You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone (James 2:24, LEB).

Some readers, looking at this verse, have come to the conclusion that James is teaching that our Justification, or being made right before God, depends upon our obedience and good works. This conclusion is problematic, because it would conflict with Paul’s statement that “a person to be justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:28, LEB),[1] thus creating a theological contradiction between the two biblical authors.

But are James and Paul really at odds with one another? Not at all, for Paul and James have two different concerns. Paul’s concern is salvation, to teach how someone may be made right before God. James is teaching how someone can show they have true faith. They both use Abraham as their example, showing that he was justified before God by his faith in God’s promises, and by being willing to obey God even when it seems hard to do so (cf. Genesis 22), his descendants and everyone else who reads his story can see the genuineness of Abraham’s faith.[2]

Also, although they both use the verb “justify” (gk. Dikaioō), they are using the word in two different senses. First, there is the “forensic” use of the word, which is “to be declared righteous before God” This is the sense in which Paul uses the word. But the word “justify” can also mean “vindicate.” This sense is attested in Luke 7:35, which says that “wisdom is justified [edikaiōthē] by her children.” Greek scholars and linguists agree that this is the sense in which James is using the verb.[3]

What does this mean? It means there is no contradiction between James and Paul. Both teach different aspects of biblical truth—one teaching on salvation, and one on the Christian life. But those two aspects of biblical truth are in perfect harmony when understood correctly.

Endnotes

[1] For an explanation of the meaning of this verse, see my other article, “Being Justified Before God,” https://nimcanada.org/2017/09/09/being-justified-before-god

[2] The Roman Catholic New Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Raymond E. Brown (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990) agrees with this understanding. Commenting on James 2, it states: “As is clear from context, this does not mean that genuine faith is insufficient for justification, but that faith unaccompanied by works is not genuine. There is thus no basic disagreement of James with Paul, for whom faith ‘works through love’ (Gal 5:6). . . . The most satisfactory hypothesis is that James seeks to correct a current perverted understanding of Pauline teaching on justification by faith, one that would, unlike genuine Pauline doctrine, make no moral demands on the believer” (913).

[3] In Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996) two separate entries for these two uses of δικαόω. With regards to Romans 3:28, among other places, the verb is used to mean, “the act of clearing someone of transgression—‘to acquit, to set free, to remove guilt, acquittal’” (56:34), whereas in James 2:25, Louw and Nida note that the verb here means “to demonstrate that something is morally right—‘to show to be right, to prove to be right’” (88:16).

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