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Volume 8, Issue 3: Exegetica

Surrender and Slavery: - James 2:14-16

Douglas Jones

We Protestants should be much more dissatisfied with some of our solutions to the apparent conflict between Paul and James on the question of justification. Roman Catholic interpretations are in worse shape, but many Protestant efforts are a bit flabby as well. I think a better start incorporates parts of traditional Protestant observations but combines these in a more honest and natural resolution grounded in Romans 6, a key passage often neglected in this discussion.[1]

To put the apparent conflict in its boldest terms, Paul explicitly denies that we are justified by works ("to him who does not work but believes . . ."-- Rom. 4:5), and James explicitly affirms that we are justified by works ("a man is justified by works, and not by faith only"-- Jas. 2:24). To dissolve this apparent conflict, most think one need only show that either Paul or James is using a different meaning for just one of the terms in question, either: justification, faith, or works.
Some of those who decide that Paul and James are using two different senses of the word justification argue that Paul is discussing justification before God and James is discussing justification before men. This is probably one of the weakest explanations, and it finds no creedal support. Counterexamples to this claim are found in both Paul and James. For example, Paul speaks of Abraham's justification being for us, i.e., before men (Rom. 4:24), and in James, Abraham is on the mountain in front of God, not an audience of men (Jas. 2:21-24). Nonetheless, this view is correct in perceiving two different senses of justification but not in the senses it suggests.
Other Protestants argue that Paul and James are using two different meanings for faith, namely, dead faith and working faith. This view, though, makes James say some pretty crazy things, such as "I will show you my dead faith by my works" (2:18), and "dead faith without works is dead" (2:20).
Better attempts recognize the faith in the two contexts as "faith (as assent)" and "saving faith." They take Paul to be saying that we are justified by saving faith, whereas James is condemning a nonworking faith, belief by itself. Along with this explanation runs the slogan: "Justification is by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone." This angle is not false (it has creedal support), but it is often confusing in the wrong hands. From some Protestants, it suggests that we are justified by a faith that is alone and not alone in the same respect. (Other recent Protestants use this view to argue that faith and works together are instruments of justificationa denial of sola fide.)
Though the "saving faith" solution strikes well against antinomian evil, it still lacks something, primarily because it doesn't do full justice to Paul's insistence that justifiying faith has to be without work in some serious sense: "to him who does not work but believes" (Rom. 4:4,5; 3:28). If saving faith "necessarily" (as some say) involves some serious level of work, then Paul appears to be getting bothered over nothing. And if the saving faith solution excludes a nonworking faith, a trust, then we have problems with cases of justification like that of the thief on the cross, who was somewhat hindered from caring for widows and orphans. This view is correct in differentiating senses of faith, but saving faith is not an all- or-nothing state; it includes important stages and growth.
Roman Catholic interpreters have tried to solve the problem by suggesting a difference in the meaning of work, with James speaking about good, grace-empowered works for progressive (not initial) justification and Paul speaking only about "bad" works of the ceremonial law. Though Paul does use different senses of law in Romans itself, subsituting "ceremonial law" or "ceremonial works" in the relevant cases inflicts nonsense upon Paul (e.g., Rom. 3:20,21,31; 4:2,5,7). For example, this Roman interpretation, if held consistently, would force Paul to make such claims as, "Do we then make void the [ceremonial] law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the [ceremonial] law (Rom 3:31). For Rome's case to come close, it has to limit Paul's talk about law to the ceremonial law alone in the relevant texts, but Paul just won't go there. He has the whole law in view, moral and ceremonial.
Apart from these dilemmas, the Roman interpretation also can't do justice to Paul's exclusive contrasts between faith and works. They have to read all such exclusions as contrasts between two kinds of works. For example, Paul declares, "Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness." (Rom. 4:4,5). On the Roman reading of this, Paul is saying that ceremonial works make God indebteded to us in a bad way, but nonceremonial works don't. This is painfully ad hoc and has to be false since the ceremonial law teaches us about faith and redemption in Christ (Col. 2:17; Heb. 10:1; Gal. 3:24,25)-- a very good work. Moreover, Paul's subsequent statement above becomes "But to him who does not [do ceremonial] work but believes on [i.e., does good, nonceremonial works for] Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith [i.e., his good works] is accounted for righteousness." When an interpretation has to force "believes on" to mean "does good, nonceremonial works," you know something is seriously amiss.
Still, Rome's biggest problem remains the claim that in progressive justification, grace-empowered works, imperfect as they are, can suffice as a ground for peaceful fellowship with a holy God (see Thema this issue). Few theological errors go this far.
A better approach, I think, and one within the bounds of the creedal teaching of the Church, recognizes that Paul and James are using different senses of each of the three terms: justification, faith, and works. They are speaking about two very distinct, though not unconnected, stages in Christian living, which are best described by Paul in Romans 6 as surrender and slavery.
