Do you believe in being justified before God by faith alone? If you’re a non-Catholic or non-Eastern Orthodox and you attend a church, there is a ninety-nine percent chance you and/or your church does. To be justified means being made righteous, just, holy, and acceptable before God. Protestants will claim that to be justified means merely being declared righteous, just, and acceptable before God through faith alone while remaining in a perpetual state of depraved sin, simultaneously.
Faith alone (or sola fide) is a Christian theological doctrine that distinguishes most Protestant denominations from the Catholic Church. The doctrine asserts that God’s pardon for the forgiveness of sins excludes all goods works and is received through faith alone. Some common passages from Sacred Scripture that Protestant confessions of faith and denominations like to quote for the basis of this doctrine are:
“Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” Romans 3:28 KJV
“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” Ephesians 2:8,9 KJV
“Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” Galatians 2:16 KJV
The case for the doctrine of faith alone, apart from any type of works, on the basis of these King James Version verses (among others) of Scripture alone, appears to be definitive. However, when you get to the canonical book of Saint James (accepted by Protestants), specifically the second chapter, the Protestant Christian runs into an inherent problem with this doctrine:
“You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.” James 2:24 NIV
“Ye see that a man is justified of works, and not of faith only.” James 2:24 WYC
Personally, I have heard many different approachable defenses regarding this verse (and chapter) attempting to uphold the doctrine of ‘faith alone’. I have had Protestant ministers claim that this verse “is written to those already justified Christians”, to “we are justified by faith alone, but faith is never alone”, to “it is an enigma”, to “it is a straw man argument”, and then following up by rapid-firing seemingly ‘faith alone’ passages that outweigh the verse of James 2:24. However, it has been brought to my attention that Saint James’ discourse in his epistle on justification is that of justification before men, and NOT before God. I will post the entire passage from James chapter two:
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 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. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.”
The following are quotes that I have been given attempting to validate the claim that Saint James is referring to ‘justification before men’ when he writes that we are justified by works, and not by faith alone:
“You can’t see faith. You can see works. And even if one professes faith, words mean nothing if they are not proved by works”
“Show me” referring to men showing other men their works to be justified before one another, and not God.”
“You see” referring to us men seeing with our eyes the works of other men to be justified before one another, and not God.”
“James 2:24 says a man is justified by works, it cannot possibly mean that God justifies such a man on the basis of his works for this would have God contradicting himself. Reading James in context reveals that James is talking about a justification that man can see. Show me, he argues. We cannot show faith. We can only show works.”
These arguments have been brought to me trying to substantiate that Saint James, in the aforementioned passage, is referring only to ‘justification before men’ and NOT before God. Before I get into the passage itself, let us examine the history behind this doctrine of ‘justification before men’.
First of all, it is unfounded by any early Church Father. There is no mention of anything remotely close to imagining such a conception that Saint James was referring to ‘justification before men’, absolutely nothing implicitly, ambiguously, or even accidentally, written and/or carried through oral tradition. Secondly, what is more revealing and even more shocking, is that not one 16th-century Reformer (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli etc.) even came close to imagining such a doctrine! There is absolutely nothing, zero, zilch that was written and/or carried on by oral tradition from the Reformers. What is even more telling, is that there is absolutely no mention whatsoever of this ‘justification before men’ in any Protestant Confession of faith and doctrine. You can examine the entire Formula of Concord (1577), the fullness of the Westminister Confession of Faith (1646), and/or the complete Baptist Confession of Faith (1644), among many others, and you will find no such declaration of Saint James referring to being justified before men only, and not before God. In fact, this is what Martin Luther, the founding father of the Protestant Reformation and the doctrine of ‘faith alone’, had to say about the Epistle of Saint James:
“In a word, St. John’s Gospel and his first Epistle, St. Paul’s Epistles, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first Epistle are the books that show you Christ and that teach you all that is necessary and good for you to know, even though you never see or hear any other book or doctrine. Therefore, St. James’ Epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to them; for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel in it.”
“Though this epistle of St. James was rejected by the ancients, I praise it and consider it a good book, because it sets up no doctrines of men but vigorously promulgates the law of God. However, to state my own opinion about it, though without prejudice to anyone, I do not regard it as the writing of an apostle, and my reasons follow.”
“In a word, he wanted to guard against those who relied on faith without works, but was unequal to the task in spirit, thought, and words. He mangles the Scriptures and thereby opposes Paul and all Scripture. He tries to accomplish by harping on the law what the apostles accomplish by stimulating people to love. Therefore I cannot include him among the chief books, though I would not thereby prevent anyone from including or extolling him as he pleases, for there are otherwise many good sayings in him. Therefore I will not have him in my Bible to be numbered among the true chief books, though I would not thereby prevent anyone from including or extolling him as he pleases, for there are otherwise many good sayings in him. One man is no man in worldly things; how then, should this single man alone avail against Paul and all Scripture”
“In the first place it is flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works”
Notice the last italicized portion of the last above-mentioned quote, “[Saint Jame’s Epistle] is flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works”. Even Martin Luther knew that Saint James was referring to justification before God, and not men, hence his explicit, indignant and abhorrent contempt for the entire epistle! It is even more interesting that Luther parallels Saint James ‘justification to works’ going against St. Paul’s “justification to faith”. If Saint James was merely referring to the works performed to be justified before men, then why would he write that this contradicted St. Paul’s justification to faith before God?! Because, even the ‘doctor of doctors’ knew Saint James was referring to justification before God.
