Justification in Paul and James
George W. Knight III
In the letters of the apostle Paul, the doctrine of justification is that wonderful biblical teaching that God accepts us as righteous in Christ and forgives our sins when we receive him by faith alone. The Westminster Shorter Catechism states this teaching quite succinctly and accurately when it says, "Justification is an act of God's free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone" (Q. 33).
The apostle Paul refutes those who erroneously think that God saves people by taking into consideration the good things that they themselves do, in addition to their faith. He does so over and over again:
Romans 3:20-22"No one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe." Paul says that righteousness comes to us from God himself, apart from keeping the law, and comes only to those who believe in Jesus Christ.
Romans 3:28"For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law." The apostle reaffirms that one is justified apart from observing the law.
Romans 4:3-5"What does the Scripture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.' Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness." The apostle states that Abraham believed God, and that God credited it to him as righteousness. He states further that works earn wages, but that God declares a wicked person justified because that person has trusted in him.
Romans 4:13-14"It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless." Paul declares that the promise of salvation that was given by God to Abraham was not received by keeping the law, but by exercising faith.
Galatians 2:16"A man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified." Three times over, Paul makes it clear that the way to be justified is to put our faith in Jesus Christ, not to do good works. Indeed, "by observing the law no one will be justified." Notice that Paul places faith and the observance of the law in opposition to each other as means of salvationit is one or the other, not both together.
Galatians 3:11"Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, 'The righteous will live by faith.' " Paul declares that his argument for justification by faith is grounded in the Old Testament.
Philippians 3:9"... and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christthe righteousness that comes from God and is by faith." We need God's righteousnessindeed, Christ's righteousnessand this is given to us through faith in Jesus Christ, who is our righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30; 1 John 2:1).
It is quite clear from these and other passages that the law declares us to be sinners in need of God's justification, and that faith, and faith alone, is the instrument through which God brings the death, resurrection, and righteousness of Christ to bear upon those who believe, and thus declares them righteous and justified.
Scripture speaks of this act as the imputation of Christ's righteousness to believers. That is, his righteousness is reckoned to their account, even though they are only beginning to experience the imparting of Christ's righteousness to their inner being. While they are yet only forgiven sinners (it is "God who justifies the wicked," Rom. 4:5), God declares them righteous even for the righteousness of Christ imputed to them and received by faith alone.
What about James?
Some might object that we have not taken into consideration the teaching of James, who declares quite clearly: "You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone" (James 2:24). Yes, James's remarks are as true as Paul's. To understand them better, let's see them in their full context (James 2:14-26):
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, 'Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
But someone will say, 'You have faith; I have deeds.'
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe thatand shudder.
You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, 'Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,' and he was called God's friend. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.
In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
How then can we see the teachings of Paul and James as one consistent whole? Paul says that we are "justified by faith apart from observing the law" (Rom. 3:28), but James says that "a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone" (James 2:24). Surely on the face of these two statements there is an apparent contradiction. But since both Paul and James are writing under the inspiration of God, they must be writing about different situations. Perhaps they are using the words justify and faith in different ways. Let's look again at the two writers with this as a possible solution.
Paul is expounding the great promise of God contained in Genesis 15:6. "What does the Scripture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.' Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness" (Rom. 4:3-5).
James, on the other hand, is writing to those who claim to believe, but give no evidence that their life has been changed by the salvation that God gives to believers. Notice how James states that at the beginning of his argument: "What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?" (James 2:14). James is seeking to show that true faithfaith that God has already credited to one (notice how James also quotes Genesis 15:6 in James 2:23)manifests itself in doing good. James says that Abraham truly believed, and thus that God had truly reckoned him as righteous, because Abraham demonstrated the reality of his faith (and salvation) by obeying God (James 2:21, 24).
Words with Different Meanings
We can see this difference more clearly if we recognize the different ways in which Paul and James use the same terms. When Paul speaks of someone being "justified," he has in view God's pronouncement that a sinner is righteous. But when James uses that same word, he has in view the demonstration of a person's previously justified state. That is, one demonstrates by his obedience what God has already declared about him (James 2:23, quoting Genesis 15:6).
