The Missing AloneWhen Paul talks about justification, primarily in the book of Romans, he never states explicitly that justification is by faith alone. However, what is not explicit is nevertheless abundantly clear.
When we say justification is by faith alone, it is understood that the faith itself is by grace. So grace is not excluded, obviously, from the restriction: faith alone.
That leaves only one other thing that could possibly contribute to justification: keeping the law, or works. Thus we have three possibilities:
- Justification is by works alone.
- Justification is by faith and works.
- Justification is by faith alone, sola fide.
So if Paul wants to teach sola fide he has two possible basic strategies at his disposal: He could affirm it explicitly, or he could eliminate option 2, justification by faith and works, so that only sola fide remains as a possibility.
That is exactly what Paul does. He eliminates works as a contributing factor. If works do not contribute to justification, then the only thing left is faith, and faith alone.
26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.In light of these passages (and the book of Romans as a whole) one sees how weak the argument is that Paul does not teach sola fide simply because he never names the doctrine that he so clearly espouses.
27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. 28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. (Rom. 3: 36-28, NIV)
If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about–but not before God. (Rom. 4:2)
know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified. (Gal. 2:16, NASB)
The James ProblemThe often quoted apparent refutation of sola fide:
21 Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness," and he was called God's friend. 24 You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. (James 2:21:24, NIV)Here is the dilemma in a nutshell:
- Paul teaches that justification is by faith alone.
- Paul teaches that Abraham was justified by faith (Rom. 4:2). So does Moses (Gen. 15:6).
- James seemingly denies sola fide, especially in James 2:24.
- James teaches that Abraham was considered righteous for offering Isaac (James 2:21).
As an aside, this problem is always posed as a "James" problem for the sola fide crowd. It is equally (if indeed it were an actual dilemma) a "Paul" problem for those who deny justification by faith alone.
There are really only three possibilities.
- James is wrong.
- Paul is wrong.
- James and Paul are talking about different things.
In discussing this, it is vital to remember the context in which Paul and James speak of justification. Paul is laying out a treatise of the forensic view of justification, forensic because we are declared "legally" righteous before God by claiming Christ's perfect righteousness as our own. Paul is always discussing the theological ground for justification, which is faith and faith alone.
James' epistle is a much more practical, down-to-earth, in-your-face exhortation. James is addressing a dead orthodoxy and its cousin, antinomianism. James, unlike Paul, is not teaching first principle apologetics on the theological ground of justification, but its practical and inevitable manifestation.
This is most clear in the conflicting discussions of father Abraham. Paul refers to Gen. 15:6, where Abraham is made (credited) with righteousness because he believed. James refers to an event much later, Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac.
The fact that Paul and James refer to Abraham's justification as occurring at different times, and as the result of different events, either worsens the dilemma or, as I believe, is additional evidence that Paul and James are talking about different things.
Note further what James wrote: Abraham was considered righteous (NIV) for offering Isaac. Considered by whom? God does not consider, God knows a man’s state. God knew Abraham was righteous because He made him (credited him) righteous earlier in his life. Abraham’s obedience made his justification manifest to himself, to Isaac, and most importantly to all of us. That is what James meant. For further evidence (and not dependent on the use of considered in the NIV) we note that James clearly views it as a display of righteousness (or justification), not the actual act of being justified, by also referring, in James 2:23, to Abraham’s ground for justification: faith.
In this view, James' teaching is clearly understood and in no way in conflict with Paul’s teaching of sola fide. James is telling us that if there is no fruit (works), then we are not justified, because justification (though by faith alone) always bears fruit. Both Paul and Jesus agree, teaching that, for example, a good tree is known by its good fruit (Matt. 12:33). God already knows which tree is good. Man does not know, except by the fruit, which then glorifies God.
It is possible that James was addressing a form of antinomianism that arose as a perverted application of Paul’s teaching (which in no wise impugns it, Pauls teaching that is). This would make it an early church version of the present day Lordship Salvation controversy. James is not arguing against Paul, but rather against those who believe that it is possible to be a carnal Christian.