Comparing Justification in James with Paul

301 Topic picThe classic Protestant doctrine of ‘faith alone justifies’ cannot be reconciled with James’ statement to the contrary. ‘A person is justifed by works and not by faith alone‘. (Jas 2.24)

This post takes a look at James’ statements about justification. It will consider a similar statement from Clement of Rome in the early church. Then compare James with what Paul says in Romans and Galatians.

Finally the post will consider what the reformers Luther and Calvin wrote on James and if their understanding of James’ use of justification is correct.


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I’ve written on the above apostolic mindset in another series. I realise I am imposing these categories on James’ biblical theology. However if we want to compare James and Paul, we need a common framework to compare them in terms of systematic theology and how they refer to justification.


Here is a basic outline of my understanding of how the expression ‘justified’ and its cognates can be applied in various stages of a believers life. A fuller outline can be seen in my New Perspective page. See also my Mindset series where I argue for these distinctions.

000 Justified MindsetAs per the table above I believe there are three parts in a believers life in which justification language can be applied.

Sinners become Righteous by Christ’s death

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When a sinner hears the gospel and by God’s sheer grace comes to faith, they appropriate the benefits of Christ’s death on the cross (Rom 5.8-9). They repent of their sins and those sins are forgiven (Rom 4.6-8). They are made righteous by Jesus’ one righteous act (Rom 5.19). See also Lk 18.14; Tit 3.7 and Rom 8.30 referring to the same act of justification.

In no way does this come about because of a persons works, whether the works of the Jewish law (e.g. Eph 2.8) or works of righteousness (e.g. Tit 3.5; 2 Tim 1.9).

They are no longer sinners. They have been justified and are therefore righteous before God and righteous in terms of their:

  • identity (e.g. Ps 1.5-6),
  • character (e.g. Lk 23.50; Rom 5.7) and
  • behaviour (e.g. Lk 1.5-6; 1 Cor 6.11; 1 Jn 3.7).

‘To be justified is to be brought into a saving relationship with God through the new birth (1:18), in which one lives out God’s will as taught by Jesus, particularly in showing mercy to those in need.’ (248, McKnight, S., The Letter of James)

For all believers this has already happened. This is the first and necessary step to the second form of justification.

The righteous are Identified as Righteous by some means

000 Justified Mindset - C3 to C3A person is identified as righteous by their good works and their faith (in Jesus and God). God and people are also justified in their words (Rom 3.4; Mt 12.37). Wisdom is justified by her deeds (Mt 11.19; Lk 7.35). Paul says the doers of the law will be justified (Rom 2.13).

‘To be justified, then, is to have useful, saving, life, delight in God’s presence, and fruitfulness—all with an eye to the final courtroom in which the work-full believer is declared in the right by God (on the basis of what one has done?).’ (248, McKnight, S., The Letter of James)

Please keep both of these kinds of justification in mind as we read below, because whenever I see justification language applied I will make a decision which (if either) is in mind.

Righteousness in and of itself tends to bear a meaning closely related to innocence, uprightness, holiness and blamelessness. It concerns morality and ethics. However the expression is also used in conjunction with a variety of images such as covenant (blessing, promise, law of Moses), law court (condemnation, judgment), slave market (set free, slavery, dominion, reign) and sacrificial imagery (blood, death). In these contexts it tends to carry additional inferences depending on the imagery being used.

Lets move on to James.


First thing we need to work out is who James has written too. The openings of most letters give us a good idea.

1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,

To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.

2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (Jas 1.1-4)

James is speaking to existing believers. He calls them ‘brothers’ throughout. He acknowledges they have ‘faith’ (Jas 1.3). While he is not as distinct as Paul, James implies they came to faith at some earlier stage when he says;

2 My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. (Jas 2.1)

If they ‘hold the faith’, they must have come to faith at some earlier point in time. James also looks forward to when he considers Jesus’ second coming.

7 Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. 8 You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. (Jas 5.7-8)

According to James’ statements, we can say James’ audience has come to faith at some earlier point and they anticipate the second coming of Lord Jesus.

‘All that we know of the place of Jerusalem and of James in the Jewish-Christian movement makes it entirely plausible that this letter is an encyclical from the head of the mother church to all Jewish-Christian communities.

There must have been such communities in many parts of the diaspora from a very early date, before Christians from Jerusalem began to take their message elsewhere (Acts 11:19), because large numbers of Jews from all over the known world were constantly visiting Jerusalem for the festivals (cf. Acts 2:5–11) and returning home. Many must have heard the Christian message from the preaching of the Jerusalem church leaders in the temple.

