Justification in the book of James: The Puzzle of James 2

Robert M. Zins, Romanism, (Huntsville, AL: White Horse Publications, 1994), p. 176-186

THERE are many faiths in the world but only one true faith in the finished work of Christ for justification. This true faith is a gift of God (cf., Ephesians 2:89; Philippians 1:29) which contains within it the right comprehension of the gospel message. It is a faith that grasps the righteousness of Christ as a substitute for our own lack of righteousness for our salvation. It is a faith that perceives that Jesus has finished the work given to Him by the Father. It is faith that Jesus lives now and eternally on behalf of His blood-bought Church to rescue them and to intercede for them. It is a faith which understands that we can add nothing to what Christ has done on our behalf. It is a faith which constantly clings to the righteousness of Christ for our access to God (cf., Hebrews 10:19-23).

Christian faith unites us with Jesus Christ. By faith we are in Christ. Being in Christ gives us the benefits of Christ's active and passive obedience. Faith unites us to Christ. His righteousness is the ground of our justification.

We have concluded that the Romanist has not this faith nor does he have any desire to even dare presume this an appropriate way to discuss justification. The lines of distinction are clearly drawn between the Christian idea of justification and the Catholic idea. The two are absolutely incompatible. Both cannot be true.

At this time we would like to examine one passage of Scripture which is used by Catholic theologians to disprove the doctrine of justification by faith apart from works of law. We hold that the supernatural faith given by God to His elect people expresses itself in the appropriation of Christ's righteousness alone for justification. This righteousness of Christ is the ground or final cause of God's verdict to justify the sinner. It is the faithfulness of Christ in fulfilling the eternal plan of the Father which ever remains the sole ground of our justification before God. When God regenerates a heart unto faith, the sinner becomes alive in Christ and His righteousness. This union with Christ is vital to the safekeeping of the soul. To be in Christ is to have His righteousness for salvation (cf., Philippians 3:9). It is inconceivable to Paul or to the rest of Scripture that God may be tempted to justify anyone on some other basis. Whether that basis is the Law of Israel or New Covenant obediences binding on the professing believer, it is absolutely incomprehensible that God would be satisfied with any other standard than His Son's righteousness for the verdict of justification. When it comes to a justification before the tribunal of God, for sins committed in the flesh, there can be no question that the New Testament writers disdain obedience to the Law or any other works for the verdict of justification.

Thus, when the concept of justification before God is couched in antithesis with any prevailing notions of justification, we can see that the burden of the apostle is to protect the righteousness of God by eliminating all other avenues of justification except the righteousness of His Son. So the voice of the great apostle Paul echoes throughout the New Testament:

"Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law." (Romans 3:28)

"Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." (Romans 5: 1)

"Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified." (Galatians 2:16)

"And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith." (Philippians 3:9)

The New Testament will simply not allow a foreign ground of justification to exert itself over the work once accomplished by Jesus Christ. The chief antagonist to Christ being the ground of justification in the early Church was the Judaizer. The Judaizer tried to dilute the finished work of Christ by adding law-keeping formulas for justification. But Paul would have nothing to do with this idea and boldly proclaimed, "For Christ [is] the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth" (Romans 10:4). Scriptures are replete with references describing what the Law can and cannot do. But one would have to ignore the entire gospel message to miss the idea that the law cannot justify anybody,

"...for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law." (Galatians 3:21)

Why then do the Romanist and the Legalist insist on a righteousness before God which includes our own good works? The answer comes from their absolute commitment to separate "good works done in faith" from the works of the Law. The Roman Catholic is taught that no one can be justified by keeping the Law of Moses. But, they say, Scriptures demand that our justification is based in part on the accumulation of good works done in obedience as followers of Jesus. So, they reject the one burden only to load on another burden. This is part of the "Christ-came-to-give-us-a-system" syndrome.

