One of the major points of contention between the Reformed and the Romanists was the exegesis of Romans 2. There are three terms that must be examined by means of questions: Do Paul and James use the term “justify” in the same sense? Do they use “faith” in the same sense? Do they use the term “works” in the same sense? We will get at this question in the course of the exegesis.
The passage begins in verse 14 with a control statement: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” This controls the entirety of the following passage all th way up through verse 26. Right away, we see that the question for James is about the genuineness of faith. In other words, if one were reading this passage aloud, one should emphasize the word “says” in the first sentence. Someone says he has faith. The idea then is to test the genuineness of the claim. Where is the evidence of the genuine faith? So, right from the get-go, we are looking for evidence. This makes the case for an evidentiary use of the term “justify” strong already. It will get stronger as we go along.
James then uses two test cases of real life. A person saying “go in peace, be warmed and filled,” but not doing anything about the brother or sister’s needs, is like a person saying “I have justifying faith,” but no works are forthcoming. The parallel is exact.
Verse 17 is then crucial, especially as we compare James to Paul. Set these two statements against each other: 1. We are justified by faith alone apart from works; 2. We are not justified by faith alone apart from works. If each term in these two sentences means the same thing (justified, faith, works), then we have a contradiction. So, some term has to mean something different, if we hold to the idea that God ultimately wrote the Bible, and that God is not irrational. Luther’s solution was a bit drastic: deny the authority of James in the Bible. We as Reformed folk have come to the conclusion that there is a better way. John Owen says that the term “works” means the same thing in Paul and James, but that “faith” and “justify” do not mean the same thing (volume 5, pg. 387). (Side note: John Owen’s treatment of the passage in volume 5, pp. 384-400 is not only masterful, but extremely representative of Reformed thought on the relationship of James and Paul). The kind of faith that James here condemns is that “dead faith” (verse 17), not the faith that is without works in the Pauline sense of justifying. As Owen says repeatedly, James is not answering the question of how someone becomes right with God. He is answering the question, “how do we tell if our faith is genuine or not?” Again, this is based on verse 14. Evidence, evidence, evidence.
Verse 18 is quite a puzzle, really, since we would think that the first part of the verse ought to be reversed thusly: “But someone will say, “I have faith, you have works.” But, of course, that is not what the passage says. I think that Davids (following Dibelius and others) is correct when he says that the point here is not someone being an adversary, but rather someone claiming that faith can exist apart from works, separately. So James’ answer obviously holds faith and works together in the Christian life.
The real crux of the passage occurs in verses 20-24. Is Abraham made right before God because of his works? By no means. The justification of Genesis 15:6 happened about thirty years before the Aqedah, as Jews call Genesis 22, the binding of Isaac. He was justified by faith alone in Genesis 15:6, as Paul uses this very verse in Romans 4:3. Well, that’s just peachy. Paul uses the verse to prove that Abraham was not justified by works, and James uses it to prove that he was justified by works! Or does he? What is going on here is often missed by commentators. I believe that the correct explanation is that the Aqedah demonstrated that Genesis 15:6 was true. James does not quote Genesis 15:6 to prove that Abraham was justified by works in the Pauline sense. He uses it to prove that Abraham was both said to have faith (Genesis 15:6), and demonstrated to have true faith (Genesis 22). Genesis 22 fulfilled the sense of Genesis 15:6. That is, Genesis 22 proved that Genesis 15:6 was true. Just as gold is tested by going through trial, so also Abraham’s faith was tested going through the Aqedah. The reality is that Paul talks about justification by faith, and James is talking about justification of faith. Justification is something different in Paul and James. With Paul, it means our standing before God. With James, it means the testing of our faith’s genuineness (again, remember the all-controlling verse 14). They do not contradict. And they do not mean the same thing by the term “justify.”