I recently spent several days engaged in a facebook debate with a Catholic, and in the process, I was challenged to re-think my view of the relationship between faith and works in James chapter two. Catholic theologians claim that James 2 teaches the necessity of adding good works to our faith in order to obtain final salvation. The typical response to this claim is to argue that James is only speaking of good works as an evidence of our salvation and not as the means of our salvation. The greatest challenge to this argument is found in the use of the word “justified” in verses 21 and 24. Here is my solution to this challenge:
"Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?"
The Definition of “Justified”
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)
Of these six uses, it is immediately obvious that three of them cannot possibly be understood to mean “made righteous.” When Jesus said that “wisdom is justified of her children,” He was not saying that wisdom was made righteous but rather that wisdom was proven to already be righteous by the actions of her children. Likewise, it is impossible that God was made righteous in the Spirit, for He has always been righteous. Rather, Paul should be understood as saying that, just as God was physically made visible in the flesh, so also was He shown to have a righteous Spirit. The use of edikaiothe as “proven or shown to be righteous” is well established by these three examples, but what of the two seemingly contradictory passages in Romans and James?
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.”
Now, let’s substitute the primary definition of the term “justified”:
“Abraham was shown to be righteous by his works and had cause whereof to glory but not before God.”
Now, we can see what Paul was saying in Romans 4. He was claiming that even if Abraham was shown to be righteous by his works and thus had cause to glory in his righteousness, yet his works would still be insufficient to justify him (or show him to be righteous) 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)
James, on the other hand, focused on the first part of Romans 4:2 by explaining how Abraham’s works proved that he was righteous. According to James, Abraham’s righteousness was proven by his willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac.
"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)
Both men were referring to the same truth from two different directions: Men are made righteous before God by faith, and they are shown to be righteous before men by works.
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)
Here, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, we find Abraham’s works presented as evidence of his faith rather than as evidence of his righteousness. It was Abraham’s faith which motivated him to do the work of offering his son as a sacrifice. Abraham obtained righteousness by faith and then he proved his faith by acting in a way which demonstrated his righteousness. Thus, the writer of Hebrews declared that Abraham showed his faith by his works exactly as James proposed when he said:
"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.
Bill Fortenberry is a Christian philosopher and historian in Birmingham, AL. Bill's work has been cited in several legal journals, and he has appeared as a guest on shows including The Dr. Gina Show, The Michael Hart Show, and Real Science Radio.
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"Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be yet wiser: teach a just man, and he will increase in learning." (Proverbs 9:9)