SALVATION BY GRACE ALONE THROUGH FAITH ALONE: What about James 2:24?

SALVATION BY GRACE ALONE THROUGH FAITH ALONE: What about James 2:24?

© 2019, by John Tors. All Rights Reserved.

Introduction

 [N.B. READ THE FOOTNOTES, FOLKS.  THEY ARE IMPORTANT!]

I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel,which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:6-9) 

There is only one true Gospel, the Gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and this is the only Gospel that brings salvation.  This is made abundantly clear in the Epistle to the Galatians, in which Paul responds to false teachers who insist that a work is necessary for salvation.  Paul calls this “a different gospel, which is not another” (i.e. a false gospel that is not a gospel at all).  While the particular work required in this case was circumcision, Paul responded,

This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of law, or by the hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh? (Galatians 3:2-3).

Significantly, Paul does not even mention circumcision per se, but points out that the Christian life begins and is completed by faith, not by works.

That salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone is made clear by Jesus Himself, in John 3:16-18:

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (John 3:16-18)

Here, Jesus states it both ways.  First, He states that whoever believes (literally: “the one believing”) will not perish but have everlasting life and that the one believing in Him is not condemned.  Any claim, then, that someone who believes in Jesus but is not doing works is not saved flatly contradicts Jesus Himself.

Second, Jesus goes on to say that the unbeliever is condemned already.  Why?  Not because he has failed to do required work but “because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”  Thus, the matter is settled; salvation is sola fide, by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.


FOR A DETAILED DISCUSSION OF THIS ISSUE, SEE OUR COMPANION ARTICLE “SALVIFIC BELIEFS: SALVATION BY GRACE ALONE THROUGH FAITH ALONE”.[1]


The Problem

The fact that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone means that we have no need of any human intermediary but have direct access to God through our great High Priest Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1-2; Ephesians 2:18, 3:10-12; Hebrews 4:14-16).

This is a very inconvenient fact for those who wish to use religion to gain power over people, for if people have direct access to God through Christ so that no other human is necessary for our salvation, then no human church leader can gain ultimate power over them.  Therefore, for those who wish to gain such power, it is essential to alter the Gospel to insert the necessity for works mediated by church leaders for salvation, for if one believes that the church leaders stand between him and God, between him and eternal life, then the church leaders will have complete power over him.  Tragically, this altered gospel they present is “a different gospel and not another” (Galatians 1:6-9) and one in which there is no salvation for anyone.

It is thus that the “Catholic” churches (Roman Catholic and Orthodox) came into being.  The Roman Catholic church (in common with Orthodoxy) developed an elaborate system of works that were necessary for salvation, particularly sacraments.  According to their official Catechism,

The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation … (CCC 1129)[2]

… Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life. (CCC 2020)

Professing to be Christian, however, they must appear to be in agreement with the Bible so they must maintain that the Bible teaches that works are needed for salvation, and they do adduce a number of passages in support of their claim.  However, but all but one of them patently teaches no such thing, as is obvious from the context and from proper exegesis of the passages.[3]

There is one passage, however, that has given evangelicals trouble: James 2:24, which reads, in context:

What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. (James 2:14-26)

Prima facie, James 2:24 seems to deny that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.  In fact, Roman Catholic apologists like to crow, “Did you know that there is only one passage in the Bible that says ‘faith alone,’ and that one passage says “NOT by faith alone”![4]

Now, if this passage does teach that works are needed for salvation, it would certainly be problematic as it would not, of course, make all of the passages teaching salvation by faith alone disappear (and attempting to nullify all of those passages with an appeal to James 2:24 would be setting Scripture against itself, which is certainly unacceptable, as Jesus Himself points out in Matthew 12:25).  The Roman Catholic view would still not be correct, but if their understanding of James 2:24 is correct, it would mean that the Bible contradicts itself.  It behooves us, therefore, to study this passage carefully.

