Tag Archives: Justification

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:25

James 2:25
Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road?

James now turns from the patriarch to the prostitute in a second illustration of his point, in case anyone think Abraham was a shoe-in with God. Just as Abraham had been “justified by works” so also (“likewise…also” homoiōs de kai) was Rahab.

Rahab’s story is found in Joshua 2 and Joshua 6:15-25. It is of interest that these passages never mention her faith, although it is clear that she has regard for the God of the Hebrews as the one who is “God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath” (Joshua 2:11). Nevertheless her “works” are indicative of her belief that “the Lord has given you the land” (2:9). Therefore Rahab “welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road” (hypodexamenē tous aggelous kai hetera hodō ekbalousa). Rahab’s works consist in the welcome, protection and lodging she gave to these vulnerable messengers in their time of need, and her sending them out in safety. One might complain that Rahab lied in order to accomplish her ends, and that she was acting in self-interest; that is, there was nothing praise-worthy in her works at all. How could such works as these become the basis of justification, and that before a holy God?

If anything, these concerns make James’ argument all the stronger. Not just righteous Abraham, but Rahab the prostitute (Rhaab hē pornē) was “justified by works” (ex ergon edikaiōthē). Rahab’s concerns were not entirely selfish however; in her interactions with the spies she mentions herself only indirectly. Rather her concern is for her parents and siblings and their families. Nevertheless, for all her demerits, Rahab and her family are saved from the destruction of Jericho and are incorporated into Israel and its history (Joshua 6:25).

Why does James choose Rahab has his example of justification by works? Two reasons may be given. First, the figure of Rahab fascinated the Jews to the extent that she was lauded as the archetypal proselyte (Davids, 133-134). So, too, the Christian tradition found in her an example of the righteous gentile who became a member of the people of God. Matthew includes a “Rahab” in Jesus’ genealogy which is commonly assumed to be this same Rahab despite the chronological difficulties of the passage (Matthew 1:5). The author of Hebrews also includes her in the list of Israel’s heroes and heroines of faith, clearly identifying her faith with her reception of the spies (11:31). The first-century Roman bishop Clement included Rahab along with Abraham as an example of “faith and hospitality:”

On account of his faith and hospitality, a son was given him [Abraham] in his old age … On account of her faith and hospitiality, Rahab the harlot was saved (The First Epistle of St Clement, ch. 10, 12).

This link of faith and hospitality—generous kindness to the poor and other vulnerable people—provides a second reason James’ use of Rahab as his example. Her reception and care for the outsider and stranger, because they were members of the people of God, also serves James’ whole argument in this chapter. Her example is precisely the opposite of the figure in verse 16 who sends the poorly clothed and hungry person away without any practical care. Thus, her works of hospitality are paradigmatic of the kind of works James expects to see amongst those in his congregation.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:24

James 2:24
You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

With this verse the illustration concerning Abraham is concluded and James universalises and applies his argument. “You see” (horate) is second-person plural and marks a transition from James’s argument with his imaginary interlocutor, to him addressing his listeners as a whole. His conclusion makes two assertions, the one positive and the other negative (McKnight, 255). The positive conclusion is: “you see that a person is justified by works.” James emphasises the works by placing them before the verb: hoti ex ergōn dikaioutai anthrōpοs (literally, “that out of works, a person is justified”). This picks up the language of verse 21 where James has previously argued that Abraham was “justified by works.” The negative conclusion follows: “and not by faith alone” (kai ouk ek pisteōs monon).

The supposed contradiction between James and Paul is sharpest with this verse, where James appears to directly contradict what Paul asserts in Romans 3:20, 28:

For by works of the law no one will be justified in his sight … For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

Moo argues correctly that Paul would wholeheartedly agree with James concerning his argument “not by faith alone,” but that “it is impossible to imagine Paul saying, ‘a man is justified by works’” (Moo, 115). Once more, however, we must insist that Paul and James are engaged in different arguments due to the different circumstances each is facing. Paul speaks of the beginning of the Christian life, of the initial justification of sinners by grace through faith—without works “of the law.” One’s obedience to the law’s dictates, especially the so-called “boundary markers” of Judaism by which one might be considered “in,” provide no basis for justification. Further, the faith spoken of by Paul is steadfast faith in God through Christ. This faith is not antithetical to works, and will indeed issue in all kinds of works, though these works are the expression of the faith by which the person has been saved.

