Paul and James on Justification

Text: Rom. 4:1-4; Gal. 3:6-14; James 2:14-26

Introduction:  Scripturam ex Scriptura explicandam esse: This motto expresses the single most important principle of Biblical interpretation  advanced by the Reformers “Scripture is to be explained from Scripture,” or Scriptura Scripturae interpres, “Scripture interprets Scripture”. This means, according to the Westminster Confession of Faith, that only Scripture is the infallible interpreter of Holy Writ (ch. 1, sec. 9). It also means that Scripture will never contradict Scripture.[1]  The Reformation principle of Analogia totius Scripturae, “the analogy of the whole of Scripture” presupposes biblical coherence, canonical, and the organic character of all biblical discourse. As Reymonds points out “the main point of this hermeneutical principle is the studied comparison of all relevant biblical passages on any one topic under the methodological duty to avoid contradictions.”[2]

Paul’s language in Romans and Galatians is very explicit—justification is by faith alone. But what about that statement in James 2:24? “You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” There seems to be a glaring contradiction between Paul and James. Some have even said that James is specifically refuting Paul’s teaching.[3] A careful examination of James will reveal that there is no contradiction between the two. Having said this, we must, however, be aware of a false harmonization. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, likewise seeks to bring both texts into harmony with their two-fold justification. They consider the first justification (Paul’s teaching), to be an infusion of grace and a renewal of life in the new birth. The second justification (James’ teaching), they consider to be growth in the grace of justification in which, by means of works and merits, Christians grow (by sanctification) in their justification. In this scheme, sanctification is unto justification. We are compelled to confront this objection because it is central to the continuing polemic of the Roman Catholic Church against the doctrine of free justification. It has been a standard part of Roman Catholic teaching from the time of the Reformation that the doctrine of free justification dangerously undermines the necessity and importance of good works in the Christian life.

The doctrine of free justification, so it is argued, represents a kind of “legal fiction”: God regards us “as if” we were righteous, when in fact we remain sinners as we were before. According to this complaint, sinners, when they are saved, are not really changed by God’s grace, and their lives undergo no real amendment. The charge that free justification (sola fide) is a kind of “legal fiction,” continues to be made by contemporary Roman Catholic apologists, who argue that in justification we actually do become righteous and this increases progressively until we are completely justified (after a period of time in purgatory). This is how Karl Keating states it, “The Roman Catholic Church, not surprisingly, understands justification differently. It sees it as a true eradication of sin and a true sanctification and renewal. The soul becomes objectively pleasing to God and so merits heaven. It merits heaven because now it is actually good.”[4]

Recently a number of high-profile evangelicals, like John Armstrong (under the influence of N.T. Wright and Norman Shepherd), now suggest that this historic debate needs to be revisited with the not so subtle suggestion that the Reformers emphasis on Sola fide needs to be corrected by the insights of the so-called New Perspective on Paul.[5] Norman Shepherd, a self-professed “Reformed” theologian actually sides with Rome in his interpretation of James.[6] Shepherd has gone on record rejecting the imputation of Christ’s active obedience and in fact presents what can only be described as an implicit endorsement of the Roman Catholic position that righteousness is infused as the basis for justification since in Shepherd’s view saving faith in justification is not contemplated apart from obedience in life. The Reformers rightly rejected this notion of infused righteousness and adamantly argued that the Bible taught imputation. When God justifies us upon the basis of the righteousness of Christ that He grants and imputes to us, He does something most real. There is nothing fictional about God’s act of granting to us in Christ what we need to stand before Him. If I may be permitted a comparison, that would be like a person who says, “So-and-so paid bond for me and on that basis obtained my release from jail; but, because I didn’t personally meet that bond obligation, it’s not real that I’ve been released.” We would say that such a person is talking nonsense. Of course it’s a reality, not fiction![7]  But what ultimately lies behind this objection to free justification—that it is a legal fiction—is the contention that the doctrine of free justification means that, when God declares men to be acceptable to Himself, He also leaves them in their sins. God’s work of grace ends, terminates, upon justification, and doesn’t bring with it the grace of sanctification as well. This is a distortion of what the Reformers taught and more importantly, what the Scriptures teach.[8]

