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Written by Biblical Research Institute
Why did James say “a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone” (James 2:24)?
James 2:14-26 has often been understood as a corrective to Paul’s one-sided emphasis on justification by faith alone. Fortunately most scholars today disagree with that assessment, as do I. In seeking to understand James’ argument we need to keep in mind the general context and purpose of his letter. Second, we must realize that different biblical writers may at times use the same terminology in a different sense or particular emphasis. This is also determined by the context. You may want to read James 2:14-26 before we continue.
1. James’ Main Concern: James’ message is very practical in nature, addressing the suffering and trials of the community of believers and the potential and real oppressiveness of social stratification. His interest is in the social impact of the Christian faith. He rejects preferential treatment based on wealth or social status (chap. 2:1-7) and condemns social exploitation and abuse of the poor (chap. 5:1-6). For James, Christian faith cannot be socially disengaged while claiming at the same time to be relevant. His theological message is embedded in this concern for a religion that should be part of the very fabric of society. This means that whatever James says in chapter 2:14-26, it must be related to his major concern.
2. Faith and Works:The passage under consideration has to be read in its own terms. We have to determine how James uses the noun “faith.” Contextually, this is not difficult. He doesn’t use it in the traditional salvific way, but as inner knowledge and conviction. In other words, this is not primarily the faith that we place in Jesus, but religious convictions that are not determining conduct. This becomes clear when he writes, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even demons believe that—and shudder” (verse 19). Faith is being persuaded that our convictions are right; demons can have that type of knowledge. This kind of faith is useless in the Christian life if it leads to an attitude of indifference toward the needs of others (verses 14-16, 20). James argues that faith divorced from works is dead (verse 17).
In fact, to claim that faith exists in the absence of works is tantamount to claiming that the body could exist independent of the spirit. One cannot exist without the other. Faith and works are an indivisible unity in the Christian life (verse 26); works make visible our faith (verse 18). They are the evidence of the reality of the presence of faith in the believer.
3. Faith and Justification:Under Paul’s influence justification is usually understood as the acquittal of repentant sinners before the divine tribunal at the beginning of the Christian life, independent of works.
James is not denying that belief, but neither is he addressing that particular issue. He writes to church members, individuals who had already been justified by faith in Christ. Their problem is that their faith is not affecting the way they should live the Christian life. To them James says, “A person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.”
The most important element in this verse is the verb “to be justified.” Since in the context the presence of faith is seen or demonstrated through its works, the verb “to be justified” probably means “to show, demonstrate what it means to be righteous.” The verb carries a demonstrative meaning, that is to say believers show/demonstrate that they have been justified not simply by claiming they have faith, but more particularly by what they do. This was the experience of Abraham and Rahab, who demonstrated their righteousness through their works (verses 21, 25). These are not the works of the law through which some, according to Paul, were seeking to be justified. James is talking about what Paul calls “good works.” They would both agree that, “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works” (Eph. 2:10).
James’s message is echoed in Revelation 3:15-18, and challenges us to allow our faith, through the power of the Spirit, to express itself in true Christian demeanor and in deep concern for the poor and the oppressed. After all, “what good is it, my brothers, if a man [or a woman] claims to have faith but has no deeds?” (James 2:14).
*Bible texts in this article are from the New International Version.