“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
– James 2:24 –
A straightforward reading of James 2:24 refutes the Protestant suggestion of justification by faith alone. It is because of this implication that Protestants will diligently work to reinterpret this passage in order to defend their revolutionary doctrine of Sola Fide, or justification by faith alone. Instead of submitting to the authority of Scripture, and recognize that Christians are justified by faith and works, they instead argue that faith which alone justifies merely produces works, and that works are evidence of one’s faith. However, closer examination of this passage vindicates the orthodox Catholic understanding while simultaneously demonstrating the Protestant reading to be incorrect.
James 2:24 begins with the simple phrase “A person (literally: man) is justified”, where ‘a person’ or ‘man’ is the subject of the passive verb “to justify”. In the passive voice, the subject is being acted upon by the verb and the object, rather than the one doing the acting in the sense of the verb as in the active voice. In this case, the object is not present, but the context can be immediately understood when using the rest of the sentence. So far, the phrase says that we are being justified by something/someone. The rest of the verbal clause is the prepositional phrase “ἐξ ἔργων” which means “by works/deeds”. The word “ἔργων” (works/deeds) is in the genitive case, which connects it to another element in the sentence and limits it connection. For example, the phrase “land of Egypt” in Greek would have “Egypt” in the genitive case, limiting the word “land”, which has a broad sense, to merely the geographic location known as Egypt.
It becomes clear that “ἐξ ἔργων” (by works) does not modify the noun “ἄνθρωπος” (a person), due to the use of the exact same construction in the next clause “καὶ οὐκ ἐκ πίστεως μόνον1” (and not only by faith). If the syntax were a noun-genitive noun construction (N-Ng), then the passage would read “a person of works is justified, and not only (a person) of faith”. The implication of this gloss being that one could be justified without faith, which goes against the context of what James is saying in 2nd chapter of his epistle.
However, since “ἐξ ἔργων” is not related to the noun “ἄνθρωπος”, this genitive must then be adverbial, and limits the verb (adverb is Latin for “to the verb”), rather than a noun or substantive2. The only adverbial use of the genitive that makes sense in this case is the genitive of means, which “indicates the means or instrumentality by which the verbal action (implicit in the head noun [or adjective] or explicit in the verb) is accomplished. It answers the question, ‘How?’”3 In this instance, it answers the question “how” in reference to justification, namely, how one is justified. Some other examples of this usage of the genitive include: “God is not tempted by evil” (James 1:13), where evil is the would-be means by which God is not tempted. “Righteousness by [means of] faith” (Romans 4:11), where faith is the means by which one can be considered righteous. Arguably the best example for this is “since God is one, who will justify those who are circumcised by faith…” (Romans 3:30, LEB), faith being the instrument of justification in this case. Looking at these examples of the genitive of means, can it be consistently argued that “works result from justification” to these other examples? Is evil the result of God not being tempted? Is faith a result of righteousness or being justified? It would seem, then, that this reading applied to passages of the exact same construction would totally undermine the doctrine of Sola Fide if applying the same exegetical reasoning by Protestants to James 2:24, since faith is the instrument of justification and not the result of it.
The irony here is palpable when considering the proof texts Protestants will utilize to say we are justified by faith alone, meaning that the instrument of justification is faith. This is quite problematic for the Protestant reading of this passage because it is an attempt to refute the straightforward reading of James 2, which uses the exact same grammatical construction except the instrument of justification is works, and not faith alone.
This brings me to my last point, where Protestants often try to attempt to project a reading of James 2:24 on to Catholics that is not held to by leaving out the word ‘alone’. They will attempt to argue that Catholics are claiming James 2:24 says “Man is justified by works and not by faith”, which is not at all what Catholics believe.
The Council of Trent infallibly declares:
“Canon i. If any one shall say, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the strength of human nature, or through the teaching of the law, without the divine grace through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema.
Canon ii. If any one shall say, that the divine grace through Jesus Christ is given only unto this, that man may more easily be able to live justly, and to merit eternal life, as if, by free will without grace, he were able [to do] both, though hardly and with difficulty; let him be anathema.
Canon iii. If any one shall say, that without the preventing inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and his help, man can believe, hope, love, or be penitent, as he ought, so that the grace of justification may be conferred upon him; let him be anathema.4” (Session 6, On Justification)
To project this view on Catholics is simply incorrect and entirely misleading. However misleading this argument might be, it is a necessary maneuver in order to cast a rhetorical fog over the teachings of Holy Scripture regarding our justification by faith and works. In order to support their novel teaching of Sola Fide, Protestants will exegetically add the word ‘alone’ to the book of Romans and negate the word ‘alone’ from the book of James. These are not admirable tactics coming from those claiming to be champions of biblical authority. In order to escape the implications James 2:24 has on their false doctrine, Protestants often go to other passages of scripture that say we are justified by faith (without the word ‘alone’), and then incorrectly claim that Catholics do not believe that faith plays an important role in justification, which the above cited canons from the Council of Trent show to be totally erroneous.
Following this analysis, it is becomes apparent that the historic, traditional, and Catholic reading of James 2:24 is vindicated against the doctrinal novelty of Sola Fide invented by the heresiarchs of the so called “reformation.”
– Tyson Carter
2 It could theoretically be ablatival, but the ablatival uses that are possible with the preposition ἐκ (genitive of source and separation) can easily be excluded on their own merits for being a completely incoherent translation. Support for this can also be shown by the fact that it is possible for a passive verb to be modified by an ἐκ + gen., expressing the impersonal means by which the verbal action is carried out on the subject.
3 Wallace, D. (1996). Greek Grammar Beyond The Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (p. 125). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.