Criswell Theological Review 4.1 (1986) 31-50.

          Copyright © 1986 by The Criswell CollegeCited with permission. 




                        JAMES 2:14-26:





                             ROBERT V. RAKESTRAW

                        Criswell College, Dallas, TX 75201



A perennially difficult issue in the epistle of James is the author's

treatment of faith, works, and justification in Jas 2:14-26. The paragraph

is difficult to interpret not only because of the complexity of the

language and argument itself, but also because of James' seeming

contradiction with the soteriological emphasis of Paul.1 Does James

contradict Paul regarding the basis on which God justifies sinners?

Does Paul contradict James? Are there two equally-valid ways of

justification set forth in the NT--a way of faith and a way of works--

which, when properly understood, reveal the waste and tragedy of the

Reformation and Counter-Reformation struggle over sola fide and the

subsequent centuries of division within the Christian Church?

            Paul maintains adamantly that "a man is justified by faith apart

from observing the law" (Rom 3:28; see also Gal 2:16 and Rom 9:23),

yet James argues equally strenuously that "a person is justified by what

he does and not by faith alone" (2:24).2 The contrast is striking. Luther's

celebrated phrase, "ein recht strohern Epistel," to describe the letter of

James is not a mere archaism.3 In more recent years J. T. Sanders has


                1 A brief survey of the literature on the faith-works issue in Paul and James is found

in M. Dibelius, James, rev. H. Greeven (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975) 174 n 132. More

extensive bibliographies on this and related issues are in C. Brown and H. Seebass,

"Righteousness," DNTT 3 (1978) 374-77; and P. H. Davids, Commentary on James

(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982) xxi-xxxviii. The last mentioned work will be designated

James, and the briefer study by Davids (see n 9) James, GNC.

            2 Unless otherwise indicated, biblical citations are from the New International


            3 Luther's comment on James as a "right strawy epistle" is found in the Preface to

his 1522 edition of the NT. It appears only in this edition. Elsewhere Luther states: "He


32                    ISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW


set James and Paul in such direct opposition that the Bible reader is

virtually compelled to choose one over the other.4 E. C. Blackman

insists that the view of James is "a deliberate contradiction of Paul."5

J. C. Beker contends that the writer of James ignores Paul's gospel of

grace apart from law and, instead, "understands the gospel to be a

Christian interpretation of the Torah."6 And S. Laws believes that

            attempts to harmonize James and Paul and thus produce an apostolic

            consensus are probably fruitless. . . . Paul could surely never have tolerated

            James's explicit assertion that justification is not by faith alone nor his lack

            of attention to an initial saving act of God that makes faith and consequent

            good works possible. However much one may modify the superficial

            contrast, a basic lack of sympathy must remain.7


Similar points of view are expressed by G. Bornkamm, R. Bultmann,

J. Dunn, and G. Schrenk.8

            Because the allegations--both written and spoken--of a genuine

contradiction between James and Paul continue to confuse and even

demoralize the people of God by undermining their confidence in the

unity--and thereby the authority--of scripture, a continual need exists

for those with a high view of biblical inspiration to address the

problem. Renewed interest in the theme in the current theological

debate calls for fresh analyses of the matter.

            The primary purpose of this essay is to examine the issue of faith

and works in Jas 2:14-26, particularly vv 20-24, to ascertain whether or

not there is a genuine conflict between James and Paul on the matter of

justification. A secondary purpose is to illuminate the section itself and


[James] does violence to Scripture, and so contradicts Paul and all Scripture. . . . I

therefore refuse him a place among the writers of the true canon of my Bible; but I

would not prevent anyone placing him or raising him where he likes, for the epistle

contains many excellent passages." See J. Dillenberger, ed., Martin Luther: Selections

From His Writings (Garden City: Anchor, 1961) 18-19,35-36. Also see D. O. Via, Jr.,

"The Right Strawy Epistle Reconsidered: A Study in BiblicaJ Ethics and Hermeneutic,"

JR 49 (1969) 253-67.

            4 J. T. Sanders, Ethics in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975) 115-28.

            5 E. C. Blackman, The Epistle of James (London: SCM, 1957) 96.

            6 J. C. Beker, Paul the Apostle (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980) 251.

            7 S. Laws, A Commentary on the Epistle of James (San Francisco: Harper and

Row, 1980) 132-33.

            8 G. Bomkamm, Paul (New York: Harper and Row, 1971) 153-54; R. Bultmann,

Theology of the New Testament (2 vols; New York: Scribner's Sons, 1955) 2. 162-63;

J. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977)

251-52; G. Schrenk, "dike," TDNT 2 (1964) 201. A less severe contrast between Paul and

James in seen in J. H. Ropes, The Epistle of St. James (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1978

printing) 204-5.


                    Rakestraw: JAMES 2:14-26                        33


thereby draw upon its rich insight for Christian theology and ethics.

Because of the abundance of solid expository material on our text, both

older and more recent, this article is not a verse by verse study.9 Our

intention, rather, is to investigate and clarify the theological-ethical

dimensions of the faith-works issue, especially from the perspective of

James' use of Abraham, and to view James' understanding of the

patriarch's justification vis-a-vis Paul's discussion of the same.

            Our central presupposition has already been suggested. In opposi-

tion to the views of Sanders, Blackman and others of similar mind we

maintain, from a standpoint of scriptural solidarity and infallibility,

that there is no genuine contradiction between the Jacobean and

Pauline texts. However, we recognize the need for a satisfying basis for

this position. Mere theological assertions regarding the fruit-bearing

character of genuine faith do not alleviate the prima facie tension

between the apostles. To the task stated above, therefore, we now turn.


