Saturday, November 17, 2007

Faith fulfilled by works (Part II)

Previous parts: Part I

The Larger Context

James is encouraging his readers to reconsider their lives and to adopt various types of good practices -- works -- as normative for themselves. In particular, he wants to communicate that what they "believe" must work its way into their fingers; else, their belief is worthless (1.22, 1.26, 3.13, 4.17). These practices include enduring testing and temptation (1.2-18), bridling the tongue (1.20; ch. 3), care for the poor (1.27-2.9), and walking away from worldly desires (4.1-6, 5.1-6).

In this context, the thesis of 2.14-26 is right at home: "faith, if it does not have works, is dead by itself." Apparently, a teaching had been circulating that faith alone is salvific, regardless of whether it is accompanied by works or not. This teaching appears to have been a distortion of the contents of Romans 4, although it is unlikely that James was reacting directly to that letter, which was published around 57-59. One indication that James is reacting to (a possibly garbled version of) Paul's teaching is his pointed repetition of the phrase "justified by works", a direct contrast to Paul's insistence that Abraham was not justified by works in Rom. 4.2.

Over against the teaching that "mere faith" is salvific, James raises the constantly repeated proposition that faith without works is unable to save because it is dead. This thesis is repeated in various ways in vv. 14, 17, 20, 24, and 26. These repetitions bracket four separate arguments.

First Argument

First, James makes an argument by analogy:

15 If a brother or a sister are naked and lacking in the daily necessities, 16 and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warm and satisfied", but does not give to them the necessities of the body, what's it worth? 17 Thus also faith, if it does not have works, is dead by itself.

James kills two birds with this argument, reminding his readers about their obligations to the poor while simultaneously pointing out the connection between words and actions. In this scenario, the right words are spoken, but the words themselves are left uncompleted by the actions. So the rhetorical question is raised: "What's it worth?" The force of the argument is that the action of neglect tells us what the words truly mean: nothing.

In like fashion, a lack of deeds tells us what the faith is really like: dead. And it is understood here in v. 17 that a dead faith cannot save.

Second Argument

Now, James turns to two possible objections. First up:

18 But if someone says, "You have faith, and I have works" – show me your faith without the works and by my works I will show you my faith.

The idea behind the objection is that faith and works are two different characteristics. Perhaps then they are independent of each other? Maybe some people have more faith, but other people have more works, and God accepts them all.

James responds with a dare: go ahead and show me your faith without works. Of course, it is impossible for the objector to comply, for the only demonstration of faith is ... works! Meanwhile, says James, I will show you that I have faith by demonstrating the fruit of faith. He shuts the door to the possibility of dividing faith from works as if they were independent qualities. Instead, what faith "looks like" is works. (This point will require further development when we consider the relationship of James to Pauline teaching in the next post.)

It would be a mistake here to imagine that James is equating all works with a demonstration of faith; certainly, false works are possible as Jesus often declared. The point here is simply that faith cannot be demonstrated except by its fruit.

But now, the objector takes refuge in orthodoxy:

19 "You believe that God is one." Nicely done. The demons also believe – and tremble.

Here, our objector appeals to Deut. 6.4: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one God." This statement was a Jewish shorthand for the statement, "I affirm the truth about God", which is then supposed by the objector to be a proof of faith.

James is rather caustic in response: "Good job." But the demons also believe that God is one, and their "faith" leads them to tremble at the certainty of their destruction. Unspoken by James but clearly implied is that the demon's belief is hardly a saving faith.

Thus, orthodoxy is no certain test of saving faith.

Third Argument

Now, James turns to the case of Abraham. This is a rich subject, because Abraham was declared righteous on the basis of his belief in Genesis 15. In fact, Abraham is precisely the example chosen by Paul in Romans 4 to demonstrate that we are justified by faith apart from works1. This remarkable coincidence of topic and example serves as strong evidence that James was aware of some version of Paul's teaching and was anxious to qualify it.

20 Do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is worthless? 21 Abraham our father, was he not justified by works after he gave up Isaac his son upon the altar?

