James, Justification and the Human Court

I have often taken comfort in the fact that the Apostle Peter said that Apostle Paul wrote "some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures" (2 Peter 3:15-16).  I don't take comfort in this as a license for misinterpreting Scripture; rather, I take comfort in the fact that an Apostle did not find everything in Scripture easy to interpret or understand. The Westminster Confession of Faith, picking up on Peter's statement, suggests: "All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all..." (WCF 1.7). It may just as rightly be said that James, the brother of our Lord, wrote some things that are hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction. Not the least of these is the "less clear" passage found in James 2:14-26--with a specific focus on verse 21. What does James mean when he says, "Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?" How do we understand this in light of what the Apostle Paul says about justification in Romans 4:2-5, where we read:   

"For if Abraham was justified by works he has something to boast about--but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.' Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness (Rom. 4:2-5)."

There are essentially four ways interpreters have sought to interpret James 2:14-26. Either (1) James and Paul are contradicting one another, or (2) James and Paul are teaching that our faith in Christ together with our Spirit-wrought good works form the basis of a final justification (i.e. the Roman Catholic position) or (3) James is speaking about an eschatological dimension of justification--in so much as believers are openly vindicated in accord with their good works, or (4) Paul is talking about our justification before God and James is talking about our justification before men. It is this fourth view that seems to fit in the exegetical context the best. According to this interpretation, Paul is talking about justifying faith in the Divine court and James is talking about saving faith as being evidenced in the human court. The following considerations serve to defend this position as the biblical position.

As with everything in the Bible, context is king. Just as the three laws of realty are "location, location, location," the three laws of biblical interpretation are "context, context, context." Related to this principles is the Reformation principle of  scriptura sui ipsius interpres (i.e. Scripture is its own interpreter). We will only and ever come to a right understanding of James 2:21 when we have first carefully considered it's immediate context and then the OT context from which James is drawing.

At the beginning of his epistle, James introduces the subject of testing in the life of believers. In chapter 2, the sincerity of faith is in view. Chapter 1 ends with James saying, "Whoever thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue, this one's religion is useless." As chapter 2 develops, the idea of evidencing whether or not one has saving faith comes to the forefront. In order for someone to show whether or not they have saving faith, he or she must be tested. 

Related to the idea of testing, the context of James 2:21 also carries with it the idea of sincerity with regard to saving faith. This is the flip side of the coin. The pastoral question that James is dealing with is whether or not someone has saving faith vs. a mere intellectual profession of faith (which he essentially calls a demon-faith and a dead-faith). James Gidley helps us better understand the context of James' use of the word "justified" in 2:21 when he writes:

Some of James' hearers were using the doctrine of justification by faith alone as a pretext for being complacent about ungodly living. What better way to awaken them than by using words that at first glance seem to be a shocking departure from what they have been taught? James 2 is a bombshell that explodes carnal confidence at its foundation. The complacent can scarcely be moved by anything less.1

All of this leads naturally into the testing and faith-demonstrating of Abraham and Rahab. When we give consideration to James' statements about Abraham and Rahab, we must first understand something of his rationale for singling out these two figures. Both Abraham and Rahab are singled out to serve as examples of diverse individuals who possessed saving faith. Abraham was a man and Rahab was a woman. In Christ Jesus, there is neither male nor female. Abraham was a Jew and Rahab was a Gentile. There is no distinction between Jew and Gentile in Christ.

In the second place, both Abraham and Rahab were tested before a watching world--their test is revealed in Scripture to serve as an example to us who are seeking to walk in their steps. For Abraham, the test to which he was put came 25-30 years after he first believed the promises of God. He believed the promises of God about Christ and was therefore justified once-and-for-ever in Gen. 12:1-3 and 15:6; then he offered Isaac (i.e. the one through whom the seed promises were to be initially fulfilled) in Genesis 22:1-19. This was the one-time test upon which James fixates our attention. There is nothing in the context that would suggest that James is speaking of an entire life of law-keeping (as some have mistakenly suggested). The law was not even given to God's people until 400 years after Abraham lived. The Scriptures are clear that "Abraham believed God," and--in one, definitive moment--"it was accounted it to him for righteousness" (Gen. 15:6). James is telling us that the declaration made in Genesis 15:6 was demonstrated to be true of Abraham in that he endured the test by faith (James 2:21-23). Abraham evidenced his saving and justifying faith by his act of obedience.

