Justification By Faith And...Wait. Say What?
Sola fide. Faith alone. Much ink has been spilled over these two words as they have been one of the key divisions between Protestants and Catholics. As tragic as disunity is, the heart of the gospel is at stake and any self-conscious Protestant knows there can be no compromise on this. As long as Rome holds the doctrine anathema, there is nothing left to say. But within the ranks of God-fearing protestants, people have struggled with this reality. Religion that is merely intellectual and does not change one’s life is not biblical religion. How was Abraham saved? Romans 4 says one thing while James 2 says another. This question has haunted some and been quickly dismissed by others. Norman Shepherd was a man haunted by this question and his work left a wake behind him. To this day, Shepherd’s name has both advocates and enemies, each side further entrenched and further divided by the relationship between faith and faithfulness. No one denies people are saved by faith, but there’s still that pesky word: “alone.”
Recently Matthew Janzen wrote a three-part series on Norman Shepherd’s book, The Way of Righteousness. I haven't read this book (though I have read Shepherd’s first book, and I did find it wanting) so I will not deal with the book directly, though I will engage with Janzen's posts some. I believe that instead of using either Paul or James as an interpretive lens for the other, it will be beneficial to look at the applicable Genesis texts dealing with Abraham. From this vantage point I believe we can understand how both Paul and James are using Abraham's life within their theology and harmonize the tension within the New Testament.
Faith and the Life of Abraham
The story of Abram (later Abraham) begins in Genesis 12 as he was called out of paganism. God promised him all the land of Canaan and promised to make him a great nation. In Genesis 15, God reaffirms this promise with him, a promise to have offspring more numerous than the stars in the sky. This promise was given in spite of the fact that he and his wife Sarai (later Sarah) were without a child. In the absence of an heir, and because of his current status as a sojourner in the land, Abraham asked “'O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?'” At this point, God made a covenant with him swearing, on his own life (as there was no one greater to swear on), that all he had promised Abraham would come true. Understanding at what point in the story the famous declaration of righteousness happened is very telling. Abraham was declared righteous after the promise that he would have descendants greater than the stars. Abraham trusted, with weak faith that wanted assurances, but with sincere faith. This was the faith that justified. It was weak and it desired evidence of God's faithfulness, but it was true. I believe that it is significant that the covenant was cut with Abraham after the declaration of Abraham's righteousness.
As the story moves on, there are a few more instances of covenantal significance pertinent to this discussion. The very next part of Abraham's story shows another glimmer of the weakness of his faith. Genesis 16 tells us of Abraham's effort to help fulfill the promise of God. While he and Sarah are still without any offspring, they agree to take matters into their own hands. They agreed to use Sarah's Egyptian servant, Hagar, to bear them a child with Abraham. This brings us to Genesis 17 where God reaffirms the covenant with Abraham and establishes the sign of the covenant: circumcision. (This is also the point in time where God officially changed their names). God then clarifies that his covenant will be with the child born to Sarah. Abraham proceeds to laugh (as Sarah would in Genesis 18) and appeals that God would uphold his covenant with Ishmael, the child of Hagar. God rejects this offer and insists that the child of promise will be the child that is given by His own work, not the work of man. This is a significant development in the covenant, and Abraham continues to trust him and obediently applies the sign of the covenant to all the males in his household.
The story of the covenant promise continues in Genesis 21 when Isaac is finally born to Sarah. The child of promise is here, and the infamous testing of Abraham's faith awaits us in Genesis 22. After a time, God came back to Abraham. This time, instead of reaffirming the covenant, he told Abraham to take the child of promise, Isaac, and to offer him up as a sacrifice to the Lord. For a man who wanted an assurance of the promise's fulfillment, a man who tried to fulfill the promise by taking matters into his own hand, and a man who appealed for the fruit of his own labor to stand as the fulfillment of God's promise, Abraham acts rather uncharacteristically one might say — he simply obeys. Without a question, without any hesitation. He gathers his son, a few servants, and goes to the mountain God assigned and tells his servants to wait for he and his son to come back down from the mountain after worshiping. He then proceeds up the mountain with his son, the son of promise whom he loved, binds him and as he is about to plunge the knife into the son of his love, God intercedes and commands him to stop saying “'...now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.'” The reason for this test was not to prove to God that Abraham believed. We know this because God had already seen his faith and declared him righteous. This test was a call for Abraham to demonstrate his faithfulness, for Abraham to have to act on his faith. Abraham was now already a righteous man, but this test demonstrated without question that he believed God. He believed God enough to believe God would raise the dead in fulfillment of his promise (Heb. 11.19).
The preacher to the Hebrews defines Abraham's life as a life of faith. Not a life of perfect obedience, nor a life without doubt and failure, but a life that trusts that the promises of God are true. It was not the faithfulness of Abraham that is noteworthy, for there were great failures. The preacher to the Hebrews does link faith and faithfulness together, however. By faith Abraham obeyed... (Heb. 11.8), by faith Abraham went... (vs. 9), and by faith Abraham offered... (vs. 17). The preacher to the Hebrews agrees with James (and Paul, and any orthodox Christian) that “faith apart from works is dead” (James 2.26). This realization brings us to the current topic.
