Romans 3:28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
The proclamation faith alone announces is that this gift is to be received solely by faith. Verse 28 became one of the most disputed verses in the reformation because when Luther translated the Bible into German for the regular people to read, he understood exactly what Paul was teaching here, and to make it so clear that no one would mistake Paul’s point, he added the word “alone” to verse 28.
The Catholic Church of Luther’s day excommunicated Luther over that word, because they felt if that word alone was added, it set Paul’s teaching in contradiction with James 2:24 which reads “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
Romans 3:28 “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”
James 2:24 “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
The Great Contradiction?
We sometimes thing of a contradiction as two statements that oppose one another, but that not a technical enough definition. An accepted definition of contradiction is that "One cannot say of something that it is and that it is not in the same respect and at the same time.” Let me give you an example that I heard another pastor use: Imagine you are in a waiting room at a doctors office and you see the same doctor go into one room first and then the other. In the first room you hear him say, “You’ve got a serious heart condition. Strenuous exercise will do you no good.” He then goes into the second room and you hear him say, “You’re over weight. Strenuous exercise will do you good.” Now, these two statements, ripped out of context, are indeed opposed to one another. Yet context matters because they clearly are not saying opposing things in the same respect and at the same time.”
And so that’s what we need to do, to inspect the context to see if the statement in James is in fact teaching contrary to Romans. Now at the onset, I think it is reasonable for us to expect that these two texts be able to be reconciled to each other, not only because we believe that the Spirit inspired all human authors, so that they will not contradict each other, but also because Paul testifies in Galatians 1 that he specifically met with James, and Peter and some other apostles and submitted the gospel that he preached to them and that they gave him the right hand of fellowship - meaning that they confirmed and validated Paul’s teaching.
Now last week we looked at the context of the statement in Romans and concluded that Luther was right to add the word alone in 3:28, for that is what the context is teaching. We looked at this long argument Paul made to proclaim that no one will be declared righteous before God on the basis of our works, that by grace alone God declared sinners righteous on the basis of the work of Christ on their behalf. And finally that this is a gift to be received by faith apart from works.
Now let’s read James together and see how James teaching, rather than contradicting Paul, complements Paul’s teaching. Note that the context for understand James 2:28 begins in chapter 2 with a discussion about loving one’s neighbour, and treating people fairly in the church, without regard to their appearance or economic standing. So immediately we see that there is a much different context here. James is not speaking here about how to be right before God, as Paul was, but how we are to treat one another in the church. How do we treat one another “as we hold the faith in our Lord Jesus” (James 2:1) But the discussion starts in 2:14:
James 2:14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
Let’s take this bit by bit. James introduces the topic in his first sentence: What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? So here we are introduced to a person who professes to have faith - notice that James is not yet making a statement as to whether this person actually has faith, but only a profession of faith, yet has no works (and I imagine from the context already alluded to, here is a person who says he has faith, yet has no love for his neighbours, shows partiality, etc.) Now we can imagine such a person. A person who claims to be a christian, but has shown no demonstration of love, no tenderness, no desire to be in Christian fellowship, no generosity of spirit toward the less fortunate. But they say they have faith. They mark the box on their census, “Christian”.
And look at James question. Now the KJV has probably muddied the waters with a pretty bad translation by saying: Can faith save him? This is a bad translation, for the definite article in the greek indicates that it is a specific faith, namely the type of faith just lauded to, that James is referring to. Every other English translation makes this clear.
ESV: Can that faith save him?
NIV: Can such faith save them?
NLT: Can that kind of faith save anyone?
NASB: Can that faith save him?
NET: Can this kind of faith save him?
HSB: Can his faith save him?
The most important thing to notice here is that James is speaking about the type of faith that saves. A claim of faith that is not accompanied by works is an empty claim. That’s the point of the illustration in verses 15-16. If I say to a homeless person, be warmed and fed, my words are empty, they are meaningless, they are dead. So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. Again, the article is present. This type of faith, the profession alone, is a dead, empty, profession. If we read further it becomes even clearer that James is referring to a specific type of faith.
