A Timely Reminder: James 2:24 Does Not Teach Justification Before God By Works

“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”— James 2:24

It’s not uncommon to hear some people appeal to James 2:24 in order to argue that God saves people by faith plus works. In particular, some argue against the doctrine of justification by faith alone by appealing to this verse. They tend to pit Paul, who writes that we are justified by faith and not works, against James, who apparently writes that we are justified by faith plus works. This raises the question, who is right? What are we to believe? Are Paul and James actually at odds with each other? No, they are not.

What Are Paul and James Saying about Justification?

Simply put, although they are using the same verb, justification (in Greek it is also the same verb, dikaioō), they are using it differently. Paul is using it in its legal declarative sense, but James is using it in an evidential sense. They are complementing each other, not opposing each other.

Questions concerning Paul and James begin with Paul writing in Romans 3–5 about justification as a declarative act of God grounded in the work of Christ and received by faith. James, on the other hand, is writing about sanctification—the gracious work of God that necessarily follows from justification.

James’ primary concern is that a person who has been justified will have good works that demonstrate their faith. True saving faith—the instrument of justification (e.g., Rom. 5:1; Eph. 2:8)—necessarily leads to sanctification, and sanctification is evidence of saving faith versus merely a faith that believes in mere knowledge (see James 2:19).

Justification and Sanctification—Two Benefits of Salvation in Christ

In order to help understand how Paul and James complement one another, there are two important terms to define: justification and sanctification. The Westminster Shorter Catechism provides good and concise definitions of each one. Read more»

Daniel Rowlands “Works In The Book of James—Fruits and Evidences of a True and Lively Faith” | January 11, 2022

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5 comments

  1. It goes without saying that there is a great deal I agree with in Rowlands’s statement. I would wholeheartedly agree that Paul is referring to a single declarative act of God. I would even go so far as to agree that James and Paul are using dikaioō in two different ways. There are a range of uses for the verb dikaioō in the New Testament. In Romans 6:7 it is used to describe being set free from the bondage of sin.

    Rowland stated the following:
    “James, on the other hand, is writing about sanctification—the gracious work of God that necessarily follows from justification.”

    Here is my question, if James is specifically writing about sanctification, then why use the verb dikaioō? Doesn’t a valid interpretation of James 2 have to somehow take into account Jame’s use of this specific verb, even if it is used in a different way? Rowland seems to ignore that very important point, simply making the statement that he made that James is really writing about sanctification.

    • Ken,

      I might rather say that James is writing about an effect of sanctification, i.e., good works. He used δικαιοω because, in that context, it also signals vindication, as it does in 1 Tim 3:15. Christ was not vindicated in his resurrection. We shall be vindicated (not re-adjudicated) at the last day.

      This is why Luther talked about a “double justification” (duplex iustitia), before God (coram Deo), justification proper and before men (coram hominibus), which is the evidence of our justification before God.

      So, the “fruit and evidence” interpretation that Daniel offers, which is the historic Protestant view, does take into account Paul’s use of δικαιοω.

  2. To phrase Ken Bank’s question again, why does James not say a person is sanctified by works, instead of saying a person is justified by works? I also agree with Dr. Clark, that good works do not cause sanctification, but as Westminster says, sanctification is a work done by God (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:30). If sanctification is an ongoing fact about us (same verse), brought about by God, then it is not brought about by works we do. Good works bring about the perfecting of faith, and they bring about our vindication before others. If we weren’t sanctified, we couldn’t do good, providing evidence of who we are. Providing evidence to others of who we are is not the greatest thing about our good works, as if the object of our lives is to prove ourselves to others, but they do vindicate us when others see them for what they are. (Not all people will properly respond, but “we shall be vindicated (not re-adjudicated) at the last day,” as in the previous comment.

  3. Context is always, always important in interpreting the Bible. This entire section begins in James 2:14: “if a man SAYS he has faith” (emphasis mine.) James 2:14-26 is talking not about someone who actually has faith but about someone who SAYS he has faith. If you want, you can put quotation marks around “faith” throughout the whole passage.

    And James’ point is that one of the definitive marks of a phony like this is that he has no good works to show for his “faith.”

  4. Take fresh hold of the Gospel—I am reminded of Charles Bridges comment
    Turn away my reproach which I fear
    Bunyan does not fail to enumerate those ‘reproaches,’ as amongst the most harassing assaults of Apollyon. In his desperate conflict with Christian, he taunts him with his fall into the Slough of Despond, and every successive deviation from his path, as blotting out his warrant of present favor with the King, and blasting all hopes of reaching the Celestial City. Christian does not attempt to conceal or palliate the charge. He knows it is all true, and much more besides! but he knows that this is true also—“where sin abounded, grace hath much more abounded.” “The blood of Jesus Christ the Son of God cleanesh from all sin.” Believers! In the heat of your conflict remember the only effective covering. “Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith you shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked.” Do you not hate the sins, with which you have been overtaken? Are you not earnestly longing for deliverance from their power? Then, humble yourself before the Lord, take fresh hold of the gospel, and you shall “overcome by the blood of the Lamb.” Victory must come from the cross. And the soul that is directing its eye there for pardon, strength, and consolation, may sigh out the prayer with acceptance—“turn away my reproach which I fear.”

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