James begins by affirming something remarkable: that Abraham was justified "by works." Two puzzles immediately emerge. First, the affirmation of "justified by works" is very different from the thesis that James has been advancing so far, that a living, saving faith is accompanied by works. We might expect him to say that Abraham was justified "by faith that was accompanied by works", but it is a strange shift on his part to move from saving faith to justifying works. Second, James' statement at face value contradicts both the narrator of Genesis and also Paul's commentary on Abraham in Romans 4.

To see this clearly, we need to reconstruct the timeline of Abraham's introduction to the covenant. Because we don't have certain dates for his life, we will take year 0 to be his birth. Then, from Genesis 12.4, 16.3, 16.16, 17.1, 21.5 we can construct this sequence:

Year 75: Abraham leaves Haran
Year 76: Abraham receives the covenant promise
Year 86: Abraham sires Ishmael
Year 100: Abraham and Sarah have Isaac
Some time later: Abraham offers up Isaac.

We don't have a date for the last event, but Isaac seems old enough to know the pattern for sacrifice (22.7) but not old enough to resist Abraham or make a break for it (though perhaps he, also, trusted that he would be raised from the dead -- Heb. 11.17-19). For the sake of round numbers, we can put this event 30 years after the covenant promise (when Isaac is 6), understanding that this is only approximate. So, roughly, the events on Mount Moriah occur in Year 106.

Now here's the problem with James' statement, taken at face value: the narrator of Genesis stipulates that in 76, Abraham believed God and his belief was credited as righteousness. Paul affirms that Abraham was justified at that time (Rom 4.5,9,22-24). But James here states that Abraham was justified in 106, after (or "as a result of") his work of offering Isaac. It appears that there is a conflict between James and the others as to whether Abraham was justified in 76 or 106.

What are the possible solutions? The two most common are that either (a) James is talking about a second justification event, or (b) Paul and James are using the word "justify" in two different senses. These solutions are not incompatible, and some would combine them.

But now the puzzle gets even more curious:

22 You see, the faith worked together with his works, and the works completed the faith. 23 And the Scripture was fulfilled, the one that said, "And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness", and he was called "God's friend." 24 You see, by works a man is justified, and not solely by faith.

The faith that Abraham had in year 76 is said to work together with his work in 106! Somehow, the faith that caused Abraham to be declared righteous in 76 and to be called God's friend worked together with an event thirty years in the future.

Well ... how do we know that James is talking about the faith in year 76? Perhaps he meant Abraham's continuing faith, so that at the moment of near-sacrifice, his faith and actions were working together? That would certainly be a more reasonable statement of events: that the faith and the works both occurred in 106.

But three facts rule out this interpretation of James.

(1) James explicitly states that the faith that was completed is that mentioned in Genesis 15, year 76.

(2) The outcome of that faith, according to James, is that Abraham was called "God's friend." Yet, Abraham's covenantal relationship with God begins in year 76. It is certainly not the case that Abraham was something other than God's friend between 76-106! It is certainly not the case that Abraham changed or improved his status with God on Mount Moriah. In fact, Genesis 22.15-18 is a reaffirmation of the covenant promises made in Genesis 15; this is further evidence that Abraham's action in Genesis 22 completed the faith in Genesis 15. Here it is worth considering that God was "testing" Abraham (Gen. 22.1) on Mount Moriah. The outcome of that test was already known, but its function was to confirm the covenant relationship between Abraham and God. No additional justification is said to take place in Genesis 22; rather, Abraham's action fulfills his faith.

(3) James' overall thesis is that saving faith is a faith accompanied by works. The faith that saves Abraham begins in Genesis 15; yet the work cited by James occurs three decades later. It is unthinkable that Abraham's faith was "worthless" and non-salvific prior to year 106. It must instead be the case that the faith in 76 is salvific because it *is* accompanied by works; specifically, the work on Mount Moriah in 106.

What can we say then? James, in the mode of wisdom writers, is creating a paradox. Abraham's faith in 76 is working together with his actions in 106 to produce a living, salvific faith.

