POST OVERVIEW. The second in a series of articles on James 2:14-26. The purpose of these articles is to give the believer a correct understanding of this passage by providing a number of different approaches to this text. The goal is that, through these studies, the believer will see that James’ teaching here does not conflict with the New Testament’s doctrine of justification by faith. (See also Post #652, 5/24,2023.)
A STUDY OF THE WORD “JUSTIFY”
Having given an introduction to this series of studies (See Post #652, 5/24/2023), we will begin with an examination of “justify.” This portion of our study will be a little technical, but it is necessary for us to look at definitions and to understand how this word and its related terms are used in the New Testament.
THE FIRST USE OF “JUSTIFY.” As we mentioned above, in the New Testament, the English word “justify” is a translation of the Greek word “δικαιόω.” This word is of profound significance in the gospel of salvation, because its most common usage has the meaning of “declare righteous.” The main message of the gospel is that any sinner who believes (“places their faith”) in the Lord Jesus Christ is immediately declared righteous, forgiven of all their sins, saved from the wrath of God, and has eternal life. In short, by faith he “has been justified.” (This is the passive use of the word “justify.”) This entire set of effects of faith in Jesus has been abbreviated as “justification by faith.” The consistent and abundant teaching of the New Testament is that we are “justified” (declared righteous, etc.) by faith and by faith alone in Christ alone and not on the basis of works. (See later in this series for a deeper understanding of “works” and also for how many times the Bible insists that being justified/justification is not by works.) This use of “justify” (declare righteous) is what the apostle Paul uses almost exclusively in his doctrinal teaching about the gospel of the Lord Jesus and his letters of Romans and Galatians are particularly filled with this doctrine. For this reason, most believers automatically think of “justify” and “to be justified” in terms of “not by works” and “justification by faith alone,” and become concerned and vocal when someone suggests that a sinner can earn salvation (be justified) based on his works. It thus becomes obvious why James 2:21-25 has created some confusion and controversy among believers because James blatantly affirms that Abraham and Rahab were justified by their works. What do we do with that?
A SECOND USE OF “JUSTIFY.” And here it is necessary for us to realize that, while the overwhelming majority of uses of “justify” or “be justified” relates to declaring someone righteous based on their professed faith in the Lord Jesus, there is also a minority use of the word, and it is this minority use of “justify” that James uses in our study passage. James uses “justify” in the sense of “giving outward evidence of an inward reality” or of “supporting a claim to possess an invisible quality.” Other synonyms could be “exhibited,” “demonstrated,” “proved,” or “gave evidence for.”
AN ILLUSTRATION OF “JUSTIFY”
When I was a purchasing manager several years ago, I had a supplier whose name was Jim Cooper. Jim was a big man. He was probably 6’ 5” and was broad and “thick.” When I shook his hand, my hand almost disappeared into his. He was big. One day we were talking and he mentioned that he was having some pain in his knees. “Yeah, it was probably from too many years playing football.” I paused for a second, then asked, “When did you play football? Were you ever a professional football player?” He said, “I played for the Dallas Cowboys in the late 70’s and 80’s.” I remembered the Cowboys of that era and that they were powerful teams, so I asked, “Do you have a Super Bowl ring?” “Yes, as a matter of fact I do. Super Bowl XII for the 1977 season.” “Would you mind bringing that ring in so I could see it? I have never seen a Super Bowl ring.” “Sure thing. Next time I come over I will bring it.”
Now, I did not doubt for a second that Jim could produce that ring. First, he was an honest man, so he was not lying to me, but second, he was a big man, and the possibility that he had played for the world champion Dallas Cowboys was not a stretch, at all. But at that point in time, Jim’s claim of having a Super Bowl ring was not justified. Jim would not “be justified” until his invisible claim of being on the 1977 Dallas Cowboys was validated (“justified”) by the visible evidence of a Super Bowl ring from Super Bowl XII.
And, true to his word, the next time Jim and I got together, he put his Super Bowl XII ring on the conference table so I could take pictures of it with my phone. Because he had produced tangible visible evidence of his unseeable claim, he was fully “justified.” Jim Cooper claimed to be a member of the World Champion Dallas Cowboys and then produced the ring that proved his claim. In this way, he was “justified.”
If, on the other hand, Jim had claimed to be on the Dallas Cowboys in 1977 but had no Super Bowl ring, there would have been a lot of doubt about his claim. Without tangible, visible evidence to validate his claim, his football career would remain a mere claim, a mere maybe.
This is the way that James uses the word “justify” in 2:21, 24, and 25. If a man claims to have saving faith, then he needs to “justify” (prove, validate) that claim by giving tangible supporting evidence. And the tangible evidence that James is seeking is the evidence of “works.”
SUMMARY OF “JUSTIFY”
After carefully examining the word “justify” and seeing that James uses the word in a very different sense than Paul and the other New Testament writers, we can conclude that there is no conflict or contradiction in James 2:14-26 when compared to other New Testament doctrinal teaching.
NEXT ARTICLE. In this article we have carefully looked at the word “justify.” In the next article, we will examine “works” by first defining what the biblical writers mean by “works” and second, by considering what the role of works is both before and after salvation (Point #2 in our list in Post #652, 5/24/2023). We will conclude the next article by documenting the verses in the New Testament which explicitly teach that “being justified” (“declared righteous”) and justification are always “by faith” and are never “by works.”
Soli Deo gloria rmb 5/25/2023 #653