The epistle of James has always presented a thorn in the side of the Protestant Reformation. James 2.14-26 is often appealed to by Catholics in the theological disagreements with Protestantism as an example how the doctrine of justification by faith alone is wrong. There is certainly something of substance to this charge at some level, even though it doesn’t mean we should throw our Luther’s rediscovery of justification by faith entirely out. Martin Luther famously called James an “epistle of straw” in comparison to the Gospel of John and the letters of Paul, both of which emphasize faith/believe. Elsewhere in his preface to James and Judge, Luther said he did not consider the letter to have an apostolic authority. Luther describes the first reason he does not consider it to have an apostolic authority:
First, because, in direct opposition to St. Paul and all the rest of the Bible, it ascribes justification to works, and declares that Abraham was justified by his works when he offered up his son. St. Paul, on the contrary, in Romans 4 [:3], teaches that Abraham was justified without works, by his faith alone, the proof being in Genesis 15 [:6], which was before he sacrificed his son.
This is not to place to fully delve into Luther’s reasons against the canonicity of James as the other reason he offers is that Christ does not seem to take center place in the letter. However, that James would take such a strong position against the canon does behoove us to ask a question: if Luther saw James contradicting his doctrine of justification by faith, we either need to consider whether (1) that Luther was somehow in error, without immediately resorting to an all-or-nothing stance towards Luther that Catholic polemics encourages or (2) that the New Testament canon of the first few centuries somehow in error. As a Protestant who values the traditions of the Church, particularly the earliest traditions, the second option is untenable to me, leaving me with only the first option.
It is my opinion that Martin Luther right picked upon a theological seem in the Gospel of John and the Pauline epistles about faith in Christ that had not appropriately understood and appreciated. At the same time, Luther did not fully mine this seem out, but rather his theology became more of a reflection of his own struggles and journey rather than a deepening exegesis of the Scriptures. In part, though, Luther can be forgiven for this as he did not have access to all the extrabiblical sources and scholarly tools at our modern disposal to help us study with more linguistic and historical precision than Luther. Still, with good reasons from modern scholarship to challenge Luther’s interpretation of Paul, we can simultaneously appreciate Luther and continue what he started by mining more deeply into that seem, while also recognizing that Luther didn’t give us the full riches of what Paul, John, or James were saying about faith.
In order to do this, however, it requires us as Protestants to work against one of the dualism that has pervaded our theological consciousness: the antithesis we set between faith and works. In place of this, I would offer that for Paul and the Gospel of John, faith (1) sets the agenda for the type of works people do by learning from Christ and (2) provides the motivation for doing those specific works through the leading of the Spirit.
For instance, in Romans 4.4-5, the Protestant hermeneutics is habitually inclined to regard “the one who works” as somehow misguided and far from salvation, but the “the who trusts” as saved. However, there is nothing explicit that Paul says that suggests that. That is the way we read the antithesis and a specific type of theological polemic into Paul that provides that. However, if we should prioritize Paul’s whole letter in interpreting the meanings of the parts, ot seems more appropriate to connect the one who works in Romans 4.4 with the people who stand at judgment in Romans 2.6-11, rather than impute a negative characterization on them.
Now, there does seem to be a mild contrast between “the one who works” and “the one who trusts” in Romans 4.4-5, suggested by the δὲ at the beginning of vs. 5. If the contrast is not between the “the one who works” as “unsaved” and “the one who trusts” as “saved,” what then is the contrast between the two? The best contrast to offer is one that connects what has been otherwise stated in the two: they describe two people with two different ways of life. The first one is the one works, who is accomplishing what is expected of them. The second one, however, is a person who is ungodly. Whereas some Jewish literature like the Wisdom of Solomon would ascribe to the ungodly an assured faith of God’s judgment and destruction, Paul says something different: it is through faith that this person can become justified just like Abraham was. The ungodly are justified by God also.
The significance of what Paul is doing is to say that before a person becomes faithful to God in what they do, they first must be recipients of God’s grace received through faith. That it always start with God, so that even when someone is justified by their works, they still can not boast before God (Rom. 4.2). Notice that Paul does not explicitly deny “justification by works,” but rather he questions the inference that “justified by works” leads to boasting. In other words, Paul is questing specific inferences based upon “justification by works,” and the primary inference is that the person is somehow worthy by their own nature as being a righteous person, something the Wisdom of Solomon does describe. The right inference for Paul is that before one ever works, God has been grace to the one has faith in Him.