The Evangelical Response

When faced with James 2:24, evangelical apologists almost always resort to one of two gambits.  The first is to claim that the justification of which James is speaking is justification before men, i.e. proving to people that we have faith, and not the justification from sins that results in salvation.  Typical of this approach is Geisler and Howe’s comment:

Paul is speaking about justification before God, while James is talking about justification before humans.  This is indicated by the fact that James stressed that we should “show” (2:18) our faith.  It must be something that can be seen by others in “works” (2:18-20).  Further, James acknowledged that Abraham was justified before God by faith, not works, when he said, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to//him for righteousness” (2:20).  When he adds that Abraham was “justified by works” (v. 21), he is speaking of what Abraham did that could be seen by people, namely, offer his son Isaac on the altar (2:21-22).  Further, while Paul is stressing the root of justification (faith), James is stressing the fruit of justification (works).[5]

This proposal is a nonstarter.  James begins the passage by saying, “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?” (James 2:14) so clearly the question is whether one can be saved by faith without works, and not about showing men that one has faith.  This fact is already enough to knock Geisler and Howe’s gambit into a cocked hat, but there is more.  First, the Bible makes it clear that some believers’ good works are not, in fact, seen by people.[6]  Second, if faith with no works at all cannot save, that means that to be saved one must do some works, and that makes works necessary for salvation – the very view that Geisler and Howe deny.  So this gambit is an utter failure.

The second gambit to which evangelical apologists resort when faced with James 2:24 is to claim that the passage is speaking of people who say they have faith but do not actually have faith.  William MacDonald puts it this way:

James insists that a faith that does not result in good works cannot save.  There are two keys which greatly help in the understanding of this verse.  First of all, James does not say “What does it profit … though a man has faith …”  Rather he says, What does it profit … if someone says he has faith.  In other words, it is not a question of a man who truly has faith, and yet is not saved.  James is describing the man who has nothing but a profession of faith.  He says he has faith, but there is nothing about his life that indicates it.  The second helpful key is brought in the NASB.  There, the verse closes with the question “Can that faith save him?”  In other words, can that kind of faith save?  If it be asked what kind of faith James is referring to, the answer is found in the first part of the verse.  He is speaking about a say-so faith that is not backed up by good works.  Such a faith is worthless.  It is all words, and nothing else … A faith without works is not real faith at all.[7]

This gambit, too, is a nonstarter.  Again, James begins the passage by saying, “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?” (James 2:14) so clearly the question is whether one can be saved by faith without works; it is not about any particular “type” of faith.  In fact, the question would not even apply to one who does not have genuine faith, so this gambit is even more obviously vacuous than the previous one.

It seems safe to say that the gambits offered by evangelical apologists in response to the seeming challenge posed by James 2:24 are inadequate.  We need to look more carefully.

The Solution

There are two elements in these chapters that are so incongruous that they should draw the attention of every exegete, yet somehow everyone seems to miss them.  The first is this: James and Paul both appeal to the same example, Abraham, apparently to prove opposite claims: Paul says that Abraham was saved by faith alone, while James says that Abraham was saved by faith and works.

The second element is even more glaring (and even more completely overlooked), and it is this: If we were to enumerate good works, the sort of works that might be required of us, we would list such things as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and sheltering the homeless.[8]  Yet James uses no such works as examples; the two examples of salvific works[9] are (1) nearly murdering one’s son, and (2) betraying one’s people to extermination!  Think about it; these are not what we would think of as good works, let alone salvific works.[10]  If anything, we would think they are quite the opposite.  Clearly, therefore, a superficial reading of this passage will not yield the proper understanding.

Let us look at the first point more closely.  Paul makes it unquestionably clear that salvation is by faith alone; for example, he writes

What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” 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, just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works:

“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
And whose sins are covered;
Blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin.” (Romans 4:1-8)

This passage makes it clear that justification is by faith and for those who do no works: “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness“.  Paul drives the point home, saying that “God imputes righteousness apart from works (χωρὶς ἔργων: chōris ergōn).”  χωρὶς means “without making use of something, without exercising or practicing something … without possessing something, apart from the presence of something, … Without relation to or connection with something, independently of something, … apart from,”[11] the “something” in this case being the ergōn i.e. the works.  Inarguably, then, any sort of attempt to include works and make them necessary for salvation is categorically ruled out.

