Does James 2:24 really teach justification by works and not faith alone?
In part one of this series of devotionals in James, we saw how both James and Paul are calling us to an obedience that comes through faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. Then, in part two, looking closely at James 2:14 in context, I suggested that James is not asking how a man is saved—whether by faith, or whether by faith plus works—but rather, how a needy person is helped (made whole or well, restored) by those who have faith if they do not have works? `“What good does your faith do the man in need if it doesn't demonstrate itself through works?” might be a good way of summarizing the point of James 2:14-17. But we haven't gotten out of the woods yet. Does James 2:24 really teach justification by works and not faith alone?
You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. (James 2:24)
The obvious answer is, “yes”. But should raise another important question (often overlooked). “What is meant by justified?” Does justified in James mean the same thing we mean by justified after centuries of systematic theology having categorized for us the doctrine of justification? In other words, is James talking about a man being saved by works and faith as opposed to faith alone? I would answer, “Absolutely not!” Is James contradicting Paul? Emphatically, “No!”
The word translated justified, has a small range of meanings, but in this context, or even in Paul's context in Romans 4, it seems to be its more basic meaning. According to Thayer's lexicon, it can mean, “to declare, pronounce, one to be just, righteous, or such as he ought to be,” or, “to show, exhibit, evince, one to be righteous”.While Paul in Romans 4:2-8 speaks of a man being justified not by works, but by faith—wherein righteousness is credited to a man as a gift when he believes God—he is using saying that when we believe (just like Abraham, in Genesis 15, before he was circumcised, before he had done anything) God declares or pronounces us righteous, as a gift. This is speaking about justification “before God” (Galatians 3:11). In James, the larger context is speaking of justification before others, while there is still a sense in which the example James uses about Abraham, is speaking of justification before God in a different way than Paul.
In James 2:24, the broader context of justification indicates that James is speaking about whether we would be shown or exhibited before others as righteous (e.g. James 2:18). Would the neighbor declare us right? How would he see anything “right” by our faith? He can't see our faith. He can only see the way we live out our faith by passing on the mercy we have received to others. Even the devil believes in One God; so what, he isn't right before God. So, those who God declares to be right, can only reveal the Gospel by outwardly demonstrating the same love we've received.
However, the first example James uses to illustrate his point, is from Abraham and would seem to be speaking of justification before God, not others (James 2:20-23). As R. T. Kendall points out in his book, Justification by Works, Paul, in Romans 4, is speaking of Abraham being justified at the beginning of his walk before God (from Genesis 15), while James refers to an event a quarter of a century later, when he was called to offer Isaac on the altar. It is at this later time, after a long walk by faith—complete with times of success and times of failure—that Abraham's faith (which had justified him back in Genesis 15), was made complete or had matured. The righteousness he received freely by God's grace had now produced a righteousness that both God and others could attest to in his life.
Abraham was the father of faith because while he was considered righteous by his faith before God at the beginning of his walk (Gen. 15); by the end of his walk, when the massive test of offering Isaac came, he passed with flying colors and was shown righteous before God and many others (all who read of it) at the end. His faith became sight, we might say.
What becomes clear as we look at this text more closely is that James is not speaking of how we are saved, but how we demonstrate the Gospel before a watching world, and how our faith which saves us ultimately matures as it makes us the people God created us to be! (ref. Ephesians 2:8-10) “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.” (Romans 4:7-8). Paul speaks of how that blessing comes (through trusting God), while James speaks of how we demonstrate that blessing in our life.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,