"Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?"
"Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only."
(James 2:21 & 24)
What is meant by the phrase “justified by works”? Is this passage teaching that we must perform good works in order to be saved? The answer to the second question is, no, and the answer to the first question is dependent on the answer to a similar question: What does the word “justified” mean? When the typical American Christian reads this passage, he automatically assumes that the word “justified” means “to be made righteous,” but take a moment to actually look up the word “justify” in a dictionary and see if that is the primary definition.
According to Merriam-webster.com, the primary definition of the word “justify” is:
“to prove or show to be just, right, or reasonable.”
Dictionary.com agrees by giving “justify” this primary definition:
“to show (an act, claim, statement, etc.) to be just or right.”
Oxforddictionaries.com also defines “justify” as to:
“show or prove to be right or reasonable.”
And etymonline.com also explains that the term “justify” primarily means:
“to show (something) to be just or right.”
Now, most dictionaries also identify the meaning of “to make righteous” as a secondary definition which could apply in some theological contexts, but the question regarding James 2:21-24 is: Should the term “justified” in this passage be interpreted according to its primary definition or according to a limited secondary definition? To answer this question, we need to look at the word which James actually wrote and not just at the English word supplied by our translators.
The Definition of ἐδικαιώθη
The Greek word translated as “justified” in James 2 is the word ἐδικαιώθη (or edikaiothe for those who don’t read Greek.) This word only occurs six times in the New Testament, and it is translated as “justified” every time. Here are the six verses which use edikaiothe:
"The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But wisdom is justified of her children." (Matt. 11:19)
"But wisdom is justified of all her children." (Lk. 7:35)
"For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God." (Rom. 4:2)
"And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory." (1 Tim. 3:16)
"Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?" (Jas. 2:21)
"Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?" (Jas. 2:25)
A very important aspect of Romans 4 that is often overlooked is the fact that Paul never said that Abraham was not justified by his works. He said that, if Abraham had been justified by works, then Abraham would have had a reason to glory in his works, but Paul never said that Abraham was not justified by his works. Furthermore, we find in James that the justification not denied by Paul was actually present. Abraham was justified by his works. Paul leaves the possibility open, and James confirms that it is indeed true. How then can we deny the necessity of works as part of our salvation?
The answer is found in the second half of Romans 4:2. Before get to that, however, let’s take Paul’s if statement and rewrite it in light of the affirmation found in James:
“Abraham was justified by his works and had cause whereof to glory, but not before God.”
“Abraham was shown to be righteous by his works and had cause whereof to glory but not before God.”
Two Different Perspectives
Paul and James offered two different perspectives on the same principle of truth. Paul focused on the second part of Romans 4:2 by explaining how Abraham came to be justified before God. According to Paul, it was Abraham’s faith that obtained his righteousness before God.
"For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness." (Rom. 4:3)
"Was not Abraham our father justified [or shown to be righteous] by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?" (Jas. 2:21)
Two Different Events
It is important to note that Paul and James focused on two different events from Abraham’s life to illustrate their different perspectives on this truth. In speaking of Abraham being made righteous by faith, Paul referenced the Abrahamic covenant which was took place before Ishmael was born. In speaking of Abraham being shown to be righteous by his works, James referenced Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac. These two events are separated by about 30 years. According to Paul, Abraham was made righteous by his faith when he believed God’s promises to him; and according to James, Abraham proved his righteousness (which he had already obtained by faith – James 2:23) by being willing to sacrifice the son through whom God’s promises were to be fulfilled.
A Third Witness
The fact that Abraham’s righteousness was obtained by faith and only proven by works becomes even more clear when we consider what was said of Abraham in Hebrews 11.
"By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called: Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead" (Heb. 11:17-19)
"shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works." (Jas. 2:18)
So, yes, James does teach that Abraham was justified by works and that all of us are justified by works as well. However, the average, American Christian has an improper view of what the word “justified” actually means. When we approach the Scriptures with a proper understanding of the term “justified,” we can see that we are made righteous before God by our faith and that we then can be proven to be righteous before men by our works.