and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:23-24)
In its larger context:
But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. (James 2:18-26)
Although not on the list of misquoted verses, this common passage of Scripture is often misquoted to support the false notion of salvation by faith and works. Certainly, verses 23-24 by themselves seem to teach that justification is not by "faith alone" but by faith and works done in faith. However, is that really the case?
Context of James 2
James 2 is located in the context of the epistle of James, which historically as a letter from James is supposed to be read in one setting. The practical bent of this epistle is easily seen in the epistle itself, thus showing it as written more for practical Christian living rather than doctrinal instruction. As the introduction to the Epistle of James in the ESV Study Bible states:
The most pervasive technique in the book of James is the proverb or aphorism, in the mode of ancient wisdom teachers. Next in frequency is the rhetorical device of direct command, expressed in the imperative mood of the verb (e.g., “be doers of the word, and not hearers only,” 1:22). In fact, there are over 50 imperatives in the book's 108 verses. This abundance of commands is a signal that the writer has a practical bent and is interested in action rather than mere belief as the distinguishing characteristic of Christians.
The most important aspect in biblical interpretation is the context of the verse; it has been said that the three most important things in the interpretation of a text is context, context and context! The context in James therefore shows the entire letter to be of a most practical nature, one more interested in examining the lives of Christians rather than the particular of their beliefs.
Viewed in context, James 2 teaches that true faith will lead to good works. Practically speaking, anyone can profess to have faith, and thus true and false faith is indistinguishable from each other in terms of profession. James in his epistle therefore takes on the concept of how to differentiate between true and false faith, which lies in the area of good works. Just as Jesus says, a "healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit" (Mt. 7: 17), James challenges the person who claims to have faith to show forth his "fruit". In the words of James 2:18
But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. (James 2:18)
It must be noted that even here, James does not inject any form of works righteousness. James challenges the professed believer to show forth his works, but he state he will show forth his faith by his works, not show forth his faith and his works. Works is the method of proving the genuineness of faith, not a separate element which may or may not be present where faith is present.
As the ESV Study Bible remarks on this passage (James 2:14-26):
James 2:14–26 Faith without Works Is Dead. James continues the theme that hearing/faith must lead to doing/works. Although it may seem as if James is contradicting Paul's “by grace you have been saved through faith . . . not a result of works” (Eph. 2:8–9), in reality there is no dichotomy between faith and works, for Paul and James would agree that the basis of salvation is grace alone through faith, with works not the basis but the necessary result thereof (Eph. 2:10).
The issue of the quotation of Gen. 15:6
A RC apologist may counter that the quotation of Gen. 15:6 in James 2:23 proves that legal justification must be in view here in some sense. After all, doesn't Gen. 15:6 teach legal justification, and is quoted as such in passages such as Rom. 4:3 and Gal. 3:6? Since such is the case, shouldn't we interpret James 2 as teaching a legal aspect of justification here?
God = Zeus?
Such a hermeneutical gymnastics leads one to a parallel in Paul's sermon to the Athenians. Consider this excerpt from Paul's sermon:
that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for
“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;
as even some of your own poets have said,
“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’
(Acts 17: 27-28)
The first quote "appears to be from a hymn to Zeus by Epimenides of Crete" (c. 600 BC), while the second quotation is from the poem Phainomena by the Stoic poet Aratus (c. 315–240 b.c.). In both of these cases, the original meanings applied to Zeus, the mythological Greek father of the gods.
Now, since the Apostle Paul utilizes verses from these pagan hymns and poems to describe God, therefore can it be said that God (YHWH) is co-extensive and similar to Zeus in some sense? Of course not! The mere quoting of a phrase does not mean that everything it teaches is necessarily endorsed and taught. Rather, the context determines why any particular text is quoted and to what effect, and then only is the issue of the correspondence of the sentence to the way it is utilized asked.
In the case of James 2:23, the key phrase there are the words "Scripture was fulfilled". Going along with the practical bent of James, James 2:23 quotes Gen. 15:6 as an example of what righteousness really is. In other words, James is saying: "If you want to know what true faith and righteousness is, look at Abraham's life". True faith manifests itself in good works, and the very point of quoting Gen. 15:6 in Jas. 2:23 is not to make James 2 into a passage on legal justification, but of how a person who is truly justified will behave.
Exegetical fallacy: Illegitimate Totality Transfer
The chief fallacy involved in the RC argumentation is the fallacy of an unwarranted adoption of an expanded semantic field, oherwise known as illegitimate totality transfer or abuse of the field of lexicography, as described in D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies(Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Baker), p. 60-61. Just because the dikaio- (δικαιω) word group is used in James 2 does not mean that legal justification of any sort is taught and mentioned.
James 2:23-24 teaches that true believers have a living faith, not a mere professed faith which does not work. Against the Romanists among other synergists, James 2 does not teach any legal justification, and neither does Jas. 2:23 through its quotation of Ge. 15:6 teaches that either. Gen. 15:6 was applied in James' argument as stating that Abraham was righteous and this is how righteousness functions, which is to say the nature of righteousness in Christian living rather than the reason(s) for it. Truly, we are not justified by a faith that is alone but by a living faith alone. Amen.