Does Romans 4:1-5 "justified by faith" contradict James 2:21 "justified by works"?

By Ron Jones ©Titus Institute 2009

Does Rom.4:1-5 “justified by faith” contradict Jas.2:21 “justified by works”? Ó 2001 Rev. Ron Jones, D.D.,

How can we reconcile Rom.4:1-5 where Paul states that Abraham was not justified by works with what James states in Jas.2:20 that Abraham was justified by works?

The key to understanding this is applying the interpretive principle that the same Greek word may have a different meaning in two different contexts.

The Greek word “justify” has a different meaning in each passage. Paul uses a different meaning of “justify “in Rom.4 than James uses for “justify” in James 2.

If you look in a lexicon you will see that the Greek word for “justify” has two meanings, which, of course, are very close.

According to the Greek lexicon by Abbott-Smith and the Greek lexicon by Bauer, the Greek word, “dikaioo” which is translated “justify” can have the following meanings 1) to show to be righteous or just 2) to declare righteous or just

Paul in Rom.4 uses “justify” (dikaioo) in the second way, “to declare righteous or just.”

Rom.4: 1-5 “justify” = “declared righteous”

James uses justify in the first way, “to show to be righteous or just”

James 2: 14-26 “justify” = “show to be righteous or just”

Other Scripture verses where “justify” means “show to be righteous or just”: Lu.10: 29 Lu.16: 15 Rom.3: 4

How do we put these two together Biblically?

A person cannot be shown to be righteous and just in the eyes of God, if he or she is not already declared righteous or just. If a person is declared righteous or just in the eyes of God, then he or she will show it.

In James 2 “justify” means “to show to be righteous” not “to declare righteous.”

James calls saving faith in Christ (where we are declared righteous in Christ) living faith, faith that results in works that show our righteousness.

He calls intellectual belief in Christ (that does not result in being declared righteous in Christ) dead faith, intellectual belief that does not show the person’s righteousness.

He contrasts the two in this passage.

Jas.2:14 The implication is that there is a faith that saves, but it is not faith that has no works. The faith that saves is obviously living faith that results in works.

Jas2:17 “Faith without works” is “dead faith” (faith that is not living)

Jas.2:18 “I will show you my faith by my works” Living faith is shown to others by works.

Jas.2:19 James defines “dead faith” as intellectual belief, which even the demons have. See Mk.3:11

v. 20 “dead faith” (intellectual belief) is useless for salvation or anything else

Then James asks his famous question to show how important works is to faith,

v. 21 “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?

The answer to the question “Is James talking about Abraham becoming saved?” is “No.” Rather he is writing about how his living faith was demonstrated (shown to be real) by his works.

So when he says “justified,” he means “shown to be just, righteous” which is in agreement with the flow of thought and the context.

An expanded translation of that passage would be “Was not Abraham our Father shown to be righteous and just by works, when he offered Isaac his son upon the altar?”

The answer is “yes.”

So when he says “justified,” he means “shown to be just, righteous” which is in agreement with the flow of thought and the context.

This interpretation is also in agreement with the actual events in the life of Abraham in the book of Genesis.

In Gen.12:1-3 Abraham was given three promises, that he would have numerous descendents, possess a great land, and bless all the families of the earth.

In Gen.15:4-5 God promised Abraham numerous descendents as he had done in Gen.12. Abraham believed God and he was declared righteous (justified).

Later in Gen.22:9-12 Abraham demonstrated his righteousness or justification and God reiterated his promises to him. Abraham was already promised these promises in Gen.12 and reminded of them in Gen.15 when he was declared righteous (justified). He did not earn these promises by being willing to sacrifice Isaac. He demonstrated his righteousness before God by his willingness.

In other words, in Rom.4 Paul talks about Gen15:6. In James 2, James is talking about Gen.22, which happened after Abraham was already saved.

James shows this further in v.22

v.22 “Do you see how faith brought forth his works, and by works was faith made perfect?”

“Made perfect” literally means “brought to its intended goal.” The intended goal of declaring someone righteous is that he or she demonstrates that righteousness by works. But being declared righteous comes first.

v. 23 And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness; and he was called the Friend of God.”

The Scripture in Gen.15:6 (that he was declared righteous was) was fulfilled in Gen.22:9-12 when Abraham demonstrated his righteousness.

v. 24 “You see then that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” James means that a man’s righteousness is demonstrated by works, not by the possession of his faith alone. Works always demonstrates living faith.

The whole context moves us toward this meaning.

Jesus says the exact same thing using the analogy of a fruit tree.

Matt.7: 16-20 He says, “You shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so every good tree brings forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree brings forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that does not bring forth good fruit is cut down and cast into the fire. Wherefore you shall know them by their fruits.”

Jesus says that a good fruit tree (a person who has been declared righteous, been saved) brings forth good fruit (works). A corrupt tree (non-saved) does not bring forth fruit (good works).

Jesus says that a tree can only bring forth fruit if it is good. How can it become good? By fruitbearing? No. By becoming a good tree (being saved). Like James he says that those with living faith (good tree) will have good works (bear fruit).