James’s letter may therefore be of very early date. That it is oblivious of the issues concerning Gentile Christians and the law which Paul’s Gentile mission raised (see the comment on 2:13–26) may indicate that it was written before such matters were controversial.’ (Bauckham, R., 2003. James. In J. D. G. Dunn & J. W. Rogerson, eds. Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, p. 1483.)


The passage in question is Jas 2.14-26. Lets walk through it.

14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?

15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?

17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (Jas 2.14-17)

James identifies his audience as his ‘brothers’. His opening statements establish a connection between faith, salvation and works.

‘James is Jewish, and he writes to a messianic Jewish community. It would be impossible for such a person or such a readership to hear the word “works” and not connect it to the Mosaic Torah. In fact, I propose that James means “works of the Torah” when he says “works,” but he understands works through the lens of the Jesus Creed, and that means he generalizes “works” into a life shaped by following Jesus’ teaching about doing Torah through love of God and others. That is, for James “works” means a life of loving God and loving others, and loving others means deeds of compassion toward those in need. This rendering of “works” is established by 2:8–13.13’ (McKnight, S., The Letter of James)

The particular works he is referring to is helping the poor and needy. The concept could easily be applied to good works in general.

Faith without works:

  • is useless (2:14, 16),
  • cannot save (2:14),
  • is ineffective (2:20),
  • and is dead (2:17, 26).

(McKnight, S., The Letter of James)

The way a person can tell if there or another persons faith is dead is the absence of good works. In the case he mentions the person sinned by neglecting to do what is right (Jas 4.17).

It might be good to remind ourselves that sometimes the noun ‘faith’ can describe peoples actions (e.g. Mt 9.2; Rom 1.8; 1 Thes 1.3,8).

According to James living faith (opposite of dead faith) is always accompanied by good works. So we should expect an existing believer (e.g. Rom 5.7) to make a regular practice of keeping God’s law, practicing righteousness, which includes helping the poor when the opportunity presents itself.

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. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! (Jas 2.18-19)

James continues along similar lines. A persons works reveals and ‘shows’ their faith.

20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?

21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works;

23 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.

24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?

26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. (Jas 2.20-26)

James speaks about justification, faith and works. To show how justification language is used in this passage I have drawn the diagram below.

I’ve drawn various horizontal relationships between faith and a profession of faith, and between faith and works.

Vertically, I have drawn relationships between justification, faith, profession of faith and works. This is important for understanding how justification fits into James’ wider argument.

301 Justify James
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James is saying genuine faith will lead to works, and the evidence someone has genuine faith is their works (Jas 2.17,18,20,22,26). Looking at the above diagram we can see that when James says this he has what I have drawn as the horizontal relationships in mind. Genuine faith is always accompanied by works.

But James also says a ‘person is justified by works’ (Jas 2.21,24,25). This is one of the three vertical relationships I’ve drawn. This is what I want to focus on. The vertical association between justification and works that James makes.

The critical questions regarding justification in this passage are;

  • Q1) What does James mean by ‘justified’ when he says ‘justified by works’? (Jas 2.21,24,25)
  • Q2) What does James mean by ‘counted to him as righteousness’ when he quotes, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’? (Jas 2.23)
  • Q3) What does James mean by ‘justified’ when he implies people are ‘justified by faith’ (Jas 2.24)?
  • Q4) What does James mean by ‘justified’ when he says a ‘person is justified by works and not by faith alone’? (Jas 2.24)

These are simple and direct questions. What do the Greek verbs translated as ‘justified’ mean? I’m not asking what the overall passage is meant to communicate to its listeners. I am asking what the specific word ‘justified’ (or group of dikai verbs that are rendered thus) means in this passage.

Q1) What does James mean by ‘justified’ when he says ‘justified by works’? (Jas 2.21,24,25)

Answer; James is equating justification with the identification (or recognition) of ‘the righteous’ by a certain means.

000 Justify C3 Identify - ChristianIn this case, ‘works’. By a person’s lifelong works (plural), they can be identified, deemed, reckoned, considered or judged by others as ‘righteous’. This is what James means by ‘a person is justified by works’.

This kind of justification terminology is about distinguishing whether a person is righteous or not. Or in other words, to say someone has been ‘justified by works’ is another way of saying ‘you can tell this person is righteous or one of ‘the righteous’ by their works, the way they live their life’.

