Did Saint James Teach Justification by Faith Alone?

Saint James the ApostleA Summary of Saint James’s Teaching on Justification:

1. Protestants have devised many and varied explanations to neutralize the clear and unambiguous statement in James 2:24 that ‘man is justified by works and not by faith alone.’ Each of these explanations concludes that James is not teaching that man is justified by works in the same sense that Paul says man is justified by faith. Puzzled by James’s language, Martin Luther even concluded that the epistle of James was a spurious book and should not be canonically authoritative New Testament teaching.

2. Countering the Protestant explanation of the epistle of James which states that James means that ‘men’ witness Abraham’s works, the Genesis text (Genesis 22) does not include any men as witness to Abraham’s works, but only God himself.

3. Countering the Protestant explanation of James which holds that the word ‘justified’ as James uses the term refers to a ‘vindication,’ rather than to a salvific justification, as Paul uses the term, are the following arguments:

(a) If James were teaching a concept of ‘vindication,’ he would have said, with the proper Greek work, ‘you see, a person is vindicated by works.’ Moreover, since James adds the clause ‘and not by faith alone’ we know that he is correcting a false notion concerning the solitude of faith in justification, not suggesting that Abraham was vindicated by works.

(b) If James were attempting to teach a vindication of Abraham, the specific argumentation he used would make sense only if James’s opponents had claimed that Abraham was ‘vindicated by faith alone.’ In other words, if the vindication hypothesis were true, syntactical requirements would have forced James to use the meaning of ‘vindicated’ in the first part of his argument (2:20-21) in order also to use it in the latter part (2:24). Since the grammatical structure of the verse would then require that the phrase ‘not by faith alone’ have its referent in the phrase ‘is vindicated,’ this would force the meaning of the verse to be, ‘a person is vindicated…not by faith alone’ — a meaning that has no relevance to James’s discussion.

(c) The New Testament does not use the word ‘justified’ in the sense of vindicated in contexts which are soteriological, i.e., contexts which discuss salvation or damnation. Moreover, such passages as Matthew 11:19 where one could plausibly interpret the Greek would dikaioo as referring to a vindication do so only in a metaphorical sense; therefore they do not use dikaioo in the same way that James, and even Paul, use the term, which is historical and literal.

(d) James’s discussion of the events surrounding the justification of Rahab preclude assigning the meaning of ‘vindicated’ to the word justified. Rahab’s justification, as described in James 2:25, is a salvific justification, not a vindication, yet James specifies that Rahab was justified ‘in the same way’ that Abraham was justified. Therefore, one cannot understand Abraham’s justification as a vindication.

(e) Since James and Paul use the same Greek noun dikaiosune (‘righteous’) in reference to Abraham, and interpret the word in the same way (cf., Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:3, James 2:23), it would be totally incongruous for one of them to use a different meaning of its verbal cognate dikaioo in reference to Abraham.

(f) The Protestant position assumes that Abraham’s justification is a once-for-all event. James’s all important question ‘Can faith save him?’ (2:14), however, includes Abraham within its purview. Hence we must conclude that if Abraham’s works were not of the quality that James prescribes in the context (2:15), then Abraham would not be justified. Abraham could not be justified in a ‘once-for-all’ event in Genesis 15:6 and at the same time have that justification put in jeopardy by disobedience to James’s requirement of works for justification. If this could happen, the question in 2:14 would have no meaning.

4. Abraham’s acts in Genesis 12, 15, and 22 were acts of faith and works. We should not misconstrue Paul’s stress on Abraham’s faith in his view of Genesis 15:6 to say that Abraham performed no works of loving obedience to God at this time or prior, nor should we misconstrue James’s view of works in Genesis 22 to say that Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac was not a supreme act of faith. Similarly, Abraham’s departure from this homeland in Genesis 12 also couples his faith and works in regard to justification. Throughout his life, in the periods recorded in Genesis 13-14, 16-21, and 23-25 which are between the times of his recorded faith and obedience in the New Testament, Abraham continued to live in faith and obedience, with only what we may call minor lapses along the way. Genesis 22’s importance is its detailing of Abraham’s quintessential act of the faith-and-works which allowed God to swear an oath of blessing to him and for all his future descendants. Abraham’s act in Genesis 22, not Genesis 15:6, was the most important act in Abraham’s life. The act in Genesis 22 was just as much a crediting of righteousness to Abraham as that in Genesis 15:6.

5. The entire context of the book of James concerns what one must do to be saved. He concentrates on obedience to the law as the means of salvation, and judgment for those who disobey the law.

6. James includes sins of commission as well as omission in his warning against disobedience to the law. The supreme law, or ‘royal law,’ that James has in view is the law of love.

7. James assumes that the audience to whom he writes already has faith in God. The main question that James poses to them is whether they have added works to their faith. James does not suggest that works will immediately or inevitably flow from one who has faith, even though he may have a greater disposition towards good works once he has faith. James teaches that one who has faith must make a daily, conscious decision to do good works, just as he must decide each day to refrain from sin. In fact, if he chooses not to do good works when the opportunity raises, he has sinned (James 4:17).

8. James does not support the Protestant concept that one can be saved as long as he has ‘saving faith.’ James is not so much attempting to qualify the faith needed for justification as he is saying that one must consciously add works to faith in order to be justified. A person, to be justified, must persevere to his last breath in this conscious decision to add works to faith.

9. One of the most heinous in the catalogue of sins that James specifies is sin of the tongue. What is ‘said’ to God and man is of the utmost importance to James and a major criterion on how the individual will be judged.

10. Both Paul and James speak of the works of love that one must add to his faith in order to be justified.

11. Like Paul, James concludes that if one chooses the system of law and desires God to evaluate him on that basis without the benefit of grace, he must then obey the whole law without fault. For one fault, the law will utterly condemn him.

– Robert Sungenis, Not by Faith Alone


– Lucas G. Westman


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