To buttress their position, the Roman Catholics like to appeal to the second chapter of James. They do so because it is precisely here where James brings together the terms "Justify" and "works" in a proximity which seems to deny all that Paul is claiming for justification before God. Specifically, James says the following:

"Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only." (James 2:24)

"Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent [them] out another way?" (James 2:25)

"Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?" (James 2:21)

Rome takes these passages and concludes that works constitute part of the ground of justification. Forbidding works of law from the Mosaic system, Romanism forges ahead with a new set of obediences which, they say, are given to us by Christ for our justification. These works, they say, are best expressed in and through the Catholic sacramental system.

Christians over the centuries have fended off Rome on this point by appealing to the context of James and pointing out that James is really writing about demonstrating justification rather than achieving justification.[1] The argument is that James has Abraham showing forth justification. The tenor of James' theme is that Abraham was showing himself to have been justified by offering up Isaac on the altar. Likewise, Rahab was showing herself to have been justified when she sent the messengers out by another way. Now it is true that there is a  demonstrative sense to the word "justify." Such a passage is Matthew 11: 19, where we are told that wisdom is justified by her children. This can only mean that wisdom is shown to be just by her children. The children of wisdom verify that wisdom is in fact wisdom. The children do not make wisdom wise, rather they show that there was wisdom in the first place. The argument for the demonstrative use of justify is common and may well be the answer to harmonize James and Paul.

However, there are some problems with this approach. It has yet to be proven to us that the word, "justify" can be used to show forth someone as having been justified. Even the illustration of wisdom being shown as just by her children is short of what most Christians want out of the word “justify" in James 2. There is a difference between saying that wisdom is justified (shown to be just) by her children and, wisdom is justified (shown to have been justified) by her children. It seems the best we can do with James 2 is to say that Abraham was "shown to be just" by offering Isaac up on the altar. It may be stretching things too far to say that Abraham was "shown to have been justified" when he offered Isaac.

One can do just things and be called righteous without being declared justified by God. Many just and righteous acts are performed by people who are not justified by God. If this be the case, then as wisdom was shown to be wise by the children she produced (Matthew 11:19), likewise Abraham and Rahab showed their righteousness in the work each one did. They did not, however, show that they had been justified.[2] It may be foreign to the context of James to introduce the idea of declared justification so prominent in the thinking of Paul. When Paul uses the term "Justification," he couches it in contrast to any hope  of being acquitted before God on the basis of individual merit. Paul's burden is to clean out the leaven of self- righteousness and look only to the finished work of Jesus on the cross for justification declared by God. James may be using the term "justification" in an altogether different manner. He might be pressing home the point that justification has an ordinary sense of approval for doing the right thing. It may be that James wishes to show that dead faith does not warrant justification of a person in a non-technical sense of the term. It may be that James is interested in the exhibition of  faith by works for a justification readily apparent for all to see. One thing seems certain: for James to say that  Abraham was declared to be justified before God on his merit would be a flat contradiction to what Paul says about  Abraham in Romans 4. Rather, James might be using the term in a more common fashion to show that Abraham  was shown to be a just person as well as openly justified by exhibition of his works in virtue of his faith. Yet, James  is quick to point out that the Scripture was fulfilled which reckoned Abraham as righteous on the basis of faith apart from any works (cf., James 2:23 and Romans 4:1-4).

The above conclusion may not satisfy some who are very concerned to keep works away from justification even in a demonstrative sense. We, too, want to avoid anything which would take away from justification by faith alone. However, this does not warrant translating the two aorist passives and one present passive verb form of dikaiöo (justify) as "shown to have been justified." It is absolutely clear from the context of James 2 that both Abraham and Rahab were in some sense either shown to be just or justified by their works. It must be pointed out that the word "shown" is not in the passage. The passage says,

"Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only." (James 2:24)

It does not say, "Ye see then how that by works a man is shown to have been justified, and not by faith only."

We are more comfortable with the idea of "shown to be just" by their works, from the verb justified. But, as it stands, it seems too far-fetched to say Rahab and Abraham were shown to have been justified by their works! There seems to be simply too much of an emphasis on what these two did for approval in the context to warrant this sense for the word "justify."

