I've been having a back-and-forth email discussion with some Protestant friends of mine and one of them asserts a strange thing about Chapter 2 of the Letter of Saint James. He asserts that the justification that Saint James is talking about is not before God but before men, that this justification does not increase our righteousness before God. Basically that this justification is to show that people have genuine faith to other people. How should I respond to this?Your opponent must believe that the justification in question is before men b/c that is the only way to reconcile James with what he believes about faith and salvation. But, I assert that James most definitely has God's perspective in mind. I will use ch. 2 itself, along with ch. 1 and 3 to prove my point. Let's start with Jas 1.
In the first chapter, we read: "Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him" (Jas 1:12). We see from this that James has his eyes focused on heaven, on the afterlife, on the eternal reward of those who endure the trials of this life. Ultimately, our reward is not on earth (man's perspective) but in heaven (God's perspective).
Next, James provides a short catechesis on this God of heaven. He is not tempted by evil and He tempts no one (vs. 13), every good and perfect gift comes from Him (vs. 17), in Him there is no variation or change (vs. 17), and He created us by an act of His Will (vs. 18). This is God as He is, in Himself. It is only from man's perspective that God takes on various anthropomorphisms like tempting or changing.
Finally, in the last verse of the chapter, we read: "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world" (vs. 27). James is not speaking of religion that is pure and undefiled before men, but that which is before God, or in the eyes of God. This is an explicit statement about religion as God sees it.
With this perspective we come to chapter 2, the chapter in question. There, we read: "So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead" (vs. 17). "Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that faith apart from works is barren?" (vs. 20). "For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead" (vs. 26). Now, this death, this barrenness, is this before God or before men. It can't be an earthly "death" b/c we know that, as far as the world is concerned, an empty faith can in fact be very profitable. Many a preacher has gotten rich off of his supposed faith, while his personal life was corrupt and hypocritical. In the world, a dead faith is very much alive.
It is in heaven, from God's perspective, that faith w/o works is dead. It is "dead" b/c God will not condone, not b/c man won't. If your faith is not lived, God will say to you, "This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me" (Mt 15:8). You will say, "Lord, Lord" and he will say, "I do not know you" (Mt 25:11-12). It is on Judgment Day that God judges the works of men and decides that some had a faith that was alive and others did not.
The justification that comes from these works is certainly of God and by God. Read again what James says about Abraham: "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" (vs. 21-23). Now, did his works justify him before God or man? Did God reckon this to him as righteousness, or did man? It's obvious that God did for the simple fact that no one was on the mountain to witness what Abraham did! BUT, God was there, watching, to see what Abraham would do, and when He saw that Abraham's faith was true, He spared Isaac. This same justification is the subject of James' letter and I see no transition from this to some type of justification before men.
Finally, in ch. 3 James talks about taming the tongue and living a life of good works "in the meekness of wisdom." But, this is not earthly wisdom from man's perspective, but wisdom from above:
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good life let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This wisdom is not such as comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity. 18 And the harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
All of this tells me that the justification that James has in mind is a justification in the sight of God, not of men. Whenever we speak of justification, as a theological term, that's what we are referring to. That's what the word means, and I would be willing to bet that whenever justification is referred to in Scripture, it is the justification of God unless the author specifically says otherwise. Perhaps someone else has the time to do a word study and confirm my suspicion.
I hope this helps.