Understanding James on Justification
Some Christians have struggled with James’s use of the term, justification, particularly questioning whether there is a possible contradiction with the doctrine of justification as taught in the Pauline epistles. One of Paul’s clearest statements of the doctrine of justification is found in the following verse:
Romans 4:5 But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.
Paul teaches that justification is by faith alone, and not by any works.
James uses the term justification in the following instances:
James 2:20 But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? 22 Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?
James 2:23 And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. 24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. 25 Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?
It appears on first glance that Paul and James may have an apparent contradiction, considering that Paul teaches justification without works, and James teaches justification by works. How can they be reconciled?
First of all, let’s define justification. It means a declaration of righteousness. Now, there is the object of justification, he who is declared righteous, and there is the subject of justification, that is, the judge making the declaration of righteousness. These things must be considered from the context in which the word is used. I’m convinced that Paul and James are treating different subjects of justification. Paul is treating justification before God’s tribunal, and James is treating justification before the court of man. Why do I say this? They say as much:
Paul: Romans 3:28
Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. 29 Is he the God of the Jews only? is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also:
James: 2:18 shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.
Note that in the above quotations, Paul is referencing God’s declaration of righteousness, and James is referring to showing “me” and “thee” my faith, i. e. another person, who will then make the declaration of righteousness based on the evidence of good works.
Paul and James then do not contradict on the doctrine of justification. They are simply looking at it from different angles. Paul treats God’s declaration based on the reality of justification. James treats man’s declaration based on the evidence of justification, which is good works.
In addition, Paul elsewhere teaches the same doctrine that James does, that good works are a necessary fruit of justification. Paul no more contradicts James on justification than he does himself when he writes,
Romans 8:13 For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.