Commentary on James 2:24
Works, vol. 4, pp. 260-265.
You see then how by works a man is justified, and not by faith only (James 2:24).
“You see then” — It is either a consectary [that which follows] out of the whole discourse, or out of the particular example of Abraham; he alludeth to Paul’s manner of reasoning: Rom. 3:28, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law;” and probably this discourse is intended to correct the abuse of that doctrine.
“How by works;” that is, by the parts and offices of the holy life.
“A man is justified;” that is, acquitted from hypocrisy; for he is said to be justified, in the phrase of our apostle, whose faith appeareth to be good and right, or who is found just and righteous; as Christ is said to be “manifested in the flesh, but justified in the Spirit,” (1 Tim. 3:16); that is, approved to be God.
“And not by faith only” — Not by a bare naked profession, or a dead vain faith, such as consisteth in a mere assent or empty speculation, which is so far from justifying that it is not properly faith.
The main work in the discussion of this verse is to reconcile James with Paul. The conclusions seem directly opposite. (See Rom. 3:28; Gal. 2:16). Paul also bringeth the instance of Abraham against justification by works. Much ado there hath been to reconcile this seeming difference. Some upon this ground deny the authority of the epistle; so Luther, and many of the Lutherans at first. Camerarius speaketh boldly and rashly, as if heat of contention had obtruded the apostle upon the contrary extreme and error; but this is to cut the knot, not to untie it. The apostles, acted by the same Spirit of truth, could not deliver contrary assertions; and though men usually out of the extreme hatred of one error embrace another, yet it cannot be imagined, without blasphemy, of those who were guided by an infallible assistance. They show more reverence to the scriptures who seek to reconcile both places than to deny the authority of one. Many ways are propounded; I shall briefly examine them, that with good advice and evidence we may pitch upon the best.
The Papist Interpretation
1. The Papists say that Paul speaketh of the first justification, by which a man, if unjust, is made just; and that by works he understandeth works done without faith and grace, by the sole power and force of free-will. But James speaketh of the second justification, whereby of just he is made more just; and by works he understandeth such as are performed in faith, and by the help of divine grace.
To this I answer —
(1.) That it confoundeth justification with sanctification.
(2.) That the distinction is false, and hath no ground in scripture. We can merit nothing after we are in a good estate, and are saved by grace all our lives: “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, for the just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17). If the righteousness whereby a sinner is justified be wholly absolved by faith, there is no place for works at all. But the apostle saith, throughout the whole life it is revealed from faith to faith; besides, the Apostle Paul excludeth all works, even those done by grace. It is true, this error is less than that of the Pelagians, who said that by natural abilities the law might be kept to justification. However, it is not enough to ascribe justificatory works to the grace of God. So did the Pharisee: (Luke 18:11-12), “God, I thank thee,” not myself. Yet he went not away justified. It is ill to associate nature with grace, and to make man a coadjutor in that in which God will have the sole glory.
(3.) It is little less than blasphemy to say, We are more just by our own works than by the merits of Christ received by faith; for to that justification, whereby a man is made more just, they admit works.
(4.) The phrase of being more just suiteth not with the scope of the apostle, who doth not show how our righteousness is increased, but who hath an interest in it. Neither will the adversaries grant that those against whom the apostle disputeth had a first and real righteousness; and beside, it is contradicted by the example of Rahab, who, according to their explication, cannot be said to be justified in their second way of justification, and yet in our apostle’s sense she is justified by works; and therefore the Popish gloss will not remove the seeming contrariety between the apostles.
The Arminian and Socinian Interpretation
2. The Arminians and Socinians go another way to work; and that they may deceive with the fairer pretense, seem to ascribe all to grace, and to condemn the merit of all sorts of works, because poor, weak, and imperfect; but they make new obedience the instrument of justification, and say that the free grace of God is only seen in the acceptation of our imperfect obedience. So doth Socinus and others. And the way of reconciliation which they propose between the apostles is this: Paulus cum negat nos ex operibus jtistificari, nomine operum per- fectam per tolam vitam legis divinm observationem intelligit, nee aiiud quidquam dicere vult, nisi nos ex merito ipsorum operum nequaquam juslijicari coram Deo, non autem ad nos coram ipso justificandos nulla opera nostra requiri ; sunt enim opera, id est obedienlia quam Christo prcestamus, licet nee ejficiens, nee meritoria, tamen causa sine qua non justificationis coram Deo atque cctemai salutis. That Paul, when he denieth justification by works, understandeth by works perfect obedience, such as the law required; and James only new obedience, which is the condition, without which we are not justified. So Socinus, and herein he is generally followed by the men of his own school.