Rahab also heard the word of the Gospel. She heard about the exodus (i.e. the typical redemption that pointed to the spiritual redemption that God would provide in Christ), and she believed in the Covenant God of promise (Joshua 2:9-11). She, like Abraham, believed the Gospel (John 8:58; Gal. 3:8). She then acted in obedience because of the faith that she had in the Redeeming God of Israel. She demonstrated that she had saving faith by her reception and defense of the Lord's spies. It was her confidence and faith in the coming Christ that enabled her to receive and hide the spies. James nowhere intimates that Rahab had an entire life of law-keeping for her justification before God. 

James alluded to a single event in Abraham's life, as well as to a single event in Rahab's life, in order to show that they both had a sincere and living (i.e. saving) faith. Abraham and Rahab were both justified before God solely because they believed on Him who was to come; they were justified before men by their acting in accord with that faith in obedience. In this way, James is saying that they were justified before the watching world on account of the works that their saving faith produced. They had a saving faith that was demonstrated by their subsequent acts of obedience.

When we consider James' use of the word 'justified' in 2:21, one massively important interpretive principle must be understood:

The word 'justify' (δικαιω) and it's various forms is used several different ways in Scripture. Context always determines how it is used. It is true that the majority of Pauline uses of 'justify' have to do with the legal (forensic) standing that men have before God. Jesus, however, uses the word in Luke 7:35 to denote evidence, when he said of His own works bearing evidence to who He was, "wisdom is justified by her children." In other words, Jesus said, "I am shown to be who I am and who I say I am by the works that I do." This seems to be the exact same usage as that found in James 2. In fact, in the context, James says, "You show me your faith without your works..." and "I will show you my faith by my works..." It is clear that the human court is in view in James 2. In Romans 4, however, where the Apostle Paul says, "For if Abraham was justified by works he has something to boast about--but not before God," the Divine court is clearly in view.

The 19th Century Scottish theologian, James Buchanan, differentiated between justified in Paul and justified in James by the use of the terms actual justification and declarative justification (see Buchanan Justification pp. 223ff.). Accordingly, Paul speaks of actual justification before God and James speaks of declarative justification before men. The late professor John Murray--perhaps even more helpfully--employed the term declarative and demonstrative.3 Murray put declarative in the place where Buchanan had used the term actual and demonstrative where Buchanan had used declarative. Murray suggested that Paul refers to declarative justification and that James speaks of demonstrative justification. Under this explanation, God declares one righteous by faith alone in Christ alone, and the one who has been declared to be righteous then demonstrates that he or she is so by observable good works. J. Gresham Machen summed up the difference between the two justifications being spoken of when he wrote:

The faith which James is condemning is a mere intellectual ascent which has no effect upon conduct. The demons also he says, have that sort of faith, and yet evidently they are not saved (James 2:19). What Paul means by faith is something entirely different; it is not a mere intellectual ascent to propositions, but an attitude of the entire man by which the whole life is entrusted to Christ. In other words, the faith that James is condemning is not the same as the faith that Paul is commending.2

As we navigate through the pages of Scripture, we must be ever careful in our efforts to come to an understanding about the "less clear" portions of Scripture. We must gives ourselves to a prayerful consideration of the context. We must study the details of the Old Testament examples picked up in New Testament exposition. We must labor to understand the way that words are used. We must always try to find a resolution based on the more clear passages of Scripture. In this short study, Romans 4:2-5 is the "more clear" passage by which the "less clear" passage (James 2:14-26) must be understood. The explanation above is a brief attempt at resolving for us any seeming contradiction. Though not all passages are equally important to our salvation, to err in our understanding of James 2 is to jeopardize the Gospel itself. May God graciously keep us from ever doing so. 


1. Gidley, James S. James and Justification by Faith. New Horizons in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Feb. 2005.

2. J. Grecham Machen Notes on Galatians (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1977) p.. 146

3. John Murray Romans pp. 350ff. 

*This post is a modified version of a post that originally appeared over at the Christward Collective.