I.          The Scope and Design of James:  James’ scope is totally different from Paul’s, as a reading of the context makes clear. James is not dealing with the meritorious ground of justification—Paul is. James is contending with a type of antinomianism, which in effect is reducible to what we would call easy-believism. At this point, it may be remembered that both Martin Luther and John Calvin responded rather explicitly to the Roman Catholic analysis of these assertions of James. As Calvin says: “That we may not then fall into that false reasoning which has deceived the Sophists [the Romanists], we must take notice of the two-fold meaning of the word justified. Paul means by it the gratuitous imputation of righteousness before the tribunal of God; and James, the manifestation of righteousness by the conduct, and that before men, as we may gather from the preceding words, ‘Show me thy faith.’”[9]

II.         James’ Terminology:  James and Paul do indeed use the same words in speaking of faith and justification, but they are not used in the same way.

A.        What Does James Mean by Faith?:  Everything hinges on how this word is being used by James. Note the context: “If a man claims to have faith…” (2:14). The word-translated claim in the NIV is LEGEI which means ‘to say’ or simply ‘profess.’ The same thought is stated again in verse 19. “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” In this context, the word believe is being used in the sense of affirmation or assent. It is what I would call headnodding faith. “What Paul means by faith is something entirely different; it is not mere intellectual assent to certain propositions, but an attitude of the entire man by which the whole life is entrusted to Christ. In other words, the faith that James is condemning is not the faith that Paul is commending.”[10]

B.        What Does James Mean by Works?:  Again, we need to carefully distinguish what James means by works and what Paul means. Paul is referring to those things, which are intended to earn or merit salvation by human effort. James is talking about that which is the fruit of faith, that which is evidence of genuine faith (which Paul likewise alludes to in Galatians 5:21).

C.        What Does James Mean by Justify?:  James’ meaning is clear from his illustration of Abraham. Note that this is drawn from Genesis 22. Abraham’s act in that passage is the demonstration of what is stated in Genesis 15:6. “The statement of Genesis 15:6 is seen as fulfilled, completed, incarnated in the concrete reality of Abraham’s obedience of Genesis 22.”[11]

Summary:  It is remarkable that James appeals in this way to the example of Abraham. Whereas the apostle Paul appeals to the example of Abraham to prove that we are justified freely, by grace alone through faith alone apart from works, James appeals to Abraham as an example of someone whose faith was lively and active in good works! Just as Paul cites Genesis 15:6, which speaks of Abraham’s faith being reckoned by God as righteousness, so does James. But the point seems to be utterly different, even contradictory. When the apostle Paul cites the example of Abraham in Romans 4, he does so in order to prove the doctrine that we are justified quite apart from works done in obedience to the law. This is the point that Paul labors to illustrate throughout Romans 4: Abraham was justified before he received the seal of the righteousness of faith in circumcision. Before Abraham had done anything in the way of obedience, his faith was reckoned to him for righteousness. But James appeals to Abraham in order to make a different point: “Was not Abraham, our father, justified by works, when he offered up Isaac, his son, on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected. And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness, and he was called a friend of God.’ You see that a man is justified by works and not by that kind of faith.”[12]