Now lets us analyze the text of Saint James in the proper Apostolic context. The most important words of this text, the entire basis for Saint James’ inspired reason for writing it are captured in the very first words:
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?
Read and understand the words “can such faith SAVE them”! Saint James is clearly and unambiguously talking about salvation and the faith required for it. Remember, as we know mentioned before, to be justified means being made (or declared if you’re Protestant) righteous, just, holy, and acceptable before God; justification equals salvation, even Protestants will agree. The topic here is salvation by justification! This following verse precedes what Saint James has to say how he will illustrate or expound on his point:
“Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.”
The key word here to focus on is ‘suppose’. Other transliterations will use the word ‘if’. Nonetheless, Saint James is using an analogy to illustrate his point on salvific faith. This analogy is the premise for the reasoning behind the exposition of explaining if such a faith can save them; hence why he follows up with a real world example displaying the efficacious completion of a salvific faith:
“If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”
Is Saint James telling us the only way to have real, non-lifeless faith is by solely and specifically keeping our brothers and sisters fed with food and clothed with clothes? Of course not! He is using an example to magnify his point that if your faith does not include works, your “justifying” faith is dead and you will not inherit eternal life, i.e. salvation (can such faith save you), hence, the reason for ‘suppose’.
“But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.”
This portion of the passage is where Protestants start to develop and infer that the justification Saint James is referring to is ‘justification before men’, and not justification before God. Or, namely, that we stand “righteous, holy, just, and acceptable before men” by the works, but not by the faith. Their claim roots from the seemingly clear fact that men cannot ‘see’ other men’s faith, their salvific faith. Therefore, when Saint James writes “Show me” and/or “I will show you”, Protestants infer he is inexplicably referring to that which the human eye can ‘see’, viz. men can only see the external works of faith, and not the internal faith itself that alone justifies us before God.
There are two explicit and inherent problems with this claim. First, Saint James is still using an analogy to illustrate his point by prefacing with the initial food and clothes example, ‘suppose’ and/or ‘if’. We do not and cannot become justified before one another by solely feeding and clothing others in need! How can man substantiate, only by that which can be seen, i.e. external works (viz. clothing and feeding), that those who performed those works even had faith to begin with; e.g. an atheist can perfectly clothe the naked and feed the hungry, but do those works justify him before another Christian man?! If only God knows who truly does and does not have an internal, invisible, salvific faith, then how would anyone know for certain if those works were done in vain, without any kind of faith whatsoever? For example, a confession of faith in and of itself is an external work and not the faith itself, according to Protestants.
The second inherent and obvious problem is when Saint James says “Show me your faith without deeds”. Protestants exclaim that the words “show me” refer to men showing other men their deeds in order that they can be justified before each other, and not God. Here’s the issue, Saint James writes “show me your faith without deeds” and then immediately follows with “and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” Reread that, “I will SHOW YOU MY FAITH”. There it is! Crystal clear without an ounce of any obvious or implicit ambiguity! You can SHOW YOUR FAITH! Remember, Protestants will claim that faith is intrinsically internal, completely invisible, and can only be known by God and that men CANNOT ‘SEE’ the faith, only God can see the faith, but men can only ‘SEE’ the result, or the external works of that invisible faith, therefore we are justified before each other not by the faith, but only by the works seen by our eyes. The Protestant doctrine of ‘justification before men’ should have Saint James read this way:
“Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my DEEDS by my faith” or I will show you my deeds from my faith”, or “I will show you my deeds through my faith”.
But Saint James does not write that. He states, “I will show you my faith”!
In other words, Saint James is stating that we cannot show a salvific and justifying faith before God without deeds, rather we CAN SHOW a salvific and justifying faith before God with deeds! An internal faith that cannot be seen without deeds is demonic! An internal faith that CAN BE SEEN with deeds, or by deeds, is justifying because “such a faith” CAN SAVE HIM! Hence the following line:
“You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder”
Merely believing that there is one God, or faith without deeds, i.e. faith alone, correlates with what Saint James said prior, “show me your faith without deeds”. You CAN show your faith without deeds, just as the demons do! How do we know demons are not justified by faith alone? Because their faith is without deeds! Hence, with all due respect to Protestant’s and their beliefs, faith alone, or faith without deeds, is demonic!
“The apostle says that a man who believes and does not act has the faith of demons. If that is true, imagine the fate of a man who does not believe at all.” – Saint Caesarius of Arles (Sermons 12.5)
Now, comes the final portion of Saint James exhortation on justification by faith and works. This part alone, undoubtedly and without question completely and utterly refutes this ‘justification before men’ notion. Here is the last few verses:
“Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.”
