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Why James Says Faith Without Works Is Dead

I recently gave talk on salvation in which I cited James 2:24 (“You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone”) to substantiate the Catholic claim that works are necessary for the ongoing and future dimensions of salvation.

During the question-and-answer session, a young man asked me about a common Protestant objection that attempts to undermine that verse. It asserts that James was not speaking of being justified in the sight of God, but rather in the eyes of men. In other words, our works prove to men that our claim to faith is genuine. James 2:18 is often used as a supporting text: “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.”

Since the justification that James speaks of is in the sight of men and not of God, Protestants say, James 2:24 is no evidence that works are necessary for eternal salvation. 

What are we to make of this challenge? Let’s take a look.

A salvific context

The first problem with this objection is that it fails to consider the context in which James places his teaching about works. James 2:14 sets it up: “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him?” (emphasis added).

The context doesn’t suggest that James is speaking of salvation in a temporal sense. He doesn’t mention being saved from physical enemies, or of our salvation being confirmed in the sight of men. He is speaking of the actual gift of salvation that God grants us. And there are a few reasons to believe this.

First, James tells us that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (v.17). Notice that James doesn’t say “dead in the sight of men.” He says faith itself is dead. In fact, he makes the point vividly by comparing it to a corpse: “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead” (v.26).

If James meant that our works merely justify us is in the sight of men, then our lack of works would have no negative effect on our faith itself. Our faith would only seem dead in the sight of men. But that would run contrary to what James actually tells us. Moreover, it would make the parallel to a body without the spirit unintelligible. In what sense can the absence of the spirit have no negative effect on the body?

Also, the three other times when James uses the word save (Gk. sozo) in his epistle, he uses it in reference to the salvation that God grants our souls (James 1:21; 4:12; 5:20). In light of such context, it’s reasonable to conclude that James is using the word in the same way in James 2:14.

Finally, it’s interesting to note that the type of works that James lists as necessary for having a saving faith (clothing the naked and feeding the hungry, v.15) are the same type of works that Jesus says will merit eternal life: “[I]nherit the kingdom prepared for you…for I was hungry and you gave me food…I was naked and you clothed me” (Matt. 25:35-36).

It’s not unreasonable to conclude that James had this teaching in mind when he wrote of the corporal works of mercy (2:15). And if so, then the justification he has in mind is not one that is relative to the sight of men, but one that is wrought by God.

The exemplary case of father Abraham

The claim that James is speaking of justification merely in the sight of men also fails because it doesn’t jibe with his mention of Abraham’s offering of Isaac as an exemplary case of justification by works (James 2:21-23). There was no one around with Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah for Abraham to be justified in the sight of! (Neither James nor the author of Genesis gives us any indication that Abraham was justified in the sight of Isaac.)

Perhaps a Protestant might respond that Abraham is justified in our sight. After describing Abraham’s offering of Isaac, James begins his concluding sentence about Abraham’s faith with “you see”: “You see that faith was active along with his works” (v.22; emphasis added). Perhaps James is saying that Abraham’s offering of Isaac confirms for us that he had faith—not that his works justified him in the sight of God. 

The problem with this is that James explicitly teaches that Abraham’s faith was made “complete” by offering Isaac (v.22). The Greek word here, eteleiothe, means “to be made perfect.” How can Abraham’s faith be made perfect if he is merely justified in the sight of men? If Abraham’s work of offering Isaac merely confirmed for us that he had faith, then Abraham’s work would have no effect whatsoever upon his faith, still less make it “complete.” But this contradicts what James teaches in verse twenty-two.

Furthermore, James’s emphasis on Abraham’s faith being made perfect indicates that it’s the same faith that justified him when he first believed (Gen. 15:6). And since his initial faith justified him in the sight of God, it follows that his “completed” faith (his faith made perfect) does so as well.

Abraham’s justification in the sight of God is further confirmed by Abraham being called “the friend of God” as a result of his obedient action. For James, Abraham’s offering of Isaac set off a chain reaction. His faith was “completed by his works” (v.22a), the “scripture was fulfilled” whereby Abraham was reckoned as righteous (v.22b), and he was called “the friend of God” (v.23).

We know that God was the one valuing what was done because after the angel intervenes and stops Abraham from killing Isaac, God says, “[F]or now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Gen. 22:12). God valued what Abraham had done and thus Abraham stood justified in God’s sight. God reiterated his approval of Abraham in Isaiah 41:8 when he called Abraham “my friend” (emphasis added). 

So, if Abraham was justified in the sight of God by offering Isaac, and the justification by works that James speaks of is like Abraham’s justification, it follows that justification by works is a justification in the sight of God. 

Our Protestants friends are correct in saying that our good works will prove our faith genuine in the eyes of men (see James 2:18). But it doesn’t do justice to James’s teaching for them to stop at this point. There is more to the story.

The main point for James is that our works “complete” our faith and keep it alive. And inasmuch as our works are necessary for a living faith, they are necessary for keeping us in a saving relationship with God. This is why James can write, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

A Catholic, therefore, is justified in his appeal to James 2:24 in support of his belief that works are necessary for salvation!

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