If you ask google to define justified a few of the definitions are;

  • having, done for, or marked by a good or legitimate reason (“the doctors were justified in treating her”)
  • show or prove to be right or reasonable (“the person appointed has fully justified our confidence”)
  • be a good reason for (“the situation was grave enough to justify further investigation”)

Just as works show a person saving and working faith, so to does a persons works show that they are righteous.

This is the way James is using justified. To be justified by works means they are shown to be right by some means.

Q2) What does James mean by ‘counted to him as righteousness’ when he quotes, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’? (Jas 2.23)

Answer: When God perceived Abraham’s belief in his promise he considered Abraham’s faith as righteousness.

James equates the counting of righteousness with justification and understands both as the identification of the righteous by a certain means.

When James quotes this passage he makes a few points. Considering the horizontal and vertical relationships in the drawing above.

Firstly (horizontally), James argues, genuine faith is always accompanied by works. Abraham’s genuine faith in God led to his lifelong works, including his offering of Isaac (Jas 2.21). So in Genesis 15, God promised Abraham offspring.  When God perceived that Abraham believed in his promise. He counted him righteous. The counting of righteousness was an advanced prediction of Abraham’s later righteous behaviour, his works. In this sense ‘the scripture was fulfilled’ when Abraham offered up Isaac.

Secondly (vertically), when God perceived Abraham’s belief in his promise (Gen 15.5-6; which only God can look into someones heart and know they believe) he (God) identified, deemed, reckoned, considered or judged Abraham as righteous. So belief in the promises of God is another form of evidence (just like works) by which one may determine if someone is righteous (one of the righteous) or not.

In this case Abraham was identified as righteous by his belief in God’s promise and then later he was identified as righteous by his lifelong works leading to his offering up his son Isaac. In both instances Abraham was justified by God in his sight (cf. Gen 15.6; 22.16-18).

Q3) What does James mean by ‘justified’ when he implies people are ‘justified by faith’ (Jas 2.24)?

Answer; Following through with question 2 and treating the meaning of justification in this context consistently. When James implies people are ‘justified by faith’ he means people are identified as righteous in the sight of God by their faith (belief in God and trust in his promises).

Q4) What does James mean by ‘justified’ when he says a ‘person is justified by works and not by faith alone’? (Jas 2.24)

Answer; Again, following through with previous questions and treating the meaning of justification in this context consistently. When James says a ‘person is justified by works and not by faith alone’ he means people are identified in the sight of God as righteous by their works and not by their faith alone.

Clement of Rome

I quoted this passage below in my Justification in the Early Church series. Clements first use of the verb ‘justified’ is applied in the same way as James.

Seeing, therefore, that we are the portion of the Holy One, let us do all those things which pertain to holiness, avoiding all evil-speaking, all abominable and impure embraces, together with all drunkenness, seeking after change, all abominable lusts, detestable adultery, and execrable pride.

“For God,” saith [the Scripture], “resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble.” (Jas 4.6; cf. Prov 3.34)

Let us cleave, then, to those to whom grace has been given by God. Let us clothe ourselves with concord and humility, ever exercising self-control, standing far off from all whispering and evil-speaking, being JUSTIFIED by our works, and not our words.

For [the Scripture] saith, “He that speaketh much, shall also hear much in answer. And does he that is ready in speech deem himself RIGHTEOUS? Blessed is he that is born of woman, who liveth but a short time: be not given to much speaking.”

Let our praise be in God, and not of ourselves; for God hateth those that commend themselves. Let testimony to our good deeds be borne by others, as it was in the case of our RIGHTEOUS forefathers. Boldness, and arrogance, and audacity belong to those that are accursed of God; but moderation, humility, and meekness to such as are blessed by Him.

(Clement of Rome. (1885). The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians. (A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe, Eds.) The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I: The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (p. 13f). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.)

Unlike James, Clement does not obscure what he says about justification by works with a parallel argument about faith and works. The main point of his argument is that he does not want his audience to brag and say they are righteous. Rather he wants them to be justified by works. That is to show they are righteous by their good deeds.

With respect to justification by works, James and Clement mean the same thing.

Abraham in Paul and James

Abraham came to saving faith in Genesis 12. Both Paul and the author of Hebrews testify to this. In both Gal 3.8-9 and Heb 11.8 the authors are very clear this is the kind of faith people need. The point in Abraham’s life when he became righteous in God’s sight is in Genesis 12. Not in Genesis 15. In Genesis 15, 17 and 22 Abraham was an existing believer. This means he was already righteous, a beneficiary of God’s covenant promises.