James, in contrast, is arguing against what may be considered a distortion of Paul’s teaching, whereby one considers that an intellectual commitment to monotheism is sufficient to please God. Further, he is speaking not of initial justification but of final judgement, in which one’s works demonstrate the reality of one’s faith. Nor is James saying that one is saved by the works “of the law,” although his overarching use of works may include obedience to the Torah as it was mediated to the messianic community through Jesus. His emphasis in the chapter as a whole is on works of mercy toward the poor, and obedience toward God.

The key to the verse is the little word “alone” (monon). Justifying faith is never “alone,” but comes to expression in action. The problem with the position set forth by the interlocutor is that faith is separated from works and considered sufficient and complete without works. Faith, however, is a whole-of-life reality, engaging the whole person in response to God, and so cannot be limited to a cognitive or confessional commitment that does not issue in a whole-of-life response to the will and ways of God. Such “faith” is not faith at all, does not justify, cannot save, and is dead.

We must also be clear that works are not “added” to faith, as though the two ideas were separable. Rather, works of obedience and mercy are the way in which faith becomes visible in one’s life and in the world, and so is shown to be faith. Scot McKnight provides excellent insight into the relation of faith and works, while arguing that we allow the biblical text itself to lead the way we think of this relation, rather than forcing it to conform to a predetermined theological conviction:

I see a tendency, which seems to me to be a subtle attempt to let the Reformation have too much influence on exegesis, to prefer this formula: faith is demonstrated by works. What this does is salvage faith as the sine qua non of salvation. which may well be sound theology, but it lacks the nuance of James. (Some have argued that it is James who lacks the nuance and is in need of help.) Instead of locking into the term “demonstration,” I suggest we use each of the four terms James himself uses, and I suggest we use these terms liberally:

Works show faith (2:18).          
Faith works with works (2.22a).
Faith is perfected by works (2.22b).      

Works fulfill faith (2.23).          

While we may be most comfortable with the first and least comfortable with the second, both the third and fourth are instances as much, if not more, of the second as of the first. Yes, works demonstrate faith, but they also perfect and fulfill faith and, as James goes to great pains to emphasize, the two work together to produce a working faith that saves. His emphasis is on their inseparability, not on distinguishing them or on their sequential relationship (McKnight, 244, original emphasis).

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:23

JamesJames 2:23
Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’, and he was called the friend of God. 

James now brings his illustration of Abraham justified on account of his works to its climax. His obedience in the “binding” (Aqedah) of Isaac constitutes the fulfilling of Genesis 15:6 which says that “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Episteusen de Abraam tō theō, kai elogisthē auto eis dikaiosunēn).

James cites the LXX version of this text, as Paul does in Romans 4:3; the two citations are identical, even including the added de. That both authors use the same text indicates its significance in early Christianity, although they are using it differently, as we noted in our comment on verse 21. Genesis 15 records a visionary encounter Abraham experienced, in which he is allowed to dialogue with God. Abraham complains: what is the point of God’s promise of blessing if he has no heir to pass the blessing onto? God leads Abraham to view the starry night sky and says, “See the number of the stars? So shall your offspring be” (v. 5). Verse six, then, is the verse cited by James (and Paul) about Abraham’s faith and his being regarded righteous by God.

Paul uses this text to show that Abraham was justified by God solely on the basis of his faith, prior to his receiving the sign of circumcision. James, however, in a manner not unlike that common in Judaism, sees in this statement “a type of timeless sentence written over the life of Abraham” (Davids, 129). That is, God’s justification of Abraham is not limited to this occasion, but is a summary of God’s attitude toward Abraham on the basis of his whole life. Indeed, Davids suggests that the deliverance Abraham (or more correctly, Isaac) received in Genesis 22, was a reward for his prior works of righteousness, understood in terms of hospitality and mercy (130). Although Davids’s first point has merit, his second seems unlikely.

In what sense, then, are we to understand the first part of James’s verse: “Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says…” (kai eplērōthē hē graphē hē legousa). The key term here is eplērōthē (“fulfilled”) which is sometimes used in the New Testament to describe an Old Testament passage finding its “fulfilment” in the New Testament. That is, the Old Testament passage may be seen (a) as a prophecy that has come to pass, or (b) as a text that has deeper meaning and more enduring significance in the light of the coming of Jesus. Neither of these possibilities fit the context here.