            9 Some generally helpful English-language commentaries on James, although of

uneven quality and varying theological persuasions, are those by Davids, Dibelius, Laws,

and Ropes mentioned above, as well as: J. Adamson, The Epistle of James (Grand

Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976); P. H. Davids, James (GNC; San Francisco: Harper and Row,

1983); D. E.. Hiebert, The Epistle of James (Chicago: Moody, 1979); J. B. Mayor, The

Epistle of St. James (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954 printing); C. L. Mitton, The Epistle

of James (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966); D. J. Moo, The Letter of James (Leicester:

inter-Varsity, 1985); J. A. Motyer, The Message of James (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity,

1985); A. Plummer, The General Epistles of St. James and St. Jude (London: Hodder and

Stoughton, 1891); B. Reicke, The Epistles of James, Peter, and Jude (Garden City:

poubleday, 1978); A. Ross, The Epistles of James and John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,

1954); E. M. Sidebottom, James, Jude, and 2 Peter (London: Nelson, 1967); R. V. G.

Tasker, The General Epistle of James (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957); C. Vaughan,

James (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1969).

            Other significant materials relating to Jas 2:14-26, in addition to Via in n 3, are

studies in DNTT vol. 1 (1975), "Faith" (O. Becker and O. Michel, 587 -606); vol. 3 (1978),

"Righteousness" (C. Brown and H. Seebass, 352-77), "Work" (H. C. Hahn and F. Thiele,

1147-59); and E. L. Allen, "Controversy in the New Testament," NTS 1 (1954-55) 143-

49; J.. A. Brooks, "The Place of James in the New Testament Canon," SWJT 12 (1969)

41-55; C. E.. B. Cranfield, "The Message of James," SJT 18 (1965) 182-93, 338-45; W.

Dyrness, "Mercy Triumphs Over Justice: James 2:13 and the Theology of Faith and

"Works," Themelios 6, 3 (1981) 11-16; L. Goppelt, Theology of the New Testament (2

yols; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982) 2. 199-21,1; H. P. Hamann, "Faith and Works in

Paul and James," Lutheran Theological Journal 9 (1975) 33-41; I. Jacob, "The Midrashic

Background for James II, 21-23," NTS 22 (1975) 457-64; J. Jeremias, "Paul and James,"

Exp Tim 66 (1954-55) 368-71; T. Lorenzen, "Faith without Works Does Not Count

before God! James 2:14-26," Exp Tim 89 (1978) 231-35; A. C. Thiselton, The Two

Horizons (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980) 422-27; A. E. Travis, "James and Paul, A

Study," SWJT 12 (1969) 57-70; R. B. Ward, "The Works of Abraham:

James 2:14-26" HTR 61 (1968) 283-90; J. A. Ziesler, The Meaning of Righteousness in

Paul (Cambridge, 1972) 9-14.




                                    I. Concerns of James and Paul

            A resolution of the apparent conflict is aided by the thesis, popu-

larized in recent years through an influential article by J. Jeremias,10

that the concerns addressed by James and Paul are quite different, and

thus necessitate separate lines of argument and different theological

languages. C. L. Mitton writes:

            The kind of error Paul is seeking to correct in Romans and Galatians is

            very different from the error which James is resisting, and our statement.

            of a truth varies according to the error we are opposing. If we ourselves

            were arguing against antinomians, who believed that moral conduct in a

            Christian was of little importance, our arguments would be very different

            from those we should use if our opponents were 'legalists' who believed

            that good conduct alone secured all the benefits of religion. So we must

            remember that in general Paul is urging his case against Judaizers, who

            believed salvation depended, in part at any rate, on doing the works of the

            law, whereas James was ranged against antimonians who believed that

            inward faith was all that mattered.11


Paul and James “are not antagonists facing each other with crossed

swords, they stand back to back, confronting different foes of the

Gospel.”12 "Paul is attacking self-righteous legalism, and James self-

righteous indifference."13 When we thus understand the different areas

of concern addressed by Paul and James we are helped considerably in

understanding that the apparent conflict between them is not genuine

opposition. A careful reading of Romans, Galatians, and James reveals

behind the argument of each apostle the kind of false teaching being


            This raises the question of which author wrote first or taught first.

Did Paul presuppose James, or did James presuppose Paul? While we

maintain that neither Paul nor James was directly opposing the other,

we ought to ask whose theology had been disseminated first among the

diasporic Jewish Christians whom James is addressing. The position of

most commentators-- J. Mayor is a notable exception14--is that Paul's

theology is in some way the prior doctrine, and that James is seeking to


            10 Jeremias, "Paul and James."

            11 Mitton, James 104.

            12 Ross, James and John 53.

            13 Brown and Seebass, "Righteousness" 370.

            14 Mayor, St. James xci-cii.


                     Rakestraw: JAMES 2:14-26                        35


correct a distortion of the Pauline teaching on justification by faith

apart from works. This view does not necessitate the writing of

Romans or Galatians before James, but depends upon the prior knowl-

edge and subsequent corruption of Paul's basic soteriology. While the

majority view appears preferable, it should not be insisted upon.

Furthermore, by leaning in this direction we are not suggesting that

James is systematically developing his argument in close relation to the

Pauline teachings. P. Davids notes that "it is possible that James is

reacting to Paul, but if so it is a Paulinism so garbled and misunderstood

that every term is redefined and no trace of a conflict over Jewish cultic

rites remains."15 To Davids, "it seems best to understand James to be

refuting a Jewish Christian attempt to minimize the demands of the

gospel rather than a misunderstood Paulinism."16  It is difficult, however,

to avoid seeing some glimpses of Paul's thought--however distorted--in

Jas 2:14-26.17 C. Brown appears correct in stating that "James' position

presupposes the radically non-Jewish separation of faith and works

wrought by Paul."18

            A further stage in the commonly-attempted resolution of the

apparent conflict between James and Paul is to demonstrate the

different meanings of terms employed by the writers. According to

Jeremias, Mitton, Davids, and others, three highly significant words--

faith, works, and justify--are used by both James and Paul, yet with

widely different meanings.19 All are found together in Paul in Rom 3:28

and Gal 2:16, and all are in Jas 2:24, which, as Davids observes, "must

be viewed as a crux interpretum, not only for James, but for NT

theology in general."20  Because of the great importance of these three

terms we will consider their meanings in James and Paul to ascertain

what differences there may be between the writers and how such

differences affect their arguments. Following that, we will examine the

arguments of James and Paul from the life of Abraham.


