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The Most Scandalous Verdict

How James Prepares Us for Justification by Faith

The late R.C. Sproul preached a memorable message on Luke 13:1–5 and the misplaced “locus of astonishment.” Those who approached Jesus to ask about the Galileans whom Pilate slaughtered should have been less amazed that their countrymen were dead, and more amazed that they themselves, equally sinful, had been spared.

Perhaps we might say something similar with the common questions about James on justification. Are we wrongly amazed (and concerned) by what James says, when we really should marvel (with profound gratitude) at the peculiar claims of Paul?

The real scandal over justification in the New Testament is not what James teaches, but Paul.

Taking two thousand years of Christian truth for granted, we might assume, for good reason, that what Paul teaches is typical and obvious enough, and James is the oddball who needs special treatment and careful explanation. For five hundred years, Protestants have been providing helpful, persuasive treatments of the doctrine of justification that begin with Paul, and then move to James as a possible objection. It’s understandable. We have much more content from Paul in the New Testament, and (fittingly) our theological categories have taken their cues from Paul’s language, not James.

But we may be missing something precious when we always work from Paul to James, and never James to Paul. We may miss how normal and unsurprising it is that James says what he does about justification — and how wonderfully shocking, then, is the grace God extends us in the gospel of his Son through the words of Paul.

What Is Justification?

Come with me into the courtroom. Here is where we get the ancient and enduring concept and language of “justification,” and where we can understand the normalcy of James (and Matthew), and then the special project and vision of Paul.

The word justify pairs with condemn as the legal pronouncement or definitive declaration in a court of law (Proverbs 17:15; Romans 5:16, 18; 8:33–34). The judge renders a verdict about a defendant’s actions (or inaction) based on the expressed standard of the law. First, the law exists. Then someone acts contrary to, or questionably regarding, the law and is accused formally by a plaintiff. In court, the plaintiff and defendant present and refute arguments and evidence. Finally, a judge (or jury) declares a verdict — guilty or innocent, condemned or justified — by comparing his sense of the person’s conduct, based on the evidence, to the expressed law.

We might call this “ordinary justification.” This is how we normally use the language of justification in the world today, as humans have for millennia. The verdict is based on the defendant’s action (or inaction) related to established law. This ordinary use, then, appears in the Bible in reference to God’s coming judgment. He is the Judge of the universe, and at the end of the age, he will render his verdicts based on evidence, not make-believe (Acts 17:31; Romans 3:6).

We see this ordinary sense of justification in Matthew 11:19: “wisdom is justified by her deeds.” And Matthew 12:37: “by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Also in Luke (7:29, 35; 10:29; 16:14–15). And in Romans 2:13, Paul himself expresses this principle of normal or ordinary justification: “the doers of the law . . . will be justified.”

James 2:20–26, of course, memorably expresses this normal sense of justification. James writes that “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24), and he makes clear in his two preceding statements that he has the final judgment in view:

So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:12–13)

Simply put, James uses the word justify in the ordinary way, like Matthew, and like Romans 2:13. And though his word-choice is different from what we will find in Paul, James teaches a vital truth well-represented in Paul: those whom God declares righteous in the end will have more to their name than just faith (for instance, Galatians 5:6; 1 Thessalonians 1:3; Romans 3:31; 8:4). True faith in Christ will be accompanied by acts of love for others because true faith (produced by God’s Spirit, who “gives life,” John 6:63) produces love in us for others.

When talking about final judgment, as we’ll see, Paul indeed agrees with James that “faith apart from works is useless” (James 2:20), that “faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26). At the final judgment, “the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed,” Paul writes, God will “render to each one according to his works” (Romans 2:5–6). (The apostle John also uses the language of “according to works” for the final judgment, Revelation 2:23.)

The human courtroom, in all its pomp and circumstance, anticipates the great final judgment, with God himself as Judge, coming at the end of the age. That much is clear and simple: justification, then, will be according to (not contrary to) words spoken and deeds performed in the world. But what will be the “basis” or ground of God’s final declaration?

Justification by Faith

Then Paul — especially in his letters to the Romans and Galatians — turns over the bench to teach a shocking and wonderful truth about those who are in Christ: by virtue of being in Christ, we already have God’s final verdict. Already now, in Christ, we are vindicated in the courtroom of heaven. We are justified by faith. This in no way unseats the coming final judgment according to works — and does not make for two justifications (present and final) but two vantage points of our one justification in Christ. And it does not undermine what James, or Matthew, or Paul himself in Romans 2:13, teaches — but it surprises and delights those of us who are in Christ with the glory of what is already true of us by faith.

Joined to Jesus now, by faith, we already share in his verdict: Righteous. Justified. As surely as we are in Christ, we not only will receive his verdict before his Father, but we already now have it. “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

This, then, is what we might call “extraordinary justification,” or “special justification,” based not on what we did or didn’t do, but on the actions of Jesus. (Stephen Westerholm refers to “ordinary” and “extraordinary” righteousness and notes, “Paul undoubtedly employed [this] terminology in ways that went beyond the limits of normal Greek usage.”) Though righteous, Jesus stood condemned in our place. He took the curse we deserved and settled it in his body at the cross (Galatians 3:13), and we, being joined to him by faith, are justified in him and share in the blessing for his righteousness (Romans 5:19; Philippians 3:9). What’s “special” about this justification is not mainly its timing (already now) but its basis (in Christ and his righteousness). Proverbs 17:15 is the ordinary sense: “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord.” Romans 4:5 is extraordinary: In Christ, God “justifies the ungodly.”

Note well, this “great exchange” happens only in true and ongoing union with him — not between two separate parties, but two distinct parties united as one — as when a rich man marries a woman in debt. As husband and wife are formally and legally united, his great provisions cover her debt, and she comes to enjoy the bounty of his resources.

