On James 2:24

The Issue:

I've recently been following a thread on a Catholic website named "The real reason we can't be saved by faith alone".

I used to visit Catholic message boards. My motivation for spending a lot of time in exchanges with Catholic apologists was my deep felt desire to shine the light of God's truth, as I understood it, into the darkness of Catholic doctrine and practice. At first, I simply monitored threads that were of particular interest to me. After a time, just watching the exchanges was not enough. The unrelenting barrage of Catholic doctrine and invective was more than I could bear. Pride whispered in my ear that I could do better than the Evangelicals who confronted Catholicism on Romish turf. Pride lied to me.

Let us consider just a few of the factors that tend to color doctrinal discussions between Catholics and Evangelicals. It is important to consider that, usually; the Catholic opposition is every bit as convinced of the correctness of his doctrine as is the Evangelical. Were this not so, why would he bother to defend doctrine that he does not fully accept? Given that both parties to the discussion are convinced of the correctness of their position, what is the likelihood that that either will be induced to abandon his position as a consequence of a brief exchange in a Catholic chat room?

I have engaged in extended apologetic exchanges with seminarians, priests and some of the top gun Catholic forum hosts—including a few published theologians. I have yet to encounter a Catholic apologist who gave indication that he had solid working knowledge of hermeneutics or exegesis. Romish opposition tend to base their arguments on a single verse or passage, taken out of context or to parrot the Catholic party line on a given subject.

In my examination of a verse or passage in Scripture, I begin with exegesis.

Exegesis is the careful, systematic study of the Scripture to discover the original, intended meaning. This is basically a historical task. It is the attempt to hear the Word as the original recipients were to have heard it, to find out what was the original intent of the words of the Bible. –Gordon D. Fee & Douglas Stuart, How to read the Bible for all Its Worth, Zondervan, © 1981, 1993, 2003 by Douglas Stuart & Gordon Fee, p. 223

The key to this involves learning to carefully read the text and to ask the right questions of the it. One must look to the historical context of the passage; the times, culture, geographical and political factors bearing on the setting and occasion that led to writing the passage. Why was the book written? What was going on in Israel or in the church that called forth such a document.

When we speak of reading something in context, we generally are referring to the literary context. This is the vital task in exegesis. Words only have meaning in sentences and, for the most part, biblical sentences only have meaning in relation to preceding and following sentences. As one reads and studies Scripture, it is important to repeatedly ask this question: “What is the point?”

Having done our exegesis of a passage, we begin to apply hermeneutics which, in its narrower sense, involves seeking the contemporary relevance of ancient texts. When doing hermeneutics, it is vital to begin from a position of sound exegesis. One must not start from the here and now because the only proper control for hermeneutics is to be found in the original intent of the biblical text. If we don't base our study on exegesis, our hermeneutics become subjective and it is possible to make biblical texts mean whatever they mean to a given reader. In such a situation, who is to say that one person's understanding is correct and another's is not? (Gordon Fee & Douglas Stuart, How To Read The Bible For All It's Worth, © 1982, Zondervan Corporation, pp. 21-27)

After following it for some time, I realized that no matter how much proof was offered as refutation, their catch all rebuttal was James 2:24. We all know that the whole bible puts James into context, and not the other way around.

Catholic doctrine holds with the same principles of interpretation as I explained above, as the following clearly shows:

109 In Sacred Scripture, God speaks to man in a human way. To interpret Scripture correctly, the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm, and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words. [Cf. Dei Verbum 12 § 1]

110 In order to discover the sacred authors' intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current. "For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression." [Die Verbum 12 § 2]

111 But since Sacred Scripture is inspired, there is another and no less important principle of correct interpretation, without which Scripture would remain a dead letter. "Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written." [Dei Verbum 12 § 3.]Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), 2nd Ed., © 1994/1997 United States Catholic Conference, Inc

Well, that certainly looks like Mama Church is talking the talk. The question is whether she is walking the walk. The answer, which is explained a bit farther down the CCC page, is that she is not.

