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The Reformed Harmony of Paul and James

The Reformed Harmony of Paul and James

What follows is an excerpt from Gospel Truth of Justification, by David J. Engelsma, chapter 21, pages 422-424.

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Regarding justification as the legal act of God’s forgiving sins and reckoning one to be in perfect conformity with the law of God, and having in mind any and all kinds of works, including those done with the help of grace, Paul declares in Romans 4:2 specifically concerning Abraham—regenerated, believing Abraham—that he was not justified by works, by any works of his own whatever: “For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God.” Rather than working for righteousness, Abraham, who is both the father and the exemplar of all the children of God, “believed God.”

Three essential and perfectly clear truths about justification are the teaching of the Holy Spirit in Romans and Galatians. First, justification is by faith alone, without works. Second, the justification that is by faith alone is the divine verdict that actually accomplishes the sinner’s righteousness with God, saving the sinner by delivering him from a state of guilt into a state of innocence. Third, the works excluded from this justification are all works of the sinner himself whatever, including the genuinely good works that a believer performs in thankfulness to God for gracious salvation.

Whatever may be the meaning of James 2, the passage cannot contradict this clear, authoritative doctrine of Paul concerning justification. That is, the Spirit who inspired both Romans 3 and 4 and James 2 cannot contradict himself, teaching in James 2 the opposite of what he teaches in Romans 3 and 4. When James 2:21 says that “Abraham our father [was] justified by works,” the text cannot contradict Romans 4:2–3, which teaches that Abraham was justified not by works, but by faith only. James cannot speak of justification in the same sense as Paul does in Romans and Galatians. Or to say it differently, James describes an entirely different aspect of justification from what Paul describes in Romans and Galatians, namely, the legal act forgiving sins and imputing to the sinner the obedience of Christ.

James describes the believer’s demonstration and proof of his free justification by faith alone. One who has been justified by faith alone will show this justification. He will show it to other humans. He will confirm his justification to himself. He will also show this justification to God his judge. He will show, or demonstrate, his justification by the good works that are always the fruit of justification. By his good works the justified sinner is not declared righteous legally, as though these works were the ground of his forgiveness and righteousness with God the judge, as though these good works were the content of his right standing before God, as though these good works constituted the sinner’s worthiness to inherit eternal life. But the good works are his justification demonstratively. They show the reality of his justification by faith alone.

That James has in view a different aspect of justification than what Paul teaches in Romans and Galatians is evident from James 2 itself. James contends with church members who, although they profess to have faith, faith by which they are justified, in fact have a “dead” faith (vv. 17, 20, 26), a “faith” that produces no good works at all but is content to live impenitently in sin. James challenges this kind of church member: “Shew me thy faith without thy works [which is impossible], and I will shew thee my faith by my works” (v. 18). The subject in James 2 is the showing, or demonstration, of faith and therefore also the demonstration of justification.

James’ doctrine is that the faith that justifies by itself alone also always works, for justifying faith is not a “dead faith,” which is no faith at all, but a living faith. True, living, justifying faith is union with Christ, and union with Christ does and must bear fruit in good works of obedience to the law of God. Doing justice to James’ terminology, James teaches that, regarding its clear and powerful demonstration, justification is by works. Paul, in contrast, teaches that, regarding the means by which the sinner is declared righteous by God the judge, justification is by faith, and by faith only.

James makes plain that he does not contradict but is in full agreement with Paul regarding justification’s being by faith alone. In the midst of his impassioned contention with the antinomian abusers of gracious justification, James quotes Genesis 15:6, the text that figures so decisively in Paul’s theology of justification by faith alone in Romans 4: “Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness” (James 2:23; Rom. 4:3). Long before Isaac was born and therefore long before Abraham offered his son on the altar, which work, James says in verse 21, demonstrated his justification, Abraham was justified by faith—by faith alone. Faith was imputed to Abraham for righteousness, faith apart from any good work on Abraham’s part, specifically the awesome good work of offering his son on the altar.

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