When I was in High School, I took an architecture class that I especially enjoyed. We got to use paper, right angles, compasses, and other cool instruments that architects use along with our knowledge of geometry to solve whatever problems the teacher presented to us. Often the problems involved taking limited information and using it to extract other information. He would always say the same thing:
Use what you know to find what you don’t know.
That’s some solid advice. Once we establish that something is true, we can use it to make sense of things that we don’t know or don’t understand. The applications of this advice go far beyond High School architecture; it’s essentially how we progress in science and technology. It is also a fundamental concept to interpreting documents, whether they be laws, historical records, or even the Bible.
If we read hard parts of the Bible like architects, using what we know to figure out what we don’t know, a lot of theological confusion clears right up.
James 2:14-26 is one of the most confusing Bible passages out there, but it doesn’t have to be. So let’s read it like an architect and see what happens.
First, let’s think about what we already know. We know that the Bible clearly teaches that we receive eternal life by faith alone in Christ alone.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. (John 3:16 NKJV)
Jesus answered and said to her, “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.” (John 4:13-14 NKJV)
Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life. (John 5:24 NKJV)
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26 NKJV)
What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” (Rom 4:1-3 NKJV)
So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (Acts 16:31 NKJV)
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. (Eph 2:8-9 NKJV)
not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, (Titus 3:5 NKJV)
All sorts of verses support the doctrine of sola fide (salvation ‘by faith alone’), so how does Jas 2:17 fit with sola fide?
Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (Jas 2:17 NKJV)
One common way to make it fit is by using this one tough text to redefine a multitude of easy texts. This is the essence of a doctrine called “Lordship Salvation,” which redefines the word “believe” to mean “believe and work” in every single salvation passage. That’s bad architecture. In Greek, the word, believe, means the same thing that it does in English; it means believe! But, feel free to sort through over 2,000 occurrences of the Greek word in nonbiblical texts if you would like to say otherwise. We can’t pluck one word out of context to redefine so many others, so let’s approach James 2 like an architect would, using the easy stuff to understand the hard stuff.
If we step back and survey the book of James, we see that it’s written to believers. James even calls them ‘brothers’ over a dozen times. If we look at James 2:14-26 as a unit, we see that there are some complicated issues – especially if we consider multiple translations. For one thing, James throws some hypothetical situations out there:
“If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says…” (Jas 2:15-16a NKJV)
“But someone will say…” (Jas 2:18a NKJV)
Let’s go ahead and chalk up Jas 2:15-20 as ‘hard stuff’ for now and look for something that’s more clear.
James 2:21-24 is about Abraham. We have plenty of information about Abraham from Moses and even Paul, so that could be easy stuff. In fact, that’s probably why James used Abraham as an example – Abraham would have been ‘easy stuff’ for his Jewish audience.
Let’s look at what he’s saying. He wraps up his Abraham example with these words:
ὁρᾶτε τοίνυν ὅτι ἐξ ἔργων δικαιοῦται ἄνθρωπος καὶ οὐκ ἐκ πίστεως μόνον.
You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. (Jas 2:24 NKJV)
Now, this is where Greek grammar comes into play. In English, the word, “only,” can be an adjective or an adverb. If we just look at the English text, then “not … only” could mean “not only faith” or “not only justified.” Fortunately, the Greek is more clear. The word that James uses is “μόνον” (monon), which is an adverb, so it modifies “justified.” So, we can make the translation a bit more clear by saying:
You see then, that a man is [also] justified by works and not only [justified] by faith. (Jas 2:24)
That means ‘justification’ isn’t always salvation from hell by faith. This is no surprise. The word, ‘justify,’ simply means ‘to call someone/something righteous or just.’ For example:
And when all the people heard Him, even the tax collectors justified God (Luke 7:29a NKJV)
When the tax collectors “justified” God, did they save Him from eternity in the Lake of Fire? Of course not. They simply called God ‘righteous.’
There is more than one ‘justification.’ That’s easy stuff that we know. Now let’s explore further and build on this information.
James is saying that a man is called “righteous” by faith and that a man is also called “righteous” by works. Let’s look at the Abraham example that he gives:
Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. (Jas 2:21-23 NKJV)
So, first, as Moses said in Gen 15:6, Abraham had believed and was justified (it was accounted to him for righteousness). That’s what Paul harped on in the beginning of Rom 4. Abraham was justified sola fide, by faith alone God called him “righteous.” But then, there was another occasion when men called him righteous (“And he was called the friend of God”). Men called him “righteous” because of an action that he did – offering Isaac on the altar. God can ‘see’ what Abraham believed but men can only see what Abraham did.
James is saying that in addition to justification before God by faith, there is another justification before men by works. This is also easy stuff that we know.
Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? (James 2:25 NKVJ)
Rahab wasn’t written in the Book of Life for protecting the spies (her name is in the Book of Life because of faith), but she did get written about in the books of Joshua, Matthew, Hebrews, and James where people are still reading about her brave works and saying “Hurray!” even today.
So a recap of the easy stuff:
1. James agrees with the rest of the Bible
2. The Bible clearly teaches the doctrine of sola fide
3. James is writing to believers
4. Justified means ‘to call righteous’
5. There is more than one justification
6. God isn’t the only one who can call someone ‘righteous’
7. God called Abraham ‘righteous’ because of his faith
8. Men called Abraham ‘righteous’ because of his works
9. Men also called Rahab ‘righteous’
None of these statements are difficult. We just found what we knew to be true and stuck with it.
That’s enough for this time. We’ll hit Jas 2:17 and other ‘hard stuff’ next time.
Update: Part II has been posted here.
 The adjectival form would have to be μονής (mones).