Justification in the Bible: a Contradiction?

November 16, 2020—James vs Paul

The point of my previous post was:

Don’t be quick to think you’ve found a contradiction in the Bible. You probably only have a paradox.

Okay, then what about Paul versus James?

Romans 3:28 says:

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

James 2:24 says:

You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

So which is it? By faith or by works?

At first blush this seems pretty difficult. The same Greek word for “justified” was used by both Paul and James. They’re both using this word.

Context is king

Remember that a word’s meaning is determined by its context. Take the word “take” for example. According to this Google search, that word can be used in lots of ways:

  • He leaned forward to take (lay hold of) her hand
  • He took (removed from a particular place) an envelope from his inside pocket
  • He completed a particularly difficult scene in two takes (scenes)
  • The take (an amount gained) from commodity taxation

So if I say “I took it” you won’t immediately know whether I mean “I took it from right under her nose” meaning I stole it, or if I mean “I took it to be inspected” meaning my car can now be registered with the state. You have to keep reading to better understand my meaning.

According to BibleHub, the word that both Paul and James use is Strong’s Greek #1344 δικαιοῦ. However you pronounce that, it means:

To show to be righteous, declare righteous.

As in:

I make righteous, defend the cause of, plead for the righteousness (innocence) of, acquit, justify; hence: I regard as righteous.

So which is it? To show to be righteous, or to declare to be righteous?

It depends on how the word is used.

Used the same way?

There are some interesting things that Paul says about “justification” in the neighborhood of Romans 3:28. I’ll just focus on Romans 4:2:

If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.

Allow me to point out a few things from that verse:

  • If someone is justified by works then they have something to boast about
  • No one has anything to boast about before God
  • Therefore no one is justified before God by works

I’ll just quickly acknowledge that the “works” that Paul is talking about are works of “the Law”, meaning the Mosaic Law. But that includes the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) and the Two Great Commandments (love the Lord with all your heart—Deuteronomy 6:5; and love your neighbor as yourself—Leviticus 19:18). So don’t go looking for an exception for these “Christian” commandments—they’re among the “works” that Paul says don’t justify anyone before God.

There are also some interesting things that James says in the neighborhood of James 2:24.

Take James 2:14—17 for example (emphasis mine, of course):

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

What kind of “faith” is James talking about which is unable to save anyone? He is talking about “that” faith, a so-called faith unaccompanied by works, a dead and lifeless thing that even demons have—and shudder!

Then comes James 2:18:

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.

It’s not as clear to me precisely what kind of works James is talking about. But it doesn’t matter. What’s clear is James throws down the rhetorical gauntlet by challenging his hypothetical opponent to prove their faith to him using any other means than demonstrating their works.

Taken together we can see that James is saying:

  • A living faith is necessarily accompanied by works
  • People (you and me, not God) cannot distinguish claims of faith without inspecting the accompanying works

He then goes on to list several biblical characters whose claims to faith were proven genuine through their works. In that sense they were justified by their works.

James was talking about people demonstrating true living faith and showing righteousness; Paul was talking about God declaring people to be righteous.

The point

Paul and James did not use the word in the same way. There is no contradiction.

The controversy

A bit of controversy has swarmed around these verses for more than 500 years.

I’ll simply point out that Paul said God declares people to be righteous apart from their works (of the Law, which includes the Ten Commandments and other “Christian” things, see above) Romans 4:6. And that God declares people to be righteous who, at the moment of that declaration, are otherwise ungodly Romans 4:5.

If you’re inclined to object to that, please first double-check that you aren’t just re-raising these 2,000 year old objections: Romans 6:1; Romans 6:15.

God’s declaration of righteousness is a free gift that He gives. He is not influenced in any way by the person’s personal merit. And He is completely free and just to declare sinners to be righteous when He credits Jesus’s real righteousness to them.

And God always follows His declaration of righteousness with the progressive work of transforming the sinner into a more and more righteous person through the living, active, working faith that He gives them. Once God starts that work He will complete it Philippians 1:6.

And the Christian never gets to point to anything about himself.