One of the most important questions we can ask about the relationship of Paul to James when it comes to justification is this: what does δικαιοῦται (“justified”) mean in James? This is a very old question, but a very important question. Here is what Calvin says on the matter:
We have already said that James does not speak here of the cause of justification, or of the manner how men obtain righteousness, and this is plain to every one; but that his object was only to shew that good works are always connected with faith; and, therefore, since he declares that Abraham was justified by works, he is speaking of the proof he gave of his justification.
When, therefore, the Sophists set up James against Paul, they go astray through the ambiguous meaning of a term. When Paul says that we are justified by faith, he means no other thing than that by faith we are counted righteous before God. But James has quite another thing in view, even to shew that he who professes that he has faith, must prove the reality of his faith by his works…we must take notice of the two-fold meaning of the word justified. Paul means by it the gratuitous imputation of righteousness before the tribunal of god; and James, the manifestation of righteousness by the confuct, and that before men, as we may gather from the preceding works, “Shew to me they faith,” etc. In this sense we fully allow that man is justified by works, as when anyone says that a man is enriched by the purchase of a large and valuable estate, because his riches, before hid, shut up in a chest, were thus made known (pp. 314-315).
So that is Calvin’s view. Let’s look a bit closer at the exegesis of the passage. Here are some reasons why Calvin is right and all the naysayers are wrong. 1. The word itself can mean either to declare righteous (this is the normal meaning in Paul), or to show someone to be righteous (as it says “Wisdom is justified by her children”). The second sense is not always in our minds, but wisdom hardly needs the imputed righteousness of Christ. Rather, wisdom is shown to be right by the results in her children. We must not automatically assume one meaning or the other in James. Rather, we must look for contextual clues, and also the analogy of faith. 2. Prima facie evidence is given in verse 18 (as Calvin notes) that the second meaning of “justify” is the meaning that James uses here. In verse 18, it is clear that the point is whether a particular faith is true or not, and how a person might be able to show the true state of his faith. James answers that a true faith is shown by its works. 3. Further evidence is given for this view in verse 21. This is a simple matter of timing. Genesis 22 (Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac) comes after Genesis 15:6. Abraham was justified first by faith in Genesis 15:6, and then his faith showed itself to be genuine in Genesis 22. We will come back to the quotation of Genesis 15:6 in James 2:23 in a moment.
Now, we must deal with the objections to this position. They are stated fairly clearly in Norman Shepherd’s new book The Way of Righteousness: Justification Beginning With James. The first line of reasoning goes like this: “justify” in verse 24 is parallel to “save” in verse 14. The word “save” in verse 14 means “salvation from condemnation when we stand before the Lord God to be judged” (p. 21). Therefore, the justification of verse 24 answers the question of salvation in verse 14 (ibid). The answer to this is that it is not so clear what “save” means in verse 14. Salvation in the Bible is used in more than one way. Salvation can be used of the initial time-point of faith, but it can also be used of the entire Christian life, which would include everything from election to glorification. It is evident that the question at the end of verse 14 expects a negative answer: “Surely it is impossible, isn’t it, that such a works-devoid faith could save him?” In effect, this asks the question: can there be a kind of faith that believes but does not do? And can such a faith be the kind of faith that salvation as a whole is talking about? The scope of the passage cannot be limited to the initial time-point of faith, because James himself says that his faith (implied as already existing) is going to be shown by his works (verse 18). This is parallel to the question of Abraham, whose already existing faith was shown to be genuine by his offering up of Isaac.
The second objection raised to our position is this: 2. James does not talk about faith being justified, but persons being justified (p. 24). It is important to note that Shepherd does not deny that verse 18 has to do with faith being shown to be genuine. Rather, his point is that justification language is not present in verse 18. To this I answer this way: the two meanings correspond to two aspects of a person’s justification. A person is justified forensically (in the Pauline sense of judicial declaration), but then a person is also justified evidentially when his faith is shown to be genuine. Manton put it well when he said that the Jamesian sense of evidentiary justification shows a person to be unhypocritical. You can say a person is unhypocritical or that his faith is unhypocritical, it all comes to the same thing. In other words, Shepherd is mincing words here.
The third objection to our position is stated this way: the word “justify” cannot ever be said to mean “show to be justified” even if it can mean “show to be righteous” (p. 24). However, this objection is closely tied to the previous objection: if a person can be shown to be genuine and unhypocritical, then his justification is also shown to be genuine. The latter idea may be an implication of the former, but a firm implication it is. As a man thinks, so he is. We cannot drive such a large wedge between a person and his faith.
Thirdly, he objects that arguing for the demonstrative sense in James as a way of reconciling James and Paul “is a theological argument rather than an exegetical argument” (p. 24). I must ask why this would be a problem. Are we not required to compare Scripture with Scripture? Is exegesis limited to the immediate context, or does it ultimately extend to the entire Bible? I would strongly argue for the latter. Therefore we MUST seek to reconcile James and Paul.
His fourth main argument is that the broader context of James favors the view that James has in mind the final judgment and a soteric justification on that day (p. 25). But there are two things at work here. First of all, there is a strong strand of Reformed teaching that argues that the final fulfillment of evidentiary proof of justification will happen on the Final Day: believers will be shown before the whole world to have had genuine justifying faith. And the works of believers will be trotted out as the evidence for this claim. This is not soteric. Chapter 5:9 does not prove his point. His point is that we need to be bearing fruit in keeping with a genuine faith. Grumbling is not in keeping with said faith. Therefore, if we are grumbling, we need to be awakened to the fact that we might not have a genuine faith. Besides, the word is not “condemned” in that verse, but “judged.” All our works will in fact be judged, but they might be burned up, as it says in 1 Corinthians 3, if they be hay, straw, or stubble. The fact that it says “you be judged” does not affect this exegesis in the slightest, since it is a metonymy, with the person standing in for the works. He has not proven his point, therefore. I conclude that since all the arguments against the position have an answer, that therefore we should follow Calvin, and argue that “justify” has a demonstrative sense in James, and not a declaritive.