Thursday, May 19, 2011

How to use James 2:24 most effectively.

As everyone is well aware, James 2:24 is a Catholic 'favorite' when it comes to refuting the Protestant heresy known as Sola Fide (i.e. Justification by Faith Alone). What many Protestants and Catholics don't know is that James 2:24 is by no means the only Biblical resource for dealing with Sola Fide, Catholics have many just as effective Biblical texts to deal with that heresy. That said, the purpose of this post is to teach Catholics how to use James 2:24 most effectively, since there are various Protestant "come-backs" to this verse that at first glance might seem plausible. I believe the best method to approach this is to provide a list of bullet points to keep in mind when discussing this verse with Protestants.
  • The context of verse 2:24 is James 2:14-26
Many people forget the maxim, "prooftext without context is pretext." In other words, be careful whenever a single verse of Scripture is being presented, because ripped from its context it could actually mean something very different. In this case, the Catholic has nothing to fear because the appeal to verse 24 is taking into consideration not only the immediate context, but the context of James' Epistle as a whole. The context of this Epistle, particularly this pericope, is that of Christians who are not living up to their calling as Christians and rather living as hedonists and materialists. Many Protestants fail to realize this when analyzing 2:24, which ends up making their approach seem more plausible than it actually is. It is very important that the Catholic have read James' Epistle (it's very short and easy to read), and especially be aware of what 2:14-26 says.
  • The 'thesis verse' is James 2:14, not James 2:18 (or even 2:24)
Protestants often claim that James is focused upon "showing your faith is genuine," as 2:18 appears to be saying (more on this later), rather than on "getting saved". If one simply examines James' introduction to this lesson, they will see the Protestant approach is incorrect: "What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can [that] faith save him?" The question James is asking is if faith (by itself) will "save" the Christian, meaning the subject very much is getting saved, not proving you are already saved. Since James is talking to "brothers" in Christ, that means they are already believers (James 2:1), so this "save" must be in reference to future salvation rather than conversion (i.e. initial salvation). More importantly, James is asking a question, which he is then going onto answer in verses 2:15-26, so his answer (including verse 24) must be of the same subject matter for it to be coherent and (logically) valid.
  • James is speaking of faith "by itself," not "fake faith"
The classical Protestant objection is that James is speaking against 'fake faith', which they define as a "faith" that merely recalls facts but does not really have a conviction in the heart. This faith, they say, being a "non-saving faith," never saves in the first place, and thus fails to produce good works, which then goes to prove the "Christian" was never really saved in the first place. Thus, when a Protestant sees James mention "dead faith" and such, they interpret this as an inherently 'sterile faith' that cannot and never did save. While this might sound plausible, the truth is, it doesn't fit at all with what James is talking about, and thus is a false interpretation. In reality, James is never distinguishing between two 'types' of faith, an inherently "saving faith" versus an inherently "non-saving faith". That categorization is totally unbiblical, and the terminology such as 'saving faith' is nowhere to be found; it's wholly made up. This Protestant error can be demonstrated in various ways, particularly by doing a simple 'substitution' of the term "non-saving faith" into anywhere where James mentions faith. Take verse 14 for example: "Can non-saving faith save him?" Now does that make sense? Is James seriously asking if 'non-saving faith' can save someone? Such a question is absurd and hardly needs 12 verses to explain. Another example, verse 17: "So also non-saving faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead." So is James trying to prove "non-saving faith" doesn't have works and is dead? Is that really something that needs proving? No. This demonstrates the Protestant approach of two types of faith is plainly false.

Given that, James is not speaking ill of faith itself in any way, rather the problem is when good works do not accompany the (already good) faith. Notice the language throughout: "has faith but does not have works," "faith by itself, if it does not have works," "faith apart from works," etc.
  • When James says things like "show me your faith," what does that mean?
As noted earlier, in order to get the subject off of salvation, Protestants have to argue the context of James is that of displaying your 'true faith' by the outward manifestation of good works (which, as also noted above, they falsely teach will flow automatically from 'true faith'). Because of this, Protestants become fixated on James 2:18-19, claiming the 'faith of demons' James describes is the 'fake faith' that never saves in the first place and thus will not automatically produce good works. But that is not what James is talking about. The phraseology of "showing" is not that of a visible and public manifestation of good works, but rather that of "proving your argument," as in "show me your argument is valid." (Standard Lexicons even indicate that the Greek word for "show" is used metaphorically for proving an argument.) How is this proven? Because when James says "do you want to be shown," he does not get up before them and perform good works, rather he goes on (in 2:20ff) to use Abraham as an example of James' argument. In other words, James is "showing" by "proving his argument," he is not focused on public manifestation of good works to prove that he possesses 'true faith'. This idea will continue to be built upon as we continue.
  • What does James mean by the term "justify"?
As with the previous analysis, Protestants cannot allow the term "Justify" to be speaking of salvation. Given that, when James uses the term "justify," Protestants claim "justify" in this situation means "vindicate" (i.e. prove to be true), rather than "save". Thus when James says a man is "justified by works," Protestants interpret that as "vindicated by works" (i.e. prove themselves to have 'true faith' by the testimony of their works). While the term "justify" can mean vindicate, ultimately context decides this. In this context, remember back to the first point made: the context is 2:14-26, with the thesis being in 2:14, and the subject matter being future salvation. Thus, when James answers his thesis question on salvation, he must be using "justify" as a synonym for "save". To buttress this point, in verse 2:23, James quotes the epitome of 'salvific-justification', Genesis 15:6 (Romans 4:3), meaning James must be on that same subject - else he would be equivocating with the term justify, going from 'vindicate' in v21, to 'save' in v23, and back to 'vindicate' in v24. (Ironically, using their own biased approach Protestants would be hard pressed why Paul is not using "justify" to mean "vindicate" (rather than "save") in places like Romans 4.)
  • The example of Abraham being 'justified by works'
At this point, it is clear that Protestants would consider the example of Abraham being 'justified by works' a lesson in how Abraham proved to his fellow believers that he had true faith. Again, the Catholic must keep in mind that all of this is a grand Protestant assumption, by no means proven. But more importantly, this grand assumption goes directly against the following facts:

