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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.
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.
Meaning Number 2
Meaning number 2 of dikaio is to declare that a human being’s actions are judicially/forensically/legally righteous. That is, it means to declare actions in harmony with a law or legal standard as opposed to simply in harmony with any type of truth claim as in meaning number 1. Normally in the Bible, a judge issues this declaration (there were no juries). The judge compares the law and the defendant’s actions. If they match, he declares the defendant righteous. If they do not match, the judge declares the defendant guilty. In modern English, instead of “justified,” we might say that the judge “acquitted” the defendant. Deuteronomy 25:1 is an often-cited example: judges should be “acquitting [dikaio in Septuagint] the innocent and condemning the guilty.” Similarly, “I [God] will not acquit [dikaio in Septuagint] the wicked” (Ex. 23:7). For example, let us assume that someone is accused of deviously moving a property boundary marker. The case is brought to the judge. After all the evidence is presented, the judge determines that the accused did not move the marker and then openly declares the defendant righteous. This use of “to justify” is fairly straightforward. If a person’s actions are in conformity with the standards of the law, the judge declares him righteous; that is, the person is justified by his actions.
Meaning Number 3
Meaning number 3 is to declare that a human being is judicially/forensically/legally righteous meritoriously based on the imputation of the righteousness of Christ; this is received through the instrument of faith and is ultimately all by grace (Rom. 3:24, 28; 4:16; 5:9). Similar to meaning number 2, this use also involves a judge, legal standards, and actions required to meet those standards. However, the judge is the holy God, and the legal standard is moral perfection. On the surface, one would assume that if God were to compare our actions to His moral standard, He would come to the conclusion that all humans should be condemned. Another surface-level complication is that one would expect this evaluation to take place after all the actions have been considered. Yet, Paul says believers are justified—declared righteous permanently—when they first believe, before they have lived out their entire lives (Gal. 2:15–16; see Rom. 8:1). Nonbelievers will receive their official judgment at the end of their lives, but they will be condemned, not declared righteous.
This, in turn, raises two questions: (1) What is the logic for a perfect Judge to declare one righteous in the middle of his life and not wait until the end when all the evidence is in? (2) What is the meritorious basis for a perfect judge to declare a sinner righteous, since a perfect Judge would have to declare the sinner unrighteous if the basis for the judgment were the sinner’s deeds? The glorious solution to both of these “problems” is the same. God declares believers righteous based on the merit of the righteous work of Christ imputed to them. Hence, the meritorious basis is Christ, and since His perfection is the basis, there is no need to wait for our works to be evaluated in our justification.
In sum, the key to the Paul-vs.-James difficulty is that each uses the verb “to justify” (dikaio ) in different but legitimate ways. In Romans 3:28, Paul uses it in the most technical sense; in James 2:24, it is used in the general sense.