Does James Contradict Paul's Teaching On “Faith Alone”? (3 OF 3)
Perhaps the main point of controversy concerning these two famous passages centers around the two verses we introduced in Part 1. Here they are again:
“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24)
“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (Romans 3:28)
In Part 1, my aim was to show that James is writing to a group of believers while Paul is writing with a broader audience in mind. In Part 2, I argued that James is talking about a particular “kind” of faith, while Paul does not introduce this distinction. In this post I propose the following hypothesis:
JAMES AND PAUL DO NOT USE THE TERM “JUSTIFIED” IN THE SAME WAY.
Many words can have multiple meanings (i.e. semantic range). Take, for instance, the word “rock”. It can be used to refer to a stone, a style of music, a piece of ice, a diamond, or the way one might move a baby’s cradle back and forth (just to give a few examples). In order to identify the intended use of the word, it is important to consider the context.
Likewise, the word translated “justified” (Greek: dikaioō) can be used in different ways.
“Justification” is a legal term that is often used in the New Testament to refer to the act by which God establishes one’s right-standing before God. But the verb justify can be used in both determinative and declarative ways. In other words, justify can either mean to DETERMINE one’s right-standing, or to DECLARE one’s right-standing. These uses may sound similar, but the distinction is critical:
One PERFORMS a legal act…the other PROCLAIMS it.
One ACCOMPLISHES redemption…the other ACKNOWLEDGES it.
One PARDONS the guilty party…the other ANNOUNCES the verdict.
So when Paul says, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (Romans 3:28), he does so in the context of determining a sinner’s right-standing before God. God grants justification to the sinner on the basis of faith “apart from works”.
However, most people—when they read the word “justified” in the New Testament—assume the determinative use—and for good reason: That is typically how the term is used. But the Bible also provides examples of the declarative use. Consider how Luke uses this same word:
“The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.” (Luke 7:34-35)
Luke uses “justified” in it’s declarative sense. He is saying that every time a wise person acts rightly, wisdom is declared good (confirmed/vindicated/validated). Whenever a person acts wisely, he acknowledges/proclaims/announces the virtue of wisdom. (Consider also, Romans 2:13 and Matthew 12:33-37).
So how does James use the word “justified”? Let’s view how James uses this term regarding Abraham:
Both James and Paul appeal to Abraham as an example of their position(s). In fact, they both quote the same passage in Genesis:
“And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6)
In order to understand the context of this important verse, we must examine the entire passage:
“After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.’ And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: ‘This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.’ And he brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:1-6)
God made an unconditional promise to Abraham to give him a son and to multiply his descendants. Then, without doing anything (i.e. no works), Abraham “believed the Lord” and he was counted righteous by his faith in God’s promise alone. At the time of this declaration, Abraham had not demonstrated any works by which he could be called “justified” (in either use of that word).
But James does NOT cite THIS PASSAGE as his example for Abraham’s justification. Instead he appeals to an entirely different story:
“Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?” (James 2:21)
The story he cites is from Genesis 22, which takes place 20+ years after God counted Abraham as righteous. If James is using “justified” in its determinative sense, then he must conclude that the statement made in Genesis 15:6 was untrue until more than two decades later, when Abraham finally secured his righteousness before God by his works (namely, offering Isaac).
But it seems clear by the context of these passages that James is using “justified” in its declarative sense. In other words, Abraham’s right-standing before God is accomplished by his faith alone, and is later confirmed/announced/proclaimed by his demonstration of that faith in his willingness to sacrifice his only son.
As I have argued, James is writing to encourage right Christian living, and to distinguish between true faith and dead faith. And in this final part, I have shown that the context of James chapter 2 (and the citations from Genesis) imply that James uses “justified” in its declarative sense. Therefore, James and Paul do not contradict each other, but rather are in full agreement on how a person must be saved, and how a Christian ought to live.
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