Paul drives the point home still further, saying,

And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work. (Romans 11:6).

Grace loses its meaning, as does work, if salvation requires any work.

But how can Paul’s teaching that Abraham was justified by faith, because he believed, apart from works, be reconciled with James’ statements, viz.

Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. (James 2:21-24)

Prima facie, these two teachings seem irreconcilable, and the conundrum only grows when we see both writers quoting the same Old Testament passage, Genesis 15:6, to support their views!  And yet these two seemingly opposite teachings dovetail perfectly – once we remember that the New Testament was not written in English but in Koine Greek.

What Paul actually wrote is “τῷ δὲ μὴ ἐργαζομένῳ πιστεύοντι δὲ ἐπὶ τὸν δικαιοῦντα τὸν ἀσεβῆ λογίζεται ἡ πίστις αὐτοῦ εἰς δικαιοσύνην” (Romans 4:5).

What James actually wrote is “ὁρᾶτε τοίνυν ὅτι ἐξ ἔργων δικαιοῦται ἄνθρωπος καὶ οὐκ ἐκ πίστεως μόνον” (James 2:24).

The key word here is the noun πίστις (pistis) and its verb form πιστεύω (pisteuō).[12]  Like so many words in so many languages, πίστις has more than one meaning, so it is incumbent on us to ask whether Paul and James are using the word to mean the same thing.  Now, πίστις can mean either “faith” (trust, confidence, commitment) or simple intellectual belief (i.e. believing that a fact is true without it calling for any sort of commitment or lifestyle decision, such as believing that the Earth is round and not flat).[13]  Unlike English, Greek does not have separate words for these two concepts.

Now, when Paul uses the words πίστις or πιστεύω, he almost always uses them in the first sense, though in 1 Corinthians 11:18 he uses πιστεύω in the second way (“For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it.”).[14]

The crucial question then is how James uses these terms.  After reading through thirteen letters by Paul we are so used to taking πίστις as “faith” that we tend do so when we come to James’ short epistle, and this is reflected in the English translations.  But it is an error to make such an assumption; we must look at James’ own writing to see how he is using the term, and for this, James 2:19, in the heart of the passage under discussion, is the linchpin.  James writes:

You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!

σὺ πιστεύεις ὅτι ὁ θεός εἷς ἐστιν καλῶς ποιεῖς καὶ τὰ δαιμόνια πιστεύουσιν καὶ φρίσσουσιν

In this verse, beyond any dispute James is using πιστεύω in the second way, to refer to mere intellectual belief; this must be so, as demons do know intellectually who Jesus is (e.g. Mark 3:11, Luke 4:41) but they assuredly do not put their faith in Him.  And James indicates that the πίστις of his target audience for this passage is like that: mere intellectual belief.

Once we understand this, all else falls into place.  James is approving the intellectual assent to the facts about Jesus that his audience has, but is telling them that that is not enough; something more is needed, and he goes on to explain what is needed.  And suddenly, the examples he chose of “works,” which had seemed so perplexing as they seem to be radically different from what we would consider to be good works, make perfect sense.

Consider James’ example of Rahab the harlot, and let us look at the detailed account in Joshua 2 to see what was happening.