From this point lets compare Paul’s and James’ understanding of Abraham’s life respectively.


Abraham in Paul

Paul had to deal with church communities consisting of both Jewish and Gentile believers. There were tensions between the Jews and Gentile Christians. Some Jews believed the Gentiles had to observe the works of law God commanded in the law of Moses. In both Romans and Galatians Paul is writing to a majority audience of believing Gentiles who are therefore righteous in God’s sight.

Paul’s main point in both Romans 1-3 and in Galatians is to argue believing Gentiles are righteous in the sight of God.

From the Jewish point of view the works of law identified Jews as the righteous and were considered by the Jews morally obligatory.

45 Justify Frame - Christian and JewishPaul argues that faith (in Christ) is the key marker that identifies who the righteous are. He does this in order to get people to understand Gentile believers were already accepted by God, without having to observe the works of law.

Paul argues this by looking at Abraham’s life. Several years into his life as a believer in God, Abraham was counted righteous. He was counted righteous before he was circumcised (Rom 4.9-12), before he became like one who works (Rom 4.4). Before he became like a Jew who observed works of law.

Its clear from the surrounding context that when Paul refers to works in Rom 4.4 and 4.6 he still has in mind ‘works of law’ (Rom 3.27-31) and particularly circumcision (Rom 4.9).

During that time Abraham was effectively a non-Torah observant but believing Gentile.

Like David, Abraham didn’t have to perform any levitical sacrifices (works) to enjoy the covenant blessing of forgiveness (Rom 4.7-8). Neither do the Gentile believers.

So Paul is saying Gentile believers are just like Abraham was before he got circumcised. They also are counted righteous because they believe (Rom 4.23-25). Which is why he ends chapter 4 saying;

23 But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also.

It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord,

25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. (Rom 4.23-25)

He compares Gen 15 and Gen 17 to highlight these before and after stages in Abraham’s life and applies it to defend believing Gentiles (like those in his audience) against some Jews who thought they should observe the works of law.

Abraham in James

James on the other hand has another context in mind. The believers he is addressing are neglecting to care for their poor and needy brothers. They should be doing good works to help them.

With this in mind he considers the relationship between faith and works. His argument is that believers should be identified by their good works as not by their faith alone. As does Clement above.

James compares Gen 15 with Gen 22. Note in both cases Abraham was already a believer because of Gen 12. James admits Abraham was identified as righteous in Gen 15. Then he goes on to say this living faith lead to his works (plural) which include offering up Isaac in Gen 22.

Abraham was identified as righteous by God by his faith (Gen 15.6) and his works (Gen 22.16-18). If Abraham did not have any works we have reason to doubt he was righteous in the sight of God and therefore he would not be saved.

The same applies to James’ audience.


Both Paul and James use the same Greek verb rendered as ‘justified’. These Greek verbs are δικαιοται (Trans. dikaioutai; cf. Jas 2.24; Gal 2.16; 3.11) and ἐδικαιώθη (Trans. edikaiōthē; cf. Jas 2.21,25; Rom 4.2).

Both Paul and James are arguing about how God identifies the righteous.

000 Justify C3 Identify - ChristianI believe in some verses Paul is applying the same understanding of justification as James does. Here is one example.

6 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ (Gal 2:16)

The core difference between Paul’s statements about ‘justification by faith in Jesus’ (Rom 4, Gal 2) and James ‘justified by works and not by faith alone’ (Jas 2) is NOT they have different understandings of ‘justified’.

The core difference is the kind of ‘works’ they are referring to and what they are trying to accomplish with their audiences.

Paul is arguing against the Jewish works of law (circumcision, Sabbath, festivals, sacrifices and washings) in order to get people to believe Gentile Christians are righteous in God’s sight. Because they believe in Jesus Christ, not because they observe the works of law. (I’ve argued for this definition of ‘works of law’ in my New Perspective page. While helping the needy and the poor is part of the law of Moses, I do not believe Paul has this in mind when he rebukes the Galatians.)