            15 Davids, James 21.

            16 Ibid. See also Plummer, St. James and St. Jude 138-48.

            17 However, we ought not to see "by faith alone" in 2:24 as a deliberate reference to

Paul, as does Jeremias, who writes that there can be no doubt 2:24 presupposes Paul, for

the thesis "by faith alone" which James apparently contradicts, "is nowhere met with in

the whole literature of Judaism and of the earliest Christianity except only in Paul" ("Paul

and James" 368). The error here (and in Via, "Right Strawy Epistle" 257) is in failing to

realize that the phrase "by faith alone" never actually occurs in the Pauline corpus.

            18 Brown and Seebass, "Righteousness" 369.

            19 Jeremias, "Paul and James"; Mitton, James 104-8; Davids, James 50-51.

            20 Davids, James 130.




                                    II. Terminologies of James and Paul


            Whereas Paul champions justification by faith, James teaches that

justification is "not by faith alone." For James, however, pistis ("faith")

in vv 14-26 is equivalent to the intellectual acceptance of theological

assertions, particularly the monotheistic creed (which even the demons

believe) mentioned in v 19. His emphasis at the beginning of the

paragraph (2:14) on the vocal agreement with right doctrine ("if a man

claims to have faith") and his deliberate use of the article ("such faith")

indicate the kind of faith he has in mind. In addition, his speaking of

"faith by itself" (v 17) and "faith alone" (v 24) reveal that his concept is

one of mental agreement. And, as Davids notes, "the fact that James

writes you believe that rather than 'you believe in' shows that he is

thinking of intellectual belief rather than personal commitment.”21

Paul, however, considers faith as reliance upon God that brings salva-

tion and its fruits. The conclusion to his magisterial development of

justification stresses faith as trust which brings peace with God, and

with it rejoicing--even in sufferings (Rom 5:1-5). In addition, the

object of Paul's faith is the blood of Christ (Rom 3:25), whereas the

object of the faith discussed by James is Judaistic (and probably

Christian, see 2:1) doctrine.

            Yet James does not deny the propriety of theological orthodoxy

and belief, for he tells the objector "you do well" for affirming the

Shema (2:19). He argues rather that faith without works is barren and

useless. Nor is James saying that faith, properly understood, does not

save, for this would be tantamount to a direct contradiction of Pauline

soteriology. What he teaches is that one's verbal profession of or

signature to a set of right beliefs does not effect salvation (v 14). As

D. Moo contends, "it is absolutely vital to understand that the main

point of this argument, expressed three times (in vv 7, 20. and 26), is

not that works must be added to faith but that genuine faith includes

works. That is its very nature."22 A. Thiselton cautions further that in

our text James is not simply the negative corollary of Paul.


            James is not merely attacking an inadequate view of faith, but is also

            giving what amounts to a fairly sophisticated and positive account of the

            logical grammar of his own concept of faith. . . . He is saying that his


            21 Davids, James, GNC 49.

            22 Moo, James 99.


                    Rakestraw: JAMES 2:14-26                                    31


            concept of faith would exclude instances of supposed belief which have

            no observable backing or consequences in life.23


With Paul faith is entailed in the very concept of justification, whereas

with James right actions are entailed in the very concept of faith.

J. Ropes writes that "James's real contention in vv 20- 22 is not so much

of the necessity of works as of the inseparability of vital faith and

works."24 It is thus wrong to infer or imply that James contributes in

any way to a low view of faith; he rather elevates and characterizes

positively the kind of faith that pleases God and is instrumental in the

salvation of men and women. This is not to say that the actual

occurrences of the word "faith" in Jas 2:14-26 contain this full sense of

of the word, for we have just said otherwise. But by focusing upon the

is mental aspect of faith--something good in itself--as being only part of

justifying faith, James thereby teaches the depth and maturity of faith

as God intends it to be.

            We have seen, then, that there is a difference in the emphasis put

upon "faith" by Paul and James. To each, faith is good and necessary

for salvation, but James emphasizes the intellectual-objective aspect of

faith and Paul the volitional-subjective aspect which actually includes

the former and which should follow it. A person must believe what is

true and then act from the heart upon that truth and personally trust the

object of his or her faith. This kind of faith is saving faith. It brings

justification apart from works, and it issues in a Christian life full of

good works (Eph 2:8-10). There is no genuine contradiction between

James and Paul on the matter of faith, but an awareness of the

distinctive emphasis each gives to the word helps to dispel the notion

that a real conflict exists.



            Whereas Paul teaches that justification is "apart from works of

law" (Rom 3:28, RSV) James contends that a person--such as Abraham

or Rahab--is, at least in part, "justified by works" (2:21, 24-25, RSV).

The majority of recent writers hold that the erga ("works") in James

refer to practical deeds of righteousness, particularly works of charity

done as the fulfillment of the royal law of love (see 1:21; 2:8-13). These

deeds are the spontaneous fruit or expression of saving faith. Works for

Paul, however, according to most of the same interpreters, are the

keeping of the Mosaic commandments (e.g., circumcision, dietary

regulations) and perhaps the Rabbinic accretions to the law. These


            23 Thiselton, Two Horizons 424. See also Mitton, James 109.

            24 M Ropes, St. James 219.




may be the old covenant regulations themselves, or such works done in

a legalistic spirit, in order to procure favor with God by one's own


            Quite recently Moo has questioned this prevailing understanding

of erga. In his view, "in general, Paul and James mean the same thing

by 'works': actions done in obedience to God."26 Moo contends that

Paul's concept of works is much broader than the popular interpretation

allows. In Rom 9:10-11, the closest Paul comes to giving a definition of

"works," the apostle states that Rebecca was told concerning her

children, "the older will serve the younger," before the twins had done

anything good or bad--"in order that God's purpose in election might

stand: not by works but by him who calls." Moo contends that "in these

verses, it is clear that 'works' includes anything that is done, 'either

good or bad.'" In addition, in Romans 4, "the 'works of Abraham,' in

which he could not boast, must clearly be 'good works.' And yet

Romans 4 is closely tied to the argument in 3:20-28, where 'works of

the law' is used."27 Paul thus seems to view "works of the law" as a

specific kind of "works"--those done in obedience to the Mosaic law.

