Genesis 15:6 in Paul and James

As one my commenters noticed, I forgot to come back to the issue of Genesis 15:6 as it has been used in Paul and in James. So, let’s deal with that here. First, a brief look at Genesis 15:6.

וְהֶאֱמִן בַּיהוָה וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לּוֹ צְדָקָה׃

“And he believed in YHWH, and He credited it for him righteousness.”

In the original context, Abram believed God’s promises, specifically concerning those of the (S)seed. Abram wondered about a few things (particularly concerning his heir, which at the time appeared to be Eliezer of Damascus). But finally the Lord told him that it would be an heir from his own body that would initialize the multiplication of the seed into a number too great to count, as great as the number of the stars. Therefore, we cannot separate the faith of Abram from the promise of the (S)seed. Abram not only believed the Lord’s Word, but he also believed in the promised Seed, Jesus Christ, the ultimate fulfillment of the promise given to Abraham. Of course, there was a near fulfillment in the person of Isaac, and the multiplication of Israel. However, this is not the climactic fulfillment that Jesus Christ was. This will do for a basic understanding of the passage in its original context.

We need to raise the problem of Paul and James in its acutest sense so that we can get a feel for the issues involved. Paul and James seem to contradict each other right at this point. Paul quotes Genesis 15:6 in order to prove that justification is by faith and not by works of any kind (the relevant passage here is Romans 4:1-8).  James quotes Genesis 15:6 in order to say that “a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.” As many people have noted (somewhat gleefully, I might add), the phrase “by faith alone” technically appears only in here in James 2, and that to be denied! What are we to make of this?

The road that Shepherd takes us on is the Arminian interpretation of imputation with regard to Genesis 15:6, which is that it is faith itself that is reckoned to take the place of righteousness (see Way of Righteousness, p. 30). This is  what Shepherd says: “What is credited or imputed to Abraham? The answer is his faith. The faith he had was reckoned to his account as righteousness. Faith and the obedience flowing from faith are of a piece with one another and together they constitute the righteousness of Abraham” (emphasis original). Notice here that it is not Christ’s righteousness that is here imputed, according to Shepherd, but rather the believer’s own faith plus the obedience that comes from faith. This misunderstands the nature of faith. Faith is not a thing in itself. It has no substance that could stand in for righteousness. Instead, we could call the expression a metonymy of the adjunct. Faith is an instrument that lays hold of Christ. Faith is an adjunct, or it lays hold of, Christ’s righteousness. The only reason faith can be said to be imputed is that faith lays hold of what is technically imputed: Christ’s righteousness. So faith’s instrumental character is here put to the fore when it is said to be counted for (or towards) righteousness.

Now, let it be known here that Shepherd and I agree on one point at least: justifying faith always results in obedience. We can both say that. Where we disagree is on the place of that righteousness within the structure of justification. He argues most definitely that the obedience of faith lies within the structure of justification. I argue most vociferously that it lies outside the structure of justification. How is that shown from James?

The justification by works of which James speaks is Abraham’s offering of his son Isaac in Genesis 22, NOT Abram’s belief as recorded in Genesis 15:6. The way James quotes Genesis 15:6 is as fulfillment of promise. The fulfillment language (καὶ ἐπληρώθη γραφὴ) indicates that Genesis 22 is what we would expect from Genesis 15:6. Faith results in obedience. This is NOT saying that obedience (even Spirit-filled obedience) is part of the structure of salvific justification. When one combines this analysis with what I said previously, arguing that “justify” in James refers NOT to salvific justification, but to demonstration of true faith, then all becomes clear. When James in verse 24 says that a man is not justified by faith alone, he is saying that a man is not justified demonstrably (shown to be unhypocritical, shown to have a true faith, shown to be a true child of the King) by faith alone. His works prove that he is genuine.