But to this I reply —
(1.) That the Apostle Paul doth not only exclude the exact obedience of the law, but the sincere obedience of the gospel, all kind of works from the business of justification, as appeareth by the frequent disjunction or opposition of faith and works throughout the scriptures. Take these for a taste: “By grace ye are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God. Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). “If by grace, then it is no more of works; otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then it is no more of grace; otherwise work is no more work” (Rom. 11:6). The two ways of grace and works are incompatible. A mixed and patched way of works and grace together will never be accepted of God. The new cloth sewed on upon the old confidence makes the rent the worse. It was the error of those against whom Paul dealeth in his epistles to rest half upon Christ and half upon works; and therefore is he so zealous everywhere in this dispute: “Christ is become of none effect unto you, whosoever are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:4). For they did go about to mix both the covenants, and so wholly destroyed their own interest in that of grace.
(2.) It is a matter of dangerous consequence to set up works, under what pretense soever, as the matter or condition of our justification before God. It robbeth God of his glory, and weakeneth the comfort of the creature. God’s glory suffereth, because, as far as we ascribe to ourselves, so much do we take off from God. Now when we make our own obedience the matter or condition of our righteousness, we glory in ourselves, contrary to Romans 4:2-3, and detract from free grace, by which alone we are justified (Rom. 3:24), and the creature suffereth loss of comfort when his righteousness before God is built upon so frail a foundation as his own obedience. The examples of the children of God, who were always at a loss in themselves, show how dangerous it is to stand upon our own bottom. Take a few places: Job 9:2-3, “How shall a man be just with God? If he will contend with him, he can not answer him one of a thousand.” So verse 20, “If I justify myself, my own mouth shall condemn me. If I say, I am perfect; it shall also prove me perverse.” So verses 30-31, “If I wash myself with snow water, and make my hands never so clean, yet thou shalt plunge me in a ditch; my own clothes shall abhor me.” So also David showeth that he was never able to enter upon this plea, to justify himself by his own obedience (Ps. 143:2, and 130:3). And in the New Testament abundantly do the saints disown their obedience and righteousness, as not daring to trust it, yea, their new obedience upon gospel terms: 1 Cor. 4:4, “I know nothing by myself, yet am I not hereby justified.” He did what he was able, was conscious to himself of no crime and unfaithfulness in his ministry and dispensation, yet all this will not justify. So Phil. 3:9, “Oh! that I might be found in him, not having my own righteousness,” &c. He durst not trust the inquiry and search of justice with any act or holiness of his own.
Briefly to clear this point more fully, let me lay down a few propositions.
(1.) Whosoever would be accepted with God must be righteous: Hab. 1:13, “Thou art of purer eyes than to behold iniquity.” God cannot give a sinner, as a sinner, a good look.
(2.) Every righteousness will not serve the turn: it must be such as will endure the pure eyes of his glory. Hence those phrases, “justified in thy sight” (Ps. 143:2; Rom. 3:20); and “glorying before God” (Rom. 4:2; so Gal. 3:11, &c.).
(3.) Such a righteousness can be found in no man. Our obedience is a covering that is too short: Job 15:14, “What is man, that he should be clean? and he that is born of a woman, that he should be righteous?” So 1 Sam. 6:20, “Who can stand, before this holy God?” The least defect leaveth us to the challenge of the law and the plea of justice.
(4.) This righteousness is only to be had in Christ; there is no other name given under heaven; there indeed it is to be found; therefore he is called, “The Lord our righteousness” (Jer. 23:6), and he is “made to us righteousness” (1 Cor. 1:30). Therefore we are bidden “to seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Mat. 6:33). We must seek God’s righteousness if we would enter into God’s kingdom.