"Paul's purpose, then, is to exclude all works--not just certain works or

works done in a certain spirit--as a basis for justification."28 Moo also

questions the commonly--held view of James' "works" as works of

charity. While James certainly stresses fulfillment of the law of love in

chapter two and elsewhere, the specific events chosen by him from the

lives of Abraham and Rahab (vv 21-25) do not clearly involve acts of

charity. Abraham's action in particular is an act of personal obedience

to God (v 21).29

            Moo's argument is convincing, and should receive considerable

attention on the popular level now that his commentary has replaced

the older work by R. V. G. Tasker in the Tyndale New Testament

Commentaries series. Paul and James, then, mean the same thing by

"works"--actions done in obedience to God and in the service of God.

The difference between them is in the context in which these works are

done--in the sequence of works and conversion. "Paul denies any


            25 Some who hold, in general, to this view of erga in James and Paul are Jeremias,

"Paul and James"; Davids, James 50-51; Dyrness, "Mercy Triumphs Over Justice" 14, 16;

Laws, James 129; and Vaughan, James 56.

            26 Moo, James 101.

            27 Ibid. 101-2.

            28 Ibid. 102. See also D. J. Moo, "'Law,' 'Works of the Law' and Legalism in Paul,"

WTJ (1983) 73-100. Mitton (James 107-8), while stating that "works" in Paul usually

means "works of the law," contends that Paul also uses "works" to describe "good

works " and that this is the sense of "works" in James.

            29 Moo, James 102.

                                    Rakestraw: JAMES 2:14-26                                    39


efficacy to pre-conversion works, but James is pleading for the absolute

necessity of post-conversion works."30

            An interesting twist to James' argument emerges from the fact that

in vv 21 and 22 Abraham's works are considered as the basis for his

justification (the question in v 21 assumes the answer yes), yet only one

work--the offering of Isaac--is mentioned. Perhaps, as Davids suggests,

the works refer to the ten testings which in the Jewish tradition

Abraham endured. This is rendered plausible by the interest in testing

James has already shown in chapter one, and particularly by the fact

that the binding of Isaac which James cites forms in Jewish tradition

the capstone of a series of tests, with the binding and subsequent

release seen as evidence not only of Abraham's obedience to God but

also of the value of the previous works.31 It is simpler and more natural

in the immediate context, however, to understand "by his works" as a

formula for "by his conduct."32 The plural is used because throughout

the paragraph "works" are repeatedly discussed alongside of faith (ten

times in the thirteen verses), and for James to switch to the singular

"work" would interrupt the flow of the argument and distract the

reader from the essential point that works are the necessary outgrowth

of genuine faith.

            It does not appear, then, that there is a significant difference in the

general meaning of "works" for Paul and James. For James works are

obviously good. For Paul, while he employs the formula "works of

law" when developing his argument for justification by faith apart

from works, there is no hint that these works in themselves are

negatively perceived by him. Paul rather seeks continually to "uphold

the law" and its works (Rom 3:31; 7:7-18). A resolution to the alleged

conflict between James and Paul is thus not augmented by recourse to

an understanding of erga that is substantially different for each apostle.



            A third term used by James and Paul is dikaioo, translated in many

English versions (e.g., A V, RSV) as "justify." James contends that

Abraham and Rahab were justified ("considered righteous," NIV) by

their works, whereas Paul asserts that people are justified by faith.


            30 Ibid. Calvin writes:  As Paul contends that we are justified apart from the help of

works, so James does not allow those who lack good works to be reckoned righteous"

(Inst. III. xvii.12). Calvin's discussion of James and Paul, while recognizing the different

senses in which "faith" and "justify" are used, does not treat "works" as having a different

meaning for the apostles (Inst. III. xvii. 11-13).

            31 Davids, James 127-28. See also Dibelius, James 162.

            32 Dibelius (James 162) recognizes this possibility. See also Laws, James 135.




Unless we are willing to grant that the apostles are in opposition we

must examine the precise meaning each gives to dikaioo.

            The explanation of Calvin has frequently been followed by con-

servative commentators. In his view, "we are said by Paul to be

justified when the memory of our unrighteousness has been wiped out

and we are accounted righteous." James, however, is not speaking of

this imputation of righteousness. Rather, it is as if he said: "Those who

by true faith are righteous prove their righteousness by obedience and

good works, not by a bare and imaginary mask of faith."33 J. Adamson,

in sympathy with this position, translates v 21: "Was not our father,

Abraham, shown to be in the right by works, when he offered his son

Isaac on the altar?"34 This demonstrative-analytical sense of dikaioo is

thus held to be distinct from the declarative-forensic-judicial usage

found in Paul.

            Once again the prevailing view has been questioned. Moo, while

acknowledging that there is some precedent for the meaning of dikaioo

as demonstrate, states that this is not its usual meaning. "More

importantly, this meaning does not fit very well in James 2, where the

question is not, 'How can righteousness be demonstrated?' but 'What

kind of faith secures righteousness?'" Moo contends that James is

probably using dikaioo declaratively, "but he differs from Paul in

applying the word to God's ultimate declaration of a person's righteous-

ness rather than to the initial securing of that righteousness by faith."