It is for this reason that a diachronic understanding of faith is important to make sense of Romans 4. Paul is not describing “how does one get saved” but rather demonstrating the pattern of God’s grace and promises in the life of Abraham. Paul quotes from Genesis 15.6 to make the connection between faith and justification in Romans 4.3. However, Paul again quotes the same passage against in 4.22, after Abraham grew strong in faith and received what was promised from God. James quotes the same passage in James 2.23 after describing Abraham offering up Isaac on the altar. It seems, then, that this quote about justification was not used an understood only to refer to what happens at the moment when Abraham trusted God’s promises, but it seems that what is said in Genesis 15.6 sets the trajectory and agenda of Abraham’s life into the future, such that James will say that this Scripture was fulfilled with the offering of Isaac. Put simply, when Abraham believes God, God credits to Abraham a righteousness that will over the course of his life come to define his life, even if early on Abraham did some things that caused great pain and injustice, such as bearing a child through Hagar.
Thus, it seems that what Paul is getting at is that Abraham’s life was always lead by faith in God’s promises and it is this that directs the course of his life. He isn’t trying to set faith against works as if Abraham was justified even if he never did works. No. Rather, Abraham was brought into a whole new way of life because God first graciously made a promise to Abraham that Abraham trusted. Before Abraham was faithful in what he did, before he become “the one who works,” Abraham was “the one who trusted” in the promise of God.
This reading of Paul in Romans 4 can more readily brought into harmony with James 2.14-26. When Abraham offers up Isaac, God says to him “I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Gen. 22.12; NRSV) If we allow that justification (δικαιόω) is a description of one’s relational status with God that can be expressed through other language, then what God says to Abraham after offering up Isaac can be said to be “justification” language also. This seems to be what James is referring to when he said that Abraham was justified by works. Hence, when James says that Genesis 15.6 is fulfilled (ἐπληρώθη), it seems that James understands that Abraham’s initial justification by faith when God promised a son to Abraham sets the course of Abraham’s life in such a way that Abraham became justified by his works.
This diachronic reading of faith through the course of time allows us to resolve the tensions between Romans 4 and James 2 that Luther perceived. The problem for Luther is that even though he embraced a “diachronic” element to his understanding of faith in understanding that people change in coming to faith, he understood it as a “work of God” to change a person and not a human response to God’s revelation. By defining faith as a “work of God” rather than “a human response enabled and caused by God’s revelation,” Luther’s understanding of justification was contained to a singular, prototype event of having and coming to faith. Justification was understood synchronically as a specific even, even if faith itself was somewhat understood diachronically. As a consequence, Luther’s reading of Romans 4 did not allow for justification by faith to be the word of God over those who trust in Him that proleptically pronounces their future trajectory that would come to include justification by works. Synchronically understanding justification as a specific type of action of God that has the condition of faith lead to a perception of dissonance and contradiction with the idea of works also being a part of justification.
What Luther saw was important, but I would say he didn’t understand it perfectly. Faith is the very grounds by which our whole life, including our works, is formed, directed, and motivated. However, to dissociate works from faith would be like to dissociate the love between a dating or married couple and the things they do for each other. The love is expressed in what they say and do for each other, much as faith is expressed in how we acts in trusting obedience to God. However, love and faith have a way of “setting the agenda” of the relationship prior to anything that is done for each other. People can fall in love with one another before they have ever even dating and shared acts of love and affection with each other because they do perceive something in the other person that is good for them, even if that person has their own flaws and imperfections. Similarly, the ungodly and God can come to be in relationship through faith and grace because the ungodly trusts in the good promises of God made known in Jesus Christ, and God sees in their faith the basis of a relationship that will form them to be His people. In other words, while our faith in God does what our works can not do in the Christian life, works is not the antithesis of faith, but it is the means by which faith expresses itself and comes to fruition.
At this point, there is one thing that needs clarifying: what is meant by “works.” When we hear “works” in the Bible, we often hear some general sense of framework of morality and ethics that we are called to conform to. Our notion of “works” has been treated as if it is a set of rules/laws that dictate and govern what is good and bad.
There is some reason for this, as the Pharisees do approach this type of righteousness, where works one is to do is to be dutiful to all 613 commandments of Torah and all the traditions that have be derived from those commandments to apply to various facets and aspects of life. For the Pharisee, holiness is realized by applying the Torah to every aspect of life to the greatest extent that they can apply it.
Christ rejects this program of righteousness and holiness, however. For Jesus, the commandments are meant to serve human life, rather than human life trying to constantly subject itself to applications of the commandments in all sorts of various situations, regardless of the impact such applications could have. Take, for instance, Jesus calling it lawful to heal a person on the Sabbath. Jesus can call His yoke light now because He doesn’t expect His disciples to do what is good, but that He does not put upon them an onerous and increasingly abstruse system of works that they need to follow to be pure and faithful to God. Jesus simplifies the application of the commandments down to the goodness of life, ultimately rooted in the love of God, which leaves people the freedom to breathe and not experience the constant fear of judgment and anxiety. Jesus’ yoke is light, but not without weight, as Jesus does still expect people to follow His commandments to abide in His love.