What are we to understand James to be telling us in answer to the question that he has put before us? Is he teaching that Abraham found acceptance with God on the basis of his works? On a superficial reading of James’ argument, one might conclude that he is arguing that Abraham’s standing before God rested, not upon faith alone as it embraces Christ, but upon his work. The crux of the difficulty here can be put in the form of a question: Is James using the language of justification in these verses in the same way as the apostle Paul in Romans? If he is, then the conclusion seems unavoidable: James is contradicting Paul. Contrary to Paul’s teaching that Abraham was justified by faith alone, James is teaching that he was justified by his works. We are faced here with a flat contradiction. Either Paul is right, or James is right. But they cannot both be right! You cannot say that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law on the one hand, and then say as well that a man is justified by works using the term exactly as in the previous expression. I agree with Venema, when he writes, “that we need to bear in mind the different problems that Paul and James are addressing, respectively. Paul is opposing the idea that we are justified on the basis of our works. James is opposing the idea that the faith that saves can be a dead and inactive thing. In the context of James’ argument and the question he seeks to address in James 2, James is using the term justify in one of its common senses. The term justify can be used as a synonym for demonstrate, confirm or prove true. In this sense of the term, Abraham was justified by works in the sense that his faith was proven genuine by its works. Just as a tree is known by its fruit, so faith is known by its deeds. For example, in the case of Abraham, his willingness to sacrifice Isaac in obedience to God’s command was proof of the genuineness of his faith.”[13]

Conclusion:  Accordingly, we may conclude that the term justify in James 2 has, to use the language of theology, a probative or demonstrative meaning. Such a meaning is in harmony with the question posed in these verses, namely, how the genuineness of faith is manifested before others. That’s also why James concludes this appeal to Abraham by saying “and the Scripture was fulfilled.” Abraham’s act of faith in being willing to sacrifice Isaac, which is recorded in Genesis 22, was a fulfillment, a confirmation, of what was earlier declared about him in Genesis 15:6. Though Abraham was justified by faith alone, the faith by which he was justified proved itself genuine in his act of obedience. His obedience was the fruit of his trust in God (and not, as Shepherd contends, the grounds for his justification). James, contrary to Roman Catholic teaching, does not teach that Abraham’s faith in Genesis 15:6 was at first imperfect, incomplete and then gradually, was progressively made full by his works. Genesis 22 gave evidence that Abraham’s faith was real faith and had always been the right kind of faith and so was completed. Faith, in the Biblical sense is always validated as a living faith, e.g. it is fruitful and productive. If there had been no fruit forthcoming, Abraham’s faith would not have been genuine and would not have counted for anything to begin with. “In short,” writes Warfield, “James is not depreciating faith: with him, too, it is faith that is reckoned unto righteousness (2:23), though only such a faith as shows itself in works can be so reckoned, because a faith which does not come to fruitage in works is dead, non-existent. He is rather deepening the idea of faith, and insisting that it include in its very conception something more than an otiose intellectual assent.”[14]



[1] Calvin said in this connection, “It is sure that the Spirit is not in conflict with himself.” Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. J. T. McNeill, trans. F. L. Battles (The Westminster Press, 1975), III, xvii, 11.


[2] Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of The Christian Faith  (Thomas Nelson, 1998), p. 50.


[3] This is typical of much of liberal scholarship that sees James and Paul as being in irreconcilable antagonism, not merely a different perspective on justification but a direct antithesis. Cf. R. Bultmann Theology of The New Testament (Scribner’s, 1955), p. 163.


[4] K. Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism (Ignatius Press, 1988), p. 167. Another Roman Catholic writer puts it this way, “Man, for his part, in order to arrive at full sanctification, must cooperate with the grace of the Holy Spirit through faith, hope, love of God and neighbor, and prayer; but he must also perform other ‘works.’ It is a universally accepted dogma of the Catholic Church that man, in union with the grace of the Holy Spirit must merit heaven by his good works. These works are meritorious only when they are performed in the state of grace and with a good intention…We have shown that according to Holy Scripture the Christian can actually merit heaven for himself by his good works.” Matthias Premm, Dogmatic Theology for the Laity (Tan Books, 1977), p. 262.


[5] Cf. J. Armstrong’s Introduction in Reformation & Revival Journal: Justification: Modern Reflection (Vol. 11, No. 2, Spring 2002), p. 8. G. P. Waters correctly points out that the Soteriological (justification) sympathies of Wright and Shepherd are not with the Reformers but with Roman Catholicism. Cf. his Justification and The New Perspectives on Paul (P&R, 2004), pp. XI, 210.


