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St James on Justification by Works

Question: Contrary to the Protestant 'Justification by Faith Alone', St James tells us clearly that justification is not by faith only! 'Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only' (James 2:24).

Answer: Like many other Catholics, perhaps you misunderstand what we mean by 'sola fide'. If you understand what Protestants mean by 'faith alone', you would never use James 2 to oppose it. Please allow me to clarify this important issue.

Historically, Protestants use the slogan 'faith alone' to express the gospel so clearly explained by the apostle Paul, 'that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law' (Romans 3:28; 4:5-8; Galatians 2:16; 3:10-13, 5:2-4). An ungodly person is not freed from guilt by the deeds of the law, that is, by loving God and his neighbor (because no one keeps the law perfectly). To become right with God, the sinner must believe in Another, in Christ Jesus. God freely justifies the person who does not rely on his works and efforts, but wholly trusts in the Lord Jesus Christ. The believer is acquitted, set free and treated as righteous - all because of Christ.

In Romans and Galatians, the apostle Paul has this question in mind: How can a guilty sinner be justified by God? Essentially Paul answers that a sinner is justified by faith in Christ, and not by the merit of his works. That is what we mean by 'sola fide'.

In his letter, James deals with a different question altogether. There is a man who claims to have faith and who assents to the cardinal doctrines of the gospel, including the first, namely, the unity of God. Yet this person is devoid of good works and is full of hypocrisy, so much so, that he insults a poor beggar with pious words without giving him anything. So, says James, can this sort of faith save him? 'What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?'

James is not asking whether a person is saved by faith plus the merit of his good works. He is asking about the kind of faith that saves. He mentions two types, the real and the counterfeit. Works distinguish one from the other: 'Show me your faith without your works; and I will show you my faith by my works.' Real faith is living, manifesting itself in good works; counterfeit faith is dead, barren, the mere assent to doctrine.

James asks, 'Can faith save him?' The answer is simply this: If it is real faith, manifest in good works, yes. But if it is a counterfeit 'faith', no, it cannot save him.

No contradiction exists between Paul and James. The apostle Paul insists that the man 'who does not work but believes' is justified by God. But that is not all. Elsewhere Paul describes the character of true faith - 'faith working through love'. 

It is also important to note that Paul and James use the word 'justification' in different senses. In the Bible the word 'justification' is often used in the legal sense. 'To justify' denotes a judge declaring a person righteous; it is the opposite of 'to condemn' which means to declare guilty (Deuteronomy 25:1; Job 13:18; Isaiah 50:7-8; Matthew 12:37; Luke 18:14; etc.). Paul often uses the word 'justification' in this legal sense.

'To justify' is also used in a declarative sense. A person who tries to show himself that he is in the right is said to be trying to justify himself (see Job 32:2; Luke 10:28,29; 16:14,15). James has this aspect of justification in mind. As we have seen, his concern is to show the reality of the faith professed by the individual.

Thus when James says, 'You see then that a man is justified by work,' James simply means that this man's works show that he is for real. Furthermore, he insists that a man is not justified 'by faith only' - because the 'faith' that is alone is dead. Profession of faith is not enough. Mere mental assent to the gospel truths is not enough. One must have living faith, and that is always manifest by good works. Good works prove that he and his faith are genuine.

A Roman Catholic commentary concurs: 'James does not here imply the possibility of true faith existing apart from deeds, but merely of the making of such a claim ... James is not opposing faith and works, but living faith and dead faith ... What was true in the case of Abraham is true universally. 'by works and not by faith alone': As is clear from the context, this does not mean that genuine faith is insufficient for justification, but that faith unaccompanied by works is not genuine.' [1]

In brief: 1. A sinner is saved by faith in Christ and not on account of his own works; 2. True, saving faith always produces good works; 3. Mere assent and profession of faith alone, without works, do not save.

These Scriptural truths agree with the teaching of historic Protestantism. 'Faith which receives Christ's righteousness and depends on Him is the sole instrument of justification, yet this faith is not alone in the person justified, but is always accompanied by all the other saving graces. And it is not a dead faith, but works by love' (1689 Baptist Confession of Faith). It is by faith alone (and not by the merits of our works) that we are justified on account of Christ; yet the faith that justifies is never alone (solitary, unfruitful, barren) if it is genuine. 

Jamesí teaching is altogether different from the doctrine of the Roman Church on justification. The Council of Trent teaches that good works are not merely the fruit and signs of justification received by faith, as James teaches. The Roman church goes way beyond that. The Catholic faithful is taught to perform good works to maintain and increase personal righteousness by which he is ultimately accounted to have fully satisfied the Law of God and allowed into heaven (Trent, session 6, chapter 16 and canon 24). Instead of demonstrating faith, his religious works done with the intent to gain merit only goes to show that he does not really trust Jesus for salvation.

Let us not think that 'justification' is simply the polemic between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Our understanding and commitment to this doctrine determines our eternal destiny. We do well to take the opportunity to test the reality of our religion:

  1. Do I really believe in Christ? Or am I trusting in my own works for salvation?

  2. Do I really believe in Christ? Or am I deceiving myself with empty words about faith without the experiential evidence of good works, love and holiness?


[1] Leahy T. W. 'The Epistle of James,' The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Roland E. Murphy (Bangalore: Theological Publications in India, 2000), 912-913. [back]

© Dr Joseph Mizzi