(a) James is referencing the famous event of Genesis 22, where Abraham was to sacrifice Isaac, yet in this very situation, it was God Who commanded Abraham to do this and it was to be done before God alone (always reference Gen 22:1-2, 9-12), which is why Abraham told his helpers to stay behind (Gen 22:5). If James were thinking as a Protestant here, he picked the worst possible example, for this is the anti-thesis of doing one's works before men. Rather, this is about being justified before God, the very thing the Protestant is trying to get away from.

(b) The event of Genesis 22 happened years after the event of Genesis 15:6 (which James also quotes). If James is trying to prove good works automatically flow from the person who has "true faith," he again picked the worst example, for here the prime example of a good work doesn't flow from Abraham for many years later! This can only mean the Protestant assumption again fails.

(c) If James were discussing the nature of 'true faith' versus 'fake faith', why did he use Genesis 15:6 as his prime example? Who on earth would dare question whether Abraham's faith was genuine or not? The text plainly says Abraham's faith found favor with God, who are we or anyone else to question the validity of this? Does Abraham really need to "prove" his faith is genuine? Hardly. Again, the Protestant case doesn't make sense.

(d) James 2:22-23 indicates Abraham's faith was "active with works" and "completed by works," and that Abraham's work (sacrificing Isaac) fulfilled a Scriptural prophecy encapsulated in Genesis 15:6. In other words, Genesis 15:6 doesn't stand alone, it's has a 'fulfillment'! And to buttress this, this is what the pre-Christian Jews understood as well. For example, in 1 Maccabees 2:52 (an Old Testament book Catholics accept as Scripture but Protestants reject) says: "Was not Abraham found faithful in temptation, and it was reputed to him unto justice?" In case you missed it, Maccabees describes the Sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham using the the exact same language ("credited to him as righteousness," "reputed to him unto justice") as Genesis 15:6, including in the Greek (LXX) translation! Many people don't know that.
  • Understanding the meaning of James 2:24, "You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone."
We finally come to the most important verse, and with everything that's been established so far, we can be very confident that the Protestant approach has no merit (and even undermines the sacred text), while the Catholic approach is the only one that harmonizes everything. As with the previous points, God has Providentially inspired this text to be phrased in such a way as to stifle any attempts at twisting it's true meaning (i.e. that the believer can increase in their justification before God by doing good works). The first detail to focus upon is that James is concluding his argument in verse 24 (which he introduced in verse 14) with "you see" (i.e. the thesis is proved). Second, the term "justify" here is distributive, that is it applies twice, once to works and once to faith, and holds the same definition in each case (else it would be equivocation). Thus, when examining the way the verse is phrased, the subject is between works "justifying" and faith (alone) not "justifying," yet if one injects "non-saving faith" into this passage, the argument becomes nonsense: who ever suggested a man is justified by non-saving faith? Or if the Protestant take is to render it as "vindicated," the nonsense remains: James would be "proving" a man is not vindicated by a "fake faith" that by definition doesn't vindicate. Third, the term "alone" here is not an adjective modifying the noun "faith" such as if creating a unique type of faith called "Faith Alone," but rather an adverb modifying the verb "justified." In other words, it is more accurately translated "faith only" rather than "faith alone". Thus, when 'expanding' the original verse, James 2:24 is really saying: a man is justified not only by faith, but also [justified] by works. Astonishingly, some Protestants actually suggest this indicates James is speaking of two types of justification, not realizing he uses the term "justify" once and that it's equivocation to assume he is using the same word to mean "save" once and in the same breath using it again to mean "vindicate".
  • A final but necessary detail: James 2:26, "For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead."
The analogy James gives is sheer brilliance, for it is impossible to miss his point: he is not speaking of two 'kinds' of faith, a fake and a real, but rather only one kind of faith under two 'modes' ('living' or 'dead'). If the Protestant interpretation were correct, James would have to be making a comparison between a fake body and a real body! Faith in itself is good, but apart from good works (e.g. sin, James 2:15-17), the faith 'dies' and no longer saves. This is why Catholics teach Faith only justifies that is 'animated' by Hope and Love (cf. 1 Cor 13:2, 13; Galatians 5:6), otherwise it's belief only (which is good in itself, but not enough). Protestants teach that "true faith" automatically will be accompanied by Hope and Love, but faith is all that's needed for justification (i.e. Hope and Love are incidentally present, essentially just to prove the faith is of the 'real' variety). The Protestant picture, while sounding good, is actually unbiblical and based on various theological errors.
  • Does the Catholic reading of James 2:24 contradict Paul (in, e.g., Rom 4:2-3)?
The answer is no, and the reasoning is easy: the "works" Paul was speaking against were "works of the [Mosaic] Law" (Rom 3:28ff, 4:9ff), while James was speaking of good works done in union with Christ. (NB: sacrificing one's son isn't even a commandment of the Mosaic Law.) Protestants often miss this simple 'solution' because they refuse to categorically distinguish between "works of the Mosaic Law" and good works in general, done in union with Christ - the 'works' are not the same.


