There are some questions we can ask ourselves every time we see the word, “justify,” in the Bible. Let’s look at these questions and see how they affect our understanding of a famous passage that may seem to contradict the Gospel.
Thayer’s Greek Definitions defines the word, δικαιόω (dikaioo), “to declare, pronounce, one to be just, righteous, or such as he ought to be.”1
The main questions here are, “Who is pronouncing one to be just?” “Whom is he pronouncing just?” and “Why did he proclaim him just?” Like save, the word, justify, is found in relation to the best news ever:
Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified (Gal 2:16).
Who is pronouncing one to be just? God. Whom is He pronouncing just? Paul and the believers in Galatia. Why did he proclaim them just? By putting faith in Jesus Christ (as opposed to doing works of the law). Luke 7:29 uses the term again:
And all the people that heard him, and the publicans, justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John” (ASV).
If justification is only about sinners receiving eternal life, then Luke 7:29 poses some real problems. Who is pronouncing one to be just? Many people including publicans. Surely this is an unworthy group to grant eternal life to others. Whom are they pronouncing just? God. Why did they proclaim Him just? Because they listened to Jesus’ testimony about John. If justify always has a soteriological meaning, then this is an important passage, for had these sinners not justified God, He would have had to spend eternity apart from Himself! It is apparent that as with the word, save, the word, justify, can be used in a variety of contexts.
Since justification can be before different people for different reasons, it is possible for a person to be justified more than once in life. Paul writes about one Abraham’s justifications:
For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness (Rom 4:2-5).
Who pronounced someone just? God. Whom did He pronounce just? Abraham. Why? Because Abraham believed God. James says that this is not the only time Abraham was called just. More specifically, he says that also Abraham was (and still is!) called “a friend of God” (Jas 2:23). Who proclaims Abraham just? Anyone who calls him a friend of God, which at least encompasses three major world religions. Why? Because “he offered up his son Isaac on the altar” (Jas 2:21).
Abraham was justified more than once, “You see that a person is justified by works and not only by faith alone [μόνον (monon)]” (Jas 2:24). Some folks say, “justification is not by faith alone” to imply that salvation requires faith plus works, but that misses an important point in the Greek text. James uses the adverb, μόνον (
To translate Jas 2:24 more dynamically, “You see that a person is not only justified by faith [before God], but he’s also justified by works [before men].” The two justifications are completely separated. If someone wants to claim that there is only one justification (which leads to eternal life), and that faith and works are both involved in the process, then they need to prove this with texts other than James 2, and then come back to James and somehow make Abraham’s story fit. Abraham had faith in Gen 15, then impregnated Hagar in Gen 16, then laughed at God in Gen 17, then handed his wife over to Abimelech in Gen 20, and it was not until Gen 22 that God tested Abraham with offering Isaac, so James really causes problems for the position that faith and works will always go together.