blind adherence to the Mosaic Law for its own sake. And it’s why James says that Abraham’s “faith was active along with his works” – because the works he was doing were works of love done out of faith. So rather than a simple causality, like in science, this is more relational: we must believe in God to obey Him, but obeying Him proves to us that He’s trustworthy, and we begin to trust Him more; this, in turn emboldens us to obey Him about things which might have seemed unrealistic before. It’s how faith grows, and we see this image of a “growing faith” throughout the New Testament. So rather than “saving faith –> works,” it’s more like “faith –> works –> faith –> works, etc.” Or, in the words of St. James, our “faith [is] completed by the works.” Until we trust in God enough to obey Him, we have an incomplete faith.
- James 2:23. “Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called ‘the friend of God.'” Credited to him by Who? By God, not by man. Abraham was justified before God. St. Paul uses this exact same verse to discuss justification before God. It’s dirty pool to claim that the OT verse means something totally different when James uses it.
- James 2:26. “For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” See above. A dead body isn’t the same as an imaginary or non-existant body. Your body doesn’t disappear without a spirit. This phrase has to be interpreted very loosely to make sense within a Reformed perspective. But a Catholic perspective, which views the relationship between faith and works like the relationship between a planted seed and water (where the water, works, helps the seed to grow, which helps it to grow roots, which enables it to get more water, etc.) makes total sense of this. A seed, without water, dies.
So even though James says in 2:18, “Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works,” the rest of the chapter doesn’t make sense unless you view his focus as still on justification before God. So the conclusion Ben draws in paragraph 3 about “the entire context” is wrong. Instead, the most appropriate way to understand James 2:18, I think, is that he’s saying (to reuse the plant analogy), “when I look at your life, I don’t see a plant… looks like you’re not getting the water you need” – and that he’s doing this to show the lax Christian why works are important. Or put more simply, he’s using the public appearance to suggest the possible internal reality: that the hypothetical man’s apparently dead faith may be indicative of his justification before God. We know this because James repeatedly treats the claimed faith (absent works) as being existent, but useless. And the cure he repeated suggests for this useless (un-saving) faith is works, which he views as the spirit enliving the body called Faith (cf. v. 26).
II. Justification Before Man: What’s the Point?
Something which goes all too often unchallenged within the Reformed view is this: what’s the point of justifying ourselves before men? Where does the Bible say, “prove to everyone what a great Christian you are”? Certainly, we’re to avoid the appearance of evil to avoid giving scandal, and we’re supposed to live our lives in a way that proclaims Christ. But that’s always to show Christ or to keep others out of sin, not to show our own status as justified! The notion that James is becoming image-obsessed, and wants to make sure everybody looks good publicly by playing good Christians just isn’t supported either by the text or basic New Testament doctrine.
Thus, it is quite evident how James 2:24 is understood by Protestants. A faith without works is not saving faith. This is because a saving faith necessarily produces good works, not because good works make faith salvific. That is the crucial distinction. With that understood, it is very easy to see James 2:24 from a Protestant perspective — before men, if we have faith but not good works stemming therefrom, then we are liars.
III. Mountain? Or Mole-Hill?
Finally, this post suggests to me that much of the debate over justification is nitpicking over certain words. Calvinists claim that justification refers only to the initial act of being justified (forensic justification), and that everything after that is sanctification and not justification. They claim that Catholics muddle the terms and get their stance on justification wrong. Yet both James (as seen here) and Paul (as seen in 1 Corinthians 6:11, e.g.) seem to think of them as co-occurring. Certainly, initial justification gets the ball rolling (just as a seed needs to exist before watering does any good), and then sanctification helps you grow in your justified status. But the Calvinist notion that justification is merely forensic, and precedes sanctification, lacks obvious Biblical support.
Certainly, there’s some value in knowing the precise causal chain, but consider his distinction: does “saving faith necessarily produces good works,” or do “good works make faith salvific”? Either way, the distinction between a saving and non-saving faith is works. So you still need faith and works. The sola fide position that Catholics would have a much stronger problem with would be what might be termed solo fide, that faith without works can be salvific.* But the more I read of the Reformed position, they think the same thing. They may believe that grace alone, operating through faith alone, is enough to initially get you into a right relationship with God (which is only minutely different than the Catholic belief), but I think when push comes to shove, they’d largely agree that a belief in Christ, uncoupled with obedience, isn’t going to get you to Heaven. So I think that (a) the Catholic view has the better basis in Scripture as a whole, particularly given James 2; and (b) that justification is sort of a molehill treated like a mountain.
IV. We’re Still Saved by Grace Through Faith.
The Catechism says:
CCC#1996 Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.
I think (and hope) that’s a sentiment we can all agree upon. We don’t earn our salvation – it’s a gift freely given, but rejected by some on account of the hardness of their hearts. We simply maintain our Faith by trusting God when He tasks us with things. If we refuse to trust Him on these things, our faith withers and dies.
V. Paragraph-by-Paragraph Rejoinder.
So, a paragraph by paragraph analysis:
- James 2:24 is, as it immediately appears to be, a refutation of justification through faith alone, unless by justification one means only the initial act of justification done by a faithful response to grace. But this latter definition of justification is not the sense intended by the New Testament writers.
- James refers to justification before God, as the numerous examples I cited suggests. And justification means something more than a one-time, binding legal declaration.
- James 2:14 uses one man’s perspective of another’s faith as a single piece of evidence, within the context of justification before God. Justification before man is not intended to be the “whole context,” and reading it as such makes the rest of the chapter particularly unclear.
- The notion that “if good works are absent, it follows that someone who claims faith is a liar, and that he doesn’t actually have faith” is contradicted at least three times by James in this second chapter, in verses 14, 20, and 26.
- While it is true that a “saving faith necessarily produces good works,” it necessarily follows that “good works make faith salvific,” in the sense of separating faithful obedience from mere trembling as the demons do – the role of works is to sustain and grow the seed of faith, and without them, that faith will die. Second, the notion of vindicating ourselves before men is absent from the New Testament discussion on justification, particularly as an end unto itself (the only example being James 2:14, where it’s used as a means to gauge one’s justification before God). Additionally, it’s contrary to the spirit and letter of much of the rest of the New Testament.
- We’re in total agreement. His is a much needed clarification, and it’s a view that’s much less incompatible than it may seem on the surface (although, to be clear, it’s obviously still not something a Catholic can embrace in whole).
My apologies to those of you who find discussions on justification terribly dull. This was just one writer who seemed too intelligent, well-meaning, and charitable to ignore, because there’s a chance for genuine, fruitful dialogue.
*under normal circumstances. A heartfelt deathbed confession may be the only “work” an inidividual is required to do, like the laborers who show up for the last hour, and still get a full day’s pay (see Matthew 20:1-15).
Update: Ben’s response is here.