Moo suggests that James sees the Genesis 15:6 text “fulfilled” in Genesis 22 in terms of confirmation and validation. That is, Abraham was truly counted righteous by God on account of his faith in Genesis 15, and his subsequent obedience in Genesis 22 demonstrates the validity of this divine judgement.

The initial declaration of righteousness on the basis of faith is given its ultimate meaning and validity through the final declaration of righteousness on the basis a ‘faith that works’ (Moo, 114).

Like Davids, Moo understands James as citing the verse “as a ‘motto’ standing over all of Abraham’s life” (114).

McKnight’s view differs again. Noting that “fulfilled” can mean to “fill up” and so to have a similar sense to “perfected” in verse 22, he sees James referring not to the Scripture itself being fulfilled in Genesis 22, but to what the Scripture says being fulfilled. That is, it is Abraham’s faith that is fulfilled—perfected—in the test of Genesis 22.

Thus, the Aqedah brings to full completion the faith Abraham exercised in Genesis 15 when he complained that the promise of a child was unfulfilled. … The faith that trusted YHWH’s word came to completion when Abraham lifted Isaac to the altar (254).

This view does justice to both Genesis 15 and 22, as well as James. In Genesis 15 Abraham believed God’s promise that he would have a child, and through that child, an “astronomical” progeny. In Genesis 22 he offers that child to God still believing God’s ability to bring the promise to pass. Thus James is correct to see the two as linked: the faith with which Abraham trusted God and so was counted righteousness, was not perfected until it was tested. In this way, the statement of Genesis 15 refers not solely to the trust of that chapter, but indeed stands as a declaration over the whole of Abraham’s life, and so includes the works which are the expression of his faith.

“And he was called the friend of God(kai philos theou eklēthē). Again James draws on Jewish tradition generally, and two Old Testament texts specifically (2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8) in which Abraham is described as God’s friend. In the first text Jehoshaphat ascribes the term to Abraham (perhaps remembering the covenant ceremony of Genesis 15?). In the second text, God himself refers to Abraham as “my friend.” James’s use of the image of friendship in this context clearly shows that justification should not be understood in merely judicial or legal terms. To be counted righteous is to be brought into a right relationship with God not simply in a legal or judicial sense, but to be brought into a kind of relational closeness and fellowship with God that is best described as friendship. Again, Scot McKnight is helpful here:

To be God’s friend is to be in the people of God…, to be in the right, to be saved, and to be a person who in fellowship with God lives out the life God designs for those on earth (255).

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:21

JamesJames 2:21
Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?

With this second rhetorical question James introduces his first biblical illustration to demonstrate that faith without works is fruitless. The grammar of the sentence (ouk) indicates that a positive answer is anticipated to this question, that is, that “our ancestor Abraham” (Abraam ho pater) was indeed “justified by works” (ex ergōn edikaiōthē). That James refers to Abraham as “our father” indicates the Jewish heritage of his readers, and of the interlocutor, and calls to the evidence stand the progenitor of the whole race. If this was the case with Abraham, why would it be any different for his descendants?

James asserts that Abraham was justified by works when or because or as “he offered his son Isaac on the altar” (anenegkas Isaak ton huion autou epi to thusiastērion). The participle anenegkas has been translated in each of the ways suggested in the various English versions of the New Testament. While the translation when may be the best (Vlachos, 96), each is possible, and perhaps in the end it makes little difference: it was because and as Abraham offered his son to God that he was justified. This, at least, seems to be James’s intent.

The event to which James refers is described in Genesis 22:1-6 where God tests Abraham and Abraham obeys God’s voice. Abraham’s obedience results in the confirmation of the blessing promised by God to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3, and the reiteration of the blessing pronounced in Genesis 15:1-6. We have already seen in the first chapter of this letter that the themes of testing, and of hearing and doing are prominent for James. It may be that these elements in the Abraham story drew him to use Genesis 22.

In verse 23 James will support his contention that Abraham was justified by this act of obedience by referring back to Genesis 15:6. James does not read the text in Genesis 15 in a chronological sense as though Abraham was first justified and then later obeyed. Rather, he reads the story as a whole in which Abraham’s trust in God (Genesis 15) and his obedience to God (Genesis 22) are all of apiece. Abraham’s actions of obedience were not simply a demonstration of his faith but were the expression of his faith.

