James teaches justification by works in James 2:20-26. In order to bring his point home James uses two familiar examples from the Old Testament: Abraham and Rahab. In speaking of these two examples we find a phrase that has caused many scholars much discussion and even resulted in some classifying James as contradictory to the rest of scripture. James states clearly that Abraham and Rahab were “justified by their works.” How are we to resolve this seeming inconsistency with Paul’s clear teaching of justification by faith apart from works (See Romans 4: 5, Eph 2:8)? At first glance it seems that there is no way around James and Paul’s statements. Paul is saying one is justified by faith and James is saying one is justified by works. However, a deeper study of this text will see that Paul and James are not in contradiction but instead complement each other.
The key to understanding Paul and James is their use of the word justified. It is important to understand that words do not always carry one wooded definition but are capable of semantic ranges. That is, words can have more than one meaning. This is the case with justification. When the Apostle Paul uses the word justification he means God’s declaration that a believing sinner stands righteous before him. However, justification can also mean “to vindicate” or “to prove” or “demonstrate” something to be true or just. Let’s take a look at a few passages of scripture that use “justify in the latter sense:
• Luke 10:29
In Luke 11:19 a lawyer came to Jesus to put him to the test by asking “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asks the man what he thought the law stated and the man responded by quoting the Shema. Jesus tells the man to go and do this and he would live. The next verse is what I want to point out. Verse 29 says “But he, desiring to justify himself said to Jesus who is my neighbor?” The word “justify” here is the same word we find in both James and Romans. However, this man was not using the word justify here in the sense of making himself righteous before God rather, he desired to “show himself righteous” before others who were listening.
• Luke 16:15
A similar passage is found in Luke 16:15 wherein Jesus says of the Pharisees “you are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts.” Again, justify here is to be taken as a demonstration before men not a legal declaration before God.
• Matthew 11:19
Matthew 11:19 Jesus says “Wisdom is justified by her deeds.” Jesus is saying here that wisdom will be proved true by observing what it produces.
• Psalm 51:4
Finally, in Psalm 51:4 David writes concerning his sinful actions: Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. David meant that God would be shown righteous in his words.
In all of the above passages the word justified is defined as proof or a demonstration of righteousness. This is also the way I believe James is using the word justified. The only way we can be sure is by the context.
The immediate context most surely seems to indicate that justification is referring to a demonstration of one’s profession of faith. Look again at verse 18. “Show me your faith apart from works and I will show you my faith by my works.” This clearly indicates that works is something that is shown or demonstrated as proof of a true faith. James in essence is saying “you have faith well then prove it!” As an example of someone demonstrating their faith James refers to the great man of faith; Abraham. We read in verses 20-24 “You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father 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 considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.”It is important to realize that when Paul used Abraham to prove that one is declared righteous in God’s sight by faith he had in mind a faith that was living and active. However James is writing to a group of people who see faith as only some simple proclamation detached from any type of good works. Therefore, James uses Abraham and the incident with his son Isaac in Gen 22 as an example of faith being demonstrated by one’s actions. This is why James writes in verse 22 “you see that faith was active along with his works and faith was completed by his works.” The word completed here means that Abraham’s works were the fulfillment of his true faith. In other words James is not saying that because of what Abraham did he was declared righteous before God. Rather, Abraham’s actions proved that his faith was genuine! This is clearly seen in the Gen 22 Narrative when God says to Abraham in verse 12 “now I know that you fear God.” God knew because Abraham proved it to him!