03 June 2017

James and Justification

Portrait of Martin Luther
in Wamckow church.
Photo by Niteshift
in cooperation with
(CC BY-SA 3.0).
In the New Testament James 2:24 says this: You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (NRSV) (This is the only verse in the Bible where we find the term faith alone.) Some Roman Catholics and Eastern Christians claim that the verse clearly rejects the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith alone. In this post I shall demonstrate why James 2:24 certainly does not reject what we Lutherans believe is truly a biblical doctrine.

What is the Context?

Beginning at James 2:21, St. James asserts that Abraham was "justified" by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar. Then, in verses 22 and 23, he elaborates by saying Abraham's faith and said works were active together and that his faith's motion was brought to completion by the works. In other words, Abraham showed his faith by his works when he obediently offered his son on the altar. Moreover, what Abraham did fulfilled or confirmed Genesis 15:5–6 by demonstrating that he truly did believe God's promise that his descendants [through Isaac] would be numerous like the stars. Next, James says in verse 24 that that is how a person is "justified" by works. Then, in verse 25, he cites the story of Rahab as another example to prove his assertion. Finally, he concludes the chapter by saying in verse 26 that faith without works is dead just as the body without the spirit is dead. James' maxim, "faith without works is dead" is related to what he wrote in verse 1: My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? (NRSV)

It is very apparent that the second chapter of James' Epistle advises readers that genuine faith should induce appropriate works. Moreover, such works are evidence in the sight of God and people that faith is really held. Contextually, James 2:24 is not about being justified in the evangelical sense (absolved and accounted as righteous for the sake of Christ), rather, it is about being proved true of faith through its works. This is one verse in the Bible where the word justified means "vindicated."

The Many Definitions of Justified

  • In Job 40:8, justified (Heb. tiṣedaq) means "vindicated."
  • In Luke 7:29, justified (Gk. edikaiôsan) means "acknowledged."
  • In Acts 13:39, justified (Gk. dikaioutai) means "absolved."
  • In Galatians 3:8, justify (Gk. dikaioi) means "account as righteous."

We are absolved and accounted as righteous by faith alone. However, we are vindicated, i.e., proved true by works and not by faith alone.

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