Some critics of N.T. Wright, such as Mark Seifrid, have suggested that Wright’s understanding of the doctrine of justification is too much like Roman Catholicism (see this video). Yet I find that there is a lot of similarities between Wright’s understanding of Pauline thought and the Reformed understanding of the canonical role of the Book of James. Where Paul states that we are justified by faith, apart from works of the law, the Book of James (2:14-24)says this:
What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.
But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” You believe that God is one You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “AND 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.
To synchronize Paul and James I have heard over and over again that Paul speaks of initial justification and James the outworking of justification (via the life of Abraham). Or Paul is referring to the works of the Law of Moses while James is referring to good deeds that are the natural result of faith. In other words James view of works is similar to the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians!
Is this not exactly what Wright has been saying? Wright sees justification as one part of salvation, the declarative part on behalf of the cosmic judge, in favor of the believer. Furthermore, in order to inherit the new heaven, new earth God must recreate us via the Spirit (part of the message of all of Romans 8). Other traditions such as Pentecostalism and the Methodist have called this “sanctification” or “regeneration”. The Orthodox have a cousin view call theosis where we become like God. The idea is that it takes more than merely being declared right but God actually makes us right by the work of the Spirit.
Interestingly enough while some Reformed are afraid to acknowledge that Paul sees the Holy Spirit as actually working through Christians to fulfill the Law there is still room for them to say that James said this very thing, but in reference to faith! I find it odd that the work of the Holy Spirit is intimidating, but works via faith in James is not. Am I missing something here?