James 2:18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!
In verse 19 we see that James is indeed speaking of a type of faith that is not faith at all, after all, he reasons, the demons believe, but they shudder. So faith that is merely intellectual assent is no faith at all. So from the context we can go back to our verse in James 2:24 and we can begin to understand a little of what James is referring to here. We see that a person who merely claims to have faith is not justified by a profession of faith alone.
Not also, though, what James adds in verse 18: I’ll show you my faith, by my works. So here we have the second piece of the puzzle: James is speaking of works that demonstrate the genuineness of faith. Not about works in opposition to faith, but works that demonstrate faith. This is perhaps the key: genuine faith will be demonstrated through works (and remember we’re speaking of works of love). And so now we can add again to the puzzle of verse 24: a person is justified by works as the evidence of their claimed faith.
So let me put it this way: a person has no basis for claiming they have faith, if there is no evidence that their faith is genuine. In other words, it could be said that they have no justification for claiming they have genuine faith. Their claim that their faith is genuine is not justified.
See what I’ve done here, I’m pointing out that there is another definition of justification that fits the context of the book of James. Paul spoke of faith justifying the sinner. James is speaking of works justifying the claim of the sinner that he has faith. Let’s go on a see if the rest of James bears this out.
20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
James’ use of the story of Abraham agrees with the way that Paul uses the story as we saw last week. Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. That is the imputation, the counting righteous that Paul said last week was by faith alone. Yet James points out that Abraham’s faith was shown to be genuine when it was completed by his act of offering Issac upon the alter. Abraham was not the man who claimed to have faith but had no works, but was instead vindicated by his works; his works proved, that his faith was genuine.
So when we get to verse 24, we have to read that verse in the context of James argument:
You see that a person [’s claim of genuine faith] is justified [vidicated, and demonstrated to be true] by works [as evidence of said faith] and not by [a profession of] faith alone.
Go back to our two dressing rooms. In one room, doctor Paul is telling the patient, these Romans who need to know how they can be right with God, that they cannot do anything, but that they receive God’s gift of justifying grace which declares them in a right standing before God solely through receiving the gift by faith. They cannot work for the gift.
And in this other room, Dr. James is telling another patient, who claims to have faith yet displays no evidence of God’s love directing their heart, that they are not justified by their mere claim to faith for he can see no works giving any evidence that their faith is anything more than make-believe.
As the reformers aptly put it, “It is therefore faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is never alone”. Luther wrote: “Faith is a living, restless thing. It cannot be inoperative. We are not saved by works; but if there be no works, there must be something amiss with faith.” In another place he wrote, “Faith must of course be sincere. It must be a faith that performs good works through love. If faith lacks love it is not true faith … To think, "If faith justifies without works, let us work nothing," is to despise the grace of God. Idle faith is not justifying faith.”
There is therefore no contradiction. This is precisely how Paul understood the relationship between faith and works:
Eph. 2:8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Titus 3:4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. 8 The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works.
Phil. 2:12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
See, there is no contradiction between Paul and James. So taken together with our message last week, how does this understanding of faith alone impact our lives?
- Means that the gospel is good news for sinners. Our right standing does not depend on our righteousness but on the free gift of God received by faith. Also that the gospel that saves also transforms through the means of grace God provides, the Spirit, the word and the church.
- We are humbled. We are not saved by our works, or even by our understanding of doctrine, or by the strength of our faith. We are justified before God on the basis of Christ’s work that we receive by faith.
- Free from guilt, and the fear from God’s wrath. Assurance was called the heresy of the reformation. We are pointed away from grovelling in our guilt before God, and pointed to Christ’s work and the great acts of forgiveness and adoption that we’ve received in Christ. Our whole relationship with God changes. We are friends with God, yet he is our father.
- Set petitionary prayer in context: we can boldly approach the throne of grace with confidence, knowing that the guilt of our sins has been punished in Christ, and we have been granted standing before God. We desire intimacy with the God who has saved us.