Two aspects of James’s teaching in this verse are worth considering. First, Abraham’s “works” in this illustration are not those of care and compassion toward the poor, but of devotion and faithful obedience to God. This suggests, perhaps, that the works that James has in view in the entire passage are not simply works of mercy, but all those works which issue from a genuine faith in God.

Second, we must consider what James means by the term “justify.” It is very easy to read James through a Pauline lens and suggest that the term is identical in both New Testament authors. Such a move is problematic since it would then mean that James and Paul stand in stark contradiction to one another with Paul arguing that “a person is justified by faith apart from works” and James arguing the opposite (cf. Romans 3:28). A number of commentators, however, note that whereas Paul uses the term to speak of the initial work whereby sinners are brought into right relationship with God on the basis of faith, James uses the term to speak of the ultimate declaration of God in the last judgement on the basis of a whole life lived. The matter, therefore, is between initial and final justification (see, e.g. Moo, 110).

I will take this matter up further once the whole passage has been studied.

Baptized in the Spirit 4 (Frank Macchia)

Baptized in the SpiritChapter Four: Spirit Baptism in Trinitarian Perspective (Cont’d)

Macchia considers the Baptism with the Holy Spirit in its trinitarian dimensions, first by reflecting on the significance of Jesus as Spirit-baptiser for an understanding of his divinity. Macchia suggests that Jesus’ resurrection alone is not sufficient to assert his divinity, but that his role as Spirit-baptiser also supports this claim, for only God can give God (110-111). If the risen Jesus gives the Spirit who is also God, then Jesus, too, must be divine. He was raised to be the Spirit-baptiser, the one who give the life-giving, life-transforming eschatological Spirit.

Without the role of Jesus as the one who bestows the Spirit, his resurrection would have lost its eschatological goal and the relationship of Jesus to his heavenly Father would have lost its strongest clue (111).

Second, BHS is itself a trinitarian act, being the inauguration and advancement of the cosmic and eschatological reign of the Father by the Son and in the Spirit. Through Jesus Christ, the breath of the Father is proceeding to all creation animating and renewing it that it may return to the Father in the Spirit and through Christ. In Spirit-baptism the triune God opens his life to embrace, gather and indwell the creation. Macchia is clearly influenced by Moltmann in this discussion as he grounds his discussion of the triune life in the biblical narrative of Jesus’ life, and adopts a relational view of the trinity.

Spirit baptism accents the idea that the triune life of God is not closed but involved in the openness of self-giving love. … The reign of God comes on us through an abundant outpouring of God’s very Spirit on us to transform us and to direct our lives toward Christlike loyalties. From the trinitarian fellowship of the Father and the Son, the Spirit is poured out to expand God’s love and communion to creation (116).  

Macchia attempts to side-step the question of the inner life of the triune God (125), but still favours a social trinitarianism that yet maintains an economic monarchy of the Father in which the “Son and the Spirit share the monarchy of the Father in mutual dependence and working in a way that implies the Father’s dependence on them as well. … Spirit baptism in the context of the inauguration of the kingdom of God means that the Father’s divine monarchy is not abstract but mediated by the Son and the Spirit in the redemption of the world” (124). God the Trinity is open to the world including human suffering:

In Spirit baptism, God seeks to tabernacle with creation in empathy with the suffering creation and toward its final liberation. After all, the Spirit of Spirit baptism is the one who groans with the suffering creation for its eventual liberation through Christ. Spirit baptism reveals profoundly what is implied in the incarnation and the cross (126).

Macchia brings this long chapter to a conclusion by considering Spirit-baptism in relation to the primary elements of Christian life which he identifies as justification, sanctification and empowerment. Although “Spirit-baptized justification” includes an alien element—that is, the gift of righteousness given to the believer by God ever remains grounded externally in Christ as his righteousness rather than our own—Macchia’s emphasis falls on justification’s transformative elements: through faith in Jesus the believer receives the Holy Spirit and so is united with Christ, is granted the imputation of his victory over sin and death, and thus participates in the new creation. Justification, in Macchia’s vision of the Spirit, is not simply a legal or forensic act which leaves believer unchanged, but includes the regenerating and sanctifying work of the Spirit. To be justified is to be “righteoused” by God (130). The “righteousness” involved in justification is a liberating and redemptive concept that reorders life toward justice and mercy (132).

