Surprised by Romans and James

I teach an International General Certificate for Secondary Education (IGCSE) World History course. Three end of year exams or “papers” complete the course. “Paper 2” consists of several primary and secondary source documents accompanied by six questions of varying degrees of difficulty including one question that is worded something like: “Does Source F make Source G surprising? Explain your answer using details of the sources and your knowledge.” To get full credit the student must compare the two sources then explain to what degree he is or is not surprised.

The question for today is: Does Romans 3:214:5 make James 2:14-26 surprising? This analysis presupposes that both passages are divinely authored and therefore cannot contradict each other. How is it then that “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom. 3:28) does not contradict “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jms. 2:24)?

There are many ways to divide the church (though Christ is not divided! (cf. 1 Cor. 1:13), one is in the area of grace and assurance. In my experience there are basically two Christian views on assurance: the Romans 3 -4 view and the James 2 view. Both views emphasize salvation by grace alone. Both insist that salvation is only because of Jesus Christ alone and both insist that salvation is received through faith alone. There is contention between the two, however, in the area of assurance. The Romans 3-4 Christian typically insist on instant assurance at the exact moment of faith alone in Christ alone. James 2 Christians, on the other hand, will assert a level of assurance at the moment of rebirth but one that is provisional, dependent on the bringing forth of fruit in the life of the believer as evidence of a “true” and “genuine” and “heart” faith.  The favorite passages of the latter view (in addition to James 2) include selections from Hebrews and the sayings of Jesus, the most popular of which is without a doubt Matthew 7:15-23.

Instead of comparing and contrasting every possible disputed passage from the two paradigms, I will instead bolster the Romans 3 – 4 position on assurance through the use of a basic syllogism:

God wrote the Bible for the purpose of communicating reliable information to its readers.

The most straightforward answer to the “what must I do to be saved” question is Acts 16:31 “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.”

Therefore, since works are not included in the most straightforward answer to the salvation question and since the Bible communicates reliable information, the doing of works is not directly related to the knowledge or assurance of salvation.

This seems to suggest that Romans does make James surprising. Justified by works. Not justified by works. Even worse it seems to suggest the two are contradictory!

Both passages use the same Greek words for faith, works, and justified (pistis, ergon, and dikaioo respectively) so the resolution is not found in the lexicon. Instead it is found in the context!

James 2:17 and 2:26 says that faith without works is dead. Other meanings of the Greek word for dead, nekra, include lifeless, useless, ineffective. James 2:20 provides clarification for nekra, saying that “faith apart from works is useless (argos).” Argos means idle, unemployed, lazy, careless, ineffective, useless. The passage opens up by saying “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?” James then gives an example of an impoverished believer who another Christian encourages with words but not with any tangible assistance. The writer goes on to demonstrate both Abraham and Rahab became justified when they did something: Abraham obeyed God, Rahab hid the Israelite spies. Abraham’s work completed or matured or perfected his faith (teleioo).

Since both passages discuss Abraham, this is where we can focus the analysis. What benefit was Abraham’s work? “…if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God” (Rom. 4:2). Abraham’s actions did indeed justify him. Justify or dikaioo carries the main idea of being “put into a right relationship with God”; however, it has other uses. In fact its first New Testament usage provides an example: Jesus said, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds” (Matt. 11:19). Wisdom is not put into a right relationship with God by deeds, it is “proved right” (see NIV translation for example). Jesus told the Pharisees, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts” (Lk. 16:15). This is clearly not an example where dikaioo means “put into a right relationship with God.” The works of the Pharisees was for the purpose of proving themselves on their own more righteous than the others. Their faith wasn’t illusory, it was misplaced in themselves. They fully believed in their own ability to save themselves based on their righteous deeds, which also gave them a false assurance. This wrong assurance resulted not from relying on the inerrant word of the Great Communicator, the Creator God of everything including language, but from looking to themselves for assurance.

Romans 3 – 4 makes James 2 quite surprising, to be sure, if one sees “justified” as carrying the same connotation in both instances. Paul helps to clear it up. “…if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.” The works of Abraham did justify him, but not in the “he would now go to heaven” sense. No, it justified him in the “his faith had already saved him and now he was advancing to spiritual maturity” sense. Had Abraham done like he had done before when he lied about his relationship to Sarah in Egypt, his faith would have been dead, indeed, worthless. It was equally worthless when he allowed the circumstances of his wife’s bareness to convince him to find his own solution to fulfilling God’s promise of an heir. Abraham once more proved his faith empty when he lied to Abimelech about his relationship with Sarah (see Genesis 13 – 20). It seems the life of this great man of faith was filled with both failures and successes. None of his failures negated his “in a right relationship with God” status nor his ability to have assurance of such a relationship, but neither did they give Abraham something in which to boast of before men. Circumstances in the life of a believer can get extremely tough but that does not mean one should be proud of any failure to obey God.

When the believer gives his fellow suffering brother empty words instead of tangible help he is not demonstrating to that brother the genuineness of his faith in God, but God is not confused; salvation is not contingent on the works of man, it is contingent on receiving the gift of righteousness that was earned by the work of Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, on the cross. The justified before God believer should work to be justified before man, to prove his faith, to practice true religion, to seek to be God’s friend, but he should neither work for his eternal salvation nor his assurance. That’s based on the work Christ alone, based on His grace alone, received through faith alone, found in Scripture alone. God knows who has believed in His Son for salvation. You, too, can know if you have believed in Jesus Christ for salvation: have you?

Romans 3:21 – 4:5 then does not make James 2:14-26 surprising. The two cohere completely. Justification before God is precisely based on faith alone in Christ alone. Justification before men is based on works that demonstrate one’s already accomplished justification before God.


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