Luther called the book of James ‘an epistle of straw’ because of the way James talks about justification, faith and works. He was wrong, because James is using the second of two meanings of “justified” and is actually saying the same thing as Paul in the book of Romans. We will get to that.
Firstly James paints a practical scenario of two visitors turning up to a Sunday gathering. One looks rich and the other poor. If we were to treat them differently we would be sinning, showing partiality, because God looks at the inward not the outward. The poor person may well be richer in faith!
The sin is violating the “royal law”. Jesus summed up the Old Testament law as “Love God and love your neighbour” – that is the royal law, the law of the King. In verses 8-13, James sides with Paul, saying that if we go back to the law we are judged under the whole law – Paul calls that putting ourselves under the curse of the law. We don’t do meritorious obedience – earning God’s favour by putting ourselves under the old covenant law – because we can’t keep it all. Motyer talks about responsive obedience – we respond to God’s grace by following Jesus’ royal law, the law of liberty – love God and love others!
So then to the thorny verses, v.14-26. The issue is that Paul talks about Abraham being justified by faith, not works, in Romans 4 and James here tells us that Abraham was justified by works not just faith.
The issue is what they are using “justified” to mean! It has more than one meaning. As Greg Koukl writes:
Whenever one encounters an apparent contradiction, it’s good to keep in mind a basic rule: Always first explore the possibility of a reconciliation between the two. Not all statements that appear to contradict actually do.
Take the two statements “Napoleon was a very big man” and “Napoleon was not a big man; he was a small man.” At first glance, these two sentences appear contradictory. The word “big” is equivocal, though. It can mean two different things. Napoleon was a big man regarding his impact in history, but was small in physical size.
Paul uses the term ‘justified’ in its legal sense of being declared not guilty and declared righteous. James uses the more normal everyday meaning of justify as proving something. “I want to justify why I did that”.
Paul talks about the beginning of Abraham’s spiritual journey in Genesis 15:5-6 – “And He took him outside and said, ‘Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ And He said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
The justification James has in mind comes much later in Abraham’s life, which we find in Genesis 22:12 – “And he said, ‘Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.'”
Paul and James are talking about two different times in Abraham’s life; events separated by 25 years.
The works of Abraham that James mentions were a result of justification which came by faith a quarter of a century earlier. Abraham was not being saved again. Rather, he was showing evidence of his salvation. Abraham’s faith wasn’t just a cerebral thing, it was borne out in practice. Verse 12 of Genesis 22 shows us that – “Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” That’s why James concludes, “And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.'”
James is speaking to those who are all talk and no action. The message is only in their heads and hasn’t changed their hearts. Paul is talking about the internals, James is talking about what comes out of what has happened internally!
Paul ties the two together in Titus 3:14-18 – “But when the kindness of God our Saviour and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, that being justified by His grace we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy statement; and concerning these things I want you to speak confidently, so that those who have believed God may be careful to engage in good deeds. These things are good and profitable for men.”
Marinate in that.