‘Justification by works, then, is not by “works of the law” so much as it is by “works of mercy” as the way to interpret genuine Torah observance. As James calls the messianic community to such (1:19–27; 2:1–4, 14–17), so he appeals to Abraham as one whose entire life came to expression in acts of hospitality that led to his own act of sacrificing his son to God the Provider. For James, Abraham’s faith, his lifelong faithfulness, is found in that word “works.” What James will not tolerate is a kind of “faith” that is not like Abraham’s faithfulness.’ (251, McKnight, S., The Letter of James)

James is stressing believers still need to help the poor and needy. This work in particular identifies God’s people as righteous through the ages.

Okay, what do the reformers Luther and Calvin say about James? Lets have a look.


Luther wrote two pieces of note.

Luther rejects James

Luther’s initially denied the letter of James was apostolic.

martin-lutherThough this epistle of St. James was rejected by the ancients, I praise it and consider it a good book, because it sets up no doctrines of men but vigorously promulgates the law of God.

However, to state my own opinion about it, though without prejudice to anyone, I do not regard it as the writing of an apostle, and my reasons follow.

In the first place it is flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works (Jas 2:24). It says that Abraham was justified by his works when he offered his son Isaac (Jas 2:21);

Though in Romans 4:2 St. Paul teaches to the contrary that Abraham was justified apart from works, by his faith alone, before he had offered his son, and proves it by Moses in Genesis 15:6.

Although it would be possible to “save” the epistle by a gloss giving a correct explanation of justification here ascribed to works, it is impossible to deny that it does refer to Moses’ words in Genesis 15 (which speaks not of Abraham’s works but of his faith, just as Paul makes plain in Romans 4) to Abraham’s works.

This fault proves that this epistle is not the work of any apostle. (p395-398, Luthers Works, vol 35.)

Why does he do this? I think these reasons made it difficult for him:

Firstly, Luther misunderstood what Paul means by law. Typically in Paul’s writings when Paul refers to the ‘law’ he means the Torah. Generally he means the commands in the law of Moses, or in a few locations he means the story of the Jews.

Second, Luther probably understands in order for someone to be righteous, they have to be sinless and perfect. A casual word search on righteous in the scriptures will correct this. Generally, when someone is called righteous in the scriptures it does not mean they are sinless and perfect rather it means they make an imperfect practice of all of God’s commands (e.g. Lk 1.5-6), they keep the law, they are blameless in God’s sight (e.g. Phil 3.6).

Lastly, because Luther did not believe people were righteous because they always sinned. It made it more unlikely he would think justification could be used in the sense where the righteous are identified by some means. Especially by their works!

Its my opinion he believes justification can only be when a sinner is first declared righteous in the sight of God and by no means implies they are righteous in their behaviour (Contra 1 Jn 3.7; Lk 1.5-6; Rom 5.7). I suspect he only believes in this kind of justification below.

301 Justified Luther
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Luther does not think justified can be used in the sense where the righteous are identified by some means (faith or works).

Implied in what Luther writes is a choice he made. Either affirm Paul’s letter of Romans as apostolic or affirm James’ letter as apostolic. He chose his interpretation of justification by faith over the authority of scripture written by James.

My contention is that Luther misunderstood James. Here are both verses;

Was not Abraham our father justified [edikaiothe] by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? (Jas 2.21)

For if Abraham was justified [edikaiothe] by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God (Rom 4.2)

Please note they are using the exact same Greek verb edikaiothe. The same verb used in different locations can mean the same thing right?

Its my belief, James and Paul are referring to the same kind of justification (the identification of the righteous) but are thinking about different kinds of works. They have different agendas.

Paul denies the righteous are identified by works of law (circumcision, sacrifice, washings, festivals) because he wants to include believing Gentiles as the righteous.

James affirms the righteous are identified by works (helping the poor) because he expects these kinds of works should be typical of all God’s people.

Luther was so enamoured with his interpretation of what Paul meant by ‘one is justified by faith apart from works of law’, that he was prepared to reject any other scripture that contradicted his interpretation. Consequently Luther initially rejected James’ letter as apostolic.

But he changed his mind…

Luther affirms James

Luther over time must have changed his mind about about James and developed his theology because he says this in his Romans commentary.

Book Luther Preface to Romans“Here the question arises: How can a person be justified without the works of the Law, or how can it be that justification does not flow from out works?

For St. James writes: ‘We see how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only’ (Jas 2.24). So also St. Paul: ‘Faith … worketh by love’ (Gal 5.6); and: ‘The doers of the law shall be justified’ (Rom 2.13).

To this we reply: As the Apostle distinguishes between the law and faith, the letter and grace, so also he distinguishes between the works resulting from these.

