Volume 18, Issue 4: Stauron
Old Perspectives on James
Theologians have gotten their knickers into a twist over the centuries trying to explain James. In actuality, the focus has
often been not so much on explaining James as it has been on trying to defuse a perceived conflict between the epistle of James
and the epistles of Paul. This tension comes to a head in James 2:14-26. Compared to Paul, James is short and sweet. "A person
is justified by works and not by faith alone." "Faith apart from works is dead." Seems pretty clear.
So is the answer here to write tomes of commentary redefining what Paul must have meant in his letter to the Romans
(and elsewhere) when he says, "For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law"? Justified by works . .
. Justified by faith. What's a Protestant Christian to do? Revert to Rome? Sadly, some are on that path, having lost their grip
on the hard-fought truths of the Reformation.
James argues forcefully and clearly that he indeed means works. In verse 25 he cites Rahab as an example, saying that
she was "justified by works" when she hid the Israelite spies. Worse than that, James seemingly contradicts Paul head-on,
claiming in verse 21 that even Abraham was "justified by works" when he offered up Isaac on the hills of Moriah. Paul had used
the illustration of Abraham in his key argument (Rom. 4:5-12), saying that Abraham's trust in the God who justifies,
before he was circumcised according to the law, was proof positive that justification follows from faith, "apart from works." But not only
did Abraham's faith precede his circumcision, but Abraham was circumcised many long years before he ever climbed Moriah
with Isaac, as James argues.
This is the point where many Christians toss in the towel in confusion (Munch's
Scream comes to mind), and simply defer to whatever their pastor thinks. But this doesn't always help either. Even Martin Luther wondered about this and as a
result questioned the apostolicity of the book of James, at one point calling it an "epistle of straw." But before we consider
denigrating or excising books from the canon, perhaps we should take a closer look at what the original Greek texts say.
That didn't help either. "Justified by works" (Jas. 2:21, 25), and "justified as a free gift by His grace" (Rom. 3:24)
cf. "justified by faith" (Rom. 3:28) all use the same word for
justify. Worse, they even use the same Greek word for
Maybe the words of Christ can help us bring this discussion into clearer focus. In John 6, the crowd asked what they
could do to secure everlasting life. Jesus told them in verse 29 that the
work of God is that they believe on the Bread of Life, on Him.
I know what you're thinking. But it turns out it's the same Greek word for `work' again. So Jesus is siding with the faith
argument here, making the two synonymous. And of course in John 3:16 and numerous other scriptures (e.g., Jn. 8:24; Mk. 16:16;
Jn. 16:9; Jn. 6:40, 47; Lk. 7:49_50; Acts 26:18), Jesus repeats again and again the requirement for faith in Him for salvation.
But . . .
If we turn to other scriptures, Christ seems to focus on works, and not just a little. The familiar final judgment passage
in Matt. 25:31-46 speaks of sheep and goats. The sheep enter the kingdom of eternal life. Why? Nothing is said here of
criteria in faith, creeds, catechisms, or confessions. Christ points instead to openhanded deeds. These righteous sheep offered food
to the hungry, clothing to the naked, and drink to the thirsty. They welcomed strangers and visited the sick and the prisoners.
On the other hand, the cursed goats are told to depart into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. Why?
Again, nothing is said about lack of faith; nothing is said of heterodoxy, apostasy or heresy. All that is given as criteria for damnation
is how they lived their lives. They failed to feed the hungry, to visit the sick or the prisoner, to welcome the stranger, clothe
the naked, or give drink to the thirsty. Sins of omission all, a lack of good works.
In Matt. 12:37, Christ says we are justified by our words. Elsewhere we see Jesus answering the direct question
"What good deed must I do to have eternal life?" Christ's reply is, "If you would enter life, keep the commandments." Just to
make sure this wasn't a trick answer, the rich young man asks, "Which ones?" Jesus replies with five out of the Ten
Commandments: don't murder, steal, bear false witness, commit adultery, or fail to honor your parents. And he summarizes with "Love
your neighbor as yourself" (Matt. 19:16-22).
The same requirement for inheriting eternal life is provided by Christ to a lawyer who tests Him. His reply is the
parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25-37). Again these are works, not a subscription to creed, catechism or confession.
Nowhere in these passages does it say "faith apart from works," rather it focuses on the works. We thought we had problems
with contradictions between Paul and James. But what is this? Does Jesus contradict himself? If we're going to take the scissors
to the scriptures, we need to be prepared to keep hacking into a fair portion of the gospel narratives as well. But wait, we're
not done yet. Not at all.
What about Paul himself? In 2 Cor. 5:10 he writes, "We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that
each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil." Some point to this as simply a
`crowns' judgment (1 Cor. 3:12-15). But in 2 Corinthians, Paul is speaking of receiving rewards that are due also for
evil, not just the good. Sounds much more like sheep and goats, and Ps. 62:12. Or like Paul again in Romans 2:6-9 & 2:13 where he
states "the doers of the law shall be justified."
We haven't even come full circle back to James yet. But we will.