Justification: Paul vs. James?

The key to the Paul-vs.-James difficulty is that each uses the verb “to justify” (dikaio) in different but legitimate ways.

Uniformly, the Reformers noted that the Bible occasionally uses the same word that is translated “to justify” in both a general and a technical sense. The context of James 2:14–26 demands that “to justify” be used in the general sense as opposed to the Pauline technical sense. James is arguing against “dead” faith, which is simple intellectual assent with no real trust in Christ or accompanying good works. This “dead” faith will not save.

 

Christians throughout the ages have noticed that Paul and James, at the word level, use the verb “to justify” (dikaio) differently relative to “faith” and “works.” Paul writes, “One is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Rom. 3:28). James writes, “A person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). Since God is the ultimate Author of both Romans and James, this cannot be a concept-level contradiction. But how do we put these two verses together?

In the 1500s, portions of the Roman Catholic Church were insisting that the verb “to justify” is used in the exact same way in both Paul and James. Given this and other assumptions, “to justify” includes infusing righteousness into the believer. This understanding is also intimately connected to believers’ works’ being partly meritorious, to purgatory, and to possessing no assurance of salvation until the final judgment. Frankly, this understanding did violence to both Paul and James. Unfortunately, this wrong view was codified by the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Trent in 1547.

Contrary to the Roman Catholic view, the Reformers insisted that “to justify” means to declare something/someone righteous. And more specifically, Paul often used the word in a technical manner, with a paragraph of information attached to a word though not necessarily given every time he uses the term. In the full technical sense, Paul used “to justify” to mean that God declares (sinful) men righteous, not based on their own merit/works but on the merit/work of Christ (i.e., the righteousness of Christ). The only instrument by which one obtains this justification is faith in the person and work of Christ. Yes, as Paul elsewhere points out, a true Christian from his love for God and neighbor will do good works (Gal.5:6; Eph. 2:10; 1 Thess. 1:3), but these are an evidence of true faith, not the meritorious ground of one’s justification.

But how did the Reformers explain James’ use of “to justify” in their responses to the Roman Catholics? Does not James say that one is “justified by works and not by faith alone”? Uniformly, the Reformers noted that the Bible occasionally uses the same word that is translated “to justify” in both a general and a technical sense. The context of James 2:14–26 demands that “to justify” be used in the general sense as opposed to the Pauline technical sense. James is arguing against “dead” faith, which is simple intellectual assent with no real trust in Christ or accompanying good works. This “dead” faith will not save. He then gives biblical examples (Abraham and Rahab) to conclude that true, saving faith will evidence itself with good works. Hence, the general sense of “justify” as used by James could be correctly understood in modern English as “demonstrate.” That is, a person’s true faith is demonstrated by their works.

But what is the linguistic connection between “to demonstrate” and “to declare righteous” even for the general sense? Further, how are James’ general sense and Paul’s technical sense related? The Bible actually uses “justify” in three related senses. For the remainder of this article, I want to explain the three senses of “justify” with the goal to increase the reader’s understanding of “justify” in both Paul and James.

In the Greek New Testament and in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament), the verb dikaio has the root meaning of “to declare righteous,” which is traditionally and accurately translated as “to justify” (the cognate groups of right/righteous/righteousness [Germanic] and just/justify/justification [Latin] are equivalent). I prefer to think of the verb “to justify” as having three “ascending” meanings in the Bible. That is, meaning number 1 is generic; meaning number 2 includes meaning number 1; and meaning number 3, the most technical use of the term, includes numbers 1 and 2.

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