Perhaps no single doctrinal issue has caused more division between Catholics and Protestants than the question of justification, or how we are made righteous before God. Catholic believe that we are justified by faith, but must cultivate this faith through good works done in obedience to God (what St. Paul calls the “obedience of faith,” in Romans 1:5 and Rom. 16:26). Protestants, beginning with Martin Luther, insist that justification is by faith alone: that works play absolutely no role in justification.
|Lucas Cranach the Elder,
Martin Luther (1520)
Unlike many modern Protestants, Martin Luther acknowledged that Catholics (or, as he put it, “papists”), taught that faith was the foundation of salvation. That is, he recognized that we weren’t actually Pelagians, and that we don’t believe that you can work your way to Heaven (as is often claimed today). But he still thought Catholics were wrong, and perverting the Gospel. Here’s how Luther contrasted the Catholic and Protestant position on justification:
They [Catholics] admit that faith is the foundation of salvation. But they add the conditional clause that faith can save only when it is furnished with good works. This is wrong. The true Gospel declares that good works are the embellishment of faith, but that faith itself is the gift and work of God in our hearts. Faith is able to justify, because it apprehends Christ, the Redeemer.
So both sides agree on justification by faith, but disagree on justification by faith alone. That may seem like a minute squabble, but understand that Luther saw this as not only the single most important debate in the Reformation, but a battle to preserve the Gospel itself. He described the conflict in these terms:
Since our opponents will not let it stand that only faith in Christ justifies, we will not yield to them. On the question of justification we must remain adamant, or else we shall lose the truth of the Gospel. It is a matter of life and death.
Given Luther’s radical emphasis on justification by faith alone, Christians (of all stripes) are often surprised to learn that Scripture uses the phrase “faith alone” exactly once. Here it is, from James 2:24:
You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.
This explicit declaration in Scripture, that we’re not justified by faith alone, would seem to end the dispute, right? Heck, even Luther saw the Book of James as fatal to his views on justification, and tried to remove it from the Bible.
But Protestantism has survived. Modern Protestants both proclaim justification by faith alone, and believe that the Book of James is God-breathed Scriptures. So how do they rectify the apparent contradiction?
One way is by claiming that James is writing against a “mere profession” of faith, and that “James is combating justification by profession alone, not sola fide, in this chapter.” In other words, where James explicitly criticizes his opponents for having faith alone (James 2:24), or faith without works (James 2:14, James 2:17, James 2:20, James 2:26), this interpretation assumes that what James really meant to say was that his opponents have the wrong kind of faith, or that they don’t really have faith at all.
This is part of a broader Protestant trend to read James as distinguishing between saving faith, and whatever he’s criticizing in James 2. So, for example, Arthur Pink, in his work Studies on Saving Faith manages to devote a full chapter to the idea of “counterfeit faith,” without pointing to a single passage of Scripture actually distinguishing between saving and counterfeit faith. And as Jimmy Akin notes in an excellent article on the subject, several Protestant translations (including the NIV, RSV and CEV) have even added words to James 2:14 to make the chapter fit this view.
But there are several problems with this interpretation. The first, and most obvious, is that James acknowledges that those he’s criticizing have faith, and notes that even the demons have faith. The second is that James compares their faith to his own, and to Abraham’s, and to Rahab’s.
In James 2:19, St. James acknowledges:
You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe — and shudder.
In saying, “You believe that God is one; you do well,” James forever dispels the notion that his opponents are merely professing to hold a faith that they privately doubt or deny. But in comparing their faith to that of the demon’s, James is showing the insufficiency of faith.
|Medieval Illustration of one of the
Exorcisms Performed by Jesus
The demons know God exists, because they’ve encountered Him in a way that we haven’t. In fact, in Mark’s Gospel, the first to identify Christ as the Holy One of God (after God the Father Himself) are the demons. We see this in Mark 1:23-26:
And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit; and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.
And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
The demons know better than anyone on Earth who Jesus is, and they also know what that means. Nor do they apparently doubt His claims: the demons tremble, as James says: they flinch before Him in anticipation of being destroyed, as Mark 1:24 makes clear.
Put another way, the demons understand and believe who Christ is, but despite this knowledge, they choose to work against Him, rather than work for Him, and are justly damned as a result. This would seem to prove James’ point: that works are vital to justification. What we do, how we respond to faith, matters. When we’re tempted with something sinful, for example, do we follow the One we know is Lord, or do we oppose Him?
In James 2:18, St. James compares his opponents’ faith to his own:
|Rembrandt, Sacrifice of Isaac (1635)|
Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.
If the demons are examples of those who have faith, but for whom it does no good, James also provides Abraham (James 2:21-24) and Rahab (James 2:25-26) are examples of those who have faith and who are saved. And what’s the difference between Abraham and Rahab, on the one hand, and the demons, on the other? It’s not that the demons are just pretending to believe in God, or anything of the sort. It’s how each side reacts to this belief. As James explains, Abraham and Rahab by the works they perform in response to faith. To wit:
- “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?” (James 2:21)
- “And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?” (James 2:25)
James isn’t saying that works, apart from faith, save. But he is saying that faith is “completed by works” (James 2:22), and insufficient in itself.
How then, should we rectify this with all of the statements that St. Paul makes against works in Romans and Galatians? The Protestant Matthew Henry Complete Commentary on the Whole Bible explains:
When Paul says that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the law (Romans 3:28), he plainly speaks of another sort of work than James does, but not of another sort of faith. Paul speaks of works wrought in obedience to the law of Moses, and before men’s embracing the faith of the gospel; and he had to deal with those who valued themselves so highly upon those works that they rejected the gospel (as Romans 10:1-21, at the beginning most expressly declares); but James speaks of works done in obedience to the gospel, and as the proper and necessary effects and fruits of sound believing in Christ Jesus. Both are concerned to magnify the faith of the gospel, as that which alone could save us and justify us; but Paul magnifies it by showing the insufficiency of any works of the law before faith, or in opposition to the doctrine of justification by Jesus Christ; James magnifies the same faith, by showing what are the genuine and necessary products and operations of it.
Yes, yes, and a thousand times, yes. The sort of “works” that Paul is clearly obedience to the Mosaic Law, which is why he also refers to it as “works of the Law” (Romans 3:20; Galatians 2:16), “the Law” (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 2:21) and uses circumcision as an example of the inadequacy of the Law (Gal. 5:6). In 1 Cor. 7:19, St. Paul actually contrasts circumcision with obedience to God’s commands, saying:
Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts.
So obedience to the Mosaic Law is meaningless for salvation, while obedience to “the law that requires faith” (Rom. 3:27) is not. This interpretation certainly makes sense of Paul’s references, in Romans 1:5 and Romans 16:16 to the “obedience of faith.” Faith is the foundation of salvation, but we need to respond to that faith by obeying God. From this perspective, James and Paul clearly speak with one voice: there’s no contradiction, or even a real tension between the two.