The Necessary Fruit of Justifying Faith: Exegesis of James 2:14-26

Contrasted with Pauline doctrine and cited in the arguments of Roman Catholics, Mormons, and other groups against justification by faith alone, James 2:14-26 has faced difficulty being received on its own merits. Nevertheless, it contains essential Christian theology on the nature and expression of faith. It challenges those who understand belief to be a mere acknowledgement or assent of certain truths, and it presents a sobering call to the life of faith that James describes, with all of its ethical and communal implications.

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About Evan May

Evan May is a student at Reformed Theological Seminary and a pastor at Lakeview Christian Center in New Orleans.
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4 Responses to The Necessary Fruit of Justifying Faith: Exegesis of James 2:14-26

  1. Nick says:

    What is your take on the claim that monon modifies ‘justified’ rather than ‘faith’? I have seen some people say that the verse should be understood as James teaching two justifications: “A man is justified [before men] by works and not only [justified] by faith [before God]”?

    • Evan May says:

      That’s syntactally possible, but seems to me to be pretty unlikely. Positionally, μόνον appears immediately following ἐκ πίστεως, with four words intervening from δικαιοῦτα. This would also require an ellipsis on James’s part, and it must be argued why it is necessary to read the text in this way.

      But it also unnecessarily complicates James’s point. It seems that James is concerned with a faith that is alone (i.e., a dead faith that is without works), more than “only a justification by faith [and not also a justification by works].” To distinguish between two *kinds* of justification in James seems to me to read a Pauline understanding into his statements, rather than to recognize that James is simply using δικαιόω in a way distinct from Pauline usage.

  2. Nick says:

    I don’t see a drastic difference if monon is placed before or after “by faith,” since “and not only by faith” can be understood the same as “and not by faith only”. Plus, if monon is an adverb, then grammatically it would more likely connect with the verb ‘justify’ rather than modifying ‘faith’.

    My line of thinking is that since James quotes the epitome of Justification by Faith, Genesis 15:6, then justification by faith must be included as part of his lesson. And so v24 would be understood as: “You see that Abraham was justified by works [v21] and not [justified] only by faith [v23].” There was no doubt that Abraham’s faith in Genesis 15:6 was genuine; he didn’t doubt himself, nor did God or other doubt his faith was real.

    One concern I have with reading James’ lesson as that of a ‘litmus test’ of whether someone was truly saved is that ruins Assurance and causes suspicion: how many good works must I do before I know my faith in Christ was genuine? What if I sin, do I question my salvation? James knew his flock was struggling with sin, but I don’t think he thought they never had genuine faith. The same thing can be said of the Corinthians, who struggled with sin, but Paul rebuked them rather than questioned their salvation: “When we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.” (1 Cor 11:32)

    • Evan May says:

      “I don’t see a drastic difference if monon is placed before or after ‘by faith,’ since ‘and not only by faith’ can be understood the same as ‘and not by faith only’.”

      My point was this requires an ellipsis of δικαιόω, which must be argued for why it is syntactically necessary.

      “Plus, if monon is an adverb, then grammatically it would more likely connect with the verb ‘justify’ rather than modifying ‘faith’.”

      Πίστις is not just a standalone noun. It is part of an adverbial prepositional phrase. Μόνον is modifying the *phrase*.

      “…ruins Assurance and causes suspicion: how many good works must I do before I know my faith in Christ was genuine?”

      Assurance has a threefold aspect in New Testament theology. Its objective basis is the work of Christ, but it’s also rooted in the witness of the Holy Spirit and evidenced in the corresponding life of the believer (see these three come into play, for example, in 1 John, which was written to give his readers assurance; 5:13).

      By the way, historically it has been the “Free Gracers” (Zane Hodges-types) who have read the passage in a way of seeking to protect what they understand the doctrine of assurance to be. But in doing so, they have truncated James’s understanding of saving faith.

      I’m curious, what do you view James to be referring to in verse 14? In my opinion, that’s key to getting the rest the passage right.

      “James knew his flock was struggling with sin, but I don’t think he thought they never had genuine faith.”

      A pastor can bring a warning to his congregation without assuming that the congregation is in danger of failing to heed the warning. In fact, the warning is a means of protecting them from the danger. James’s point is that his readers cannot define saving faith in a way that has nothing to do with the ethical exhortations found in his letter.

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