The only way to get around this is to argue that Paul does not deny all works when it comes to salvific justification. This cannot be done. It would make no sense whatsoever for Paul to say that unbelieving works cannot be counted as part of justification. That is rather obvious, isn’t it? In Romans 3, Paul has been concerned to prove that all alike are under sin. Every mouth must be stopped, and the whole world must become guilty (3:19). Therefore, the law here is concerned about morality, obedience to God. It is in that context that “deeds of the law” first makes its appearance in the passage about justification (3:20). Deeds of the law here cannot possibly refer exclusively or even primarily to those works that separate Jew from Gentile. Rather it has to refer to works that might give someone a ground upon which to boast before God.

Then, in verses 27-31, Paul proves his point by saying that since the law was the primary possession of the Jews, if justification were by these deeds of the law, then Gentiles would not be able to be justified ever. N.T. Wright makes a huge deal about verse 29 and the little word “or” that starts this verse. However, the verse does not say what he thinks it says. The sweep of the passage has to do with obedience to the whole law, and how all have fallen short. But the law as a whole has been specially revealed to the Jews. So, it is not just part of law-keeping that is excluded from Paul’s structure of justification. Rather, all law-keeping is excluded. There can be no ground of boasting. See Simon Gathercole’s outstanding treatment of this theme in Romans 1-5. Boasting would still be possible if any works of any kind (obedient or non-obedient) could form part of the structure of justification. They form the necessary result of justification and sanctification, and therefore cannot be separated from saving faith. But they are distinct from saving faith.

One of the main problems here is that all too often “living” has been equated with “obedient.” Those who disagree with me will undoubtedly point to James again and say “well, living is equated with obedient there.” No one is saying that we are justified (even in a Pauline sense!) by a dead faith. But the living aspect of faith with regard to justification is not obedience but the fact that it truly grasps hold of Christ. The living aspect of faith with regard to sanctification is that it will really result in good works. The second aspect of the aliveness of faith is the necessary result of the first aspect of the aliveness of faith. They are inseparable, yet distinct. The first aspect of the aliveness of faith is the sole province of the realm of justification. The second aspect is solely within sanctification. These things must be kept distinct, or all sorts of problems will result.

Justification in James

One of the most important questions we can ask about the relationship of Paul to James when it comes to justification is this: what does δικαιοῦται (“justified”) mean in James? This is a very old question, but a very important question. Here is what Calvin says on the matter:

We have already said that James does not speak here of the cause of justification, or of the manner how men obtain righteousness, and this is plain to every one; but that his object was only to shew that good works are always connected with faith; and, therefore, since he declares that Abraham was justified by works, he is speaking of the proof he gave of his justification.

When, therefore, the Sophists set up James against Paul, they go astray through the ambiguous meaning of a term. When Paul says that we are justified by faith, he means no other thing than that by faith we are counted righteous before God. But James has quite another thing in view, even to shew that he who professes that he has faith, must prove the reality of his faith by his works…we must take notice of the two-fold meaning of the word justified. Paul means by it the gratuitous imputation of righteousness before the tribunal of god; and James, the manifestation of righteousness by the confuct, and that before men, as we may gather from the preceding works, “Shew to me they faith,” etc. In this sense we fully allow that man is justified by works, as when anyone says that a man is enriched by the purchase of a large and valuable estate, because his riches, before hid, shut up in a chest, were thus made known (pp. 314-315).

So that is Calvin’s view. Let’s look a bit closer at the exegesis of the passage. Here are some reasons why Calvin is right and all the naysayers are wrong. 1. The word itself can mean either to declare righteous (this is the normal meaning in Paul), or to show someone to be righteous (as it says “Wisdom is justified by her children”). The second sense is not always in our minds, but wisdom hardly needs the imputed righteousness of Christ. Rather, wisdom is shown to be right by the results in her children. We must not automatically assume one meaning or the other in James. Rather, we must look for contextual clues, and also the analogy of faith. 2. Prima facie evidence is given in verse 18 (as Calvin notes) that the second meaning of “justify” is the meaning that James uses here. In verse 18, it is clear that the point is whether a particular faith is true or not, and how a person might be able to show the true state of his faith. James answers that a true faith is shown by its works. 3. Further evidence is given for this view in verse 21. This is a simple matter of timing. Genesis 22 (Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac) comes after Genesis 15:6. Abraham was justified first by faith in Genesis 15:6, and then his faith showed itself to be genuine in Genesis 22. We will come back to the quotation of Genesis 15:6 in James 2:23 in a moment.