The Faith of Abraham in James and Paul
In his three-part blog series, Janzen brings up a good point. He quotes Norman Shepherd stating that when many think about James, “[they] regard James as a problem to be solved rather than as a clear and authentic proclamation of saving grace.” Fair enough. I think that many do. It was famously referred to by Luther at one point in his life as an epistle of straw. I also applaud the desire to study the text in its own context and let it speak for itself. In his explanation of Shepherd’s work, Janzen shows how Shepherd looked at the entire section of James as a whole. Great. In the explanation, however, I think there were some key points that were left out of the discussion. He shows how Shepherd connected James 2.14 with 2.24 in an effort to establish that this is referencing saving faith. There are many verses in between these. James is, in the immediate context, talking about how our faith is demonstrated to others, what a life of faith looks like. He gives the example of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. This is reminiscent of many of the parables of Jesus. James also makes a point that he is dealing with showing others, proving that faith is genuine. For instance, he says this explicitly: “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2.18b). Aside from law-gospel reductionists and antinomians, who has a problem with this? Jesus constantly spoke about this. If you love me you will obey me (John 14.15). There's no rub here. This is how the life of faith works itself out. Paul says the same thing in many places (but not in Romans 4, for reasons I will get into shortly). Obviously, James' pastoral concern is one against a dead faith, mere lip service. We should all be concerned with this.
Now onto Paul. Romans 4 is preceded by Romans 1-3. Paul is working through some theology here. (I suggest he is not addressing practical pastoral concerns as James was. I believe there is some merit to a difference in genre between the two texts, but that is for another discussion. For a presentation of James being a type of Wisdom literature, please see the June 19th episode of Christ The Center with Brandon Crowe). Paul spent the first three chapters of Romans demolishing works righteousness and establishing the depravity of all mankind. In order to understand Romans 4, I believe it is crucial to understand what Paul has been building up to. Toward the end of Romans 3, Paul says the following:
For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom. 3.22b-26)
Paul is thinking forensically here. How is a sinful man made righteous before a holy God? That is Paul's question as he comes into Romans 4. His question is not, what does the life of faith look like. He will start to tackle that in Romans 12 and beyond. This difference cannot be overlooked. James and Paul are not contradicting each other precisely because they are dealing with different issues. The context of each passage explains this. Since man is desperately wicked and no one is righteous (Rom 3.10), no one seeks God (3.11), no one does good (3.12), if man in this estate is going to be saved, something must happen. This is what Paul is addressing. We cannot state this enough. Paul is explicitly dealing with how man is right before God. His answer? God justifies the ungodly by faith in Christ, apart from works. This connection is made with regard to Abraham when Paul goes on to say that “the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom. 4.5).
I applaud the seriousness of getting into the context of James and dealing with it on it's own merit, but I am afraid that people who start with James must reinterpret all of Paul, at least if they believe James and Paul are addressing the same things when they speak of justification. If one is going to start with James 2.24 as their interpretive lens, then I am afraid they must twist Paul, and also twist Genesis. The only time that Abraham is declared righteous by God is not when he offers up Isaac; it is when he trusts God, even in the midst of expressing his concerns regarding the faithfulness of God. Abraham questioning God and asking for a pledge from God was not exactly the beacon of faithful obedience that was demonstrated as he was willing to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham was declared righteous by God in the midst of weak faith. He was closer to the tax collector who cried out “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18.13). He had more in common with the father of the possessed child as he cried out “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9.24). Abraham was declared righteous by God in the midst of weak faith, not in the midst of his most exemplary moment. This is surely a great help to those of us who are plagued by the fact that we often don't do what we want to do — please God.
I found Janzen's last post very anti-climactic, with one exception. He writes that “Abraham and Rahab believed in the Lord, and their works completed their faith”. Reading Genesis 15, was God premature in declaring Abraham righteous? Should he have held off until Abraham offered up Isaac? Absolutely not! Abraham “believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15.6). Sure, Abraham's obedience was evidence of his faith. We are to run the race with endurance looking to Jesus, “the founder and perfecter” of our faith (Heb. 12.1-2). We are to continue in obedience, working out or salvation with “fear and trembling, for it is God who works in [us], both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2.12-13). Our obedience is never a completion of faith, as if faith is insufficient. Our faith is as sufficient as the object that it is in — Jesus Christ. We need to rest in the fact that Jesus Christ gave us our faith and Jesus Christ is what completes our faith. “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1.6). Paul didn't shy away from obedience, we don't need to either.
There is no tension in Paul's handling of Abraham and James' handling of Abraham. However, as much as Janzen may not like this, if they were treating justification identically (which I have tried to argue they were not), then there is a conflict. Are sinners made righteous before a holy God with or without works? I stand with classical protestantism as say we are justified by faith alone, but as the saying goes, it is a faith that is never alone