According to James: Studying Norman Shepherd (Part 3)
Norman Shepherd has been interpreted by some as denying the orthodox doctrine of justification. Shepherd claims that he is letting James speak for himself. My humble conclusion is this: Shepherd is saying that faith works. He is not saying we are justified by works apart from faith or in addition to faith. He is saying that the faith we are justified by (forensically and soterically) is no dead faith.
In order to understand what James does and doesn't mean when he says that a man is "justified by works and not by faith alone" (2:24), we must recognize the difference between works of faith versus works of law.
Shepherd points out that there does exist in Scripture the idea of "works alone" and they do not justify. It is possible for us to work apart from faith, in our own strength. These are not the works that James writes about. James writes of faithful obedience, not dead works of law.
In biblical history we see both. We see men like Abraham who had faith in the Lord, and because of that faith, he trusted and obeyed. Abraham was not a sinless man, but he was a man full of faith. Faith that works. Abraham was justified by this faith.
We see other men in scripture who perform works of law in attempt to cover up gross transgression (rf. Isaiah 1:2-15). These men obey a handful of outward laws with a head full of self righteousness. They "law it out," not because they believe, but because they seek to earn salvation so they can say, "Look what I did."
That is seeking to be justified by works of law. Such is not the penitent heart of faith. The faith-full man acknowledges his sinfulness, asks forgiveness for sin daily, and then seeks to obey the Lord. He does not view obedience as meriting or earning anything. He obeys because he believes.
Shepherd points out that these brothers James writes to are believers in Christ (2:1). Shepherd believes dead works, works done apart from faith in Christ, are useless.
Shepherd's understanding of James 2:24 then is that faith alone refers to the faith a man says he has (2:14), but does not posses. Faith looks like Abraham offering up Isaac and Rahab hiding the Israelite spies. Both Abraham and Rahab believed in the Lord, and their works completed their faith. I may be chastised for saying such, but I'm only echoing James 2:22.
Had Abraham said "Lord, I believe You," yet refused to offer up Isaac, would faith really exist in his heart? According to the apostle, the answer is no. He would then be the man that says he has faith. This kind of faith does not save. It does not justify.
The opposite approach is equal error. Works of law that do not flow from faith will not justify. They are dead works, works done in an attempt to merit or earn salvation. Shepherd spends a great deal of time considering this point in his section on the doctrine of justification according to Paul. Yes, Shepherd gives Paul just as much credence as James. He lessens neither apostolic writing.
Shepherd isn't a well-known name today, but he should be. His book should be read by everyone who studies this area of theology. He's shown me that instead of balking when James is quoted or mentioned in the discussion on justification, we should embrace him. We should never be embarrassed to speak like James speaks.