For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

Romans 3:28 (ESV)
VS.
You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
James 2:24 (ESV)


OK, which verse wins the match? Hmm… I think I’m going with…

This week with my small group at church we’re going over James 2:14-26 . This section of James is a treasure trove that some have buried and sealed in a lack of understanding or thoughts of contradiction. Martin Luther wasn’t too keen on James as I’m sure others weren’t as well since it seems to go against Paul’s teaching. When most Christians (myself included) finish reading this section of James they are somewhat perplexed, especially if they’ve spent a lot of time in Paul’s letters, primarily Romans and Galatians. Nevertheless, Once you finish James multiple thoughts could be going through your mind, “What does he mean by faith with out works is dead” or “Is he talking about salvation by works” or “this isn’t what Paul meant by justification” or “does the bible contradict it’s self?” Without going into it too much I’m going to quickly rule out contradiction because we know that the Scriptures are pure (Psalm 12:6 ), true (Prov 30:5 ) and God breathed (2 Tim 3:16 ). J. Gresham Machen says this about James not by faith alone statement, “But like other apparent contradictions in the Bible, it proves to be a contradiction merely of form and not of content; and it serves only to lead the devout reader into a deeper and fuller understanding of the truth.” Machen is accurate in his remarks about James. Ruling out contradiction then leads us to some type of paradox, one which some people [1] really want to understand or [2] have no desire to dive deeper into and ignore it all together. But there are some beautiful truths in James 2:14-26. Studying this has been helpful in giving me a better understanding of genuine faith and pure religion (James 1:27 ).

 

14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

James 2:14-26 (ESV)

I hope to include much from godly men of the past and present from here on out, who have been very helpful in not only affirming my thoughts but also taking it to another level. Here is how Calvin sees this section of James :

It appears certain that he is speaking of the manifestation, not of the imputation of righteousness, as if he had said, Those who are justified by true faith prove their justification by obedience and good works, not by a bare and imaginary semblance of faith. In one word, he is not discussing the mode of justification, but requiring that the justification of believers shall be operative. And as Paul contends that men are justified without the aid of works, so James will not allow any to be regarded as justified who are destitute of good works. Due attention to the scope will thus disentangle every doubt; for the error of our opponents lies chiefly in this, that they think James is defining the mode of justification, whereas his only object is to destroy the depraved security of those who vainly pretended faith as an excuse for their contempt of good works. Therefore, let them twist the words of James as they may, they will never extract out of them more than the two propositions: That an empty phantom of faith does not justify, and that the believer, not contented with such an imagination, manifests his justification by good works.

J. Gresham Machen describes this difficulty as following:

The solution of the difficulty appears in the definition of the word “faith.” The apparent contradiction is due simply to the fact that when James in this chapter says that “faith” alone is insufficient, he means a different thing by the word “faith” from that which Paul means by it when he says that faith is all-sufficient. The kind of faith which James is pronouncing insufficient is made clear in the nineteenth verse of the same chapter: “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.” The kind of faith which James pronounces insufficient is the faith which the devils also have; it is a mere intellectual apprehension of the facts about God or Christ, and it involves no acceptance of those facts as a gift of God to one’s own soul. But it is not that kind of faith which Paul means when he says that a man is saved by faith alone. Faith is indeed intellectual; it involves an apprehension of certain things as facts; and vain is the modern effort to divorce faith from knowledge. But although faith is intellectual, it is not only intellectual. You cannot have faith without having knowledge; but you will not have faith if you have only knowledge.

C. H. Spurgeon says this in an excerpt from the sermon Fruitless Faith, he preached February 21st, 1861.

What James does mean, however, is this, no doubt, in brief and short, that while faith saves, it is faith of a certain kind. No man is saved by persuading himself that he is saved; nobody is saved by believing Jesus Christ died for him. That may be, or may not be, true in the sense in which he understands it. In a certain sense Christ died for all men, but since it is evident that many men are lost, Christ’s dying for all men is not at all a ground upon which any man may hope to be saved. Christ died for some men in another sense, in a peculiar and special sense. No man has a right to believe that Christ peculiarly and specially died for him until he has an evidence of it in casting himself upon Christ, and trusting in Jesus, and bringing forth suitable works to evince the reality of his faith. The faith that saves is not a historical faith, not a faith that simply believes a creed and certain facts: I have no doubt devils are very orthodox; I do not know which church they belong to, though there are some in all churches; there was one in Christ’s Church when he was on earth, for he said one was filled with devils; and there are some in all churches. Devils believe all the facts of revelation. I do not believe they have a doubt; they have suffered too much from the hand of God to doubt his existence! They have felt too much the terror of his wrath to doubt the righteousness of his government. They are stern believers, but they are not saved; and such a faith, if it be in us, will not, cannot, save us, but will remain to all intents and purposes a dead, inoperative faith. It is a faith which produces works which saves us; the works do not save us; but a faith which does not produce works is a faith that will only deceive, and cannot lead us into heaven.

John Piper preached a sermon called Does James Contradict Paul On August 8th, 1999 and here is a excerpt:

Now that, I think, is what James was trying to get across to his churches. Loveless faith is absolutely useless; and anybody that comes along and says “We are justified by faith alone, and so you don’t have to be a loving person to go to heaven” is not telling the truth.

Let’s see how James corrects this distortion of Paul’s teaching. Here’s where you have to watch out for words – what does James mean by the words he uses? Even when his words may seem to be in conflict with Paul, is the meaning in conflict?

James’ concern is with a kind of counterfeit faith that does not produce love. This faith cannot justify anybody. Verse 14: “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?” You see his concern. “Can that faith save him?” Such faith is not going to save. What kind of works is James interested in? The same kind Paul is – the works of love. Verses 15-16: “If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?” So James’ concern is that people have real saving faith, not counterfeit faith. And the difference is that the real faith produces loving behavior.

He has three ways of describing this counterfeit faith. First in verse 17, he says it is dead: “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” It is dead faith. If faith does not “work through love” as Paul said, it is dead. Second, in verse 19 he says, “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.” There is a faith that even devils have, namely, belief in right doctrine. The faith that justifies and works through love is not simply belief in right doctrines like, “God is one.” Devils can be orthodox at the intellectual level. They believe. But it doesn’t save them. So there is dead faith and devil faith. Third, he says in verse 20, “But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?” So there is useless, idle, ineffective, vain, empty faith.

So there are three ways in this passage that James talks about faith to show that the faith he says cannot justify is a faith that Paul would totally agree cannot justify – dead faith, devil faith, and useless faith -faith that has no vital life that works through love.

I trust that these excerpts have either opened your eyes or reaffirmed the truths and beauty of James as they have for me. Let us continue to be doers of the word and not just hearers.

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