Now before they lay down, she came up to them on the roof, and said to the men: “I know that the LORD has given you the land, that the terror of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land are fainthearted because of you. For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were on the other side of the Jordan, Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. And as soon as we heard these things, our hearts melted; neither did there remain any more courage in anyone because of you, for the LORD your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath. Now therefore, I beg you, swear to me by the LORD, since I have shown you kindness, that you also will show kindness to my father’s house, and give me a true token, and spare my father, my mother, my brothers, my sisters, and all that they have, and deliver our lives from death.” (Joshua 2:8-13)

What we see here is that Rahab and her people knew about the Lord God of Israel and about His power.  They had intellectual knowledge of facts about Him and His deeds, but as long as He was “out there,” on the other side of the Jordan, Rahab’s people could ignore those facts and continue to worship their own gods.  But now, Rahab knew that the Lord God of Israel was coming, and now the status quo could no longer hold.  Now she had to make a choice; she had to choose between her gods and the Lord God of Israel, and that required her to make an act of commitment: hand over the spies to her people, thus choosing her own gods, or rescue them and see her people destroyed,[15] thus choose the Lord God of Israel.  Simple intellectual knowledge of facts would not suffice; she had to commit, via an act, to one or the other.

And that, folks, is what James is telling his target audience in 2:14-26; you have intellectual belief in Jesus, but it is not enough.  You need an act of commitment to Him, so that your belief becomes actual faith.

A good illustration of what this means is found in an incident in the career of Charles Blondin, the famous tightrope walker.  The incident unfolded somewhat like this:

Blondin specialized in crossing a tightrope over Niagara Falls, doing various stunts in the process as large audiences watched.

One time, he asked the assembled crowd, “Who believes I can cross the falls without a balancing pole?”  The crowd, led by a particularly enthusiastic man in the front row who was a great fan of Blondin, roared their belief that he could so, and he then did it successfully.

Next, he had a volunteer blindfold him and asked, “Who believes I can cross the falls blindfolded?”  The enthusiastic man in the front row was even louder in his affirmation that Blondin could perform the stunt.  And he did it.

Then Blondin took out a wheelbarrow and put its front wheel on the tightrope and asked, “Who believes I can cross the falls while pushing a man in a wheelbarrow across with me?”  The enthusiastic man was practically beside himself now, screaming, “I believe you can do it!”  Blondin fixed the enthusiastic man with a knowing look and, pointing at the wheelbarrow, said to the man, “Then climb in, sir.  Climb in and I will push you across with me.”[16]

James, then, is calling his audience to move beyond simple intellectual belief in Christ to true commitment to Him.  We see this same thing in the other example adduced by James: Abraham.  Interestingly, James writes

Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. (James 2:21-23)

What is interesting here is that James cites Abraham’s offering of Isaac and avows that the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness,” yet Genesis 15:6, which he quotes here, was said before Abraham offered up Isaac.[17]  Abraham’s first recorded act of commitment to God was to leave his homeland and go to the land God would show him (Genesis 12:1-4, Hebrews 11:8-10).  The sacrifice of Isaac came later.  Having received the promised heir, Isaac could conceivably be the one thing Abraham would value ahead of God, but by willingly offering him up, Abraham made another act of commitment, again indicating his faith, not mere belief, in God:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, “In Isaac your seed shall be called,” concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense. (Hebrews 11:17-19)

So, then, the supposed contradiction between Paul and James is shown to be no contradiction at all:

Paul teaches that salvation is by πίστις = faith

James teaches that salvation is by πίστις (intellectual belief) + ergōn (act(s) of commitment) = faith

James is calling for commitment to their intellectual belief so that their belief becomes saving faith, which is the very thing that Paul identifies as the sole requirement for salvation.  And, as we would expect, this aligns perfectly with what Jesus Himself taught.  In John 6:28-29, He was asked specifically about what works people needed to do to be saved.  Did He answer that good works (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc.) were required?  Or sacraments?  No, this is how He answered:

Then they said to Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?”

Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.” (John 6:28-29)

Conclusion

The consistent teaching of the New Testament is that salvation is a gift of God, by His grace alone, which we receive by faith alone in Christ alone.  There are copious passages teaching this.  Yet those who wish to use Christianity to gain power over people must teach otherwise, and so claim that works are necessary for salvation.  If the New Testament taught such a thing, it would be hopelessly internally contradictory and could not be followed.

