I saw this church sign only a few miles from where our church meets. We teach that salvation is by faith alone, but this sign seems to be a fairly clear indication that these folks teach the opposite.
I suspect that Martin Luther would advise that people take greater heed to the second sign in the photo, and not cross the street to attend this church!
While Scripture teaches that genuine saving faith will invariably produce the fruit of works, that’s not what this sign is saying. These folks are taking a single verse and missing the point of it, and it’s context.
Here’s what James 2:24 says: “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.”
If you take that verse by itself, you can certainly be led to think that salvation requires works. But to take it by itself is to commit a gross error, especially since the context of the verse makes it quite clear that that is NOT what this verse is intended to teach.
Quoting it alone ike this amounts to the same error journalists make when they quote only a portion of a sentence that someone spoke, making it sound like they are saying the opposite of what they actually said. We call that misquoting.
James 2:14-16 is not a text intended to teach the basis of salvation, but to teach the marks of true salvation. In fact, the theme of entire epistle of James could be characterized as marks of genuine faith, much like the epistle of 1 John.
This church’s sign is a good example of how often James 2:14-26 is misquoted, misinterpreted and misunderstood in such a way that a defective view of grace is taught. Some good, basic hermeneutics (principles of interpretation) will help in avoiding this all-too-common error in reading this passage.
The root question in interpreting this passage is to determine what James means by “justified.”
The first thing that needs to be realized is that the terms “justify” or “justified” are used in several different ways in the New Testament, but there are really only two ways to understand this passage and justification. Your understanding of justification is the dividing line between understanding the biblical gospel of salvation by faith alone (sola fide), or the false gospels of salvation based on good works.
In other words, properly understanding justification is absolutely crucial to the Christian faith. It’s that important. So, if you misinterpret this passage, you get the Gospel wrong. Now, let’s consider the two options of the meaning of “justified” that are most relevant to this passage.
1. “Justified” can be defined as “a legal declaration that you are righteous before God.”
This is the most common way “justify” (Greek: dikaioō) is used in the New Testament.
For example, this is the meaning of the term when we read Luke 7:29, “And when all the people heard Him, even the tax collectors justified God, having been baptized with the baptism of John.” Of course, the people did not make God righteous, they simply declared that He is. This is the sense in which “justified” is used in passages where the New Testament says that those who believe on Christ for salvation are declared righteous by God (Rom. 3:20, 26, 28; 5:1; 8:30; 10:4, 10; Gal. 2:16; 3:24; etc.).
This meaning is particularly evident in Rom. 4:5: “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.” Here, God legally declares the ungodly to be righteous in His sight, not on the basis of their good works, but in response to their faith.
The issue at stake here is whether you believe you are justified by faith alone or by faith and works. Paul teaches that when God declares sinners to be righteous, he is not lying about them being righteous when they aren’t, but that He is declaring that they are righteous because He has graciously imputed (transferred) Christ’s righteousness to them (see 2 Cor. 5:21).
Therefore, when a person believes on Christ by faith, God applies the merits of Christ’s righteousness (His works) to them and then declares them to be righteous. It is not that person’s own righteousness, it is Christ’s righteousness that is freely given to them.
This is why Paul says in Phil. 3:9 that his goal is “that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith;”
This legal declaration is not based on the person’s righteousness, but on the merits of Christ’s righteousness. In other words, when God declares someone righteous on the basis of Christ’s righteousness, there is no remaining room for, nor even any need for, any additional righteous works contributed by man. This is why Paul says in Eph. 2:8-9, “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.”
So what does James mean when he says we are justified by works?
2. “Justified” can mean “to demonstrate or show that you are righteous.”
For instance, Jesus said to the Pharisees in Luke 16:15, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts.” Clearly the point here is not that the Pharisees made legal declarations that they were “not guilty” before God, but that they were constantly attempting to show others that they were righteous by their outward acts.
Luke 10:28-29 shows us the same usage of the term. “And He said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live. But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” His goal was “to show himself to be righteous” to those who were listening. Other examples of this use of “justify” can be found in Matt. 11:19, Luke 7:35, and Rom. 3:4.
This is also the way James is using the term “justified.” James 2:18 clearly shows this to the case. “But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
James is telling his readers that a so-called faith that does not produce the fruit of works is not true faith at all, it is a dead faith. Works are the demonstration to others that our faith is living, or genuine, faith in Christ. Works are not the basis of being declared righteous before God. Rather, they are the proof that we’ve already been justified by God.
Works are a sign of salvation, not a means to salvation. True faith will bear the proof of good works. That’s James’ point.
James 2:21 goes on to say, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?” James is referring to something later in Abraham’s life, when he sacrificed Isaac in obedience to God’s command in Genesis 22. This is long after God’s declaration of Abraham being righteous by faith alone in Genesis 15:6: “And he believed in the LORD, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.”
Genesis 15 was when Abraham was justified once for all, and he was declared such on the basis of faith alone. Paul repeatedly makes this point in Romans 4 and Galatians 3.
Genesis 22 was when Abraham was “shown to be righteous” by his works. And in that sense James says Abraham was “justified by works.”
How can we know if we or someone else has genuine saving faith? Their works will demonstrate it. Their works will justify their claim to be a Christian. In other words, their sanctification will demonstrate their justification.
So, the most relevant question to ask when we come to James 2 is, Who is justifying whom? Is James talking about God declaring people righteous, or is he talking about people demonstrating their righteousness?
The message of this church sign confuses justification with sanctification, and in so doing perverts the Gospel at its center, for it communicates the notion that saving faith only “works” when it is accompanied by good works, which is to add our righteousness to Christ’s righteousness in order to qualify for saving faith, which is a heresy zealously and conclusively condemned throughout the New Testament. This amounts to “another Gospel,” and as such, garners Paul’s strongest condemnation: “accursed” (Gal. 1:6-9).