So, when we understand the language of works in Paul and James’ letters, we need to understand there being different ways that “works” is used. It can be used to refer to works prescribed by the Torah and the traditions that are used to apply Torah. There is another way that works can be used: to describe those things that God Himself instructs people in. The works of faith is this second type: those who have faith in God do the specific things that God calls of them, including through the Spirit who leads them to understand the Torah as God intended it and brings to remembrance the teachings of Jesus.
We see this distinction between different understanding of works in Ephesians 2:8-10:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (NRSV)
Now, the prevailing Protestant hermeneutic often leads us to think works mentioned in v. 9 is the intended contrast with faith in v. 8. However, the emphasis for Paul in vs. 8a is on salvation by grace, which is a repetition of what he said in Ephesians 2.4. “Through faith” (διὰ πίστεως) refers to the instrumental means by which salvation is realized, but it does not describe the ultimately, efficient cause of salvation.
Furthermore, the neuter accusative τοῦτο in the phrase “this is not your from yourselves” (τοῦτο οὐκ ἐξ ὑμῶν) in vs. 8b would not usually be used to refer to the feminine noun πίστεως in vs. 8a. Nor does it directly refer to feminine noun χάριτί for grace, but likely refers to idea expressed in the whole phrase “by grace you have been saved” that has been stated two. So, when Paul describes this as “not from yourselves,” οὐκ ἐξ ὑμῶν is best taken to be the contrast with grace. Then, the phrase phrase οὐκ ἐξ ἔργων (“not from works”) in vs. 9 is best understood to be a further clarification of the relatively vague οὐκ ἐξ ὑμῶν based upon the repetition of οὐκ ἐξ. In this case, works is understand as a contrast to God’s grace in Ephesians 2.8-9, not human faith.
The meaning of ἔργων in vs. 9 without the presence of a modifying adjective is perhaps best understood by what is said in Ephesians 2.15, where Paul says that Christ has “set aside the Torah of commandments (observed) by opinions.” Here, Paul seems to be describing not the nullification of Torah in its entirety, but a particular way that the commands of Torah were being observed: through the series of human opinions (ἐν δόγμασιν) as to how to obey the commandments of Torah were to be obeyed. Unlike the more positive “goods works” (ἔργοις ἀγαθοῖς) in vs. 2.10, these works from humans opinions about the Torah’s commandments are simply described as works, without reference to their value when it comes to Jesus Christ and God’s will.
So, when Paul refers to the “good works” in 2.10, this is referring to a different types of works from those described in 2.9. It is the type of works that come from God and Christ Jesus, rather than human opinions about Torah. It is the type of works that God Himself has prepared (προητοίμασεν) rather than developed simply through human opinions.
With a diachronic understand of faith that leads to the emergence of righteous works, we can suggest that faith in God’s promises moves us and motivates us to allow God to set the agenda of what type of works we should be doing that is based upon what we see and known in Jesus Christ, which the Spirit leads us to remember, comprehend, and put into practices. The “good works” in Ephesians 2.10 is different from the “works” of 2.9, describing the type of works believers do when their life is teleologically defined by Jesus Christ, with whom we are proleptically seated with in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2.6). By faith in Christ, the believer’s sense of what God wants from us is defined by Christ.
In conclusion, while there is something important in what Luther discovered about faith for the Christian life and found a seem in the New Testament Scriptures that had been left relatively unmined, Luther didn’t fully mine it in an exegetical sense, even as he robustly developed the importance of faith theologically. The end result is a problematic hermeneutical and theological assumption that faith and works are presented as an overarching antithesis and contrast for understanding Paul. While the faith of Jesus Christ and the works of the Torah are certainly contrasted by Paul, this is a much more specific antithesis between the life of faith and righteousness defined by Jesus Christ as the revelation of God’s righteousness and the praxis that emerged from the applications of the Torah to various aspects of life beyond what the commandments originally referred to.
The implicit assumptions of the contrast between faith and works in general has the effect of inculcating a specific sense of soteriology, Christology, Pneumatology, and even ecclesiology and eschatology that ends up having problems fitting with the whole of the New Testament together, and even fitting the Old Testament and the New Testament together. This is what the Catholic employment of James 2 against Protestantism demonstrates. Meanwhile, while a diachronic understanding of faith and justification that allows for the integration of faith and works may have its own places where it has trouble to make sense of certain passages of Scripture, it certainly is much more coherent way to understand Romans 4 and James 2 that can also have benefits understanding the rest of the Pauline corpus, such as Ephesians 2. It is the way I as a Protestant can continue the appreciate what Luther brought to the table, along with John Wesley who Luther influenced, but at the same time, recognize that there is some important exegetical work that is needed to bring our theology and practice into a closer engagement with the faith in Christ as expressed in the Scriptures.