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.
Meaning Number 1
Meaning number 1 is “to declare, show, or demonstrate that something/someone is righteous.” More specifically, it means to declare that certain actions demonstrate the truth of a prior claim. This is how most English speakers use “to justify” in nontheological situations. Before getting to biblical examples, allow me two sports examples. First: “The Yankees’ actions in the World Series justified Bob’s preseason prediction.” Note that even though we say the actions justified the prediction, we really mean that someone’s mind compared Bob’s truth claim (preseason prediction) with the actions/results and declared that they matched, that they are “righteous” in the sense that the prediction and actions agree. Another modern example: “Alabama’s numerous wins over the last several seasons justify the coach’s high salary.” Here there is an implied truth claim—a high salary should go only to a coach who can produce wins. The speaker’s mind compared the salary and the number of wins and concluded that they matched; hence, the salary was justified, it was “declared righteous” because the salary and the record agree.
The Bible states that “wisdom is justified [dikaio ] by her deeds” (Matt. 11:19). This proverb notes that correct truth claims (wisdom) are declared/shown to be “righteous” based on the resulting actions.
James uses meaning number 1. “You see that a person is justified [dikaio ] by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). The truth claim in context is that true or living faith will result in good works, demonstrating that the person is a true believer. James implies that anyone who reads the biblical story should come to this conclusion. Abraham’s willingness to offer up Isaac (James 2:21 // Gen. 22:1–19) occurred many years after Abraham’s faith commitment to God (James 2:23 // Gen. 15:6). Hence, Abraham should be declared-to-be-righteous/shown-to-have-true-faith in the mind of any reader by the fact that his later works were consistent with a true faith.
One final comment about the James passage. James 2:23 says that based on faith, and that alone, Abraham’s believing God “was counted [logizomai] to him as righteousness [dikaiosyn ].” Although not all agree, I view this as conceptually related to Pauline justification. Note that James uses the different verb logizomai as opposed to dikaio . Hence, James sees Abraham as justified in the Pauline sense through faith alone (“Abraham believed God”), although his larger point is that works demonstrate/show/declare that Abraham’s faith was true and living.