Justify = Declare Righteous

by Richard Church

James 2 is a problematic passage for many, even dispensationalists. In Romans 4, Paul makes it very clear that before the Law (Abraham), under the Law (David), and now after the Law, the only way to be justified was by faith and not by works.

After a cursory reading of James 2, it seems that James contradicts this truth by saying that Abraham was justified by works, and not by faith alone. However, this is not what James was teaching.

It is a crucial point to understand that the word justify does not mean, "to make righteous", but rather to "declare righteous." It is true that, in some contexts, justification includes imputation of righteousness, but this is not necessarily the case.

For instance, in the book of Job we find:

(Job 9:20 KJV) If I justify myself, mine own mouth shall condemn me: if I say, I am perfect, it shall also prove me perverse.

Here Job defines the word justify for us. Justify means "to say someone is perfect" or "to declare righteous."

This definition will help us to understand James 2 much better. There is no disagreement between Paul and James regarding when Abraham received righteousness.

Genesis 15:6 KJV) And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness.

(Romans 4:3 KJV) For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.

(Galatians 3:6 KJV) Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.

(James 2:23 KJV) And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.

So the Old Testament, Paul, and James all agree that righteousness was imputed to Abraham when he believed, not when he worked. What then of James' justification by works?

(James 2:21-24 KJV) Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? {22} Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? {23} And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. {24} Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.

Let us consider this in light of the definition of justification, to declare righteous.

"Was not Abraham our father declared to be righteous by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?"

Abraham's act of faith in sacrificing Isaac was a declaration of the righteousness which he previously received by faith.

Now, this is where Paul and James differ. They agree that imputed righteousness is received on the basis of faith alone, not works. What they disagree on is the required response of true faith. James says that true faith is manifested in works. Paul says that true faith should be, but is not necessarily, manifested in good works.

   

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