Certainly there is a demonstration exhibited here, but it is a demonstration of faith rather than righteousness that permeates the entire chapter. What is demonstrated in James 2 is the faith of Abraham and Rahab. The demonstration is by works. These works are in turn approved by God as a demonstration of faith.

What then of the word "justify" as used by James? Does he contradict Paul? How do we harmonize these two men chosen by God to write His revelation to us? Perhaps another way of understanding James, without doing damage to either Paul or James, is to give up trying to make the word "justify" mean the same thing every time it is used 'in the Scriptures. We might be better off allowing the context to determine the range of meaning when trying to harmonize the various texts of the Bible. As an example, let's start with Paul.

It appears that Paul needs to be reconciled with himself before we can bring James into the picture! In Romans 2:13 we read the following from the great apostle:

“For not the hearers of the law [are] just (dikaios, as an adjective) before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified (dikaiothesontai, future passive of verb)."

How shall we sort out the future tense of the word "justify" as well as the close connection it has with poietai nomou (doers of law)? How is it that the doers of law will be "justified," and one chapter later, in the same book written by the same author, we read:

"Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law (ergon nomou)." (Romans 3:28)

Some have wanted to make Romans 2:13 hypothetical and realistic. In other words, if someone could do the law perfectly (and no one can) then they would be justified. The idea is that Paul is holding forth what it would take to be justified by the law if someone wanted to try it that way.

But it seems obvious that the context does not lend itself to a hypothetical law-keeping justification. Even if it did, would this not run counter to Scripture's overwhelming defense against works-based justification? Are we really to believe that Paul is introducing a possibility that if someone were to keep the whole law perfectly that he would be able to earn justification? The flow of the argument of Romans 2, along with Scripture's overriding emphasis on the righteousness of Christ alone for our justification (cf., Galatians 3:21), help us to view the verse differently.

In light of the tension, could it be that Paul has in mind a future eschatological justification which is more of an approval of our good works as proof of our judicial justification? Could it be that Paul is using justification in Romans 2:13 as James uses it? This is no denial of the biblical teaching of a justification which is based entirely upon the work of Christ. We believe in His righteousness imputed to us for our justification before the law of God. We believe in a legal transaction whereby the condemned one is justified or acquitted based upon another paying the penalty. To this conclusion, Paul labors and we have believed with all of our hearts that Christ stands in the place of our condemnation and His righteousness alone is the ground of our justification. But, along with the constitutive aspect of justification there is a change, not only in the status of a sinner, but in the disposition of the sinner, as well. This dispositional change shows itself in righteous acts which we call good works. It appears that both James and Paul do not hesitate to apply the word "justification" when God approves a sinner on the basis of these good works. The doer of the law will be justified! Abraham was justified when he offered Isaac on the altar! Yet, both of these justification notifications stem from a previous judicial or forensic understanding. In the case of Abraham, he was already justified, by faith alone, in Genesis 15:6 when he is said to have believed God. The offering of his son in Genesis 22 served to, in effect, justify the justification. James picks up Genesis 22 as a true approval by God, but James' use of justification does not stand in the place of forensic justification. The blood of Christ still had to be applied to Abraham for his judicial justification despite both his faith and the completion of his faith by his good works.

It appears James uses justification in a way that does not speak directly of Christ's righteousness imputed for justification. Rather, it is a justification in fulfillment of what God had already declared for Abraham on the basis of faith.

Paul also uses Abraham, but he cites the same text (Genesis 15:6) to eliminate a law righteousness. It is Paul who uses the tern "justification" in a judicial sense almost exclusively to rid the Church of works righteousness (cf., Romans 4). But Paul does not flinch from joining with James in concert to the testimony that Judicial justification establishes the law (cf., Romans 3:3 1). Also, judicially justified sinners become doers of the law. The judicially justified are those who do not seek a justification by law, but instead live out their lives by faith working through love (cf., Galatians 5: 1-6). This corresponds to the law of liberty (James 1: 12), along with the royal law of James 2. In fact, the doers of the Word in James I are the doers of law in the context of Romans 2! In both cases these are sinners who have been redeemed and justified on the basis of the shed blood of Christ. The doers of the law are not forgetful hearers, but effectual doers! Does this dovetail with the remarkable words of Paul in Romans 8?

