Contrasting Paul and James on Justification


Much time has been spent on reconciling Paul and James on justification. Too often James’ point is exegeted away into a vague and vacuous theory that he is just saying that works justify our justification.

While it is entirely true that works fuflill and complete our faith, James’s point is radical. He has the audacity to say that Abraham and Rahab were justified by works.

Ja 2.24 You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.

This is the bold statement that Reformed theologians and commentators would rather die than say. After all, everyone knows that a man is justified by faith alone, apart from works, that this is the central doctrine of the Reformation, and that anyone who says different is a damnable heretic.

Here is a test of whether a man has rightly understood James: ask him if he believes that Abraham was justified by works.

There is only one correct answer, and that is yes.

My purpose in writing this article is to compare and contrast Paul and James. Both use the word group for “to justify” to mean that a man is declared righteous in God’s judgement. Almost everything else that they mean is different.

Paul is speaking of a sinner, whether Jewish or Gentile, and this means that the remission of sins is right at the heart of his usage of justification, because a sinner has to be forgiven at the same time that he is declared righteous, in the nature of the case. James is speaking of a righeous man, and takes two righteous examples, namely, Abraham and Rahab. Righteous people do not need to be forgiven, but they can still be assessed by God and declarede righteous.

Here is another point at which Reformed men baulk. After all, there is no-one righteous, no, not one, as Paul says. Well, that is only true if one is not speaking of those who have died, been buried, and then raised with Christ to walk in newness of life. Such people are truly righteous. They are not sinless, but they are righteous, because the Bible tells me so.

So then, Paul and James have different men in view – the unregenerate sinner and the converted believer.

Then there is the cause, or ground, of their respective justifications. The sinner is justified because Christ died on the cross for his sins, and he takes hold of that dual gift of forgiveness and righteous declaration by faith alone. That is sola fide

The righteous man is already in possession of the remission of his sins, and has been spiritually resurrected through baptism into Christ. The ground of his second justification is his works, plain and simple.

That does not mean that his works earn for him the remission of his sins. That honour belongs only to Christ and the cross. However, his works earn for him God’s righteous judgement that he is indeed righteous on the ground of his works.

At this point the Reformed theologian gets ants in his pants. But we have the obligation to take the Bible seriously, which means to take it at its word in its grammatical, plain sense. God spoke to Abraham after the testing in the matter of sacrificing Isaac and said:

Gen. 22:15   Then the Angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time out of heaven, 16 and said: “By myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son— 17 blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies. 18 In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”

What God calls blessing James calls justification, in a clear identification of the two things. God blessed Abraham and confirmed it with an oath because Abraham obeyed. Obedience is the stated reason for the blessing.

Can we take this text at face value and incorporate it into our theology? We had better, if we wish to remain faithful to the inerrant and inspired word of God.

Does it contradict sola fide? By no means. They are different justifications with different semantic domains, two different causes, and two different kinds of men. Pauls man is justified without working, and James’s man is justified by works and not by faith only. Paul’s justification ensures the sinners entrance into grace, and James’s justification is the completion of the sinner-become-righteous’s faith. Paul’s justification includes forgiveness, and James’s does not.


3 thoughts on “Contrasting Paul and James on Justification

  1. Roger, this is a great post. Every time I hear someone explain James’ treatment of justification, they do it in a “justifying the justification” type way.

    A few thoughts came to my mind as I read your post, please excuse me if they sound too heretical. 😉

    It makes perfect sense that James was talking about a righteous person’s justification, while Paul was talking about an unregenerate man’s. With respect to that, here are my thoughts. I’ve read some treatments of justification in the Old Testament, in which Bible teachers have suggested that a biblical judge declares the virdict and acts out the virdict (unlike the contemporary idea of judge, which merely declares it). Therefore, they argue, justification not only has a sense where God declares us righteous, but also where he makes us righteous (or actively works in saving us, not just a one time and its over deal).

    I found that to be a fair treatment of justification and I think it is definitely plausible. So with that in mind, would you say that James was talking about a righteous man continuing his justification so that God will continue to save him? And in contrast Paul was refering specifically to the verdict?

    If that is so, then someone could have Paul’s justification, yet be complacent in their faith and go without recieving James’ justificaiton. In this case, they would be saved, yet “as by fire.” They would have the judge’s virdict, but would not have faith in the judge to carry out that virdict.

    Thanks for the post. It is clear, yet concise.

  2. Hi Bentok. Nice to meet you at last. 🙂

    On your first point, justification is never a making righteous, since it is always a verdict only. Rome teaches that justification actually pours righteousness into us, since what God says happens. This makes our forgiveness depend upon our works, and that makes grace null and void. Which is why the Reformation has never accepted their explanation.

    I am having a prolonged discussion with a RC convert. Go to Canterbury Tales in the left bar of the Home page and click to go there.

    Continuing justifications are either by faith alone or by works. Abraham’s justification in Genesis 15 is a repeated declaration that God considers him to be righteous by just believing, apart from works. He was first justified by faith alone back in Ur of the Chaldees, Genesis 12.

    Those who continue to obey continue to be considered righeous by works. The final justification by works will be on Judgement Day when we will all give an account of our lives to Christ.

    On your third point, the man who has no works cannot be saved! James says of a man who has faith but without works: can such a faith save him? The answer is clearly no!

    This makes the necessity of works for salvation (not justification) most urgent.

    Warm regards

  3. Faithful Abraham justified by the odedience of faith.
    Hebrews 11:8-10
    8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; 10 for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.

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