Sola Fide and James 2 by Justin Day
January 29, 2009, 7:00 am
Filed under: Thought Initiative


by Justin Day

In Christendom there is no more heated of a debate than the one over justification.  To shortly sum it up, the debate can be thought of as a dispute over how God declares us to be legally righteous (to have perfectly acted in accordance with his law) in his sight. Predominantly there have been three main views on this: (1) works [or legalism]; (2) faith; (3) faith and works.

Thankfully, every major Christian sect has rightly condemned option (1), works-based righteousness, as pure heresy. Thus, this debate has fallen between the last two options. Protestants proudly proclaim that it is by faith, and by nothing of our own merit, that we are saved. However, most Christians today (mainly Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians) believe that we are not saved by faith alone, but by faith and works.

Although their position is heavily influenced by tradition, proponents of justification by faith and works do not believe that their position is without biblical support. In the 17th verse of the 2 chapter of the epistle of James we are told that “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” Later on in the chapter, James explicitly states in verse 24 that a person is “justified by works and not by faith alone.”

These verses seem to fly in the face of the Protestant notion of Sola Fide. Any thoughts?

  1. Is this interpretation of James correct? Is he teaching that we are justified by faith and works, and not by faith alone?
  2. If he is teaching against justification through faith alone, can this be reconciled with Romans 10:9-10? If not, does this mean there is a contradiction in scripture?

7 Comments so far
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In James 2:22-23 it states, “You see that faith was active along with his works and faith was completed by his works; 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.” It isn’t that our salvation DEPENDS on our works, but our works are evidence of salvation. In verse 19 is states, “You beleve that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe-and shudder!” Romans 12 speaks of marks of a true Christian, and James 1 speaks of testing our faith. The fact that we can do any “good works” is evidence that Christ is active in our hearts and His Holy Spirit is leading us.

Comment by JRam

When Lazerus was called to come out of the tomb. He had to walk out. When the disciples were called to leave their boats and nets. They had to get to shore. There is obedience that is necessary to our salvation. When we are called to believe. We must simultaneously repent.

I believe that the initial work of repentance is infallibly exercised in conjunction to our new faith. Yet, this work in our heart is a gift of God. I believe in faith alone but Luther was very wise to say faith is never alone. Faith brings with it grace. Therefore, it depends primarily upon God’s mercy, grace, and call. We are saved by grace through faith. Faith is merely the avenue.

Second, I believe Christ bought and secured all the conditions for salvation besides salvation itself. Or he did not actually saved anyone. Including our repentance and out belief.

The problem is really not Faith and works. It is Faith and God working and willing in us. Verses: Faith and us working by our own efforts to save ourselves. People should not preach such a gospel that lets in merit.

Second, James fails to note here that Abraham was justified before his works. I find it significant.

Comment by Dave McCarthy

The frequency of scripture that states contrary to the faith-works position far outweighs the frequency of scripture that states contrary to ‘Sola Fide’ and is many to one in the conversation.

As such one, hermenutically, must first understand that scripture does not contradict itself because it is the Word of God (of which it takes on the certain characteristics of God particularly perfection, goodness, holiness, justice, purity, and love) as shown forth many times as it self-witnesses and is epistemically testable through reliability, coherance, and foundationalism to meet the criteria the of inspired, inerrant, and infalliable Word of God.

Recognizing this, one must then assume (quite reasonably) that when God’s word seems to not fit God’s character, we are interpreting it incorrectly. This is because we are limited in our sinfulness, which tarnishes our understanding and our rationality. As such, one must interpret one verse of the bible in both the local the broader contexture of it by comparing the Bible to itself, not our ideas of it.

This particular verse, the local context and broad context makes it quite clear what this verse means in how works are a clear evidence of faith. In the local context of this verse, one sees that this verse is speaking about the same thing that Christ was speaking about concerning a tree and its fruit. James is listing the fruit of a saved life (feeding Orphansm, bestowing mercy, etc.) and this goes along with Christ’s parable of the fig tree in stating that you do what you are and that one reaps what they sow. James is taking this and applying it towards testing a believer’s faith.

Interpretation: If your life does not bear the fruits of sincerity, impartiality, peace, and mercy, in at least some degree, then you should question your status before God.

Comment by Jonathan Kelfer

We are saved by faith alone but not by faith that remains alone. In a nutshell, that’s what James 2:24 is saying.

Do you think justification is a hotter debate than predestination? In my experience, perhaps because of the church I go to, it’s a much hotter topic.

Thanks for the post!

Comment by Chandin

Thanks for the comments, guys! I agree with most of what has been said, but I do have a few disagreements. Here are my thoughts on the matter.

Pro Sola Fide:
(1) As it has already been noted, I think it’s very important to acknowledge that the evidence James uses to prove his point happened years after Abraham was declared righteous.
(2) Wayne Grudem pointed out in Systematic Theology that the Greek word for “justify” is sometimes used for outward justification and not inward justification. He gave the example of Luke 16:15 as support.

This point seems to be very critical since it’s entirely plausible that James could be talking about outward justification, how we know that faith is valid outwardly, instead of legal justification with God.

Contra Sola Fide:
(1) It seems to me that James is talking about being justified in the sight of God. This would be why he gives the example of Abraham. Abraham’s work was not to outwardly justify himself with other believers, but rather to justify himself before God.

Although one could possibly offer a defense by taking the path that Grudem took, the text seems to be referring to justification in the sight of God.

(2) If we don’t take James 2:24 as a refutation of a belief, what on earth would we take as a refutation of our beliefs? If I were talking to a Catholic and they asked me to make up a verse that could theoretically be in the Bible that would teach against Sola Fide, I’m not sure if I could think of a more straight-forward verse than James 2:24. It literally says “not by faith alone.”

If we are to deny the significance of this verse, it seems that we would be throwing any meaningful dialogue about scripture out the window.

(3) I think it’s important to remember that Martin Luther wanted to throw this book out of the Bible. The guy that led to Sola Fide movement found this text so troubling that he thought it should be regarded as apocryphal writing.

Comment by Justin Day

Kelfer, I may be misunderstanding your comment, but do you not find it somewhat circular to assume the Bible to be inerrant when examining scripture that could possibly show the Bible to be errant?

Chandin, I agree with you that predestination is a more heated topic amongst Protestant Christians, but I would think justification is a more heated debate in Christendom as a whole. It is one of the major reasons (probably the most significant) for the theological division between Protestants & Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians.

Comment by Justin Day

When C.S. Lewis was giving answers about Christianity he was asked about the paradox of faith and work. In reply he states:

“The controversy about faith and works is one that has gone on for a very long time, and it is a highly technical matter. I personally rely on the paradoxical text: ‘work out your own salvation…for it is God that worketh in you’ It looks as if in one sense we do nothing, and in another case we do a damned lot. ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,’ but you must have it in you before you can work it out.”

For those who don’t know what verse Lewis was quoting it is Philippians 2:12.

That is the verse I too use to explain the relationship between faith and works.

Comment by James Baby

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