James on justification by works
Question: Contrary to the Protestant "Justification by Faith Alone," James tells us clearly that justification is not by faith only! "Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only" James 2:24.
Answer: Like many other Catholics, perhaps you do not understand what we mean by 'sola fide' nor what James teaches. Please allow me to clarify this important issue.
Historically, Protestants use the slogan 'faith alone' to express the Gospel so clearly explained by the apostle Paul, "that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law" (Romans 3:28; 4:5-8; Galatians 2:16; 3:10-13, 5:2-4). An ungodly person is not freed from guilt by the deeds of the law, that is, by loving God and his neighbour (because no one keeps the law perfectly). To become right with God, the sinner must believe in Another, in Christ Jesus. God freely justifies the person who does not rely on his works, but who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ. The believer is legally acquitted and treated as righteous - all because of Christ.
In Romans and Galatians, the apostle Paul has this question in mind: How can a guilty sinner be justified by God? Essentially Paul answers that a sinner is justified by faith in Christ, and not by the merit of his works. That is what we mean by 'sola fide.' In his letter, James deals with a different question altogether. There is a man who claims to have faith and who assents to the cardinal doctrines of the Gospel, including the first, namely, the unity of God. Yet this person is devoid of good works and is full of hypocrisy, so much so, that he insults a poor beggar with pious words without giving him anything. So, says James, can this sort of faith save him? "What does it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have no works? Can faith save him?"
James is not asking whether a person is saved by faith plus the merit of his good works. He is asking about the kind of faith that saves. He mentions two types, the real and the counterfeit. Works distinguish one from the other: "Show me your faith without your works; and I will show you my faith by my works." Real faith is living, manifesting itself in good works. Counterfeit faith is dead, mere assent to doctrine, devoid of works.
James asks, "Can faith save him?" The answer is simply this, "If it is real faith, manifest in good works, yes. But if it is a counterfeit 'faith', no, it cannot save him."
No contradiction exists between Paul and James. The apostle Paul insists that it is the man "that worketh not, but believeth" that is justified by God. But that is not all. Paul also describes the character of true faith - "faith which worketh by love."
It is also important to note that Paul and James use the word 'justification' in different senses. In the Bible the word 'justification' is often used in the legal sense. 'To justify' denotes a judge declaring a person righteous; it is the opposite of 'to condemn' which means to declare guilty (Deuteronomy 25:1; Job 13:18; Isaiah 50:7-8; Matthew 12:37; Luke 18:14; etc.). Paul often uses the word 'justification' in this legal sense.
'To justify' is also used in a declarative sense. A person who tries to show himself that he is in the right is said to be trying to justify himself (see Job 32:2; Luke 10:28,29; 16:14,15). James has this aspect of justification in mind. We have seen that his concern is to show the reality of the faith professed by the individual.
Thus when James says, "You see then how that by works a man is justified," he simply means that his works show that he is for real. Furthermore, he insists that a man is not justified "by faith only" - because the 'faith' that is alone is dead. Profession of faith is not enough. Mere mental assent to the Gospel truths is not enough. One must have living faith, and that is manifest by good works. His good works declares that he and his faith are genuine. The Roman Catholic Jerome Biblical Commentary concurs: "As is clear from the context, this does not mean that genuine faith is insufficient for justification, but that faith unaccompanied by works is not genuine."
In brief: 1. A sinner is saved by faith in Christ and not on account of his own works. 2. True, saving faith always produces good works. 3. Mere assent and profession of faith alone, without works, do not save.
These Scriptural truths agree with the teaching of historic Protestantism. "Faith which receives Christ's righteousness and depends on Him is the sole instrument of justification, yet this faith is not alone in the person justified, but is always accompanied by all the other saving graces. And it is not a dead faith, but works by love" (1689 Baptist Confession of Faith).
Let us not think that "justification" is simply the polemic between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Our understanding and commitment to this doctrine determines our eternal destiny. We do well to take the opportunity to test the reality of our religion:
Do I really believe in Christ? Or am I trusting in my own works for salvation?
Do I really believe in Christ? Or am I deceiving myself with empty words about faith without the evidence of good works, love and holiness in my experience?