Three simple words and they are often glossed over, confounding one’s reading of one the most misused verses in Scripture. Modern apologists often contend that James 2:24 refutes Sola Fide, the doctrine of justification by faith alone. They often opine that the only time the term “faith alone” appears in Scripture, it follows the words “not by.” Furthering their cause, they claim Martin Luther added the word “alone” to Romans 3:28 to counter this. However, three words at the beginning of James 2:24 indicate that it more easily supports than refutes this wonderfully simple and reassuring doctrine. At the very least, they render such rhetorical attacks futile. These words in James 2:24 actually provide support for justification by faith alone, relegating works to their proper place in the economy of salvation.
Many of us who find eternal hope and peace in the words Sola Fide, struggle with this passage of Holy Scripture, when we step outside of our Evangelical bubble and contend with zealous synergists. We invariably jump to more explicit and familiar passages like Romans 3:28, Galatians 2:16, Ephesians 2:8-9, Philippians 3:9 (and there are many more) to defend this doctrine. But we don’t need to run from James 2:24 at all. When you examine it closely, this verse only adds to the overwhelming scriptural support for Sola Fide.
Before looking at this, I should say I don’t consider myself a very skilled student of Scripture and certainly nothing close to a scholar or theologian. I have though, learned a valuable lesson in reading God’s Word: every word matters. It’s crucial to pay attention to every word, clause, phrase, verse, passage, and ultimately the entirety of Scripture. People considerably smarter than me would likely consider this a principle (“Scripture interprets Scripture”) of hermeneutics.
What does the verse say about “faith alone”?
James 2:24: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.“
Wait a second, we’re justified by works? That’s what it says, right? And this is the only occurrence of the phrase “faith alone” in all of Scripture (says the astute apologist intent on setting the doctrinal strawman ablaze)? How in the world can that support Sola Fide?
First, let’s remove the three little words: “…a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.“
If one interprets the verse to mean our works play a role in our justification, nothing changes. With that interpretation, those three little words add nothing to the verse. It’s inconsequential if they are there or not. If, on the other hand, you consider what it means to see something, it all comes together. One’s faith is invisible, as one’s works are visible. Works are a visible witness to one’s faith.
James reinforces this idea (that of a visible witness) a few verses later when he says: “…Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18)
Does this fit with the overall context of James?
There is little disagreement the book is written to Jewish believers. As John MacArthur states:
“The recipients of this book were Jewish believers who had been dispersed (1:1), possibly as a result of Stephen’s martyrdom (Acts 7, A.D. 31–34), but more likely due to the persecution under Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12, ca. A.D. 44).”
As he writes to believers, James is not discussing the “how” of salvation. Thus, he is not telling them they need works to be justified. Rather, he’s speaking to the intersection of faith and works, by which others recognize the faith of the authentic believer. Such faith is a condition of the heart and invisible, except as it is on display by works. It’s a timely message for believers who are “dispersed” in persecution…believers that are likely experiencing this for the first time and are discouraged. I’m sure they struggled venturing out to share their faith, love their enemies, and put their “works” on display in a world where they were increasingly hated. That’s why James implores them at the beginning of the book to “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials…” (James 1:2).
Sola fide and the simplicity of the Gospel
In the realms of human intellect, scholarship, systematic theology, and especially with the accumulation of information so readily accessible today, there are many subtleties, nuances, and complexities to the philosophical construct of the doctrine of justification. The interplay between saving faith and righteousness, as expressed through the works of a regenerate believer can quickly confound one’s understanding and many who read this will likely lament this post as an oversimplification. If that is you, I’ll simply ask you to examine yourself and ask: Am I grounded in the good news of the Gospel? Ultimately, that is what matters most. The complexities of Scripture and the mysteries of faith can quickly overwhelm and we’re all prone to thinking more highly of ourselves that we ought. Romans 12:1-21 and 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 are great passages to read and meditate on and I find them helpful in “grounding” my own conception of faith.