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  • Writer's pictureIsaac Karpenske

Paul and James on Justification

Throughout the history of Christianity, the doctrine of justification has been a major controversy. According to J.I. Packer, justification “is a forensic term meaning ‘acquit’, ‘declare righteous’, the opposite of ‘condemn’ (cf. Dt. 25:1; Pr. 17:15; Rom. 8:33). Justifying is the judge’s act. From the litigant’s standpoint, therefore, ‘be justified’ means ‘get the verdict’ (Is. 43:9, 26).”[1]

Skeptics of Christianity often cite verses such as Galatians 2:16 and James 2:24 to point out a supposed contradiction in Scripture, and thus suggest Christianity is an illegitimate religion. Roman Catholics suggest that this testifies to their belief that justification is by both faith and works. The supposed contradiction cast by skeptics and the heretical view cast by Roman Catholicism mainly concerns what the Apostle Paul and the Apostle James, the half-brother of Jesus, say in Scripture about justification.

In Galatians 2:16, Paul says, “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (ESV). In James 2:24, James writes, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (ESV). The basic question behind this comparison is the relationship between faith and works in justification, both of which seem to be held in tension between Paul and James.[2] What we see in view is that both Paul and James address the same theological issue of justification before a holy and righteous God, but with different circumstances in view. To put it this way, Paul and James aren't examining two different diamonds, but rather one beautiful diamond called justification by faith alone in Christ alone.

Paul’s notion in Galatians is that which was held by all Christians of Jewish heritage: “it was impossible to commend themselves to God by law-keeping. They had shown this by abandoning law-observance as a possible means to salvation, and turning instead to that salvation offered freely by the Messiah in response to faith.”[3] Paul confronts his many opponents that eagerly sought to pronounce law-adherence as the means of justification by citing Abraham’s example in obediently offering his son as a sacrifice (Gen. 22:1-19). He passionately preaches “that faith in Christ was the only way that one could now be made right with God.”[4]

On the other hand, James addresses the issue of faith without visible fruit of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life. He cuts past the lip service of profession-only faith and insists that faith is alive and active. “This is the dead, barren faith that James designates by ‘faith alone’ in verse 24.”[5] This is when Roman Catholics would step in and suggest this indicates that works must accompany faith in order to be justified before God. Rather than thinking this way, “James has no intention of excluding faith from the process of justification. He was deeply disturbed, however, by a faith that had no consequences for life – what we may call ‘cheap faith’.”[6]

Based on Paul’s claims and James’ assertions on justification, we can confidently say that the imputed righteousness of Christ received by faith is the grounds by which God justifies the ungodly in Christ (Rom. 5:6); works are the fruit that comes from one that experiences authentic salvation and justification (Gal. 5:22-25). In this statement, we should affirm both what Paul says and what James says: those in Christ “hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom. 3:28 ESV) and “faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26 ESV). Faith in Christ simultaneously rests and never rests. It rests on the perfect person and work of Jesus Christ, and from that righteousness and life He blesses His people with, we never rest in cultivating the spiritual fruit that comes from the Spirit working in our lives, which is received by faith. Pertaining to how God’s people follow Christ, “the Spirit of the Messiah nurtures the initial response of faith to the gospel message into a continuing life of joyful praise and obedience to God (Rom. 1:5; 16:26), and loving service to the neighbour (Gal. 5:6, 13–14; 6:1–2).”[7]

John Piper gives a wonderful point of application as we remember the fruit of our justification, that we are crucified with Christ, that it’s no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in His people (Gal. 2:20):

“The new ‘I’ looks away from itself and trusts in the Son of God, whose love and power was proved at Calvary. From the moment you wake in the morning till the moment you fall asleep at night, the new ‘I’ of faith despairs of itself and looks to Christ for protection and the motivation, courage, direction, and enablement to walk in joy and peace and righteousness. What a great way to live!”[8]

This is, indeed, a great way to live: looking unto Jesus, our righteousness and joy, by faith.

[1] J. I. Packer, “Justification,” ed. D. R. W. Wood et al., New Bible Dictionary (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 636.

[2] Douglas J. Moo, James (rev. ed.), TNTC 16, (Grand Rapids, MI: IVP), 2015, 147.


[3] R. Alan Cole, Galatians, TNTC 9, (Grand Rapids, MI: IVP), 1989, 121.


[4] Moo, James, 148.


[5] Moo, James, 147-148.


[6] Moo, James, 148.


[7] S. S. Taylor, “Faith, Faithfulness,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 493.

[8] John Piper, Sermons from John Piper (1980–1989) (Minneapolis, MN: Desiring God, 2007).



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