Justification loses connection with the full breadth of its concrete substance in the life of Jesus as the Spirit-anointed Inaugurator of the kingdom of God if it is defined essentially as an abstract declaration realized in a juridical transference of merits (138).

Justified existence is thus pneumatic existence, Spirit-baptized existence. … In the here and now, the righteousness of justification produces a life dedicated to the reign of God on earth, to the weighty matters of the law, to reconciled and reconciling communities of faith, and to the justice and mercy of God in the world (139).

Turning his attention to “Spirit-baptized sanctification” Macchia insists that justification and sanctification are not two sequential aspects of Christian life, but the entirety of Christian life portrayed by one or the other of these two overlapping metaphors (140). Spirit-baptized sanctification concerns participation by the Spirit in the consecration of Jesus to the Father for the world, in solidarity with their misery. Sanctification refers primarily to an objective accomplishment through the Spirit as a sanctifying presence.

Like Jesus, the disciples were sanctified for faithfulness in the world and not for escape from the world (Jn. 17:15-16). Their sanctification and consecration was unto a holy purpose that required their engagement with the world, not their avoidance of it. If Jesus fulfilled all righteousness by bearing the burdens of the sinners, how can we interpret kingdom sanctification as an avoidance of the sinners? (143-144)

Finally, “Spirit-baptized witness” concerns charismatic or vocational empowerment for the service and witness of the kingdom. If sanctification implies being set apart for a holy task, empowerment is being granted the capacity for the fulfilment of it.

The sanctifying work of the Spirit needs to be released in life through powerful experiences of renewal and charismatic enrichment that propel us toward vibrant praise, healing reconciliations, enriched koinonia, and enhanced gifting for empowered service (145).

Macchia rightly identifies this idea as an essential aspect of the Spirit’s work in Christian life, and a particular contribution Pentecostalism can make to the wider Christian family. Christian initiation must include, says Macchia, a sense that the grace of God gifts Christians for ministry and mission (151). “There is no Christian initiation by faith and baptism in the full sense of the word without some sense of commissioning to service” (156). In this respect, Spirit-baptism as the initiation of Christian life indicates the inherently missional character of Christian identity. Nevertheless, the work of the Spirit is not simply initiatory but progressive and eschatological. Therefore, Christians may and indeed must, continually seek for a greater fullness of the life of the Spirit, anticipating fresh experiences of the Spirit’s sanctifying and empowering presence, so that they might truly participate in the life of God’s kingdom.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:14-26 (Cont’d)

JamesLast week I paused the verse-by-verse commentary of James in order to provide an orientation to this important section in James’ letter. I will continue these reflections today. Last week we noted that James and Paul use similar terminology in their teaching but with different meanings. If we are to understand the broader message of the New Testament with respect to these matters—faith, works and justification—it is essential to grasp what each of these authors is saying in their own context. A number of commentators insist that James and Paul are not at odds with one another as is sometimes supposed; rather, their respective visions of the Christian life are “complementary not contradictory” (see Moo, 45-46; Newman, “Righteousness” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, 1056).

Behind both Paul and James’ understanding of justification stands the reality of divine judgement—a point raised by James in the verse immediately prior to this section (James 2:13). It is plain that for both James and Paul believers will stand before God at the final judgement. This is the ultimate cosmic context within which all history and every person, including every Christian person, stands. Mark Seifrid, therefore, notes that

No less prominent is the theme of individual judgment according to works (Heb 9:27-28; Rev 1:7; 2:7; 2:23). Each one will be called to give an account for his or her deeds (Heb 4:13; 13:17; 1 Pet 4:5-6). The NT authors are careful to apply the prospect of judgment to Christians themselves. As the judge of all, God will render his verdict impartially. Believers, although they name God as “Father,” must not presume upon grace (1 Pet 1:17-19; Heb 10:30; cf. Jas 2:9). … If the cross has worked a right standing with God for the believer, how is it that the believer must yet face judgment? Between this prospect and the proclamation of forgiveness in Christ stands an irreducible paradox. Yet to a certain extent lines of convergence can be traced. … That is not to say that all uncertainty is removed from the visible community of Christians; otherwise the warnings of judgment would make no sense. The church on earth yet remains under testing. Nevertheless, where saving realities are present they manifest themselves in persevering faith and obedience, which secure the believer in the final judgment (“Judgment” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, 623-624).

