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Reconciling Paul and James - by Dr. William Pemble (1591-1623)

Articles on Justification by Faith Alone

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How can we reconcile Romans and James, or do we have to?

We are to give you warning of that stumbling stone which St. James (as it may seem) has laid in our way, lest any should dash his faith upon it and fall, as our adversaries have done, into that error of justification by works. That blessed apostle, in the second chapter of his epistle, seems not only to give occasion to, but directly to teach this doctrine of justification by works. For in verse 21 and following, he expressly says that Abraham was justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar, and also that Rahab was in like manner justified by works when she entertained the spies. Whence also he sets down a general conclusion that man is justified by works and not by faith alone (Jam 2:24).

Now at first glance, nothing can be spoken more contrary to St. Paul’s doctrine in Romans and elsewhere. For speaking of the same example of Abraham, he says (exactly to the contrary) that Abraham was not justified by works, for then he might have boasted (Rom 4:2). And treating generally of man’s justification by faith, after a strong dispute he draws forth the conclusion that a man is justified by faith without the works of the law (Rom 3:28). This conclusion appears contradictory to that of St. James. This harsh discord between these apostles appears to some as impossible to resolve by any qualification; knowing that the Holy Ghost never forgets Himself, some have concluded that if the Spirit of truth spoke by St. Paul, it was doubtless the spirit of error that spoke by the author of this epistle of James.

But this medicine is worse than the disease and is rather violence than skill thus to cut the knot where it cannot be readily untied. A safer and milder course may be held, and some means found out for the resolving of this grand difference, without robbing the Church of so much precious treasure of divine knowledge as is stored up in this epistle. Wherefore both they of the Romish and we of the Reformed Churches, admitting this epistle as canonical,[1] do each search after a fit reconciliation between the apostles. But they and we are irreconcilable in our various reconciliations of them.

There are two ways whereby [the Reformed] reconcile this seeming difference.

The first way is by distinguishing the word justification, which may be taken either for the absolution[2] of a sinner in God’s judgment or for the declaration of a man’s righteousness before men. This distinction is certain and has its ground in Scripture, which uses the word justify in both ways, for the acquitting of us in God’s sight and for the manifestation of our innocence before man against accusation or suspicion of fault. They apply this distinction to reconcile the two apostles thus: Paul speaks of justification in the forum of God; James speaks of justification in the forum of man. A man is justified by faith without works, says Paul; that is, in God’s sight a man obtains remission of sins and is reputed to be just only for his faith in Christ, not for his works’ sake. A man is justified by works and not by faith only, says James; that is, in man’s sight we are declared to be just by our good works and not by our faith only, which with other inward and invisible graces is made visible unto man only in the good works which they see us perform. That this application is not unfit to reconcile this difference may be shown by the following analysis.

First, as for Paul, it is agreed on all sides that he speaks of man’s justification in God’s sight (Rom 3:20).

Second, as for James, we are to show that with just probability he may be understood as referring to the declaration of our justification and righteousness before men. For proof thereof, the text affords us these reasons.

“Show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works” (Jam 2:18). Here the true Christian, speaking to the hypocritical boaster of his faith, requires of him a declaration of his faith and justification thereby by a real proof, not a verbal profession, promising for his part to manifest and prove the truth of his own faith by his good works. Whence it appears that, before man, none can justify the soundness of his faith but by his works thence proceeding.

Abraham is said to be justified “when he offered up his son Isaac upon the altar” (Jam 2:21). Now it is manifest that Abraham was justified in God’s sight long before, even 25 years earlier (Gen 15:6). Therefore, by that admirable work of his in offering his son he was declared before all the world to be a just man and a true believer. And for this purpose God tempted[3] Abraham in that trial of his faith, that thereby all believers might behold a rare pattern of a lively and justifying faith and see that Abraham was not without good cause called “the father of the faithful.”

It is said that Abraham’s faith “wrought with his works, and by works was his faith made perfect” (Jam 2:22). Even in the judgment of popish expositors, such as Lorinus,[4] this is to be understood of the manifestation of Abraham’s faith by his works. His faith directed his works; his works manifested the power and perfection of his faith.

It is not, then, without good probability of reason that Calvin and other expositors on our side have given this solution to the problem. This now is the first way of reconciling these two passages. Nevertheless, although this approach may be defended against anything that our adversaries object to the contrary, yet many very learned divines choose rather to tread in another path and more nearly to press the apostles’ steps, whom also in this point I willingly follow.

The second way, then, of reconciling these passages is by distinguishing the word “faith,” which is taken in a double sense. It is first taken for that faith which is true and living (faith which works through love) and is fruitful in all manner of obedience. Second, it is taken for that faith which is false and dead, being only a bare acknowledgment of the truth of all articles of religion accompanied with an outward formality of profession, but yet destitute of sincere obedience.

This distinction of this word “faith” is certain by the Scriptures, as has heretofore been shown in our discussions of that grace. Our men now apply it thus: When Paul affirms that we are justified by faith only, he speaks of that faith which is true and living, working by charity. When James denies that a man is justified by faith only, he disputes against that faith which is false and dead, without power to bring forth any good works. So that the apostles speak no contradiction because Paul teaches that we are justified by a true faith and James affirms that we are not justified by a false faith.

Again, Paul says we are not justified by works; James says we are justified by works. Neither is there any contradiction at all here. For James understands by “works” a working faith, in opposition to the idle and dead faith before spoken of, by a metonymy[5] of the effect. Whence it is plain that these two propositions, that we are not justified by works (which is Paul’s) and that we are justified by a working faith (which is James’s), sweetly consort together. Paul severs works from our justification, but not from our faith. James joins works to our faith, but not to our justification.

Let me make this a little plainer by a similitude or two. There is a great difference between these two sayings: A man lives by a reasonable soul, and a man lives by reason. The former is true and shows us what qualities and power are essential unto that soul whereby a man lives. But the latter is false, because we do not live by the quality or power of reason, though we live by that soul which has that quality necessarily belonging to it, without which it is no human soul. So also in these propositions: The shoot lives through its authoring life breath; the shoot lives through its growth. Any puny mind can tell that the former is true and the other false. For, although in the vegetative soul whereby plants live, there are necessarily required for its existence those three faculties of nourishment, growth, and procreation, yet it is not the faculty of growing that gives life unto plants, for they live when they are not growing.

In like manner, these two propositions—that we are justified by a working faith and that we are justified by works—differ greatly. The first is true and shows us what qualities are necessarily required unto the existence of that faith, whereby the just shall live, namely that beside the power of believing in the promise there is also a habitual proneness[6] and resolution unto the doing of all good works joined with it. But the later proposition is false. For although true faith is equally as apt to work in bringing forth universal obedience to God’s will as it is apt to believe and trust perfectly in God’s promises, yet nevertheless we are not justified by it as it brings forth good works, but as it embraces the promises of the gospel.

Now, then, James affirms that which is true, that we are justified by a working faith; and Paul denies that which is false, that we are justified by works.

1 canonical – of or appearing in the biblical canon, i.e., the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament or the twenty-seven books of the New Testament.
2 absolution –sentence of a judge declaring an accused person innocent.
3 tempted – tested.
4 Lorinus, John – 1569-1634, Jesuit commentator.
5 metonymy – figure of speech in which one word or phrase is substituted for another with which it is closely associated, as in the use of Washington for the U. S. government.
6 proneness – tendency; inclination.

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