"For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit." (Romans 8:3,4)

The upshot of all this is that justification does refer to an acquitted status before God as Paul labors to prove in his never ending diatribe against works or law justification. In every context where this is the burden, the Scriptures shine through to protect the veracity of God in demanding the sacrifice of His Son so that God might be both justified and justifier of those having faith in Christ.

However, the term "justify" may have other uses when it comes to God's approval of good works accomplished in a state of judicial justification. This would be the way in which James uses this term. In addition, Paul is not afraid to speak of an eschatological justification centering around the doers of the law. These doers of the law are those circumcised of the heart who, being in Christ, are at the end of the law for righteousness; but nevertheless will be "justified" by God as the fruit of His Spirit manifests itself.

We then see justification as a declaration by God that a sinner is cleared of all charges against him on the basis  of Christ's death (cf., Colossians 2:13,14). We see also that justify describes the approval of a sinner based on his good works which prove that faith is genuine. We again see that there will be a justification of those who are doers of the law by virtue of being in-lawed to Christ. The particular context will determine the nuance which the term must carry.

Roman Catholic scholars deny the judicial and forensic, declarative/constitutive definition of justification. The result is an entire religious system designed to keep people justified by their good works. To the Catholic, justify means to make righteous and then justify the sinner continuously on the basis of good works done in the state of righteousness. For them justification is ongoing and ultimately results in a final justification when one has accumulated enough good works or has been martyred.

The Romanist would do better to understand that the term "justification," like salvation, is used differently in different contexts, depending on what the writer is trying to prove. With Paul, in the first part of Romans, he is proving that the doers of the law, those circumcised in the heart (cf., Romans 2:13-29) will ultimately be justified before God. This is in contrast to the Jew who thought he had it made simply because he sat in the synagogue and heard the Word! In the rest of the doctrinal section of Romans, beginning with chapter 3 and going through chapter 11, Paul explains why neither Jew nor Gentile could ever expect to be justified by law-keeping. In James, the burden is to prove the man by an approval of his faith. From the first chapter of James to the end of James the issue is the soundness of a person's faith. Only a man who has a faith which produces good works can expect to be justified before God. Who are those who will have this approval? Are they the ones who endeavor to be "Justified by works of the law?" No!

"For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed [is] every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, [it is] evident: for, The just shall live by faith." (Galatians 3: 10,11)

We say "No" to those who are willing to drop the yoke of the Mosaic Law and substitute their own law-keeping for justification, whether they be the Roman Catholic or the evangelical Legalist:

"Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?" (Galatians 3:3)

"Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness." (Romans 4:4,5)

Neither of the above will be justified. Only those circumcised in the heart by the Spirit of God to see the need for a justification based solely on the merits of Jesus Christ will be justified both now and forever. Scripture presents a picture of the sinner being justified by faith in the work of Christ alone apart from any works of law or obediences.  This faith is pregnant with good works which are brought forth during the life of the sinner to show forth the veracity of his faith. These good works are said to then justify the sinner having been produced from that original position of faith justification. These are not separate "works of merit" that warrant the around of justification. They are rather intricately associated with justification as the fruit of it.