What is the point of the paradox, then? What wisdom are we to learn from it? How do we untangle the puzzle?

Several options need to be eliminated here. First, many Protestant commentators will assert that James is speaking of justification before men (by means of outward actions), whereas Paul is speaking of justification before God (by means of faith). While this approach is plausible if one emphasizes v. 18 in isolation, it is clear here that Abraham is not being justified before men. For one thing, the only "man" who knows of Abraham's deed is Isaac. Additionally, Genesis 22 explicitly notes that God is "testing" Abraham; this rules out some demonstration before men. And finally, James' overall point is clear: a faith without works is not a saving faith. James is talking about deliverance from God's wrath (v. 19), not vindication before men.

Second, Catholic commentators will cite this as an example of "initial justification" and "subsequent justification." In this view, God creates righteousness in us at initial justification, but that righteousness is tarnished by sin. As a result, subsequent receptions of righteousness (through the sacraments) are needed in order to be righteous.

The problem here is three-fold. (a) There is no indication in the texts of Genesis or James that his work of sacrificing Isaac restored some lost righteousness; nor was it a sacramental act. (b) There is also no indication that James views this as a subsequent justification. Rather, he declares the action as a completion of the faith, uniting both in a single act of justification. (c) Subsequent justification would be a significant tangent in an otherwise tight, disciplined argument. James' thesis, reaffirmed with regard to Abraham in v. 20, is that "faith without works is worthless", not that "works finish what faith started."

A more recent solution has come to my attention, that of Rich Lusk. According to Lusk2, there are various justifying acts throughout the life of a believer. Citing Calvin at points, Lusk argues that we need continual forgiveness of our sins, and that the justification that James speaks of is a subsequent justification.

I would dispute that James means this, for the reasons given above. It seems clear to me that James is unifying the act with the faith; one completes the other. Rather than two acts of justification, there is only one.

It seems much better to read 21-23 thus: saving faith justifies. But saving faith itself will grow and will of necessity mature into the fruit of works. From this perspective, there is a unity between faith and works. We might pause to consider here the images that Jesus used to describe real, saving faith: trees that bear good fruit, wheat as opposed to tares, vines that bear fruit, plants in good soil that bear fruit. James learned this way of thinking from his brother!

And so he expresses the unity of faith and works in a rhetorical hyperbole: "the works do the justifying." And in his example, the works justify "pre-facto" -- Abraham is justified in year 76 by a work he did in year 106.

James' outrageous, mind-bending claim is the clue: James is being rhetorical. He doesn't literally mean that the works justify. He doesn't mean that Abraham was declared righteous once and then was made righteous in a different way thirty years later.

Instead, he wants his readers to be impressed with the indivisibility of faith and works. The works "justify" in the sense that without them, the faith does not justify.

Fourth Argument

Rahab (v 25) now serves as a test case for our reading. What does James say? That Rahab was "justified by works" when she received the spies and sent them off the other way. When we compare James now to Hebrews 11.31, we find that the same action is described as the "faith" of Rahab. It's not that she received two different types of justification here. Rather, she was justified by her faith that was completed by her works. Here again there is a unity of faith and action.


What can we say about James' message? James is trying to impress on his readers that faith cannot in any way be apart from works. To do so, he uses a variety of arguments, including a rhetorical re-analysis of Abraham that deliberately flouts the language of Paul and outrageously attributes Abraham's justification to a work committed thirty years in the future. All of this is an attempt to get at one truth: Just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.

The next post will examine the relationship of James to Romans 4, Ephesians 2, and various systematic concerns.


1Some would limit the works under discussion in Romans 4 to "works of the law" to make room for James at this point. Such a limitation is not warranted, since there was no Law at the time of Abraham and therefore Paul's discussion of circumcision would be nonsensical under such a limitation. But neither is the limitation necessary, as is shown above.

2 Lusk, The Tenses of Justification. Lusk has also graciously interacted with me on this point, with discussion found here.

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