115 According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church.

116 The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: "All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal." [St. Thomas Aquinas, STh I, 1, 10, ad I]

117 The spiritual sense. Thanks to the unity of God's plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs.

1. The allegorical sense. We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ's victory and also of Christian Baptism. [Cf. 1 Cor 10:2]

2. The moral sense. The events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St. Paul says, they were written "for our instruction". [1 Cor 10:11; cf. Heb 3:1-4:11]

3. The anagogical sense (Greek: anagoge, "leading"). We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem. [Cf. Rev 21:1-22:5] (Emphasis not in original)

As should be clear from the above, Catholic doctrine creates the possibility to bend the meaning of any passage of Scripture to suit any Catholic purpose. Thus has Mama Church twisted the meaning of James 2:24 to support her doctrine of works salvation. .

Another reason for rejecting the Catholic understanding has to do with the RCC's failure to comprehend the distinction between the biblical doctrines of justification and sanctification.

Evangelicalism informs that justification:

Comes from a Greek concept meaning “to declare righteous.” It is a legal act wherein God pronounces that the believing sinner has been credited with all the virtues of Jesus Christ, Whereas forgiveness is the negative aspect of salvation meaning the subtraction of human sin, justification is the positive aspect meaning the addition of divine righteousness.The Moody Handbook of Theology, Paul Enns, Editor, ©1989 The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, p.639

A Catholic dictionary provides this definition of justification:

The process by which a sinner is made “righteous” in the sight of God. This occurs when one accepts the free and unearned gift of faith and responds to it by acts of charity (i.e. good works performed out of love of God and neighbor).Our Sunday Visitor's Catholic Dictionary, Peter M.J. Stravinskas, Editor, © 1993 Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, p. 285

Do you see the difference? Bible believing evangelicals view justification as a sovereign act of God. When God imputes the righteousness of Christ to the forgiven sinner, He acts alone. Man has no part in the process. As a consequence of salvation, a former sinner is sanctified, or “set apart” for God. As we grow in understanding and Christian living, so do we grow in sanctification. In the Catholic view, sanctification is a component of justification. The careful reader will have noticed that, in Catholicism, justification occurs when one accepts the gift of faith (which implies that he also may reject that gift; thereby denying the sovereignty of God in the salvific process) and then responds to it with good works. Is this not a clear example of the necessity of works for salvation?

However, is he really being taken out of context or is he merely headed down the road to apostasy?

A reading of James 2:24 in context confirms that Catholic fantasizers have approached this verse from a position of here and now. They were seeking biblical support for their semi-Pelagian works doctrine and, coincidentally, to refute the Reformation dogma of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. It would appear that when they stumbled across James 2:24 they determined that the plain meaning of the verse could be contorted to suit their needs.

Paul taught that the gospel is God's offer of righteousness to all who have faith in Jesus Christ and who give up reliance on human effort and “works of the law” in order to attain righteousness. Sin as a universal objective condition of humanity is the problem; God's justifying activity in Christ is the solution. Faith is the subjective human reception of God's objective offer of righteousness in Christ. “The righteousness of God” addressed in Romans is, therefore, not a quality of God, but God's activity of deliverance, of justification, of making right the relationship of human beings to himself…God's objective is, as always, the fulfillment of the law; which is brought about by his justification of the sinner and by the life of the Spirit in the justified.The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, Allen C. Myers, Revision Editor, © 1987, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, p.614

In other words, justification is a sovereign work of God. Catholics, however, argue that James 2:24 is clear proof that man is justified by works and not by faith alone. How to reconcile this apparent conflict”

In Paul's teaching, the law's function is not to justify the sinner, but to bring about the “knowledge of sin.” God does not justify according to ethnic considerations. We know from Scripture that Jew and Gentile are equal in justification by faith. (Romans 3:29-30) If conformance to the Law of Moses were a requirement for justification, then no Gentile could be saved. In the cited Romans passage, Paul is not arguing with Judaism, but rather with Jewish Christians who were attempting to give the Law an eschatological salvation that Paul rejected.