Tap said...

Have you noticed that, online especially, the "slicker" protestants, when arguing, will not say "we are saved by faith alone." But will say something like: "We are Saved by grace through faith." Which is as good an orthodox Catholic statement. Or if they want to muddy the waters a bit they will while not being caught by St. James they'll say something like: "We are save by Grace through faith in Christ alone," or some such variation.

Isn't it interesting?

Nick said...

They will still say Faith Alone, especially when asked for clarification.

kkollwitz said...

Hey, thanks for this substantial but not-too-long post on James. In my Bible-Belt world, James does come up rather often, and this is very helpful.

TimCHebold said...

Of course it's about a kind of fake faith, i.e. a non sufficient faith: "So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead." (2:17) Obviously it's about dead faith. And "THAT faith" (cf. 2:14) can't save. If faith is mere intellectual assent to doctrine (monotheism, the existence of God; cf. 2:19) or works of love (cf. 2:16), it's dead and not salvific. "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love." (Gal 5:6, ESV)

"Was not Abraham found faithful in temptation, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness?" (1 Maccabees 2:52, KJV) What was reckonend unto him for righteousness? His faithfulness! "I will show you my faith by my works." (2:18) Abraham sent his servants away? Doesn't matter. "For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope." (Romans 15:4, ESV)

You say: "If James is trying to prove good works automatically flow from the person who has true faith, he again picked the worst example, for here the prime example of a good work doesn't flow from Abraham for many years later!" One could also say: If James is trying to prove that works (adjunctively) justifie, he picked a bad example, for Abraham was counted righteous years earlier. Or are you saying that Abraham wasn't righteous/justified until the moment he performed the work of nearly (!) offering up Isaac?!

"Who on earth would dare question whether Abraham's faith was genuine or not?" No one. Abraham's faith is out of question. That's exactly why James is using him as an example of justifying faith -- working through love and obedience -- and not as an example of fake faith. Everyone knows that Abraham is justified. In the offering of Isaac his works worked concursively (!) with his faith and thus completed it. made it to be saving faith. Otherwise his faith would've been a dead one. "For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead." (2:26) Important to notice: James never says that works merit justification, only that they work along with faith and complete it, i.e. demonstrate and, yes, in a way constitute it to be saving faith. Faith nevertheless.

Not contradicting Paul? "The answer is no, and the reasoning is easy: the works Paul was speaking against were works of the [Mosaic] Law." Your reading of James is contradicting Romans 4:5: "And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness." Paul's example: Abraham. Works of the Mosaic law? "This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void." (Galatians 3:17, ESV)

Lilly Stein said...

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It's fantastic and so helpful!

David Prantner said...

I will stand and say that Faith Alone does save. We are separated from a perfect God because of our sin. There is NOTHING I can do to bridge that gap. Jesus came and lived a perfect life to bridge that gap. When we believe in the Lord Jesus and what he did for us we are taking on faith that His sacrifice pays for our sins. We are then Justified. When we are justified we are then Christians and have the Holy Spirit within us. If we have the Holy Spirit within us we are going to do good works; not as any payment for our salvation, I will never belittle Christ's sacrifice by saying I have to add to it by my works. My works are Christ working with me and through me to glorify the Father. James 2 is clear that when you are not producing works then your faith is not genuine or dead. When we are saved by faith alone we become a new creation (2 Corinthians 5) and because we are a new creation we will do good work in response to being saved, not to become saved or to maintain being saved. John Calvin once said that Faith Alone Justifies, but Faith that Justifies is Never Alone.