Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Justification in Paul and James’ Writings

thumbnailCAQ45676Justification in Paul and James’ Writings

    Paul and James seem to contradict one another in relation to the doctrine of justification. This issue has long been one of the more controversial issues of evangelicalism in particular and not without its warrant. Many in the church are afraid of cultic tendencies to “earn” righteousness or merit God’s forgiveness. The Jehovah’s Witnesses for example believe in a “works based righteousness,” so do Mormon’s, the Church of Christ, the Catholic Church, and a host of other similar religious groups. What is the Christian to do with such passages as James 2, where it seems to be implicitly contradicting Paul who is arguing for justification by faith alone? Should the church take the position of Martin Luther, that the book of James is “an epistle of straw?” To gather enough evidence for an analysis of this problem, let’s look at the context of a specific group of passages by these two writers.
    In the writings of Paul, one does not have to read long before it is evident that no one is righteous, all are doomed to die in sin, and the only hope anyone has is based upon the mercy and grace of God. Justification therefore must be based upon the righteous life of another, who is the Lord Jesus Christ, the perfect Son of God. Romans 3:20, for instance, states: “Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin,” and again in Galatians Paul writes: “We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified” (Gal 2:15–16). Taking a literal, syntactical approach, three main points are evident:
Justification is not by the deeds of the flesh.
Justification is not by the works of the law.
Justification is by faith in Jesus Christ.
If the above points are true, then it is right to conclude that “justification is by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.” Such doctrine is consistent throughout the writings of other New Testament authors. This doctrine is to be taken as a summary of the teaching on justification found in the writings of the New Testament. What about James? Do his writings in fact disagree with Paul?
    James writes in the second chapter of his epistle: “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:14–17). Moving further into the chapter he says again, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only” (James 2:21–24). From these verses again, a syntactical analysis will be applied, again three main points will be derived:
Faith by itself with no works is dead.
Abraham our father was justified by works.
Works perfect faith.
If the above points are true then it is right to conclude “A man is justified by works and not faith only.” That is what it says, plain and simple.
    How is it that reconciling these points is such a problem? It seems as though the reason is not in the interpretation of the syntax itself but in the interpretation of the context and theology. To help with this problem, it is crucial to bring in a technical term which was coined by the reformers, namely, “forensic justification.” This terminology is used when speaking about the believers’ standing before God himself. This is precisely what Paul is writing about in Romans and Galatians. In the days of the reformation, one of the crucial points of departure from Rome was over the concept of justification. Rome believed that people were infused with righteousness; thus, justification was actually earned by their infused righteousness. The reformers understood that an “alien” righteousness had to be applied to a person wholly apart from their own doing; that is, righteousness had to be imparted or imputed in order for God to justify the sinner. So, the whole concept of justification in Paul’s language and terminology is forensic. In contrast to Paul, James is not writing forensically. He is writing practically on an “earthly” level. It could be argued that Paul and James are referring to the same thing while looking through different lenses, because a person who is forensically justified before God will persevere in saving faith and look like those James is referring to. Therefore, ultimately, neither author disagrees with the other and they are both aiming at the same thing.

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