Put another way, James is using the word justify with the meaning "to demonstrate or show to be righteous, or to vindicate oneself." This meaning for the Greek word is also found in Luke 16:15 and 10:28-29, as well as in Matthew 11:19, Luke 7:35, and Romans 3:4. In Luke 16:15, Jesus says to the Pharisees, "You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts." Similarly, we read in Luke 10:29, "But he wanted to justify himself."
James is saying that one can demonstrate before men (or can vindicate or justify oneself, 2:24) that one has been declared righteous by God. One can do this by doing good works, just as Abraham did by sacrificing his son Isaac (2:21; cf. Gen. 22:9-12) long after God had declared him righteous. James says that this later episode demonstrated God's declaration in Genesis 15:6 to be true and fulfilled (James 2:23).
When Paul speaks of "faith," he means real and genuine trust in God. But James means by "faith" something that must be demonstrated to be real in one's life. He is dealing with those who seem to express their acceptance of the gospel, but really have no true faith or trust. Thus, the demons can say they believe, but their so-called faith and any other faith without works is useless (James 2:19-20). At least twice, in verses 18 and 26, James asks those who claim they have faith to demonstrate a genuine faith, rather than a dead one, by doing good works. This is something with which Paul surely agrees (see 2 Cor. 13:5; Gal. 5:19-24).
Works Manifest True Faith
Thus, the words of Paul do not contradict the words of James. Paul also argues that true faith manifests itself in real obedience. He says in Romans 6:1-2, "What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?"
And Paul also speaks of works in the same way as James when he says in Ephesians 2:10, "For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." But he states this great truth, in accord with James, after he has denied that works have any part in our salvation: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faithand this not from yourselves, it is the gift of Godnot by works, so that no one can boast" (Eph. 2:8-9).
Thus, Paul and James do not in any way contradict each another, because they are using words with different meanings and are making different points. We can confidently affirm that James's words do not contradict the clear teaching of Paul that we are saved and justified by faith, apart from and without the works of the law. Indeed, James himself says that God had already credited his own righteousness to Abraham because Abraham had believed him (James 2:23).
James's point is that Abraham's good deeds, done as an already saved man, and not to obtain salvation from God, demonstrated or showed his justification to be true and real.
It is only in Christ that God manifests his justice, both being just and being able to justify us sinners. We read of this great truth in Romans 3:21-26:
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement [a propitiation], through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunishedhe did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
Paul asks how God could have forgiven sins in the past and not punish people for them. The answer for those sins and for our sins is that God punishes them in Jesus Christ. Thus, God is not withdrawing the statement that the soul that sins must die. Rather, he is having his Son die for that soul and thus fulfill the law's demands.
We see this truth also in Romans 4:25, where Paul says that Christ "was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification." What we needed to do to fulfill God's law, God did for us in his Son, punishing our sins in his death and providing our righteousness in his obedient life and resurrection. Thus we read again in 2 Corinthians 5:21 that God "made him [Jesus Christ] who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."
Justification can be received only through faith because it is only through faith that we receive Christ's righteousness, as Paul says in Philippians 3:9, "and be found in him [Jesus Christ], not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christthe righteousness that comes from God and is by faith."
Let us summarize. We are saved and justifiedthat is, all our sins are forgiven and we are declared righteous by Godwhen we trust in Jesus Christ and have his righteousness credited to our account. We lay our sins on Christ, and he bears the punishment for them, so that God forgives us forever. He grants, or imputes, to us his righteous obedience, and we are regarded as clothed in his righteousness and immediately declared by God to be justified. We trust God, and he saves us. This is God's act of justification. And all this happens apart from any good deeds that we may have done: God "saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy" (Titus 3:5). And we receive all this by faith, as God has given us a new heart and an ability to trust in Christ.
When we exercise saving faith, God also transforms us within and throughout, by the righteousness of Christ imparted to us to make us holy. This is called sanctification. It begins with Christ's righteousness being placed within us, and it increases as we live out that righteousness by trusting and obeying God. God justifies the ungodly and the wicked, and he makes them holy as he sanctifies them. Only in this way does God save meand you!
The author is a teacher at Matthews OPC in Matthews, N.C., and an adjunct professor at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He also serves on three committees of the General AssemblyHome Missions, Loan Fund, and Ecumenicity. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 2001.