“All evangelicals believe in justification by works. Wheaton College believes in justification by works.” That is how Dr. Tony Lane, Professor of Historical Theology at the London School of Theology, began this year’s History of Christianity Lecture. He explained that since evangelicals are committed to the whole of Scripture, they must be committed to James 2:24: “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” The questions is not “do we believe in justification by works,” but “how do we believe in justification by works.”
Lane proceeded to give three responses to the idea of justification by works in Reformation theology. Luther dealt with this by relegating James to a lower position in the canon, even moving its placement within the arrangement of canonical books. Calvin chose to interpret James 2:24 through a Pauline lens. For Calvin, James used “justification” to mean the demonstration of righteousness, not the imputation of righteousness as Paul did. Similarly, James used “faith” in a different way, not the “robust” way of Paul.
Although this might seem to squeeze out any idea of justification by works, Lane explained that Calvin quite frequently spoke of God’s justification not only of persons but of their Spirit-wrought works. God accepts sinners in Christ and their works in Christ. Calvin distinguished between works viewed “in themselves” and works viewed “in Christ.” In themselves, all human works are tainted by sin, even those done by believers, and cannot justify when seen against God’s standard of perfect holiness. However, in Christ these works are envisaged as a Father sees the efforts of his children.
Dr. Lane also considered a third explanation of justification by works that went farther than both Luther and Calvin. Martin Bucer, a lesser known Reformation figure, construed justification as having both an initial stage and a final stage. Initial justification is by faith alone, as Paul clearly stated (Rom 3–4). Final justification is what James was speaking of, and it is by works (though considered “in Christ,” not “in themselves.” Lane demonstrated how this had some precedence in Thomas Aquinas and it was held by a number of Roman Catholics (Johannes Gropper, e.g.). According to Lane, there was more collaboration between Roman Catholics and Protestants on justification than is usually thought, and a number of Roman Catholic theologians were willing to agree with Protestants on certain issues of justification. Therefore, one must be careful about over-generalizing certain aspects of the Reformation, such as clinging to the slogans and not discerning the nuances.
In conclusion, Lane gestured that Bucer’s explanation might be the most satisfactory for evangelicals since it takes in all the biblical data and refuses to create a canon within a canon or a hierarchy of biblical texts. Lane added that for both Calvin and Bucer God’s justification of believers’ works was a pastoral issue. The doctrine emphasized that God’s posture toward a person and his works changed after union with Christ. Lane quoted George MacDonald’s dictum—“God is easy to please but hard to satisfy”—as a way to summarize the point. A believer united to Christ can be assured of this “double acceptance:” that God accepts not only “anyone who fears him,” but who also “does what is right” (Acts 10:35).