Criswell Theological Review 4.1 (1986) 31-50.
Copyright © 1986 by The
DOES JAMES CONTRADICT
THE PAULINE SOTERIOLOGY?
ROBERT V. RAKESTRAW
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 (
Row, 1980) 132-33.
8 G. Bomkamm, Paul (New York: Harper and Row, 1971) 153-54; R. Bultmann,
Theology of the New
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
in seen in J. H. Ropes, The Epistle of
St. James (
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
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
Eerdmans, 1976); P. H. Davids,
1983); D. E.. Hiebert, The Epistle of James (Chicago: Moody, 1979); J. B. Mayor, The
of James (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966); D.
J. Moo, The Letter of James (
inter-Varsity, 1985); J. A. Motyer, The Message
of James (
A. Plummer, The General Epistles of St. James and St. Jude
poubleday, 1978); A. Ross, The Epistles of James and John (
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
and James," Lutheran Theological
Journal 9 (1975) 33-41;
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
34 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
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,
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
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.
36 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
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,
38 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
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
"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 J
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
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 J
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.
40 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
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.
six reasons supporting the declarative-forensic sense in the NT (The Epistle to the
Romans, 5th ed. [
R. Howard, A Grammar of New Testament
Greek (4 vols;
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
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.
42 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
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
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.
journeyed only as far as
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
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.
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
quite some time in
likely over 65 when called by Cod. In support of this terminus ad quem
we consider that Abram was 75 when he left
here whether or not his stay in
obedience. The point is that Abram was most likely converted at or
prior to his original call in
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
we see him at that time building altars and calling on the name of the
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
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
Inter-Varsity, 1967] 113 n 1; J. J. Davis, Paradise
to Prison [
1975] 166. H. C. Leupold, however, prefers the usual rendering "said" (Exposition of
Genesis [2 vols;
thus consider the call of God to have been given to
Abram while still in
"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:
Prison 186; Leupold, Genesis 1. 478-79; H. G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand
Rapids: Zondervan, 1976) 154.
44 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
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
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
52 Davids, James 129; R. N. Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975) 23-28.
46 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
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
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. [
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. [
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."
48 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
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
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
of the Epistle to the Romans (
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.
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
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.
50 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
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
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.
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