However, those who teach such things are categorically unable to show this by proper exegesis of Scripture.  The only passage, in fact, that they are able to adduce to this affect that has been problematic for evangelicals is James 2:24.  The answers they have offered are less than compelling, and so Catholic apologists are able to crow, “Did you know that there is only one passage in the Bible that says ‘faith alone,’ and that one passage says “NOT by faith alone”!

Such crowing, however, can no longer be done.  As we have demonstrated, careful exegesis of the text, and in particular the original Greek text, shows that James is not, in fact, saying, “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only,” but that a man is justified by works (acts of commitment), and not by intellectual belief alone.  Commitment to Christ (faith) is all that is required or allowed for salvation, and it is high time to stop claiming that James 2:24 teaches anything other than this.


Footnotes

[1] Tors, John. “Salvific Beliefs: Salvation by Grace Alone through Faith Alone” at https://truthinmydays.com/salvific-beliefs-salvation-by-grace-alone-through-faith-alone/.

[2] From Catechism of the Catholic Church Latin text © Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Citta del Vaticano, 1993; English text © United States Catholic Conference, Inc. 1997.  Taken from the edition published by Doubleday.

[3] For example, some Roman Catholic apologists point to Romans 2:5b-10, which reads, “God, who ‘will render to each one according to his deeds’: eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality;  but to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness—indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek; but glory, honor, and peace to everyone who works what is good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek,” and claim that this means salvation can be gained via works.  (The fact that this would not complement faith but obviate the need for it seems lost on them).  What they are missing is that this is part of Paul’s argument in which he concludes that no one, in fact, does this: “Therefore by the deeds of law no flesh will be justified in His sight … But now the righteousness of God apart from law is revealed … even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:20a, 21a, 22-24).  Here, too, salvation by grace alone through faith alone is being taught.

[4] When he does this, the Roman Catholic apologist is choosing to ignore the fact that a doctrine can be taught in Scripture without being explicitly stated; he certainly believes in the doctrine of the Trinity, though there is no one passage that explicitly states it.  And the Bible certainly does teach salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone (see Tors, f.n. 1)

[5] Geisler, Norman L. and Thomas Howe. The Big Book of Bible Difficulties: Clear and Concise Answers from Genesis to Revelation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1992. (pp. 527-528).

[6] “Some men’s sins are clearly evident, preceding them to judgment, but those of some men follow later.  Likewise, the good works of some are clearly evident, and those that are otherwise cannot be hidden.” (1 Timothy 5:24-25)

[7] MacDonald, William. Believer’s Bible Commentary. Edited by Art Farstad. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995, p. 2228

[8] Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy insist that partaking of the sacraments is necessary good works.

[9] Works necessary for and meriting salvation.

[10] Earlier, James does write, “If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?” as an analogy; mere words to the hungry and naked is not actually feeding and clothing them, just as mere intellectual belief is not faith.  Such examples are conspicuously absent when James discusses the sort of works that are involved in actualizing belief.

[11] Baur-Danker-Arndt-Gingrich. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition. (BDAG), Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2000, p. 1095

[12] According to Balz and Schneider (p. 92), this “Noun and vb. occur 243 times each in the NT.  Neither occurs in 2-3 John.  Since John uses only the vb. and Colossians, Philemon, 2 Peter, and Revelation use only the noun, and since the same statement can often by expressed either by the vb. or the noun, the two words must be treated together.” (Balz, Horst and Gerhard Schneider. Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume 3. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993, p. 92. Bolding added.

[13] BDAG, pp. 816-820; Balz and Schneider, p. 92

[14] This second meaning occurs also in John 9:18 and Acts 9:26.

[15] Her decision was not heartless and self-serving, as it may seem at first blush; no doubt she understood that she could not, in fact, save her people; the people would be destroyed regardless of the choice she made, for they could not stand against the power of the Lord God of Israel.  The only question now was whether she and her family would be destroyed along with them.

[16] The actual words of the encounter have not, to my knowledge, been preserved.

[17] Specifically, this was said in response to Abraham believing God’s promise that he would have an heir; no actual act was involved at this time.

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