Does James 2:24 refute the doctrine of justification by faith alone?

Stephen Nichols & 2 others
3 Min Read

NICHOLS: This is a perennial question that pits James against Paul and pits the non-Reformed understanding of faith alone against the Reformed understanding.

There is a long history of dealing with this question. I think Calvin put it in a very helpful way: we are talking about our justification before God. When Paul talks about justification, he’s talking about our standing before God, which is by faith alone.

Our faith is not visible to the rest of Christ’s body. What is visible, however, is the effect of our faith or the fruits of it, which would be our works. James is after that evidence or manifestation of a right standing with God before others. This is manifested in a life saved by faith that is then transformed and lives for God.

That being said, we must never connect works to our justification and our standing before God. We have to be very careful not to say “justification by faith” and then smuggle works through the back door. So, we need to look at what Paul and James are doing, and they harmonize perfectly on this point.

LAWSON: When Paul wrote about justification, he was looking at Genesis 15:6: “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” He was describing faith alone. When James addressed it in James 2:14-26, he was not thinking of Genesis 15:6 but Genesis 22, where Abraham offered Isaac many years later. Genesis 22 is evidence of the saving, justifying faith that was exercised in Genesis 15.

Paul and James were coming at it from two totally different perspectives. Paul was describing what we would call conversion—”Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” James was not looking at saving faith but the fruit of it. To put it another way, Paul was looking at the root, and James was looking at the fruit. The two are inseparably bound and are two sides of the same coin. Yet, there is a cause and effect. The cause is Genesis 15; the effect is Genesis 22 and Abraham giving evidence of his faith by going to Mount Moriah to offer Isaac as a sacrifice.

PARSONS: Let me give a secondary point that I think is important. You might be familiar with the language of “final justification.” It is based on a number of texts that are poorly interpreted, in my opinion, most notably Romans 2:13. Some have taught that we are justified now but that we have to demonstrate that justification while looking forward, with assurance and hope, to the final justification on the day of judgment.

The idea of final justification comes from a very poor interpretation of Romans 2:13. We must understand that we are justified once and for all, that justification is a one-time act. God has declared us righteous because of the righteousness of Jesus Christ, which is by faith alone. We do not have to wait for a final justification on judgment day. We are justified once and for all by faith alone. There is a lot more I could say about that because it’s a very important point on the subject of justification.

LAWSON: I have one more thing to say about that. If you are not justified in this life, you will never be justified on the last day. You will be condemned on the last day if you are not justified in this lifetime. Those who misinterpret Romans 2:13 forget the analogia Scriptura. They forget that the entire Bible should be brought to bear. They are trying to interpret the rest of the Bible in light of one verse. We should never interpret that way. We interpret one verse in light of the entire Bible.

The Bible as a whole clearly testifies that justification is inseparably connected to sanctification and that everyone who is justified immediately begins the journey of progressive sanctification. Some will progress faster, others slower, depending on many factors. Nevertheless, everyone who is justified is being sanctified and will ultimately be glorified, without exception.

You have to see the entire systematic theology and the whole counsel of God to even address that issue of final justification. That interpretation of Romans 2:13 is nonsense because if you’re not justified now, you will be condemned on the last day.

This is a transcript of Stephen Nichols’, Steven Lawson’s, and Burk Parsons’ answers given during our A Continuing Reformation: Pittsburgh 2021 Conference and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, email or message us on Facebook or Twitter.