(p75, M. Luther, Commentary on Romans, Trans. J.T. Mueller)

In his later life Luther had to defend himself in part from the charge of antinomianism. We can see here Luther has established the same relationship between faith and works. True faith will result in good works.

He calls those deeds ‘works of the Law’ that are done without faith and divine grace, merely because of the law, moved either by fear of punishment or the alluring hope of reward. (ibid)

Luther never really worked out Paul was specifically speaking about the Jewish law here. He generalised what he thought Paul’s meaning was and applied it to all works. Particularly any ‘work’ done without faith. In part he has aligned himself to the Roman Catholic definition of the term (cf. Rainbow, The Way of Salvation: The role of Christian obedience in Justification). Otherwise he implicitly refutes what the medieval Roman Catholic church taught about punishment and rewards (cf. Word Study – Reward).

But works of faith he calls those deeds which are done in the spirit of the (Christian) liberty and flow from love to God. These can be done only by such as are justified by faith. (ibid)

James has said these works of faith follow justification by faith. He is referring to the C1 to C3 justification here.

Justification, however is not in any way promoted by the works of the Law, but they rather hinder it, because they keep a person from regarding himself as unrighteous and so in need of justification.

When James and Paul say that a person is justified by works, they argue against the false opinion of those who think that (for justification) a faith suffices that is without works. (ibid)

Its possible Luther here is thinking about Gal 5.6 and Rom 2.13 which he has mentioned above. If I paraphrase what Luther says here,

‘when Paul says that a person is ‘justified by works’ (Rom 4.2?), he argues against the false opinion faith suffices if it is without works’.

I think Luther is getting mixed up here. He seems to make two opposite arguments with the same verse.

Paul does not say that true faith exists without its proper works, for without these there is no true faith. (ibid)

Which we will see is the standard reformed position on James and Justification. Highlighting the relationship between faith and works. Avoiding what James means by ‘justified’ in ‘justified by works’.

But what he says is that it is faith alone that justifies, regardless of works. (ibid)

This is the classic Lutheran position on justification and faith.

Justification therefore does not presuppose the works of the Law, but rather a living faith, which performs its proper works, as we read in Galatians 5.6” (ibid)

None of this suggests Luther believed justification could mean the righteous are identified by some means.


Calvin wrote a commentary on James. He mentions James in his Romans commentary and refers to James in his Institutes.

Calvin avoids James

John Calvin wrote a commentary on James. Calvin’s interpretation blurred the distinction between the horizontal and vertical relationships.

301 Justify James

When he does this he turns people’s attention away from what James is explicitly saying about justification. Commenting on James’ statement, ‘Abraham was justified by works’ he says,

Calvin reformerBut wilt thou know. We must understand the state of the question, for the dispute here is not respecting the cause of justification, but only what avails a profession of faith without works, and what opinion we are to form of it.

Absurdly then do they act who strive to prove by this passage that man is justified by works, because James meant no such thing,

for the proofs which he subjoins refer to this declaration, that no faith, or only a dead faith, is without works. No one will ever understand what is said, nor judge wisely of words, except he who keeps in view the design of the writer.

(Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles (p. 314f). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.)

Calvin writes, ‘Absurdly then do they act who strive to prove by this passage that man is justified by works, because James meant no such thing’. I disagree.

James says, ‘a person is justified by works’ (Jas 2.21,24,25). James means what he says.

Calvin does not understand what James means by ‘justified’. Calvin refers to the ‘design of the writer’ and in doing so he avoids what James is saying about justification. What James means by it.

Was not Abraham. The Sophists lay hold on the word justified, and then they cry out as being victorious, that justification is partly by works. But we ought to seek out a right interpretation according to the general drift of the whole passage. (ibid)

Again Calvin avoids what James is saying about justification by referring to the ‘general drift of the whole passage’.

We have already said that James does not speak here of the cause of justification, or of the manner how men obtain righteousness, and this is plain to every one; (ibid)

Everyone except Calvin’s opponents. Calvin has revealed what he thinks about justification here. He understands justification in terms of how ‘men obtain righteousness’. Just like Luther.

301 Justified Luther

but that his object was only to shew that good works are always connected with faith; and, therefore, since he declares that Abraham was justified by works, he is speaking of the proof he gave of his justification. (ibid)

Calvin refers to the horizontal relationship between faith and works. He does this by saying, ‘good works are always connected with faith’. Then he says, that when ‘he declares that Abraham was justified by works, he is speaking of the proof he gave of his justification.’