James thus uses "justify" where Paul speaks of the judgment.35

            First of all, in reply to this recent challenge, it is probable that

dikaioo in James is used in a certain declarative or judicial sense--the

pronouncing of one righteous, as in a court of law, on the basis of some

observable criterion or criteria.36 This is the dominant meaning of the

term in the LXX, in the Pseudepigrapha, and often in the NT.37

However, Moo's contention that dikaioo in James 2 refers to the

sinner's ultimate or final justification at the last judgment is not as

readily apparent. While Moo argues persuasively that this significance

of the term has ample precedent in the OT, Judaism, and the teaching


            33 Calvin, Inst. III. xvii.12. See also Vaughan, James 56.

            34 Adamson, James 128.

            35 Moo, James 109; see also 110-111. Reicke (James, Peter, and Jude 34-35) also

understands James to be referring to the last judgment.

            36 Davids (James 51, 127), however, prefers the demonstrative sense.

            37 Dibelius, James 162-65; Moo, James 109-11. W. Sanday and A. C. Headlam offer

six reasons supporting the declarative-forensic sense in the NT (The Epistle to the

Romans, 5th ed. [Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1902] 30-:31). See also J. H. Moulton and

W. R. Howard, A Grammar of New Testament Greek (4 vols; Edinburgh: T. and T.

Clark, 1920) 2.397.


                    Rakestraw: JAMES 2:14-26                        41


of Jesus (e.g., “by your words you will be justified, and by your words

you will be condemned," Matt 12:37),38 it is not necessitated by the

text, and seems to add an extraneous element to the argument. This is

not to say that the final judgment is absent from James 2 (q.v; vv 12-

14), but that James moves from a focus upon that judgment to an

emphasis upon right conduct for the helping of the needy now (vv 15-

17) and the alerting of mere professors to their barren and perilous

condition now (vv 18-26). It is correct to see the final judgment as the

ultimate backdrop for vv 14-26, but the most obvious sense of the

paragraph indicates that the justification of Abraham and Rahab is

something that occurred during their earthly lives. This in-life justifica-

tion was of course prerequisite to their final justification but is not

identical with it. The fact that Abraham and Rahab were justified

when" they did certain things (vv 21, 25) is, as Moo admits, an

important objection to the final judgment viewpoint.39 While there is no

Greek adverb for “when” in the text, the aorist participles for ”offering”

Isaac and “housing” the spies may have the temporal significance, and

most likely do here (so AV, RSV, NIV, NASB, and Phillips).40

            Why must our choice be limited to either initial or final justification?

It is of course evident that James is not referring to the initial

declarations of righteousness--i.e., at the “conversion” experiences--of

Abraham and Rahab, for if this were the case James would be

teaching, in opposition to Paul, that a person is justified initially by right

actions. But this does not necessitate a concept of final judgment to

explain James' meaning. Instead, the plain sense of the text argues for

some kind of justification during the lifetimes of Abraham and Rahab,

concomitant with a specific action or actions of each. As M. Dibelius

indicates, Abraham in James 2 is not considered a justified sinner but a

righteous man who is recognized or declared to be righteous and

rewarded by God. The expression “was justified” thus means approval

by God, which Abraham received not merely at the final judgment but

already during his lifetime.41 A parallel is in 1 Macc 2, where the dying

Mattathias gathers his sons for a final exhortation to be zealous and, if

necessary, to die for the covenant of their fathers. As Mattathias refers

to the fathers one by one, he mentions in each case two things--a

noteworthy deed or character trait and its reward. “Joseph in the time

of his distress kept the commandment, and became lord of Egypt.”


            38 Moo, James 109-11.

            39 Ibid. 109-10.

            40 "The aorist participle records an action antecedent to the announcement of

justification; the verdict pronounced on Abraham arose 'out of' (ek) the act of offering up

his son" (Hiebert, James 192).

            41 Dibelius, James 162.




Phinehas, "because he was deeply zealous, received the covenant of

everlasting priesthood." "Caleb, because he testified in the assembly,

received an inheritence in the land." These are rewards experienced

during the lifetimes of these leaders of Israel. Thus Abraham, placed at

the head of the list, is to be understood similarly: "Was not Abraham

found faithful when tested, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness"

(v 52, RSV)? Abraham's reward began during his life on earth. God

declared that his servant was truly righteous and his friend.

            It appears, therefore, that both Paul and James use dikaioo in a

declarative-judicial sense, but that the emphasis in Paul is upon the

sinner's initial justification by God at conversion (e.g., Rom 5:1),

whereas James' focus is upon the declaration by God (and perhaps by

people) during a believer's lifetime that he or she is truly a righteous

person (e. g., Jas 2:21, 25). With this understanding, sinners are indeed

justified by a trusting faith without works (Paul), and such justified

believers are then considered righteous often during their lives from

observation of their actions (James).


                                    III. Abraham in Genesis and James


            Having considered the quite different errors addressed by Paul

and James and the manner in which their vocabularies are adjusted

accordingly, we now turn to two closely-related and often-confusing

matters: the way in which James uses the life of Abraham to develop

his argument, and the way in which James' references to Genesis differ

from those of Paul in Galatians and Romans.

            With regard to the argument of James, the question of 2:2042 and

the concluding statement of 2:24 indicate quite clearly the central point

James is making in vv 21-23: a faith that has no deeds concomitant with

it is useless, barren, and unprofitable in the matter of one's justification.43

However, before we can fully grasp the unfolding of this thesis in vv

21-23, and the argument of Paul as well, we need to outline briefly

certain crises in Abraham's life from the book of Genesis.

            Upon leaving Ur with his father Terah to go to Canaan, Abram

journeyed only as far as Haran, where he and his wife lived until Terah

died (Acts 7:2-4). Understanding Gen 11:31-32 and 12:1-3 to refer

together to God's call and promise to Abram while he was still in Ur,44


            42 Reicke (James, Peter, and Jude 33) places v 20 as the conclusion to vv 18-19, not

as introductory to vv 21-24 as NIV. Hiebert (James 189), however, recognizes the

transitional character of v 20.

