Written by our Worship leader, Sean Cowden…
It is that time of year again in which we Reformed folk celebrate the fresh light shed on the gospel in the early 16th century. It is only two more years until the 500th anniversary of Luther’s nailing of the 95 theses, which challenged contemporary practices of the Roman church. Consequently, it is time for me to write my annual Reformation-related blog post for the church.
Two years ago, I wrote about implications of the Reformation for church unity and argued for an eschatological view of church unity based on Ephesians 4 over against the claims of Rome (and many restorationist churches) to the effect that “earlier is always better” because there was supposedly greater unity before sola scriptura took hold. Last year I wrote about Rome’s understanding of the Eucharist, focusing not so much on “transubstantiation” itself, but rather the doctrine of the Mass as a literal re-presentation of the one sacrifice of Christ, critiquing the coherence of that notion in the light of biblical Christology.
This year, I want to write a little about justification. I could write much. Indeed others have written volumes. There is almost infinite discussion we could have regarding the helpful insights but also some of the errors of certain contemporary efforts within Protestantism to reformulate justification, and the relationship of those debates to Catholic understandings of the doctrine.
What I would like to do, though, is much less ambitious. I want to look at the text of James 2—a common basis of objection to the doctrine of justification by faith alone as classically understood by Protestants—and offer just a couple of exegetical insights that are often overlooked by interpreters. In my opinion, failing to pay sufficient attention to these observations results in weak or facile interpretations of this passage, especially by Protestants.
Here is my modest thesis, in a nutshell: whatever James precisely means by “justified by works” in vv. 21, 24 and 25 in chapter 2 of his epistle, it is categorically different from the justification by faith apart from works experienced by Abraham in Genesis 15, which is Paul’s consistent proof-text for the “justification by faith alone” doctrine we rightly recognize in his writings, and vigorously defend as Protestants.
Let me say that another way. Abraham was justified by faith apart from works in Genesis 15. Paul appeals to this event (in Romans 4 and Galatians 3) as the prototypical example for how we are justified today by faith in Christ, apart from works. In James’ epistle, the discussion turns to a kind of “justification by works,” with Abraham again as one of the OT examples. But the way James refers to this in Abraham’s life makes explicitly clear that this “justification” is something radically other than what he experienced in Genesis 15, and therefore, other than what we experience upon initial, saving trust in Christ.
Let’s make just a few observations, and then synthesize them, to establish this point.
Observation 1: the context of the passage is James’ discussion of the sin of partiality as over against the “royal law” of love (v. 8). He is concerned to challenge his hearers for their inconsistency in professing Christian belief yet shunning people who are poor or otherwise of low esteem in the world’s eyes. There will be no mercy for those who do not extend mercy (v. 13).
Observation 2: James teaches that to sin in one point of the Law makes someone guilty of breaking the whole Law. This is because the Law is a unity founded upon the all-encompassing principle of love for neighbor, reflecting even more fundamentally the loving character of God. God is the One who gave all of the commands, and to break any one of His commandments is an affront to His unified, holy character (vv. 10, 11).
Observation 3: The first time James refers explicitly to someone being “justified by works,” in v. 21, he refers to Abraham’s action of offering Isaac, the miracle-child of promise, as a sacrifice to the Lord (before the angel of the Lord of course stops him). This is a reference to events narrated in Genesis 22, which happens seven whole chapters after Genesis 15:6, the verse in which Moses tells us that “Abraham believed God [regarding the covenant promise of innumerable descendants], and it was counted to him as righteousness.”
Observation 4: The relationship James establishes in his epistle between the events of Genesis 22 and those of Genesis 15 is one of “completion.” He says that as a result of works, Abraham’s faith was “perfected” or “brought to completion” (v. 22).
Observation 5: The relationship James establishes between Gen. 22 and Gen. 15 is also characterized by a kind of “fulfillment.” He says the Scripture reference of Gen. 15:6 (Paul’s go-to proof-text of justification by faith apart from works), that Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness, was “fulfilled” by Abraham’s offering of Isaac.
Let me draw together the impact of some of these observations to support my above thesis, and then offer just a couple of theological implications and practical applications.
First, giving shape to the continuity James draws between the events of Genesis 15 and Genesis 22 is an almost-too-obvious point which is nevertheless insufficiently appreciated by interpreters: the events are not identical. They are different. They are separated by a large span of history in Abraham’s life and growth in faith. Not only this, but as said above, James describes the relationship between the events in terms of “completion” and “fulfillment.”
Both of these ideas presuppose a close relationship between two kinds of things, or two states of affairs. The biblical language of “perfecting” or “completing” speaks of bringing something into a mature or fully-formed state, without denying the reality of the thing in its infant or seed-form state.
Perhaps even more importantly for the proper interpretation of our passage here is the biblical idea(s) of “fulfillment.” Fulfillment, like “completion,” posits continuity between two things while distinguishing the beginning thing from the result. There are many categories of fulfillment in Scripture, often overlapping: promise and fulfillment, prophecy and fulfillment, type and anti-type, shadow and substance, passing of time and time-fulfillment, command and obedience-fulfillment, etc. In every category, however, the fulfillment is—again, perhaps obviously—different from its antecedent.
