The word ‘justify’ (δικαιω) and it’s various forms is used several different ways in Scripture. Context always determines how it is used. It is true that the majority of Pauline uses of ‘justify’ have to do with the legal (forensic) standing that men have before God. Jesus, however, uses the word in Luke 7:35 to denote evidence, when he said of His own works bearing evidence to who He was, “wisdom is justified by her children.” In other words, Jesus said, “I am shown to be who I am and who I say I am by the works that I do.” This seems to be the exact same usage as that found in James 2.
I have often taken comfort in the fact that the Apostle Peter said that Apostle Paul wrote “some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15-16). I don’t take comfort in this as a license for misinterpreting Scripture; rather, I take comfort in the fact that an Apostle did not find everything in Scripture easy to interpret or understand. The Westminster Confession of Faith, picking up on Peter’s statement, suggests: “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all…” (WCF 1.7). It may just as rightly be said that James, the brother of our Lord, wrote some things that are hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction. Not the least of these is the “less clear” passage found in James 2:14-26–with a specific focus on verse 21. What does James mean when he says, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?” How do we understand this in light of what the Apostle Paul says about justification in Romans 4:2-5, where we read:
“For if Abraham was justified by works he has something to boast about–but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness (Rom. 4:2-5).”
There are essentially four ways interpreters have sought to interpret James 2:14-26. Either (1) James and Paul are contradicting one another, or (2) James and Paul are teaching that our faith in Christ together with our Spirit-wrought good works form the basis of a final justification (i.e. the Roman Catholic position) or (3) James is speaking about an eschatological dimension of justification–in so much as believers are openly vindicated in accord with their good works, or (4) Paul is talking about our justification before God and James is talking about our justification before men. It is this fourth view that seems to fit in the exegetical context the best. According to this interpretation, Paul is talking about justifying faith in the Divine court and James is talking about saving faith as being evidenced in the human court. The following considerations serve to defend this position as the biblical position.
As with everything in the Bible, context is king. Just as the three laws of realty are “location, location, location,” the three laws of biblical interpretation are “context, context, context.” Related to this principles is the Reformation principle of scriptura sui ipsius interpres (i.e. Scripture is its own interpreter). We will only and ever come to a right understanding of James 2:21 when we have first carefully considered it’s immediate context and then the OT context from which James is drawing.
At the beginning of his epistle, James introduces the subject of testing in the life of believers. In chapter 2, the sincerity of faith is in view. Chapter 1 ends with James saying, “Whoever thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue, this one’s religion is useless.” As chapter 2 develops, the idea of evidencing whether or not one has saving faith comes to the forefront. In order for someone to show whether or not they have saving faith, he or she must be tested.
Related to the idea of testing, the context of James 2:21 also carries with it the idea of sincerity with regard to saving faith. This is the flip side of the coin. The pastoral question that James is dealing with is whether or not someone has saving faith vs. a mere intellectual profession of faith (which he essentially calls a demon-faith and a dead-faith). James Gidley helps us better understand the context of James’ use of the word “justified” in 2:21 when he writes:
Some of James’ hearers were using the doctrine of justification by faith alone as a pretext for being complacent about ungodly living. What better way to awaken them than by using words that at first glance seem to be a shocking departure from what they have been taught? James 2 is a bombshell that explodes carnal confidence at its foundation. The complacent can scarcely be moved by anything less.1
All of this leads naturally into the testing and faith-demonstrating of Abraham and Rahab. When we give consideration to James’ statements about Abraham and Rahab, we must first understand something of his rationale for singling out these two figures. Both Abraham and Rahab are singled out to serve as examples of diverse individuals who possessed saving faith. Abraham was a man and Rahab was a woman. In Christ Jesus, there is neither male nor female. Abraham was a Jew and Rahab was a Gentile. There is no distinction between Jew and Gentile in Christ.