            43 Ropes, St. James 217.

            44 While the pluperfect "had said" (AV, NIV) in Gen 12:1 is not the usual translation

of the Hebrew (which merely employs the imperfect with the waw consecutive), it is


                      Rakestraw: JAMES 2:14-26                        43


and knowing that Abram was married when he left Ur and "settled" for

quite some time in Haran (11:31; 12:5), Abram was an adult but not

likely over 65 when called by Cod. In support of this terminus ad quem

we consider that Abram was 75 when he left Haran and entered

Canaan (12:4-5), and it is reasonable to assume he spent ten or more

years in Haran to acquire all that he did (12:5). It need not concern us

here whether or not his stay in Haran involved a lapse of faith and

obedience. The point is that Abram was most likely converted at or

prior to his original call in Ur. Otherwise, God would have made the

amazing promises of 12:1-3 to an unconverted man, and in that

condition Abram would have obeyed God--leaving his country and

people. Against this is the fact that Heb 11:8 commends Abraham as a

man of faith because when called he "obeyed and went, even though

he did not know where he was going." Even if this suggested time of

Abraham's conversion to the one true God is not accepted, his conver-

sion certainly took place soon after Abram's entrance into Canaan, for

we see him at that time building altars and calling on the name of the

Lord (12:7-9).

            The next major crisis occurs when Abram "believed the Lord, and

he credited it to him as righteousness" (Gen 15:6). Because the patri-

arch's impregnation of Hagar occurred after he had been in Canaan for

ten years (Gen 16:3), and because the events of Gen 12:10-14:24 seem

to necessitate several years at least (see 12:10, 16; 13:2, 6), we may

approximate his age as close to 85. Now, when Abram seemingly could

not perform the righteous act he wished to do--i.e., have a son to

inherit the promises--God accepted his faith as righteousness. It is

most important to realize that Abram was already a converted man

when he believed that God would give him an heir from his own body,

resulting in offspring as the stars of heaven. This is the word of God

which Abram believed, and his faith on this occasion was that which

was credited or imputed to him as righteousness. Abram was surely not

"saved" or justified initially at this time as commentators frequently

state or assume.45 Of course Gen 15:6 expresses exactly the truth of


both grammatically permissible and preferable here (D. Kidner, Genesis [Downers

Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1967] 113 n 1; J. J. Davis, Paradise to Prison [Grand Rapids: Baker,

1975] 166. H. C. Leupold, however, prefers the usual rendering "said" (Exposition of

Genesis [2 vols; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1942] 1.410). Kidner (113-14) and Davis (164, 166)

thus consider the call of God to have been given to Abram while still in Ur. Note also

"had told" in Gen 12:4.

            45 See, e.g., Hiebert, James 192, 195; and Tasker, James 67. Others correctly note

that Gen 15:6 does not describe Araham's confession of salvation: Davis, Paradise to

Prison 186; Leupold, Genesis 1. 478-79; H. G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand

Rapids: Zondervan, 1976) 154.




justification by faith and describes the justified character of Abraham

throughout his lifetime as a believer. The statement here, however,

refers to one event that showed Abraham's original justifying faith in


            When he was 99 (Gen 17), after waiting over 14 years, and after

wrongly fathering Ishmael, Abram believed God again--believing this

time that Sarai (now 89) would be the mother of the offspring promised

in Gen 15:1-6. This revelation resulted in the names of Abram and Sarai

being changed and Abram and Ishmael being circumcised. The crisis,

however, was in Abraham's believing God's specific promise to give an

heir from the seemingly "dead" bodies of him and his wife (Gen 17:15-

17,21; Rom 4:18-22).

            The final crisis, for our purpose, is Abraham's offering of Isaac in

Genesis 22. Since Isaac was born when Abraham was 100 (Gen 21:5),

and since Isaac was old enough to carry the firewood (22:6), Abraham

was perhaps 115-125. The significance of this event is that when it was

.over God declared Abraham to be a man who feared and obeyed him

(Gen 22:12,18), and acted in total faith (Heb 11:17-19). After some 50

or more years Abraham died at the age of 175 (Gen 25:7).

            With the above outline in mind we return to James 2. Verse 21

appears clear in light of the previous examination of "justify." The

question, which assumes the answer yes, instructs us that Abraham was

"justified" or "considered righteous for what he did when he offered his

son Isaac on the altar." This is certainly not Abraham's initial justifica-

tion, nor his final justification at the last judgment, but is one occurrence

in his lifetime when God declared his servant to be a righteous person,

because he feared and obeyed God (Gen 22:12, 18). God desired

Abraham and subsequent generations to know that the patriarch--a

man who had come to know the one true God many years before--was

indeed one who believed God and acted upon that belief. "You see that

his faith and his actions were working together46 and his faith was

made complete by what he did" (v 22). James is not teaching that

Abraham's faith before Genesis 22 was insufficient to save, but that his

faith was perfected--brought to its intended goal, accomplished its.

intended purpose47--by the offering of Isaac. "As the tree is perfected:

by its fruits, so faith by its works."48

            In v 23 James recalls Gen 15:6 and teaches that in the event of

Genesis 22 the declaration of Genesis 15 some 30 or more years earlier49


            46 synergei (imperfect active indicative) signifies that this working together of faith

and works was not a unique Occurrence, but was characteristic of Abraham's life.

            47 eteleiothe (BAGD 809).

            48 Mayor, St. James 104.

            49 According to the Rabbis this took place 50 years earlier (Mayor, St. James 104).

                                    Rakestraw: JAMES 2:14-26                        45


was "fulfilled" or made full. Here is a most strategic move in the

argument. When Abraham began to offer Isaac he was prevented by

God. He did "work"--up to a point (v 22)--but the offering was as

much an exercise of faith as a work since Abraham didn't actually

sacrifice Isaac. At every step in the drama he had to work and exercise

faith in God's promise to give him offspring through Isaac--the very

one he was about to slay. When God intervened, however, the work

that Abraham had begun, and was about to complete, was not allowed

to continue. His faith in God was therefore accepted and credited to

Abraham's account as righteousness (i.e., as a work of righteousness50)

in lieu of the work that Abraham would have done if he were able. In

addition; James weaves into his argument the tradition that Abraham

was declared to be God's "friend" (2 Chr 20:7; Isa 41:8), indicating that

the patriarch was one who exercised both faith and obedience toward

his God.