Again, Protestants will infer and claim the fact that Saint James used the words ‘you see’ intrinsically refers to what can be seen by the naked eye. The saying ‘you see’ is synonymous with ‘you understand’ with your mind and not merely seeing with your fleshy eyes. Did you and/or I actually see Abraham’s faith and actions? Did anyone else for that matter? Absolutely not! You see ‘you see’ is a figure of speech that equates to ‘you understand’.
Furthermore, Protestants claim faith cannot be seen by the naked eye. However, Saint James says “you see his faith”…how can you see faith; by the deeds. The problem is that Protestants claim that the works only flow from an already initiated faith and they are only the result of a salvific faith, but they have no way, shape, or form in justifying us before God, but only before other men. Intentional or inadvertent, they dichotomize faith from works in the realm of justification. However, Saint James says word-for-word verbatim; “his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did”.
Think about that, his invisible and salvific faith to be justified before God (remember, Protestants themselves will tell you only faith is what justifies and can only be seen by God) was what?….MADE COMPLETE BY WHAT HE DID! That invisible faith was made complete by external works! Abraham’s faith, only known to God, was completed by offering Isaac to who; other men? Absolutely not! Abraham’s ‘invisible faith’ was made complete by what he did! If anything that justifying and invisible faith became visible to other men and God because we can see what?… You see his faith AND his actions, you do not see just his actions, but you see with the naked eye if you so desire, both his faith and his actions.There is no separation of works and faith in this verse! Now, we will examine the precise Old Testament portion of Scripture involving Saint James use of Abraham offering Isaac.
Let us consider both the context and the exact situation, according to Scripture alone, of what Saint James is referring to in Genesis 22 regarding Abraham offering his son, Isaac. I will bold and italicize the key parts to offer proof from Scripture alone for refuting ‘justification before men’:
Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”
Note: God tested Abraham; man did not test Abraham, but God alone.
“Here I am,” he replied.
Note: Here ‘I’ am, not here ‘we’ are (no other men to be justified before).
Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”
Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”
Note: Abraham explicitly commands his servants to ‘stay here’ and ‘then we will come back to you’. Now, if Abraham is being justified before men by his external works to be seen by men, the offering of his son, do not you think he would have had them come with so that he could “show them his works” to be justified before them, or “you see”.
Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”
“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.
“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.
When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”
Note: Did another man call out to Abraham to stop him? No, there were no other men even present! Hence, and angel of the Lord called out to him, and not another man.
“Here I am,” he replied.
“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
Note: Who knows that Abraham fears God? A man? No, angel of the Lord. If anything, Protestants should claim we are justified by our works before angels, and not before other men!
Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”
The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring[ all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”
Note: God swore by Himself! Not by a witness of two or three men, but by Himself that He will bless Him because of faith alone? No, but because “you have OBEYED me”!
Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.
Note: Maybe Abraham only left his servants initially, or momentarily. Hardly, Sacred Scripture alone confirms that Abraham was alone as he then “returned to his servants”.
In conclusion, if Saint James were referring to justification before men and not before God, he used the poorest and seeming most contradictory example from all of Old Testament Scripture with the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of his only son, Isaac. These theological questions yet remained unanswered in regards to the doctrine of ‘justification before men’ in James chapter two:
Why would sinful men need to be justified (declared or made holy) before other sinful men? If Saint James is indeed referring to ‘justification before men’ and not God, what is his point in doing so? Why do we need to be made, or declared right, just, holy and acceptable before other sinful men? Is that not the epitome of prideful boasting not in the Lord, but in men; in which Scripture alone condemns over and over again!:
For do I now persuade men, or God? or do I seek to please men? for if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ. – Galatians 1:10 KJV
But let every man prove his own work, and then shall he have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another – Galatians 6:4 KJV
Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain – 1 Corinthians 15:58 NIV
But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. – John 3:21 NIV
Therefore let no man glory in men. – 1 Corinthians 1:21 KJV
Not to us, Lord, not to us but to your name be the glory. – Psalm 115:1NIV
It is not good to eat much honey: so for men to search their own glory is not glory. – Proverbs 25:27 KJV
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. – 1 Corinthians 10:31 NIV
Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” – 1 Corinthians 1:31/Jeremiah 9:24 NIV
God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. – Hebrews 6:10 NIV
But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life. – Romans 6:22 KJV
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” – Matthew 6:1 NIV
“But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you”. Matthew 6:3 NIV
“But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you”. Matthew 6:17,18 NIV[a]
I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God. – 1 Corinthians 4:3-5 NIV
We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise. We, however, will not boast beyond proper limits, but will confine our boasting to the sphere of service God himself has assigned to us, a sphere that also includes you. We are not going too far in our boasting, as would be the case if we had not come to you, for we did get as far as you with the gospel of Christ. Neither do we go beyond our limits by boasting of work done by others. Our hope is that, as your faith continues to grow, our sphere of activity among you will greatly expand, so that we can preach the gospel in the regions beyond you. For we do not want to boast about work already done in someone else’s territory. But, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends – 2 Corinthians 10:12-18 NIV
– The Reformation Writings of Martin Luther, vol. II, The Spirit of the Protestant Reformation, translated and titled by Betram Lee Woolf (London: Lutherworth Press, 1956), ), p.35. Preface to James and Jude, pages 35-36.