What James attacks in this section is a kind of false faith limited to doctrinal correctness, which he warns will not suffice in the day of judgement. To say this, however, is not to say that one’s works are sufficient for justification. James never contemplates the idea that works could exist without faith. Rather, true faith issues in works of perseverance, obedience, faithfulness and mercy with the result that one’s faith is shown to be genuine (Davids, “Faith and Works” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament, 368). In this respect both Paul and James are in agreement.

Why then, is it necessary for James to take this approach in his teaching? Davids suggests that perhaps there is conflict in the community, where some people are refusing to share their resources with others who are needy (Davids, “Faith and Works,” 368). A better proposal, I think, comes from Moo who suggests that James is facing false teachers who are distorting Paul’s teaching of justification, suggesting that one must only “believe” with no further requirement in terms of the outworking of Christian life and service. The verse-by-verse study will provide an opportunity to test Moo’s proposal.

The relevance of James’ teaching today need hardly be questioned. On the one hand, some Christians seem to suggest that Christian faith stands or falls with right-believing, as though the content of one’s belief is what justifies. This is clearly and decisively repudiated by James in this passage. Faith cannot be reduced to right-belief. Certainly our beliefs structure, strengthen and support our faith, but they are not our faith. While sound beliefs are desirable, and wrong beliefs are to be avoided, it is certainly possible to have genuine faith in Jesus even without correct beliefs. Nevertheless, even today there are those who distort Paul’s teaching of grace, perverting the gospel to teach a self-centred and consumerist doctrine. Here the relevance of James’ message is plain.

Others make the opposite mistake and suppose that our works, especially humanitarian works of mercy and justice, are what justify us. The call to mercy and justice found in both the Old and New Testaments is addressed to the community of God’s people, to those who have already come into a saving relationship with God through grace, and who are therefore called to imitate God and express his goodness in the world. Works of justice and mercy are an expression of faith not a replacement for faith. Though Christians must surely give thanks for and support those who participate in such work, they also do well to bear witness to Christ as the source, motivation and goal of all such work.

In the early twentieth-century, Christoph Blumhardt, a German Pietist pastor and Social Democrat member of the German Reichstag (Parliament) was a controversial figure because he refused to allow Christians to become comfortable as bourgeois members of society, insisting rather that faith in Christ must move us to participate in the ongoing work of his kingdom:

Neither in heaven nor on earth is it possible just to settle down comfortably in something through grace and do nothing and care for nobody else. If I am saved by grace, then I am a worker through grace. If I am justified by grace, then through grace I am a worker for justice. If through grace I am placed within the truth, then through grace I am a servant of truth. If through grace I have been placed within peace, then through grace I am a servant of peace for all men. (Blumhardt, “Joy in the Lord,” in Action in Waiting, 66).

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:14-26

James(I know it is late Monday, but I will keep the regular title of this post for continuity’s sake!)

Read James 2:14-26

Before I tackle this passage verse-by-verse, I want to stand back a little to get an overview of some the issues connected with this most central and most controversial of sections in James’ letter. The central message is unambiguous, being repeated three times: “faith without works is dead” (2:26; cf. vv. 17, 20). The issue is not so much understanding what James has said, as it is the apparent conflict between what James says here and what is said in other New Testament texts, especially Paul. A comparison of two key texts sets the issue in stark relief:

James 2:14, 21          
What use is it, brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but he has not works? Can that faith save him? … Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?

Romans 3:28
For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.

The centrality of the doctrine of justification by faith for Luther, and in Protestantism generally, caused Luther famously (or perhaps infamously) to relegate James to the least of the books in the New Testament:

Which are the true and noblest books of the New Testament? … In a word St. John’s Gospel and his first epistle, St. Paul’s epistles, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that is necessary and salvatory for you to know, even if you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine. Therefore St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it (Luther, “Preface to the New Testament” in Lull, T. F. (ed.), Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 116-117).

Many Christians have for centuries followed Luther’s lead, subordinating James to Paul and as a result not hearing James’ distinctive message as clearly as they might. Some modern scholars have suggested that the New Testament documents represent different forms of Christianity; thus Paul’s writings express the faith and experience of a law-free Gentile church, while James expresses the faith and experience of a law-affirming Jewish Christianity (see Moo, 45, who cites as an example, Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, 251-252). The question we face is whether there is a fundamental disjunction between the message of James and that of Paul, with respect to this central issue.