Calvin means the proof he gave of his C1 to C3 justification. This is true in a sense. Good works do follow this kind of justification. But James doesn’t say ‘Abraham gave proof of his justification’. James is thinking of justification in terms of how the righteous are identified. Remember he is speaking to a believing audience and he expects their existing faith to be accompanied by good works.

Calvin doesn’t get this understanding of justification. He only thinks of justification as a C1 to C3 transfer, a C2 event. But James says ‘Abraham was justified by works’. Calvin is avoiding what James said. He has dodged the issue.

When, therefore, the Sophists set up James against Paul, they go astray through the ambiguous meaning of a term. When Paul says that we are justified by faith, he means no other thing than that by faith we are counted righteous before God. (ibid)

I agree. Justified by faith does mean the same thing as counted righteous. But I don’t think Calvin understands what Paul and James mean by ‘justified’ and ‘counted righteous’ in these passages. Both are speaking about existing believers.

But James has quite another thing in view, even to shew that he who professes that he has faith, must prove the reality of his faith by his works. (ibid)

Again, Calvin refers to the horizontal relationship to avoid the vertical relationship between justification and works. When he encounters the vertical relationship between justification by works, he shifts quickly to the horizontal relationship between faith and works to blur how James understands the expression ‘justified by works’. Calvin avoids what James says.

That we may not then fall into that false reasoning which has deceived the Sophists, we must take notice of the twofold meaning of the word justified.

Paul means by it the gratuitous imputation of righteousness before the tribunal of God; and

James, the manifestation of righteousness by the conduct, and that before men, as we may gather from the preceding words, “Shew to me thy faith,” &c.

In this sense we fully allow that man is justified by works, as when any one says that a man is enriched by the purchase of a large and valuable estate, because his riches, before hid, shut up in a chest, were thus made known. (ibid)

Calvin’s interpretation of what Paul means by justified depends greatly on his understanding of imputation. We should note however that both Paul and James refer to Gen 15.6 which uses the verb ‘counted’.

None the less Calvin now interprets James’ meaning of ‘justification by works’ is now the manifestation of his righteousness. Calvin terms the C1 to C3 event of justification as ‘his righteousness’ and refers to the conduct manifests itself afterward.

Calvin avoids in Romans

Calvin also refers to James in his Romans Commentary.

What James says, that man is not justified by faith alone, but also by works, does not at all militate against the preceding view. The reconciling of the two views depends chiefly on the drift of the argument pursued by James.

For the question with him is not, how men attain righteousness before God, but how they prove to others that they are justified;

for his object was to confute hypocrites, who vainly boasted that they had faith.

Gross then is the sophistry, not to admit that the word, to justify, is taken in a different sense by James, from that in which it is used by Paul; for they handle different subjects. The word, faith, is also no doubt capable of various meanings. These two things must be taken to the account, before a correct judgment can be formed on the point.

We may learn from the context, that James meant no more than that man is not made or proved to be just by a feigned or dead faith, and that he must prove his righteousness by his works.

(Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (p. 149). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.)

Calvin says similar things though out.

  • ‘depends chiefly on the drift of the argument pursued by James’
  • ‘how they prove to others that they are justified’
  • ‘he must prove his righteousness by his works’

Calvin is consistent. One of the things I like about him. He is wrong on Justification in James though. And I think Paul. His mistake is that he consistently thinks justification is a C1 to C3 event through which someone becomes righteous in God’s sight. He cannot seem to comprehend the meaning of ‘justified’ in James as the means by which the righteous are identified.

Calvin avoids in his Institutes

Calvin maintains a similar stance in his Institutes. The text following has a reasonable amount of his justification theology. He will speak about imputation and union in Christ. In this section Calvin is answering different peoples arguments against his position.

(11) But they say that we have a still more serious business with James, who in express terms opposes us. For he asks, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works?” and adds, “You see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only,” (James 2:21, 24.)

(Calvin, J., & Beveridge, H. (1845). Institutes of the Christian religion (Vol. 2, p. 406f). Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society.)

So they, probably his Roman Catholic opponents, probably brought up James quite often to say a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Calvin resists.

What then? Will they engage Paul in a quarrel with James? If they hold James to be a servant of Christ, his sentiments must be understood as not dissenting from Christ speaking by the mouth of Paul. By the mouth of Paul the Spirit declares that Abraham obtained justification by faith, not by works; we also teach that all are justified by faith without the works of the law. (ibid)

Like Luther, Calvin doesn’t seem to understand what Paul means by the works of Law and the Jew – Gentile issues contained in Romans and Galatians.

