The topic of justification is certainly one of the more heated items of discussion in Christendom and for good reason. For the Christian, the issue of how the sinner can be justified before a holy God is the crux of all humanity. In the Salvation page, I attempt to show the problem of sin with Christianity’s proposed solution as the only logically valid option. Part of what makes Christianity unique is the insistence that man cannot bridge the chasm between he and God but rather, God must come to man.
The question of whether we are justified by works or faith would almost seem to create a false dilemma, but in reality, if we are not justified by faith alone then some form of works must be required for Salvation and so the options stand. It is the doctrine of Sola Fide, or by faith alone, that Tim Staples brings up next in his presentation and as his debate with Matt Dula shows, he was ill prepared.
By Grace Through Faith
At the 43:00 mark Tim is coming off the heals of the previous accusation and mentioning the fact that Matt would always have an answer and was getting through but it wouldn’t stop Tim. He introduces the next topic for discussion:
…And I would go to something more important, in fact like, most important. What about justification, right? Salvation? Okay, maybe the Catholics got lucky on this or that but hey, Salvation baby, the Bible says, and it doesn’t get any more plain than this in Ephesians chapter 2 verses 8 and 9, right? For by grace you have been saved through faith and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, less any man should boast. … Now let’s hear a come back on this one Matt. Salvation, justification is by faith alone, by grace through faith. It has nothing to do with works and what do these Catholics teach? Justification by faith and works. Heresy! Heresy! [Emphasis in recording]
Tim is certainly right here but this isn’t the only example. Paul explains numerous times in his Epistle to the Romans that justification cannot be of works. Romans 3:20 reads:
For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.1
Romans 3:28 reads:
For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
And Romans 4:16:
That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all…
It would seem a pretty open and shut case but the problem arises in Matt’s response. At the 46:09 mark Tim continues:
Well, Matthew says, alright, let’s check out James chapter 2 … verse 19 … he says: You believe there is one God you do well, the devil also believes and trembles! But wilt thou know, oh vain man, that faith without works is dead! And he’d go down to verse 24, he says something very important, I remember Matt making me read this, where it says You see how that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. And then Matthew closed my Bible he looked at me and he said ‘Tim, I want you to look me in the eye and I want you to be honest with me, you believe in Sola Scriptura, right?’ And I said ‘absolutely, Jack, Bible alone’ … ‘You believe in the Bible alone? Okay, well I want you to look me dead in the eye and I want you to tell me that you’re gonna read this verse, you’re gonna read where the Bible says we’re justified by works and not by faith alone … Close your Bible and say well, gee, we must be justified by faith alone – cause the Bible says we’re justified not by faith alone! Can you honestly tell me that, Tim?’ And of course I came back with the response ‘Well, you know, works, if you’re truly born again … works are going to be coming out…’ and I gave the Protestant line.
While Tim gave part of a Protestant answer the conversation really shouldn’t have ended there because Tim could have just as well gone back to Romans 3:20 or Romans 3:28 and turned it around on Matthew asking him the same question. And I wonder what Matt’s response would have been.
Harmony of Scripture
Whenever Scripture confronts us with what seems to be a contradiction we are left with a few options. We can accept the contradiction and claim we can’t know it, we can use it as an excuse to abandon the faith, or we can attempt to harmonize it and prove it’s not a contradiction at all. The first option leaves us open to the second. It creates a slippery slope. It doesn’t seem to take many of these for most people to give up. The third option may be difficult at times but is certainly the most fruitful. Christianity has stood the test of time and this conundrum is no exception.
At the start, there are some simple questions that should arise if we are to believe that justification, that is right standing before a holy God, is a mixture of faith and works, such as: What works? How do we know that particular works will justify us? What is the ratio of faith and works? Who decides what works and how is it decided? What are the implications to faith if works are also required?
These are valid questions that must be asked. A discussion often goes on in Evangelical Christianity as to whether one must be baptized to be saved. I often ask, if that is so, is that what you would plead when standing before God? We need to think about what that would look like. Would you exclaim that you put your trust in Christ’s work for salvation and you were baptized? You see, the moment you put that and in place, you have taken something away from Christ’s completed work.
John MacArthur notes in his commentary on James that Martin Luther struggled with this passage and even went so far as to call the Epistle of James an ‘epistle of straw’.2 I’m not sure whether Luther saw the problems in the questions above or was simply that adamant in his opposition to Catholic doctrine but the unfortunate thing for Luther was that he was unable to harmonize what James was saying with the doctrine of Sola Fide. He’s not alone in that problem even today. Peter Davids writes his commentary on James 2:24:
James immediately moves to a concluding statement in his argument that sums up the results of the two scriptures previously considered. In so doing he comes closer than anywhere else in the epistles to directly contradicting Paul. Because of this possible conflict, 2:24 must be viewed as a crux interpretum, not only for James, but for NT theology in general.[Emphasis in original]3
To call it a crux interpretum doesn’t seem to give us much hope. The term, meaning crossroad of interpreters, is used to suggest a text is difficult even to the point of impossible to interpret. I hold that while it may be difficult the answer lies in the very passage being debated.
We have to remember that the difficult verses, specifically James 2:17, 19-20, 24 do not stand alone. They have an overarching theme and when put in context demonstrate what James is taking issue with. The entire chapter is full of discussion regarding how we should live – outward signs, not only for each other but for the unbelievers as well. James deals with showing partiality, breaking the royal law – specifically, any outward sign that demonstrates love of neighbor (James 2:8), being merciful and then gives examples of such. James 2:15-16 discusses sending someone off who is in need without giving them what they need and he asks ‘what good is that?’ Only then does James say that faith without works is dead. At that point James gives what I think is his entire point, he says in verse 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.
Who is James showing his faith to and what happens when you show your faith? The answer is that while justification by faith pertains to one’s standing before a holy and righteous God, justification by works pertains to a person’s standing before other men. James has already said that Salvation is God’s gift in James 1:17-18. If he’s contradicting Paul, he’s also contradicting himself.
The word justification (δικαιόω, dikaio’o) in Scripture doesn’t always mean justification before God which is the topic that gets so much attention. John MacArthur notes in his commentary on James:
It’s important to understand that the Greek verb dikaio o (justified) has two general meanings. The first pertains to acquittal, that is, to declaring and treating a person as righteous. That is its meaning in relationship to salvation and is the sense in which Paul almost always uses the term. He declares, for example, that we are “justified as a gift by [God’s] grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24) … The second meaning of dikaio o pertains to vindication, or proof of righteousness. It is used in that sense a number of times in the New Testament, in relation to God as well as men. Paul says, “Let God be found true, though every man be found a liar, as it is written, ‘That You may be justified in Your words, and prevail when You are judged'” (Rom. 3:4).4
The context, in this case, certainly sheds light on what James is saying and the usage that should be employed for the word justification. Taking a few verses out of the chapter in order to show that justification before God is a mixture of faith and works is to ignore the vast majority of the New Testament’s teaching on the subject. Not only was Tim caught off guard at the thought of the contradiction, Matt didn’t do anything to resolve it. Both of them should have set out to harmonize the passage with Paul’s teaching but instead they concluded with a poor understanding of what James was trying to convey.
- All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, use: English Standard Version. 2001. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society. ↩
- MacArthur, John. 1998. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (136). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers ↩
- Davids, P. H. (1982). The Epistle of James: A commentary on the Greek text. New International Greek Testament Commentary (130). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. ↩
- Same as footnote 2, page 137. ↩
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