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Justification in James and Paul

Jimmy Akin

DAY 284

CHALLENGE

“James says we’re justified by faith and works (James 2:24), but that contradicts Paul, who says we’re justified by faith without works (Rom. 3:28, Gal. 2:16).”

DEFENSE

A careful examination shows the two are using key terms— faith, works, and justification—in different senses.

James uses faith to refer to intellectual assent to the truths of faith. Thus he says, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder” (James 2:19).

But Paul refers to what theologians call “formed faith” or “faith formed by charity.” Thus he says what counts is “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6).

James uses works to refer to positive actions flowing from belief in God—good works—such as giving food and clothing to the needy (James 2:15–16) or the actions performed by Abraham and Rahab in God’s service (James 2:23, 25).

But Paul refers to “works of the law”—i.e., works done because they’re required by the Law of Moses (see Day 63). He thus sees works of the law as characteristic of Jews but not Gentiles (Rom. 3:28–29; Gal. 2:11–16), and the key work he is concerned with is the Jewish initiation ritual of circumcision (Rom. 2:25–29, 3:30; Gal. 5:6, 6:13–15).

James refers to a different kind of justification than Paul. In addition to the justification that occurs when we first come to God and are forgiven, there is an ongoing growth in righteousness throughout the Christian life. Thus James refers to Abraham as being justified when he offered Isaac on the altar (James 2:21). However, this was in Genesis 22, long after Abraham was initially justified. Indeed, he had been explicitly pronounced righteous as early as Genesis 15:6.

But Paul is principally concerned with initial justification—the kind that occurs when we first come to God. Thus he speaks of justification in the context of Christian conversion (1 Cor. 6:9–11, Gal. 2:16), and he stresses that circumcision does not need to be part of Christian initiation (Gal. 5:4, 6:15).

James thus holds that intellectual faith alone does not save and that our ongoing, post-conversion growth in righteousness is furthered by doing good works, while Paul holds that if we have faith working through love, then we have been forgiven and do not need to obey the Jewish law to be justified.

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