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James 2:24 says:

You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.

Romans 3:28 says:

For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.

What are the possible senses of δικαιόω (justify), and which applies to each verse?

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2 Answers 2

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"Justified" has the same meaning in each verse. You have to look at those verses in the larger context to understand what the authors are referring to by "works" and how that relates to justification.

James 2:14-26 makes the point that true faith always leads to works. The clearest statements are in verses 17 and 26:

17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.

26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.

The key phrase in verse 24 is "not by faith alone". James is not saying that there are works that will justify you, he is saying that good works are the proof of the faith that justifies.

Paul is working from a slightly different angle. He makes the point in Romans 3:21-31 that obeying the Old Testament Law is not the path to righteousness.

21 But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, ... 22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe;

No one (aside from Jesus) has followed the Law to the point that they are considered by God to be righteous. The only effective path to justification and righteousness available to mankind is faith in Jesus. Verse 28 contrasts justification by faith (which is available to us) and justification by obeying the Old Testament Law (at which all of mankind has failed).

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To understand what each is saying and how they are harmonious it is necessary to understand what justification is and the scriptural terms for being justified. "Justified" is different from "righteous". The righteous angels are, well righteous because they never sinned. "Justified" means that a sinner has been made "righteous" (Just-as-if-I'd never sinned). In the most simple terms it is the forgiveness of sins:

Col 1:14 through whom we have redemption [liberation], [that is,] the forgiveness of sins.

When applied to God in Romans 3 it refers to an apparent dereliction of duty rectified by his making propitiation to the people:

Rom 3:25 Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; Rom 3:26 To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he [God] might be just [δίκαιος], and the justifier [δικαιόω] of him which believeth in Jesus.

God of course is free to freely forgive those who offend him but as judge he must punish the wicked or provide a propitiation. This is one of the main reasons Jesus had to die. But Jesus' death is not the basis of the forgiveness of sins. Because God freely forgave the sins of the Jews when they appealed to God for forgiveness (by solemn offerings) he took their sins, metaphorically placed them on a goat and sent them off into Never-Never Land. That was the BASIS of forgiveness of sins under the law.

The BASIS of the forgiveness of sins in the new covenant which provides for the free forgiveness of sins of Jews. To ratify the new covenant with the Jews was another main reason for Jesus' death.

The BASIS of the forgiveness of sins that Paul discusses is faith alone. To be clear: the basis of the forgiveness of sins Paul is talking about is not the death of Jesus, baptism, repentance or good acts. You can do all those things and not be justified. The simple paradigm is this:

Brenton Gen 15:5 And he brought him out and said to him, Look up now to heaven, and count the stars, if thou shalt be able to number them fully, and he said, Thus shall thy seed be. Gen 15:6 And Abram believed God, and it [his faith] was counted to him for righteousness.

What must one believe? One must believe God. That has taken many forms. Here are some more examples:

Heb 11:4 By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain did, and by faith he was declared to be righteous, since God himself accepted his offerings. And by faith he continues to speak, even though he is dead. Heb 11:7 By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, reverently prepared an ark to save his family, and by faith he condemned the world and inherited the righteousness that comes by faith.

The BASIS of justification that Paul discusses is faith. Jesus is not the basis, faith is. But the gospel (the announcement of Jesus' death, resurrection and enthronement) is God's "report" that must be believed in this age:

Rom 10:6 But the righteousness that comes from faith says, "Do not say in your heart, 'Who will go up to heaven?' (that is, to bring the Messiah down), Rom 10:7 or 'Who will go down into the depths?' (that is, to bring the Messiah back from the dead)." Rom 10:8 But what does it say? "The message is near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart." This is the message about faith that we are proclaiming: Rom 10:9 If you declare with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Rom 10:10 For one believes with his heart and is justified, and declares with his mouth and is saved.

But while faith is the BASIS, there are also CONDITIONS. The conditions are things that one can do and must do but that will not secure the forgiveness of sins. These are things like:

  • forgiving others:

Mat_6:15 But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. Mat_18:35 So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses. Mar_11:26 But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses.

  • water baptism (assuming one is able)

Mar_16:16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.

  • coming to or returning to obedience (repentance):

Luk_13:3 I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. Luk_13:5 I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.

Act_20:21 Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.

True repentance has corresponding actions:

Act 26:20 Instead, I first told the people in Damascus and Jerusalem, then all the people in Judea—and after that the gentiles—to repent, turn to God, and perform deeds that are consistent with such repentance.

THAT is what James is saying. He's saying that while it is only on the BASIS of faith that one is justified in the paradigm of "justification by faith" there are CONDITIONS, one of which is repentance, which as corresponding actions. And it is appropriate to surmise that James has all of the CONDITIONS, including water baptism and forgiving others in his "corresponding actions" that he referred to as "works".

To recap:

  • the BASIS of justification by faith is faith alone
  • the CONDITIONS of justification by faith include forgiving others, returning to obedience and water baptism
  • the CONDITIONS do not secure justification apart from faith
  • faith does not secure justification apart from the CONDITIONS
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