[6] Cf. N. Shepherd, The Call of Grace: How the Covenant Illuminates Salvation and Evangelism (P&R, 2000), p. 61.


[7] This illustration is taken from Cornelis Venema and his fine series on justification. Cf. World Reformed Fellowship: The Doctrine of Justification (Nov. 2001).


[8] E. Michael Jones, a highly touted Roman Catholic apologist, constantly resorts to this kind of deliberate misrepresentation. In his book Degenerate Moderns: Modernity as Rationalized Sexual Misbehavior (Ignatius Press, 1993), Jones takes vigorous exception to Luther’s position on the bondage of the will. He attempts to portray Luther as a womanizer and Sola fide as a license to sin.  In dealing with the account of Jesus and the rich young man in Luke 18:18-29, Mr. Jones sarcastically writes, “According to Luther, what Jesus should have said was, ‘Do? What must you do? Hey, you don’t have to do anything to be saved. It’s all sola fide, baby, justification by faith alone. Don’t do anything, just believe’” (p. 238).  Mr. Jones is woefully ignorant of what the Reformers’ doctrine of sola fide actually involved. Michael Root, a Roman Catholic, writing in The Thomist: A Speculative Quarterly Review, Oct. 1990, Vol. 54, No. 4, says, “For the Reformers there is only a notional distinction between justification and regeneration. There is no justification without accompanying regeneration” (p. 709) and contrary to the type of gross distortion depicted by Mr. Jones, “every Reformation theologian I know, however, coming to faith in the justifying righteousness of Christ constitutes a momentous change in the believer” (p. 705).


[9] Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries III (Eerdmans, 1972), p. 286.


[10] J. Gresham Machen’s Notes on Galatians, ed. John Skilton (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973), p. 220. In order to completely capture the Biblical understanding of faith, the Reformers spoke of faith in a three-fold sense. First, faith must rest on knowledge. It must have content. This they called NOTITIA (English words like notice, notify and cognitive are derived from this Latin word). Faith must involve the mind, but not merely in terms of information. It must include assent or agreement as a necessary component. This is ASSENSUS. But by far the most important element of FIDES (faith) is what the Reformers called FIDUCIA, which simply translated, means trust (words like fiducial and fidelity are derived from this). Thus when the Reformers referred to Sola Fides, they had in mind this three-fold understanding of the word Fides. Calvin wrote, “We shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” Calvin emphasizes what is stated by Paul in Romans, namely, that true faith is in God’s freely offered salvation through the work of Christ. But he adds, as Paul suggests in Ephesians 2:8-10 though not in Romans 3, that this is the work of the Holy Spirit in us. As cited in J. M. Boice, Romans: An Expositional Commentary I (Baker, 1991), p. 388.


[11] G. C. Berkouwer, Studies In Dogmatics: Faith and Justification (Eerdmans, 1954), p. 136.


[12] Translations differ as to whether the final phrase is best understood as “faith by itself is dead” or if it is “that kind of faith is dead by itself” i.e., in its very essence. The first could be called a tautology that would amount to a strong emphasis by James upon the “aloneness” of this dead faith. The other viewpoint would emphasize the fact that a workless faith is, by nature, dead or lifeless. cf. James White, The God Who Justifies: The Doctrine of Justification  (Bethany House, 2001),

p. 338.


[13] Venema, op. cit. I am indebted to Dr. Venema and his insightful handling of this passage in James.


[14] B. B. Warfield, Biblical and Theological Studies (rpt. Presbyterian and Reformed, 1968), p. 416.

Confessions Of St. Augustine

by Augustine of Hippo

The Confessions of St. Augustine has a special place among the world’s greatest books. As Augustine tells his life story, he reveals how you can find the way to rest securely in Jesus, discern good from evil, avoid false spiritual pursuits, and know the will of God. Here is the timeless conflict between good and evil, portrayed through the life of one man who found spiritual growth and unshakable faith. Just as Augustine did, you can experience the unspeakable joy of being pure and righteous before God, regardless of your past.

Paperback; 304 pages


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