Here in James that which is “fulfilled” is a Scripture (Gen. 15:6) describing an event in which two actions are taken, namely, Abraham’s belief in God’s promise, and God’s counting Abraham righteous through faith. The fulfillment is Abraham’s action in Genesis 22 of offering Isaac, and God’s “justifying” (in some sense) Abraham by his works which worked together with his faith.
The payout of this analysis is that while there are similarities and an organic connection between the two passages (an action of Abraham in either simply believing or in believing and doing a work of faith, and a species of “justifying” act of God in response), there is also a categorical distinction to be made. In simple terms, the justification of Genesis 22 is not the justification of Genesis 15, although connected to it in terms of completion and fulfillment.
Perhaps the most important thing to say regarding this difference is that whatever James has to say about the importance, indeed the centrality, of works for the latter kind of “justification” in view (Gen. 22), it has absolutely no bearing on the sole instrumentality of Spirit-wrought faith in the former, Gen. 15:6 kind of “justification” which Paul expounds at extraordinary length in Romans 3-8 and Galatians 2-3.
“Genesis 15:6” justification by faith is, as Paul teaches, based on grace alone, through faith in Christ alone, on the basis of Christ’s blood and righteousness alone, occurs through Spirit-wrought union with Christ by faith, is eternal and unchangeable, and is infallibly maintained by Christ’s continual intercession for His people at the right hand of God. The events of Genesis 22, as James expounds them, have no bearing on these facts whatsoever.
Let me briefly bring into view another of the five above observations I made about the text of James 2. For James, as much as for Paul, if the “Genesis 15:6” kind of justification involved our works at all in an instrumental or foundational way, no one could be saved. This is because “Genesis 15:6” justification involves the judicial, forensic necessity of personal, perpetual, exact, and entire obedience to the revealed will of God under the terms of the covenant of works.
Moreover, even if we attempted to reduce this necessity to general covenant faithfulness as an instrument of our fundamental acceptance with God in the courtroom of heaven, James himself says that sinning in even one point of the Law makes one guilty of the whole! Therefore, since “all have fallen short of the glory of God” (Paul in Romans 3:23), or in James’ terms, “we all stumble in many ways” (3:2), there is no hope of Genesis 15 justification apart from the perfect obedience and imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ our Mediator, Substitute, and Last Adam. General covenant faithfulness is not a sufficient basis for “Gen. 15:6” justification.
Therefore, whatever language we employ to speak about this other “species” of justification that brings into view our works as instrumental, and as somehow a “completion” and “fulfillment” of justification by faith alone on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone (whether we speak of some kind of outward manifestation or “vindication” of God’s true people as His “friends” [v. 22b] through good works, or whether we acknowledge a richer sense of the word “justify” itself such that it can sometimes synecdochically connote the whole of salvation including the renovative aspects of liberation from sin unto good works, as in Rom. 6:7 [lit.]), James 2 cannot be used to object to the precious Reformation understanding of justification by faith alone. In fact it further establishes it.
Lest anyone think I have introduced an unwelcome contingency into the everlasting justification of believers in Christ by even acknowledging the “Genesis 22” kind of justification, the justification that is by works working together with faith, I would say several things.
First, James 2:14-26 is Holy Scripture and explicitly says that one is in some sense “justified by works.” We need to deal with this seriously and carefully. Second, through the contrasts I have highlighted between Gen. 15 and Gen. 22 above, I have labored to show that anything we say about Gen. 22 “justification” has no bearing whatsoever on the security, eternality, graciousness, or faith-alone nature of Gen. 15 “justification.” The “justified” of Romans 8:30 are also the “glorified” of Romans 8:30. No dropouts.
Third and finally, even though Gen. 22 “justification” involves a kind of “contingency” related to the historical performance of good works, the fact that James speaks of such faith-work as a “fulfillment” of a verse of Scripture (Gen. 15:6) may even bolster our awareness of a very reassuring promise found elsewhere in the NT (one thinks of Eph. 2:10). Namely, it serves to bolster the fact that it is God who actually ensures that what He declares of His people through faith alone at the point of conversion—that a person is counted righteous in Christ—becomes increasingly true of his or her actual life of growing practical obedience and faithfulness, as he or she walks in the good works prepared beforehand by God for him or her to walk in.
Faith receives Christ as a whole person, and as Mediator in all three of His offices (prophet, priest, and king). Through Spirit-wrought faith a person is united to the risen Christ, baptized with His Spirit, and begins to partake of the end-time power of the age to come which has broken into history in the resurrection of Christ. Therefore it is unthinkable (as Paul reflects on in the whole of Romans 6) for a justified person (in the Gen. 15:6 sense) to fail to be justified in the Gen. 22 sense as well. It is a real contingency which is nevertheless infallibly secured by the decree of God for His elect in Christ.
We are responsible to work out our faith in love to neighbor, and we are dependent on God for the ability to do so. Most importantly, we may have complete confidence that He will indeed cause us to do so if we are in Christ (and have therefore been everlastingly and unchangeably justified). This is His New Covenant promise that, “I will put my Spirit in you, and cause you to walk in my statutes” (Ez. 36:27a).
His mercy to us is free and complete, and the contextual practical application is that we ought, as already-justified people, to “fulfill” our justification by extending free and complete love and mercy to our neighbors, even those who are of low outward estate or societal esteem. “Did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith?” (James 2:5). Happy Reformation Day!