            In what sense was the scripture of Gen 15:6 "fulfilled" in the

Genesis 22 account? "Fulfilled" here is not referring to prediction-

fulfillment, as Ropes understands it,51 but connotes rather that Gen 15:6

was shown to be in agreement with the Genesis 22 narrative. James'

approach in chapter 2 is typical of the midrashic method: a primary

event or text is cited (v 21), the text is discussed. (v 22), and then a

secondary text is added to the discussion (v 23).52 Gen 15:6 was thus

"fulfilled" or made full in the sense that the truth of God expressed

therein--that Abraham was a person whose firm trust in God's promises

was accepted for righteousness--agreed with the theological meaning

of Genesis 22 and actually blossomed fully in the offering of Isaac.

Even more than in Genesis 15, Abraham in chapter 22 had to trust God.

The truth-principle of Gen 15:6, which characterized Abraham from

his initial conversion to his death, was gloriously revealed in the

offering of Isaac. Abraham's willingness to offer his son brought out the

full meaning of the words in Gen 15:6. His action made it clear that

Abraham had the caliber of faith that God reckoned for righteousness,

whether initially, finally, or throughout one's lifetime. This was a faith


            50 "Righteousness" in Jas 2:23 seems to have the sense of "fulfilling the divine

statutes"--the righteous deeds which issue from the righteous person, the one who has

been declared righteous through faith (BAGD 196 2a). This appears to be the notion of

dikaiosyne in such scriptures as Matt 3:15; 5:20; Acts 10:35; 1 Tim 6:11; 1 John 2:29; 3:7,

10; as well as in the two other occurrences in James (1:20; 3:18). In James there is thus a

profound ethical quality to the word. See also Moo, James 110-111. “Additional Note” on


            51 Ropes, St. James 221.

            52 Davids, James 129; R. N. Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period

(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975) 23-28.




that did what God commanded. "Abraham was justified by the kind of

faith which involves obedience, even costly obedience."53 While the

argument could proceed smoothly from v 22 directly to v 24 (and

would certainly seem to strengthen the argument thereby!), James

adds v 23 to emphasize the faith-foundation for Abraham's actions.

            In v 24--the scripture said to contradict Paul most sharply-James

concludes the argument from Abraham by stating that a person is

declared to be righteous "by what he does and not by faith alone." The

alleged conflict with Paul, however, disappears when this verse is read

in the light of the previous verses, the Genesis account, and the

different concerns and vocabularies of Paul and James. How can one

be declared or said to be righteous if all one knows about the person is

his or her affirmation of a set of doctrines? James' point is certainly not

that orthodox belief is wrong, but that such faith must be active in the

tangible experiences of life in order for God or anyone else to declare

its owner a truly righteous person. The central element in the Jewish

concept of righteousness was that of active, visible, and practical

deeds, and the thoroughly Jewish writer, James, is teaching here that a

person of "faith" without such deeds cannot be justified--cannot be

declared righteous. C. E. B. Cranfield says it well: "Had there been no

works, Abraham would not have been justified; but that would have

been because the absence of works would have meant that he had no

real faith."54


                        IV. Abraham in Galatians and Romans


            Bible students have often been confused by the way in which Paul

argues from the life of Abraham when this is placed alongside James'

use of the patriarch. Both use the same leading example and both quote

from the same leading text (Gen 15:6) to arrive seemingly at opposite

conclusions. The two chief texts in which Paul argues from the Genesis

account are Romans 4 and Galatians 3.

            Paul's argument in Galatians 3 is to convince those in the churches

who had begun the new life of the Spirit by faith (as evidently many

had) that they were "foolish" and "bewitched" to think that they could

add to their Christian standing before God and reach the goal of final

salvation by human effort through works of law (vv 1-5). Abraham is

then introduced in v 6, where Paul quotes Gen 15:6 to establish his

point: Abraham believed God and this faith was credited to him for

righteousness. He stood righteous before God by faith. As noted above,


            53 Mitton, James 113.

            54 Cranfield, "Message of James" 340.


                    Rakestraw: JAMES 2:14-26                        47


of this key scripture states exactly the truth-principle of justification by

he faith, even though the event in Abraham's life where it is mentioned is

not his initial conversion. The scripture also depicts the general charac-

ter and actions of Abraham from his conversion to his death. It is used

here by Paul to demolish the false teaching that adherence to works of

law was essential for attaining salvation at any stage in the life of a

person. "Those who believe are children of Abraham" (v 7). The

Christian life is begun by faith and is lived by faith. Of course, just as

James insists, works are necessary in the life of the believer, but these

are to be works of love that spring from faith (Gal 5:6; 1 Thess 1:3), not

works of law when these issue from fear or from disbelief of the

sufficiency of divine grace under the new covenant. "Now that faith has

come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law" (v 25).

            In Romans 4 we find Paul again using Gen 15:6. Following his

classic statement in 3:21-31 concerning God's imputed righteousness

through faith apart from works, Paul then considers Abraham as a

central example of this doctrine. Abraham's justification was not by

works (v 2), for he believed God and this was credited for righteous-

ness--a righteous standing before God (vv 3-5). Paul thus uses the

event of Genesis 15, when Abraham as a justified man for many years

again had his faith reckoned for righteousness, to establish that the

patriarch was a person justified by faith, not works. Paul goes on to

explain that Abraham was reckoned righteous when he was approaching

85--long before his circumcision at the age of 99 (vv 9-12). The apostle

is seeking especially to establish the fact of Abraham's justified condition

because of his belief in God's promises, not because of his obedience to

God's laws, however important those laws may have been (vv 13-17).

It is the faith-principle of Gen 15:6 that is important to Paul and to his

argument. Paul is not saying that Abraham was converted initially in

Genesis 15, but that he was a converted, justified person in Genesis 15.