(5.) This righteousness is made ours by faith: ours it must be, as in the first proposition, and ours it is only by faith: Rom. 1:17, “The righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith.” From first to last the benefit of Christ’s righteousness is received by faith; it is the fittest and most self-denying grace; it is the grace that beginneth our union with Christ; and when we are made one with Christ, we are possessed of his righteousness and merit, as our right, for our comfort and use. So see Rom. 3:22, and Phil. 3:9, where the righteousness of God by faith is opposed to “our own righteousness, which is of the law;” which intimateth to us that this righteousness is of God, and that it is made ours by faith.
(6.) Those that receive the righteousness of Christ are also sanctified by him. New obedience is an inseparable companion of justification: 1 Cor. 1:30, “righteousness and sanctification;” by virtue of the union we have both: 2 Cor. 5:17, “Whosoever is in Christ is a new creature.” So that obedience is not the condition of justification, but the evidence; not the condition and qualification of the new covenant, so much as of the covenanters. Faith justifieth, and obedience approveth: it must be in the same subject, though it hath not a voice in the same court.
The Orthodox Interpretation
3. The orthodox, though they differ somewhat in words and phrases, yet they agree in the same common sense, in reconciling James and Paul. Thus, while some say Paul disputeth of the cause of justification, and so excludeth works; James, of the effects of justication, and so enforceth a presence of them; and others say Paul disputeth how we are justified, and James how we shall evidence ourselves to be justified; the one taketh justification for acquittance from sin, the other for acquittance from hypocrisy; the one for the imputation of righteousness, the other for the declaration of righteousness. Or as others, Paul speaketh of the office of faith, James of the quality of faith; Paul pleadeth for saving faith, James pleadeth against naked assent; the one speaketh of the justifying of the person, the other of the faith, &c. All these answers are to the same effect, either subordinate to one another or differing only in expression, and do very well suit with the scope of the apostle. You shall see everywhere he seeketh to disvalue and put a disgrace upon that faith he speaketh of; he calleth it a vain dead faith, a faith which is alone, &c. And when he fixeth the scope of the disputation, he saith, “Show me thy faith by thy works;” where he plainly discovereth what was the matter in controversy, to wit, the evidencing of their faith. And it is notable, that when he beginneth to argue, the proposition which he layeth down is this, that a bare profession of faith without works will not save. It is true, it is delivered by way of question, verse 14, “What will it profit, my brethren, if a man say he hath faith, and hath not works? Will faith save him?” Or, as it is in the original, will ή πίστις, will that faith save him? Now such questions are the strongest way of denial, for they are an appeal to the conscience; and you shall see that the conclusion is this always, that faith which is alone and without works, is dead; which plainly showeth what was the τό ζητούμενον, or the thing in question, to wit, the unjustifiableness of that faith which is without works.
Out of the whole discourse you may observe:
Observation 1. That in the scriptures there is sometimes a seeming difference, but no real contrariety. The τό έναντιοφανές, the seeming difference, is ordered with good advice. God would prevent misprisions and errors on every side; and the expressions of scripture are ordered so that one may relieve another. As, for instance, some hold that Christ had only an imaginary body, and was man but in appearance; therefore, to show the reality of his human nature, you have that expression, John 1:14, “The word was made flesh.” Others, straining that expression, held a change of the Godhead into the humanity; to correct which excess we have another expression, 1 Tim. 3:16, “God manifested in the flesh.” To a Valentinian, urging that place in Timothy for Christ’s fantastic and imaginary body, we may oppose that in John, “The word was made flesh;” to a Cerinthian, pleading for a change of the Godhead, we may oppose that in Paul, “God manifested,” &c. So in some places we are bid “to work out our salvation” (Phil. 2:12-13); and the whole business of salvation is charged upon us, to check laziness. In other places the will and deed is altogether ascribed to God, to prevent self-confidence. Thus Paul, having to deal with pharisaical justiciaries, proveth invincibly justification by faith without works; James, having to deal with carnal gospellers, proveth as strongly that a profession of faith without works is vain. The scripture hath so poised and contempered all doctrines and expressions, that it might wisely prevent human mistakes and errors on every hand, and sentences might not be violently urged apart, but measured by the proportion of faith.
Observation 2. That a bare profession of faith is not enough to acquit us from hypocrisy. Christ would not own them that professed his name but wrought iniquity (Mat. 7:21-22); so also the church should not own men for their bare profession. In these times we look more at gifts and abilities of speech than good works, and empty prattle [triffling talk] weigheth more than real charity.