The major part of the problem revolves around the language and imagery used by James, including the key terms faith, works and justified, as well as his use of Abraham as an example of one who is justified on account of his works. Paul uses these same terms in his letters when discussing justification, and also uses Abraham as an example of one who is justified on account of his faith without any works. A careful examination of the passage, however, shows that James and Paul are approaching this topic from different directions and use the same terminology in different senses.

Thus, when Paul speaks of faith, he has in mind personal, whole-of-life commitment and allegiance to Jesus Christ. James, too, can speak of faith in this sense (cf. James 1:3, 6-8; 2:1, 5; 5:15). But in this passage, James is speaking of “faith” in an entirely different sense: he is speaking of one who claims to have faith, probably understood in the sense of right-belief, but whose life shows no evidence of genuine whole-of-life allegiance to Jesus. In this case, their life contradicts their profession. James mocks this kind of “faith” which is limited to doctrinal correctness: “the demons also believe!” (v. 19). For James, this kind of mental assent which does not penetrate to the heart and find expression in the concrete action of life, is no faith at all.

When Paul speaks of “the works of the Law” he usually has in mind the ceremonial works including such things as circumcision, Sabbaths and holy days, food laws, etc., although it is also true that he repudiates all and any kind of work whether ceremonial or moral as the basis of one’s justification by God (e.g. Ephesians 2:8-9). But, and this is important, Paul never diminished the abiding validity of the moral demand of the law. So in passages such as Galatians 5:6 (“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love”) or 1 Corinthians 7:19 (“Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God”) we find a message very similar to that which James presents in this passage. Significantly, James appears entirely unconcerned about the issue of circumcision, perhaps because he was writing to Jewish Christians. More importantly, however, and despite the portrayal of James in Acts 21:18-26 and Galatians 2:12 as one who continued as a law-abiding Jew even as a Christian, in his letter James never appeals to or affirms any aspect of the ceremonial law, even while he assumes the continuing validity of the law itself. Even in this passage, James’ emphasis is on works of mercy toward the poor—continuing the theme of 2:1-13, the work of obedience to God in the case of Abraham, and faith itself as a work in the case of Rahab. The key for James is that genuine faith is active, issuing in obedience to God.

Finally, James and Paul are using the term “justified” (dikaioō) in different ways, something also illustrated in their different appeals to the example of Abraham. Paul speaks of justification as one’s initial transfer into right relationship with God on the basis of Christ’s atoning death, received through faith, just as Abraham also was justified by God on the basis of his faith prior to receiving the covenant sign of circumcision. James in this passage is speaking of one’s ultimate justification at the final judgement where the authenticity of one’s faith is demonstrated by the works and activity of one’s life (so Moo, 46-47; Seifrid, “Righteousness” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, 624). Thus, although Abraham was initially accepted into right relationship with God, his faith was tested and proven—even by God—over the course of his life, and so demonstrated as genuine.

“We Are All Bohemians Now”

High Tide And Green GrassThe heroes of my adolescence were in town and on the news all last week. I was introduced to the Stones when I was about eight or nine years old and my elder brother came home with “Top of the Pops 1969.” Tracks I remember include the Beatles Ob-La-Di, CCR Green River, Elvis In the Ghetto, Thunderclap Newman Something in the Air, Peter Sarstedt Where Do You Go To My Lovely? and The Archies Sugar, Sugar. My favourite track was probably Elvis in those days, but I was intrigued by the cowbell at the start of Honky Tonk Women. Soon after my brother bought High Tide and Green Grass and I was hooked—on the music, not the grass—I always wondered, in those days, what on earth the title meant. Nevertheless, Little Red Rooster, Satisfaction, Get Off of My CloudAs Tears Go By, Paint it Black…somehow the music worked its way into my soul. As did the band.

This week, of course, has been tragic for them, for Mick Jagger particularly. The death of his long time partner L’Wren Scott has rocked his world, not in the usual sense. I have read a fair bit of the coverage and came across a quote which led me to an old New York Times Magazine article. Speaking, at that time, about his relationship with L’Wren, Mick said, “I don’t really subscribe to a completely normal view of what relationships should be,” he says. “I have a bit more of a bohemian view.”[1] We probably all know what he means.

