In the letters of the apostle Paul, the doctrine of justification is that wonderful biblical teaching that God accepts us as righteous in Christ and forgives our sins when we receive him by faith alone. The apostle Paul refutes those who erroneously think that God saves people by taking into consideration the good things that they themselves do, in addition to their faith. He does so over and over again. See Romans 3:20-22, Romans 3:28, Romans 4:3-5, Galatians 2:16, Galatians 3:11, Philippians 3:9, etc. It is quite clear from these and other passages that faith, and faith alone, is the instrument through which God brings the death, resurrection, and righteousness of Christ to bear upon those who believe, and thus declares them righteous and justified. Scripture speaks of this act as the imputation of Christ's righteousness to believers. That is, his righteousness is reckoned to their account, even though they are only beginning to experience the imparting of Christ's righteousness to their inner being. While they are yet only forgiven sinners (it is "God who justifies the wicked," Rom. 4:5), God declares them righteous even for the righteousness of Christ imputed to them and received by faith alone.
What about James? James declares quite clearly: "You see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith alone" (James 2:24). Yes, James's remarks are as true as Paul's. To understand them better, we must see them in their full context.
How then can we see the teachings of Paul and James as one consistent whole? Paul says that we are "justified by faith apart from observing the law" (Rom. 3:28), but James says that "a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone" (James 2:24). Surely on the face of these two statements, there is an apparent contradiction. But since both Paul and James are writing under the inspiration of God, they must be writing about different situations. Perhaps they are using the words "justify" and "faith" in different ways. Let's look again at the two writers with this as a possible solution.
Paul, in Romans 4, is expounding the great promise of God contained in Genesis 15:6. "What does the Scripture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.' Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness" (Rom. 4:3-5).
James, on the other hand, is writing to those who claim to believe, but give no evidence that their life has been changed by the salvation that God gives to believers. Notice how James states that at the beginning of his argument: "What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?" (James 2:14). James is seeking to show that true faith — faith that God has already credited to one (notice how James also quotes Genesis 15:6 in James 2:23) — manifests itself in doing good. James says that Abraham truly believed, and thus that God had truly reckoned him as righteous, because Abraham demonstrated the reality of his faith (and salvation) by obeying God (James 2:21,24).
Genesis 15:6 says, "And he [Abraham] believed in the Lord and He [God] counted it to him as righteousness. This means Abraham was justified (declared righteous by God) on the basis of his faith alone. Abraham was not declared righteous on the basis of his works but on the basis of his faith alone. Remember that at the time God justified Abraham in Genesis 15:6, Abraham's son Isaac was not yet born and, thus, Abraham's works (i.e., the attempted sacrifice of his son to God) had not yet occurred. It was later in Genesis chapter 18 that God promised to give Abraham a son. In Genesis 21, Isaac is born and in chapter 22, Abraham attempts to sacrifice his only son Isaac to God. This attempted sacrifice of Isaac is Abraham's works. Abraham's justification took place in Genesis 15, long before his works in Genesis 22. In other words, Abraham's justification was by his faith alone, not by his works. This is exactly the point that apostle Paul makes - that God justifies us and declares us righteous by our faith only, not by our works.
Even though Abraham was justified by faith alone, his attempted sacrifice of his son Isaac was proof that he was genuinely a righteous man. It was evidence that his faith was genuine. In other words, his works demonstrated that his faith was real and sincere. This is the point that James is making. If you claim to be saved, the evidence of your salvation must be seen in your lifestyle. Jesus said, "By their fruits, you shall know them." Your life must manifest the fruits of righteousness and good works as proof of your salvation and justification. Good works are not a precondition for our salvation and justification. However, after we have been saved/justified, the evidence of our justification is seen in our good works and our living a righteous life. We can claim to have faith and salvation but if the way we live our lives does not reflect what we profess with our mouths, our faith is not genuine. It is dead faith. We shouldn't simply talk the talk without walking the walk. This is precisely the point that James is making in James chapter 2.
ONE WORD WITH DIFFERENT MEANINGS: We can see this difference more clearly if we recognize the different ways in which Paul and James use the same terms. When Paul speaks of someone being "justified," he has in view God's pronouncement that a sinner is righteous. But when James uses that same word, he has in view the demonstration of a person's previously justified state. That is, one demonstrates by his obedience what God has already declared about him (James 2:23, quoting Genesis 15:6).
Put another way, James is using the word "justify" with the meaning "to demonstrate or show to be righteous, or to vindicate oneself." This particular meaning for the Greek word is also found in Luke 16:15 and 10:28-29, as well as in Matthew 11:19, Luke 7:35, and Romans 3:4. In Luke 16:15, Jesus says to the Pharisees, "You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts." Similarly, we read in Luke 10:29, "But he wanted to justify himself."
James is saying that one can demonstrate before men (or can vindicate or justify oneself, 2:24) that one has been declared righteous by God. One can do this by doing good works, just as Abraham did by sacrificing his son Isaac long after God had declared him righteous (James 2:21; cf. Gen. 22:9-12). James says that this later episode demonstrated God's declaration in Genesis 15:6 to be true and fulfilled (James 2:23).
When Paul speaks of "faith," he means real and genuine trust in God. But James means by "faith" something that must be demonstrated to be real in one's life. He is dealing with those who seem to express their acceptance of the gospel, but really have no true faith or trust. Thus, the demons can say they believe, but their so-called faith and any other faith without works is useless (James 2:19-20). At least twice, in verses 18 and 26, James asks those who claim they have faith to demonstrate a genuine faith, rather than a dead one, by doing good works. This is something with which Paul surely agrees (see 2 Cor. 13:5; Gal. 5:19-24).
WORKS MANIFEST TRUE FAITH: Thus, the words of Paul do not contradict the words of James. Paul also argues that true faith manifests itself in real obedience. He says in Romans 6:1-2, "What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?"
And Paul also speaks of works in the same way as James when he says in Ephesians 2:10, "For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." But he states this great truth, in accord with James, after he has denied that works have any part in our salvation: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast" (Eph. 2:8-9).
Thus, Paul and James do not in any way contradict each another, because they are using words with different meanings and are making different points. We can confidently affirm that James's words do not contradict the clear teaching of Paul that we are saved and justified by faith, apart from and without the works of the law. Indeed, James himself says that God had already credited his own righteousness to Abraham because Abraham had believed him (James 2:23).
James's point is that Abraham's good deeds, done as an already saved man, and not to obtain salvation from God, demonstrated or showed his justification to be true and real.
SUMMARY: Let us summarize. We are saved and justified—that is, all our sins are forgiven and we are declared righteous by God—when we trust in Jesus Christ and have his righteousness credited to our account. We lay our sins on Christ, and he bears the punishment for them, so that God forgives us forever. He grants, or imputes, to us his righteous obedience, and we are regarded as clothed in his righteousness and immediately declared by God to be justified. We trust God, and he saves us. This is God's act of justification. And all this happens apart from any good deeds that we may have done: God "saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy" (Titus 3:5). And we receive all this by faith, as God has given us a new heart and an ability to trust in Christ.
When we exercise saving faith, God also transforms us within and throughout, by the righteousness of Christ imparted to us to make us holy. This is called sanctification. It begins with Christ's righteousness being placed within us, and it increases as we live out that righteousness by trusting and obeying God. God justifies the ungodly and the wicked, and he makes them holy as he sanctifies them. Only in this way does God save me—and you!
George W. Knight III. Justification in Paul and James. Retrieved June 1, 2019 at: