The “Problem” of James: An Alone Faith
The material cause of the Reformation was justification by faith alone, or “Sola Fide.” Catholics are quick to point to James 2:24 – “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” The Catholic teaching is that justification is a process that includes the merit of good works. Does James support this claim?
The day I received Jesus as my Lord and Savior, I underwent a radical shift. I went from being dead spiritually to being alive spiritually. The Holy Spirit convicted me that I was indeed a sinner, with no hope of meriting salvation. I repented and believed the gospel. As a result, all my sins were pardoned, and I was granted eternal life.
Was I grateful for this gift? Yes, abundantly. And as all new believers, I longed for God and His Word. I also longed to be obedient in all areas of my life. You see, saving faith leads to gratitude which leads to a desire for obedience.
But not all who claim to be Christian are “born from above.” There are false professors out there. Perhaps they were not convicted of sin by the Holy Spirit, but instead thought of Christ as a way to enjoy life. “God loves you, and has a wonderful plan for your life. Just accept Jesus, and all will be well for you.” Without conviction, there is no gratitude. Gratitude is the fruit of true salvation.
James is warning false professors. True saving faith is not an “alone faith.” It is a faith that generates obedience and godly living. But does this fully explain James 2:24?
I think that James is also using the word “justification” as “shown to be righteous.” He is not using the term as Paul is when he discusses the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us. Words often have multiple meanings, and this is the case in this passage. James uses the example of our father Abraham, who in obedience offered up Isaac. This obedient act (Gen. 22) occurred many years after Abraham’s gospel justification (Gen. 15). The offering up of Isaac was further proof of Abraham’s saving faith. It “showed” his faith, and by this obedience his faith in God is justified in the eyes of man. But in the eyes of God, Abraham was justified when he first believed God.
I think that this explains James, without denying that we are justified by faith, apart from the works of the law. “This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:2-3).
Here is a link to Ligonier and R. C. Sproul on James 2:24