And now to the apparent conflict between the evangelical doctrine of salvation by faith and the Catholic position of justification by works. A first blush, it would appear that James and Paul are not on the same track. Let us first look at the James verse in context:

18 Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.
19 Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.
20 But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?
21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?
22 Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?
23 And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.
24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.
25 Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?
26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also
.—James 2:18-26

Sure does look as though the visiting team from Rome has the correct view, doesn't it? Does it?

James asserts that faith lacking works is dead (Jas. 2:17); “faith,” here meaning a mere intellectual assent to religion, is not sufficient (v. 19). True living faith manifests itself in acts of love to the needy (vv. 14-16). Justification “by works and not by faith alone” (v. 24) means that faith is “completed by works” in this way (v. 22). The contradiction is only apparent; Paul and James address different issues. Jas. 2:18-26 was apparently written to counteract a misunderstanding of Paul's teaching which separated “faith” from any moral obligation.—Eerdmans, Op. cit

And now to another of your concerns:

We read in Gal.2:12 that before certain men came from James, Peter would eat with the gentiles. Paul at this point rebuked Peter for his hypocrisy.

Yep. Peter screwed up again. Seems that old boy just couldn't be 100% perfect in his Christian walk. Let's look at that verse in the company of verses that preceded and followed it:

11 But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed.
12 For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision.
13 And the other Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation.
14 But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, I said unto Peter before them all, If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?
15 We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles,
16 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 2:11-16

Peter's error was that he withdrew from Gentile believers to fellowship with legalistic Judaizers. By hanging out with the Judaizers, whom he knew to be wrong, Peter gave the impression that he supported their false doctrine, which nullified Paul's teaching, particularly the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. One has to wonder whether James actually had sent those Jewish troublemakers. During the Jerusalem council, James, who appeared to be the leader of the church in Jerusalem, made a crystal clear statement that Gentiles who are turning to God should not be troubled. (Acts 15:13-21) In the Jerusalem Decree (Acts 15:22-29) mention is made of “some who went out from us” had caused trouble in the Gentile churches. The wording here strongly suggests to me that the Judaizers had set out on a missionary journey on their own initiative, and had not been sent by James. This suggestion is strengthened by the information that the Jerusalem church was sending “chosen men” to straighten things out.

In addition to this, I have read that when canonizing scripture, early church fathers were not fully in agreement on its worthiness.

To whom are you referring when you use the term “early church fathers?” Catholic apologists just love to call upon the opinions of carefully selected early theologians as support for Catholic doctrinal positions. Who can demonstrate that ALL the church fathers ALWAYS agreed on matters of interpretation and doctrine? No one can. Just as we see in the church today, even the most renowned theologians do not always agree on matters of doctrine and practice. This condition, despite what Romish apologists might claim, is equally true in the Catholic Church. One need only look to the conflicts in opinions held by Catholic apologists Gerry Matatics and Karl Keating for an example of this.

Before buying into the Catholic argument that the early church fathers disagreed on one or another issue, ask yourself which fathers the apologist agrees with and what they argued. The history affords us numerous examples of flawed opinions and outright heresies that have plagued the Christian church since its earliest days. It was not long after Christ's ascension that Judaizers from the Jerusalem church began spreading their false doctrine in the congregations established by the Apostles. It was not long after Christ's ascension that the idea of baptismal regeneration was introduced. We have no record that either Christ or His apostles ever preached the sinlessness or eternal virginity of Mary, yet it only required a few centuries before those doctrines were accepted by the Eastern Church.

Please bear in mind that antiquity is no assurance that a teaching is valid.

Perhaps someone else has more to offer on this subject?

What I have written above is my take on these issues. Should you wish to delve more deeply into any of these issues, I invite you to read Philip Schaff's History of the Christian Church and/or any of a number of William Webster's examinations of Catholic doctrine in the writings of church fathers.

Hope that helps.


November 2004

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