By James the same Spirit declares that both Abraham’s justification and ours consists of works, and not of faith only. It is certain that the Spirit cannot be at variance with himself. Where, then, will be the agreement? (ibid)

Calvin is better than Luther here. He credits James saying it is of the same Spirit. That is the scripture is God breathed and inspired.

For how does true faith justify unless by uniting us to Christ, so that being made one with him, we may be admitted to a participation in his righteousness? It does not justify because it forms an idea of the divine existence, but because it reclines with confidence on the divine mercy. (ibid)

Here is his union / participation in Christ theology on justification. Basically when someone is ‘in Christ’, what happens to Christ happens to them also (death, burial, resurrection). I write a bit about this in my gospel series (See United with Him). In addition some say as well the attributes and ethical character of Christ becomes theirs as well. With respect to justification, if someone is ‘clothed’ in Christ they have his righteousness. Calvin probably means one or both of these.

(12) We have not made good our point until we dispose of the other paralogism: since James places a part of justification in works. If you would make James consistent with the other Scriptures and with himself, you must give the word justify, as used by him, a different meaning from what it has with Paul. In the sense of Paul we are said to be justified when the remembrance of our unrighteousness is obliterated, and we are counted righteous. (ibid)

301 Justified LutherSo, first up Calvin tries to give the word ‘justify’ different meaning. Well it depends on which instance of justified and justify Paul speaks about in Romans and Galatians. Calvin here clearly identifies Paul’s use of justify as a C1 to C3 justification event. I agree in some cases, but not all.

Had James had the same meaning it would have been absurd for him to quote the words of Moses, “Abraham believed God,” &c. The context runs thus: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness.”

If it is absurd to say that the effect was prior to its cause, either Moses falsely declares in that passage that Abraham’s faith was imputed for righteousness, or Abraham, by his obedience in offering up Isaac, did not merit righteousness. Before the existence of Ishmael, who was a grown youth at the birth of Isaac, Abraham was justified by his faith. How then can we say that he obtained justification by an obedience which followed long after?

Please refer to my discussion above concerning the relationship between Paul and James. So Calvin continues;

Wherefore, either James erroneously inverts the proper order, (this it were impious to suppose,) or he meant not to say that he was justified, as if he deserved to be deemed just. (ibid)

Um. God said to Abraham after he stopped him from sacrificing Isaac;

15 And the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, 18 and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” (Ge 22:15–18)

The text above is why James says he was justified by works. God says ‘because you have done this’. Which suggests to me in James’ mind Abraham was counted righteous here because he offered up Isaac. God said (at least in part) he deserved the blessing.

What then? It appears certain that he is speaking of the manifestation, not of the imputation of righteousness, as if he had said, Those who are justified by true faith prove their justification by obedience and good works, not by a bare and imaginary semblance of faith. In one word, he is not discussing the mode of justification, but requiring that the justification of believers shall be operative. And as Paul contends that men are justified without the aid of works, so James will not allow any to be regarded as justified who are destitute of good works. (ibid)

Calvin runs home to mama and reverts to his original understanding. Thinking again the kind of justification discussed here by Paul and James is the C1 to C3 event.


The guts of my argument is this. The reformers misunderstood James’ understanding of Justification because they solely think of justification in terms of sinners declared righteous (becoming righteous in God’s sight).

They do not understand justification can also refer to the identification of the righteous as James intends. They certainly do not believe Paul uses justified in that sense as well.

Their chief method in dealing with James’ statement ‘a person is justified by works’ is by avoiding the issue and focusing instead on the relationship between faith and works (initial salvation and the character of life afterward).

So I fear what could ever convince Protestants that the classic doctrine ‘faith alone justifies’ is wrong?

If the text says ‘a person is justified by works and not by faith alone’, then according to standard Protestant doctrine, James’ understanding of ‘justified by works’ means he proves by his works he is already justified by faith. This reading is unfalsifiable.

The Protestant reading James this way has already decided that works cannot justify, so if the text says ‘a person is justified by works’, then we have to redefine what ‘justified’ means. This seems like a can’t-lose proposition. No evidence could ever be adduced that would prove the contrary. The idea that a person is justified by works is ruled out dogmatically and presuppositionally from the outset.

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