The Fifth in a Series of Sermons on the Epistle of James
It would be hard to find a passage of Scripture which is more controversial than James 2:14-26. The reason for the controversy is James’ assertion in verse 24 that “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” On its face, this seems to fly in the face of a number of passages in Paul’s letters where Paul appears to be saying the exact opposite thing. Take, for example, Galatians 2:16. “Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” Those who believe that the justification of sinners is a process which is not complete until death (Rome), view James’ assertion here as a classic proof-text which supports this view. But those who see justification as an instantaneous declaration made about the sinner because the merits of Christ are imputed to them through the means of faith, seem to stumble all over James’ declaration that works are somehow tied to justification, and that we are not justified by faith alone. But as we will see, James and Paul do not contradict each other. In fact, when James’ assertion is put in its proper context, there is nothing whatsoever in James 2 which conflicts with the doctrine of justification sola fide.
As we have been making our way through the Epistle of James, we come the second half of James chapter 2. I have mentioned throughout our series that this section of James is somewhat of a sore spot to confessional Protestants who champion Paul’s doctrine of justification. One reason for this is because when addressing justification, the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (Canon X)–Rome’s official response to the Protestant Reformation–teach that justification is a day to day process, depending upon how effectively people submit themselves to God’s grace, so that they increase their justification over time, and hopefully, attain final justification. James 2:24 is cited by the Council of Trent as a proof-text supporting Rome’s view that justification is a process connected to the merit of our good works.
Granted, James seems to be saying something quite different than Paul. And those who oppose the Reformation doctrine of justification often seize upon comments made by James in this chapter to prove that we are not justified by faith alone, but that we are justified by faith plus continual inward transformation, and the performance of good works which merit (earn) a reward from God.
Let me be clear here. Yes, James is saying something quite different from Paul is saying. But James is not contradicting Paul. The two men are addressing two completely different issues. And this is the critical point we need to keep in mind as we proceed. Recall that in our first sermon on James, I labored to establish the fact that James wrote this epistle sometime in the mid 40's of the first century. If you’ve not heard that first sermon, I would encourage you to get a copy because the date of writing of this epistle, understanding the context in which it was written, and then keeping in mind the specific issue which James is addressing, is the key to understanding James’ teaching on justification. When these factors are in place, the supposed controversy between James and Paul, and the apparent contradiction between James 2:24 and passages like Galatians 2:16 and Romans 3:28, is easily resolved. In fact, there is no contradiction, since James is addressing a completely different matter than Paul is addressing.
To read the rest of this sermon, click here