But let's start with the differences in justification. First, faith, not justification, is James's primary concern in 2:14-26. He mentions justification three times and faith eleven times. He is describing faith and only incidentally speaks of justification. Second, Paul and James can't be using the same sense of justification, or else Scripture would easily contradict itself, on any reading. So we must find another biblical meaning for justification. Notably, Scripture doesn't limit its use of justification to just declaring righteous (Dt. 25:1 -- forensic) or making righteous (Dan. 12:3 -- causative). As many Protestants have recognized (e.g., John Murray), Scripture also speaks of justification in the sense of proving or demonstrating righteousness, even before God. For example, Ezekiel 16:51,52 speaks of one sinful group demonstrating the relative righteousness of another sinful group, but the first group doesn't declare or make the other group righteous.
Likewise, the New Testament speaks of "wisdom being justified [proven] by all her children" (Lk. 7:35) and the sinless Son of God being yet "justified in the Spirit" (1 Tim. 3:16). This fits in well with James's discussion, where both Abraham and Rahab demonstrate or prove their faithful, godly character by their works. Is this notion of proving one's faithfulness before God foreign to biblical thinking? Not at all. In Deuteronomy 13:1-5, the Lord explains how He tests or proves His people to see "whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul." Those that remain faithful are proven righteous or justified by their works. But this is different from the forensic and perfect justification in view in Romans 3-5.
We can't stop, however, with just a difference in justification; the texts also require a distinction in the meaning of faith, in a way that doesn't fall into the previous problems stemming from the dichotomy between saving faith and belief. If Paul and James are speaking of identical stages of faith, then Paul is wrong that justifying faith describes him who "does not work," since good works would always have to be present. But that isn't a problem because Paul himself in Romans 6 separates faith into at least two kinds or two stages.
When grappling with the apparent conflict between Paul and James, we so often focus on Romans 3-5 and James 2 and fail to notice the strong parallels between Romans 6 and James 2. In Romans 6, Paul gives us virtually the same lesson as James 2 does. Both chapters fight antinomianism, and both recognize distinct stages or developments of faith.
James describes Abraham's later work of offering Isaac as a fulfillment of his initial faith (Jas. 2:23). Here we have stages and growth. James's description of it as fulfillment suggests a filling out of something that wasn't present or as prominent in the beginning. In fact, James argues that Abraham's works perfected his faith (2:22), again suggesting a development and growth from an initial faith.
In Romans 6, we find similar language describing different stages of faith. Paul compares our salvation to submission to a master and the subsequent obedience: "Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one's slaves whom you obey" (6:16). Similarly, "You were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness" (6:17,18).
Here, like in James, Paul shows evidence of a distinction in the stages of saving faith. Initial faith is parallel to a surrender. In a situation of surrender, say to a conquering king, you bow humbly and beg for mercy. You don't work. And it is very inappropriate to try. You are surrendering, and anything you try could get you into more trouble. You have been conquered, and your duty is to bow. You are pretty much like the thief on the cross, surrendering, not performing works of charity. You are one who "does not work but believes" (Rom. 4:5). You trust in the king, not yourself. After you have surrendered, the king raises you, and you serve as a faithful slave: "having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness." Surrender is no longer appropriate. You must work, and you prove your surrender by your works. Belief alone is rebellious at that stage, and James spends most of his letter explaining how to be a faithful, working, slave of Christ. Yet the paradigm of surrender and slavery allows us to do justice to both Paul and James. Paul focuses on workless surrender (Rom. 3-5), and Paul and James (Rom. 6; Jas. 2) then focus on working submission to Christ.[2]
James's and Paul's use of work also differs, though most of the resolution hangs on the differences between their uses of justification and faith. Still building upon the surrender/submission distinction, we can identify James as describing the working faith of submission. Such a faith proves or justifies one's internal righteousness before man and God. Paul, on the other hand, focuses on excluding any human contribution to our surrender to a perfect, external, covenantal righteousness.[3] In short, James speaks of sanctified, submissive works, and Paul of self-righteous works of any sort, moral or ceremonial.[4]
On this reading, then, each of the three terms -- justification, faith, and -- differs in rhetorically interesting, yet biblically grounded, ways from its counterpart in the other author. Paul (Rom. 3-5) focuses on (a)forensic justification,[5] (b) a surrendering, workless, initial faith, and (c) self-righteous works. James, however, focuses on (a) demonstrative justification (a proving of regenerate righteousness), (b) a submissive, working, progressive faith, and (c) righteousness-proving, God-pleasing, good works. Paul and James simply can't conflict because they aren't even discussing the same topics, but rather different stages in the order of salvation -- surrender and slavery.

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