But I was interested. Recently, in our Christian Worldview class, we watched a short segment on early English Bohemians from Alain De Botton’s Status Anxiety.[2] He toured Charleston, the home of the “Bloomsbury Group” in the 1920 and 30s who experimented with new forms of lifestyle. It was the home of author and artist Vanessa Bell, sister of Virginia Woolf. De Botton describes Bohemia as “a way of looking at the world; Bohemia is not a place, it is a state of mind. And what that state of mind boils down to is a sense of independence and freedom, a commitment to live by your own values.” He suggests that it was a “secular replacement for Christianity in a time when Christianity was waning.” It provided a spiritual rather than material way of evaluating ourselves.

De Botton’s explanation is both helpful and unhelpful. He is helpful when describing the Bohemian state of mind, and correct in identifying it as “secular.” He is less than helpful in describing Bohemia as “spiritual.” He uses the term in contrast to material or external modes of thought, and thereby emphasises the internal motivations and disposition of those who practice a Bohemian lifestyle. We should note that this kind of interiority has nothing to do with biblical forms of spirituality. When Paul speaks of those who are “spiritual” (e.g. 1 Corinthians 2:15), he invariably means those whose lives are under the influence and direction of the Holy Spirit. This, of course, is utterly distinct from a self-generated sense of independence and freedom, or a commitment to live by one’s own values.

De Botton interviewed Vanessa Bell’s granddaughter, Virginia Nicholson, who said that the Bloomsbury Group “believed in truth, true living and true loving. They rejected the bourgeois values of the age, and everything the bourgeoisie stood for. … Experimentation was of the essence here. It was about breaking the rules and giving themselves a sense of validation by doing that.” She suggested we should be grateful for the way in which her forebears broke through stultifying traditions so that we enjoy the kinds of social freedoms we take for granted today. “In a curious way,” she said, “We are all bohemians now.”

What do you think: Are we all Bohemians now?

In many ways Virginia Nicholson is right: we are all bohemians now, those of us, at least, who live in western liberal democracies. Perhaps not to the extent of the Bloomsbury Group or Mick Jagger, but bohemian nonetheless. Bohemian values have gone mainstream, so that our culture too, believes in truth, true living and true loving, so long as this is understood as being true to oneself. The sexual and interpersonal experimentation that lay close to the centre of the Bloomsbury experiment is widespread and accepted today, encouraged as a means of personal fulfilment and discovery. The self has become the centre of value.

Sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell
Sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell

Perhaps Nicholson’s most telling phrase is “giving themselves a sense of validation.” Bohemia was indeed a secular replacement for Christianity, though not in the way De Botton thinks. At the heart of Christian faith is justification, freely offered on the basis of the saving death of Jesus. This is divine validation given by God to those who turn to God through Jesus Christ in humble and repentant faith. To be justified is to be forgiven, accepted by and restored to God, and granted a new status before God and all creation. Justification addresses the deepest and most fundamental of human needs: right relationship with God, and then consequently, with self and with others. That Bohemians would seek to validate themselves is indicative of the depth of this sense of need in the human psyche.

The bourgeoisie and the Bohemians both sought validation, the bourgeoisie through their respectability, the Bohemians through their defiance of respectability.  In both cases their sense of validation was self-grounded and culturally supported. In many ways their choice of life was a variation on the same theme: the all-too-human attempt to justify ourselves and so to free ourselves from God.

Christians too, can fall into this trap, substituting some kind of self-validation for the validation that comes only from God. They might align with the bourgeoisie and seek their validation in respectability, or perhaps they reject the values of the bourgeois culture and practice a form of life they hope will bring the divine tick of approval. Both approaches will ultimately fail; our only hope of genuine freedom and authenticity is seek our justification in Christ alone.

Yet whatever gain I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.
(Philippians 3:7-9)

 



[1] Heller, Zoe, “Mick Without Moss” New York Times Magazine, December 3, 2010 http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/05/t-magazine/5well-mick-dek.html?pagewanted=all  [Accessed: March 21, 2014]

[2] Alain De Botton, Status Anxiety, ABC DVD 2004. The segment begins at 14:32 in episode 3. Start earlier if you want to watch his interviews at a nudist colony. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!