1. Harmonizing Romans and James
How can Romans 3:28; 4:5 be made to harmonize with James 2:20–24?
For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.
Now to one who works, his wages are not reckoned as a gift but as his due. And to one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.
Do you want to be shown, you foolish fellow, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness"; and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.
What James Combats
Verse 19 shows that James is standing against a view that has so watered down the meaning of faith that he must recover its radical quality by insisting on the inevitable connection between it and deeds of obedience.
You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!
This is clearly not the sort of faith that Paul had in mind when he said that faith justifies—the devils are not justified.
Also verses 17 and 20 show that James is contending with a weak and empty view of faith, not with Paul's view.
So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
Do you want to be shown, you foolish fellow, that faith apart from works is barren?
Works Are the Sign of Living Faith
The implication of both of these verses is that when works are present, faith is alive and fruitful. That is, the implication is that faith is the really productive and powerful thing and works are the fruit and sign of life. This is no different than what Paul said in Galatians 5:6.
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love.
Is not this what James means in verse 22 when he says that faith is completed by works? That is, faith is not whole and living and fruitful and justifying faith unless it produces acts of obedience.
How Was Abraham "Justified by Works"?
What does James mean, then, that Abraham was justified by works when he offered up Isaac (verse 21)?
In Genesis 22 the upshot of Abraham's obedience in offering Isaac is this:
By myself I have sworn, says the Lord, because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed by voice.
In other words God says that the fulfillment of the promise that originally had been received by faith (15:1–6) was now assured on the basis of obedience, that is, on the basis of what James calls "works." So James concludes that the justification of Abraham, by which he is viewed by God as a fit subject for life and blessing, is possible not just because he believes certain things about God, but because his faith is the sort of living and fruitful faith that produces obedience. This is not different from what Paul believes.
What James Means by "Justified by Works"
But the way James gives expression to it is quite different—namely, that Abraham is justified by works (verse 21), and more generally in verse 24, "You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone." This is almost the exact opposite of Paul's wording in Romans 3:28.
But his meaning in context is not opposed to Paul's. His meaning is that what makes it fitting for God to give Abraham the word and assurance of acquittal is not just an empty and ineffective belief, but a belief that produces works of obedience. So it is not a misuse of language to say that those works of obedience which only come from faith are themselves part of what makes it fitting for God to declare Abraham to be just.
"Justified by works" in the mouth of James means that the acts of obedience that come from faith and thus show it is alive are part of what makes it fitting for God to give to Abraham the word of acquittal.
What Paul Means When He Says One Must Not Work
On the other hand in Romans 4:5 when Paul says that one must NOT work if he hopes to receive justification, he is not referring to the obedience that comes from faith but, as verse 4 shows, the effort that attempts to establish your dessert—"To the one who works his wages are not reckoned as a gift but as his due." So Paul is not opposing the works which James says are indispensable, namely, the obedience that comes from faith.
What We Learn
What we learn from this is how our formulations of doctrine are very much determined by our situation and especially by the error we see most prevalent.
Practically, we also learn that the in one sense it is faith alone which justifies, but that the faith which justifies never stays alone. It is living and active and bears fruit in obedience. That is the test of real justifying faith and therefore also the confirmation of our calling and election (2 Peter 1:10).
2. The Initial Act of Faith and Persevering in Faith
Are we justified by our initial act of genuine faith or must we persevere in faith in order to be justified?
Perseverance Is Necessary for Justification
Romans 5:1 says that believers ARE JUSTIFIED, not that they will be justified when they have finally persevered in faith during their whole life. But the way Paul and James use Abraham as an example of how we are justified suggests that perseverance is necessary for justification. Not only that, Jesus says, "He who endures to the end will be saved" (Mark 13:13).
The Example of Abraham
Let's look at the example of Abraham.
For what does the scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness."
This is a reference to Genesis 15:6 when Abraham had no children and not even Ishmael was born yet.
In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations; as he had been told, "So shall your descendants be." He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead because he was about a hundred years old, or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was "reckoned to him as righteousness."
This reference to Abraham's being 100 years old shows that the time of faith being spoken of in his life is Genesis 17 (cf. verses 1, 17)—namely, the time when God came and told him that not Ishmael but a new son, Isaac, born to Sarah not Hagar, would be the heir. This was more than thirteen years since the time of Genesis 15:6 (Ishmael was 13 years old; Genesis 17:25).
Therefore Paul is saying that the declaration of acquittal back in 15:6 and referred to again in Romans 4:22 was made not only in response to the earlier act of faith in Genesis 15:6. But also in response to the later act of faith in Genesis 17. That is what the words "that is why" (Greek, dio: therefore) imply in Romans 4:22.
We could carry the story of Abraham on into James and show how some time later Abraham offered up Isaac in faith, and James says this, too, is an occasion to which God responded with the declaration of acquittal (James 2:23). But this is sufficient to show how Paul thinks about perseverance of faith.
My conclusion is that the way to let Romans 5:1 (justification a present possession) and Romans 4:3–22 stand is to say that YES we are justified on the occasion of our first act of living faith. And to say also that what makes it fitting for God to give the word of total acquittal to that one act of faith is that God sees in it all the subsequent acts of faith, the way he sees the oak tree in the acorn. Since the perseverance is established by him as certainly to occur, he can freely declare righteousness to that first act of faith.
Jonathan Edwards put it like this (Works, vol. II, p. 641):
So that although the sinner is actually and finally justified on the first acts of faith, yet the perseverance of faith, even then, comes into consideration, as one thing on which the fitness of acceptance to life depends. God, in the act of justification, which is passed on a sinner's first believing, has respect to perseverance, as being virtually contained in that first act of faith; and it is looked upon, and taken by him that justifies, as being as it were a property in that faith. God has respect to the believer's continuance in faith, and he is justified by that, as though it already were, because by divine establishment it shall follow; and it being by divine constitution connected with that first faith, as much as if it were a property in it, it is then considered as such, and so justification is not suspended; but were it not for this, it would be needful that it should be suspended, till the sinner had actually persevered in faith.