Now, we must deal with the objections to this position. They are stated fairly clearly in Norman Shepherd’s new book The Way of Righteousness: Justification Beginning With James. The first line of reasoning goes like this: “justify” in verse 24 is parallel to “save” in verse 14. The word “save” in verse 14 means “salvation from condemnation when we stand before the Lord God to be judged” (p. 21). Therefore, the justification of verse 24 answers the question of salvation in verse 14 (ibid).  The answer to this is that it is not so clear what “save” means in verse 14. Salvation in the Bible is used in more than one way. Salvation can be used of the initial time-point of faith, but it can also be used of the entire Christian life, which would include everything from election to glorification. It is evident that the question at the end of verse 14 expects a negative answer: “Surely it is impossible, isn’t it, that such a works-devoid faith could save him?” In effect, this asks the question: can there be a kind of faith that believes but does not do? And can such a faith be the kind of faith that salvation as a whole is talking about? The scope of the passage cannot be limited to the initial time-point of faith, because James himself says that his faith (implied as already existing) is going to be shown by his works (verse 18).  This is parallel to the question of Abraham, whose already existing faith was shown to be genuine by his offering up of Isaac.

The second objection raised to our position is this: 2. James does not talk about faith being justified, but persons being justified (p. 24). It is important to note that Shepherd does not deny that verse 18 has to do with faith being shown to be genuine. Rather, his point is that justification language is not present in verse 18. To this I answer this way: the two meanings correspond to two aspects of a person’s justification. A person is justified forensically (in the Pauline sense of judicial declaration), but then a person is also justified evidentially when his faith is shown to be genuine. Manton put it well when he said that the Jamesian sense of evidentiary justification shows a person to be unhypocritical. You can say a person is unhypocritical or that his faith is unhypocritical, it all comes to the same thing. In other words, Shepherd is mincing words here.

The third objection to our position is stated this way: the word “justify” cannot ever be said to mean “show to be justified” even if it can mean “show to be righteous” (p. 24). However, this objection is closely tied to the previous objection: if a person can be shown to be genuine and unhypocritical, then his justification is also shown to be genuine. The latter idea may be an implication of the former, but a firm implication it is. As a man thinks, so he is. We cannot drive such a large wedge between a person and his faith.

Thirdly, he objects that arguing for the demonstrative sense in James as a way of reconciling James and Paul “is a theological argument rather than an exegetical argument” (p. 24). I must ask why this would be a problem. Are we not required to compare Scripture with Scripture? Is exegesis limited to the immediate context, or does it ultimately extend to the entire Bible? I would strongly argue for the latter. Therefore we MUST seek to reconcile James and Paul.

His fourth main argument is that the broader context of James favors the view that James has in mind the final judgment and a soteric justification on that day (p. 25). But there are two things at work here. First of all, there is a strong strand of Reformed teaching that argues that the final fulfillment of evidentiary proof of justification will happen on the Final Day: believers will be shown before the whole world to have had genuine justifying faith. And the works of believers will be trotted out as the evidence for this claim. This is not soteric. Chapter 5:9 does not prove his point. His point is that we need to be bearing fruit in keeping with a genuine faith. Grumbling is not in keeping with said faith. Therefore, if we are grumbling, we need to be awakened to the fact that we might not have a genuine faith. Besides, the word is not “condemned” in that verse, but “judged.” All our works will in fact be judged, but they might be burned up, as it says in 1 Corinthians 3, if they be hay, straw, or stubble. The fact that it says “you be judged” does not affect this exegesis in the slightest, since it is a metonymy, with the person standing in for the works. He has not proven his point, therefore. I conclude that since all the arguments against the position have an answer, that therefore we should follow Calvin, and argue that “justify” has a demonstrative sense in James, and not a declaritive.

An Exegesis of James 2 in Relation to Paul

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.”