Jonathan Edwards seems to have captured the essence of this elusive construct. In answering the question, "In what way might evangelical obedience be concerned in the affair of forensic justification (Christ's righteousness imputed as the total ground)?", he concludes the following:

"God, in the act of justification, which is passed on a sinner's first believing, has respect to perseverance, as virtually being 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 will follow..."[3]

For Edwards, all future acts of faith and repentance are beheld by God in the first act of faith. The resulting acts of faith and repentance will of necessity follow in time that which occurred at the first act. Edwards seems to be saying that faith, wherein one believes, is indispensable for our justification, yet bears no merit in itself as being a righteous or meritorious ground. Likewise, all future acts of' faith (good works) are nothing more than an extension of our first act and they bear no merit as well. However, they too are indispensable for justification in that they are necessary and conceived as having been performed already in the mind of God.[4]

Thus, Abraham can be said to be justified by faith apart from any works of law. God justifies the ungodly through faith. But also, in that faith, Abraham had works of faith yet future. The example James cites for us is the offering up of Isaac. James says that this justified Abraham. It is true! The justified man was justified as his first faith bore fruit to faithful acts. The original ground has not changed. The faith so indispensable to the fruition of that around is still spilling out fruit that  justifies.

The doers of the law will be justified. All those who are justified will do the law. How? They are in unity with Christ and by faith they fulfill the requirements of the law. This faith is productive of the fruit that was anticipated in the original ground of justification. It is very much analogous to forgiveness. The fact of original forgiveness gives us impetus to pursue ongoing forgiveness. We are forgiven completely by virtue of being in Christ via our first act of faith. Yet we seek forgiveness as we sin, i.e., sin-repentance-forgiveness. Likewise, we are justified in our first act of faith and yet we are justified by its evidence as we bear the fruit of being in Christ.

In summary, we have examined different ways of understanding how James and Paul must be brought together without contradiction.

We may understand justify in a demonstrative sense as meaning that Abraham was shown to have been justified by his works. Works are evidences of a declared state.

We may understand justify in a demonstrative sense as meaning that Abraham was shown to be just by his works. Works are evidences of a changed man.

We may understand justify in a non-technical sense of the term as meaning Abraham was justified by his works (a justification of his justification). Works are viewed by all demanding the verdict of justification.

We may understand justify in the sense that works are indispensable as is faith when viewed together as the fruit of justification. Neither are the ground, but it may be said that both are contemplated in the equation as faith is to union with Christ as the ground, and works is the fruit of the ground. Regardless of the way in which the construct develops, there can be no relationship between faith, repentance and works which detracts from the absolutely unambiguous testimony of God that the righteousness of Christ ever remains the ground and righteousness of our justification. We wish to end this discourse in total agreement with Dr. Edward's insight into the seriousness of the matter. To be wrong on justification is to embrace another gospel which Dr. Edwards calls "the opposite scheme."

"The opposite scheme does most directly tend to lead men to trust in their own righteousness for justification, which is a thing fatal to the soul. This is what men are of themselves exceeding prone to do, (and that they are never so much taught the contrary), through the partial and high thoughts they have of themselves, and their exceeding dulness of apprehending any such mystery as our being accepted for the righteousness of another."[5]

[1] For an in-depth discussion of justification defended in this sense see: Westminster Theological Journal, Vol. XLII, Spring 1980, Number 2. Articles written by O. Palmer Robertson and Stanford Reid. There are numerous other writings and commentaries which defend justification in varying ways centered around the “demonstrative” sense of dikaio.

[2] For further reading on this question of the best way to use dikaiöo see my Masters thesis, Professor Norman Shepherd On Justification: A Critique (Dallas Theological Seminary, 1981)

[3] The Works of Jonathan Edwards, (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, © 1979)

[4] Jonathan Edwards points out to us that either the word “faith” or the term “justify” has to be changed in the context of James. He notes that most want to understand James as using faith quite differently than Paul. Could we not say the same for the word "Justify Edwards opts for altering the sense of justify as used by James: "We, on the other hand, suppose that the word justify is to be understood in a different sense than the apostle Paul." Edwards then builds a case for justification by works, here in James, as meaning the evidences of justification. This would be in harmony with the demonstrative sense of justification as showing Abraham to be righteous: "It is by works that our cause appears to be good..." "And that we should understand the apostle, of works justifying as an evidence..."

[5] The Works of Jonathan Edwards, pg. 653