He was a man of faith before the promise of Gen 15:1-5 was given and

he showed this by his trust in God's word at that time.55

            Paul continues developing the faith-principle in Rom 4:18-24, but

here he uses Genesis 17 to make his point. When Abraham was 99 and


            55 E. Kasemann's (Commentary on Romans, 4th ed. [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,

1980] 110) statement on Rom 4:1-8 that Paul "does not have in mind here either a quality

or a meritorious work of the patriarch but the latter's devotion to the issued word of

promise, according to which God wills and acknowledges nothing but faith," needs to be

adjusted by the realization that Abraham's faith-devotion to God's promises was a quality

of the patriarch's life. K. Barth (The Epistle to the Romans, 6th ed. [London: Oxford

University, 1963] 121) asserts: "Abraham believed. Here is the action which makes him

what he is; here is the hidden source of all his well-known works (iv. 2). As a believer

Abraham is what he is."




Sarah 89, Abraham believed God's promise that Sarah would be the

mother of the seed promised in Genesis 15. He and Ishmael were then

circumcised. Once again Paul uses Gen 15:6 (vv 22-24), obviously not

because Abraham was justified initially at this time, but because the

principle underlying this doctrine of justification by faith--believing

God's promises and having this faith credited for righteousness--again

was shown to be operative in the patriarch's life.

            Several events in Abraham's life, then, argue for the Pauline

doctrine of justification: the initial call and promise to Abraham (Gal

3:6-9) and the experiences of Genesis 15 and 17 (Rom 4). (Even the

offering of Isaac is a profound statement of Abraham's faith according

to Heb 11:17-19.) Paul's central application from the life of Abraham is

that '"those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham the man of

faith" (Gal 3:9). While his concern is the faith that initially justifies,

thereby procuring a righteous standing before God, the principle

applies also to the faith that is continually accepted for righteous deeds

throughout a believer's life--those deeds which a justified person

would do in certain situations if it were possible to do something other

than trust.

            With this understanding of Paul's use of Abraham, it is now

apparent that there is no conflict with James. While both use the same

leading example and the same leading text, they do not arrive at

opposite conclusions. Paul refers to Gen 15:6 and Genesis 17 to show

the necessity of faith--to argue that no one, not even the law-abiding

Abraham, is justified initially by works, even if those works are good in

themselves. Paul refers to Abraham's trust in God, concerning his

offspring in Genesis 15 and 17, to emphasize that Abraham was

declared to be righteous through faith, not works. He could not work in

those two instances, for he had tried and failed to produce seed

through Sarah. God therefore credited Abraham's unshakeable faith in

the promises as righteousness. But Abraham's faith is not presented as a

work, as in later Judaism. Paul teaches that it is this kind of faith--a

faith that believes apart from works--that is the medium for a person's

initial justification, procuring a righteous standing before God and

leading to exploits for God.56

            James refers to Gen 15:6 and Genesis 22 to show the necessity of

works--to establish that Abraham's faith was an active, obedient faith"

which resulted in this already-justified man being declared righteous.


            56 We are not saying here that a person's faith is equivalent to the righteousness of :

Christ that brings salvation. Faith is rather the God-appointed means whereby a person

receives the righteousness graciously given by God. see Kasemann, Romans 111-12; and

R. Haldane, Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans (London: Banner of Truth, 1958

reprint) 162-71.


                Rakestraw: JAMES 2:14-26                                    49


For James the formula "the scripture was fulfilled" (2:23) holds a major

clue to the way he uses Gen 15:6. The truth of this scripture was made

full and blossomed beautifully when Abraham believed God and acted

upon that belief by offering his beloved son. Similarly, James' insertion

that Abraham was called the friend of God (v 23) reveals that James is

not talking about Abraham's initial justification through God's imputed

righteousness, but a personal relationship whereby Abraham, through

obedient faith, maintained close fellowship with God.


                                                V. Conclusion


            Does James contradict the Pauline soteriology? Are there really

two ways of salvation presented by Paul and James? This article has

sought to demonstrate that there is no genuine conflict between the

apostles. As C. Vaughan writes, "Paul was expounding the way of

justification. James was describing the life of the justified. Paul was

combating Jewish legalism; James was combating antinomianism."57

James is not contrasting two methods of salvation--one of faith and

one of works--but two kinds of faith: one which saves and one which

does not.

            In Rom 2:13 Paul sounds very much like James: "For it is not those

who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who

obey the law who will be declared righteous." The apostles do not

oppose each other, but work together to combat the enemy on different

fronts. Paul stresses the initial justification of a sinner by grace through

faith without works, whereas James stresses the continuing justification

of a believer by grace through faith which issues in works. Paul's words

in Gal 5:6 can be thought of as the text James is expounding: "For in

Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value.

The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love." As

Davids states, "to argue that James directly attacks Paul is to argue that

James is a consummate blunderer, for he fails to meet Paul's arguments

at all and instead produces a work with which Paul would have


            The ethical ramifications of Jas 2:14-26, as well as of the entire

epistle, are enormous. The situation which James faced was in essence

not dissimilar to that in the Church today. L. Goppelt wisely observes

that James was confronting


            a Christianity for which God and justification by faith alone had become

            metaphysical theories. People were so convinced of these theories that


            57 Vaughan, James 56.

            58 Davids, James, 21.




            they no longer had any impact on conduct. Such a Christianity of

            conviction can come about in a variety of contexts.  It can be a lifeless

            orthodoxy that suffocates in intellectualism; it can also be a middle-class

            Christian liberalism that lives in conformity with the world and turns

            grace into cheap grace.59


Whenever people trust in their religious activities for salvation, God’s

servants must strenuously and without compromise declare Paul’s

message of justification by faith.  Whenever those in the churches

consider correct doctrine to be the distinguishing mark of true Christi-

anity, James’ message that only an obedient faith is a saving faith must,

just as forcefully, be proclaimed. “As the body without the spirit is

dead, so faith without deeds is dead” (Jas 2:26).


            59 Goppelt, Theology of NT 2. 209.



This material is cited with gracious permission from:

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