Why We Need It

Perhaps our need is clear enough already, but we should make it explicit. The reason we need this “special justification” in Jesus is because we “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). In our sin, we have “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:23). Our instinct may be to try to make it up to God, to try to cover our unrighteousness with our own righteousness. But in a human court, the amount of good we’ve done is no defense against compelling evidence of particular wrongdoing. And besides, from God’s perspective, we’re actually unable to do genuine righteousness, despite what we may think (Romans 8:7–8).

We might suspect, Well, if there is any good I could do that would count with God, it would be abiding by his own law. The best works in all the world would be “works of the law,” obedience to the standards God himself has revealed. However, as Paul repeats over and over, this special justification is “apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28). “By works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16). God saves us “not because of works done by us in righteousness” (Titus 3:5). “By works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight” (Romans 3:20).

God’s law is righteous (Romans 7:12; 8:4), but he never intended his law to provide our righteousness. The law is a standard, not a supplier. Righteousness, Paul makes plain again and again, does not come through the law (Romans 3:21; 4:13; 10:5; Galatians 2:21; 3:11; 3:21; Philippians 3:9). James and Matthew would not disagree.

How It Happens

How, then, is a sinful, undeserving human, destined for coming condemnation and divine curse, able to hear the Judge of the universe declare some of the sweetest possible words, “You are righteous”?

In Romans and Galatians, as Paul lays out his case for this hope-giving, life-changing, extraordinary justification, he makes it abundantly clear that such justification before God comes through Christ by faith. In Christ all who believe are justified (Acts 13:39). “The righteousness of God” for our justification comes “through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Romans 3:22). We are “justified . . . through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus . . . to be received by faith” (Romans 3:24–25). Time and again, it’s two realities: Christ and faith. Theologians have come to call these the ground and the instrument of justification.

Christ Alone, Faith Alone

The ground of justification is Christ. And not Christ plus anything else. Nowhere does Paul hint that Christ has any company as ground or basis. So, it is fitting to say Christ alone is the ground of our justification. He sacrificed his own life, and so we are “justified by his blood” (Romans 5:9). His righteousness is the ground of God declaring us, in him, to be righteous (Romans 5:16–19; Philippians 3:9). We are “justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 6:11). In no way do our own efforts serve as the ground of our justification. But we are justified in Christ “as a gift” (Romans 3:24; 4:4; 5:15–17; 6:23), “justified by his grace” (Romans 3:24; 5:2, 15, 17, 20–21; 11:6).

What instrument, then, corresponds to Christ alone as the ground of justification? Faith. Justification “depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace” (Romans 4:16). We receive his grace, from outside us, and the channel of this reception is what we call “belief” or “trust” or “faith.” Christ, for justification, is “to be received by faith” (Romans 3:25). This already-now justification in Christ is for “the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26).

The instrument of justification is faith. And not faith plus anything else. Nowhere does Paul hint that faith has any company as the instrument. So, it is fitting to say faith alone is the means that connects us to Christ for justification. And even though Paul teaches something extraordinary, different than the typical concept of justification in the world, don’t think the Old Testament didn’t anticipate this.

As far back as Genesis 15, in one of the foundational stories of the Jewish people, Father Abraham is said, in essence, to have been justified by faith. “He believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Here God embeds in holy Scripture a remarkable placeholder for, and pointer to, the full-orbed reality of justification by faith that he would unveil in the gospel for his church primarily through Paul. How was Abraham counted righteous? Not in the ordinary way. Not on the basis of his actions. Rather, “he believed the Lord” (Genesis 15:6) — and anticipated all those who, like him, because of Christ, would be “justified by faith” (Romans 5:1).

Our Works: Evidential and Essential

Paul labors to make plain that God offers us this special, already-now justification on the sole grounds of Christ and his work, through the sole instrument of faith. What, then, comes of our doing, our works, our efforts and actions, our living? Does it matter what we do, and don’t do, if our ultimate standing with God isn’t based on our doing?

As we’ve seen, a final judgment is coming. In that courtroom, as James makes plain, “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). And on that final day, those whom God has declared righteous in his Son by faith will have more to their name than just faith. True faith in Christ will be accompanied by love for others because true faith (supplied by God’s Spirit) produces love in us for others.

Actions matter in the Christian life. Good works matter. Before the Judge of the universe, in his public courtroom, Spirit-produced good deeds will serve as precious evidence to the world that God united us to his Son, and in him (alone) we have been justified by faith (alone). Evidence is not optional in a righteous courtroom. And that includes the courtroom of heaven.

What Kind of Faith?

But before we assume that the role of our works at the final judgment spoils the gift of grace that is already-now justification in Christ by faith, we should keep two vital realities in view: the kind of faith that justifies and the power of the Person who produces it.

Justifying faith is not mere mental assent. The kind of faith that justifies is “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). Love for others is not the instrument of justification; rather, the kind of faith that is real, and therefore justifies, is the kind of faith that inevitably produces love.

But what can we say about how justifying faith produces good works? Romans 10:9–10 clarifies that true faith is not mere belief in the head that leaves the heart and life untouched, but belief in the heart. “With the heart one believes.” Such belief in the heart requires a new heart, with new desires, and new delights. As John Piper asks, and answers,

What is this experience of receiving Christ really like? Is it like receiving a blow? Is it like receiving a gift you need, but don’t want? Is it like receiving desired help from someone you dislike? Is it like receiving a package from the postman you scarcely know or care to know? . . .

Receiving Christ in a saving way means preferring Christ over all other persons and things. It means desiring him — not only what he can do. His deeds on our behalf are meant to make it possible to know and enjoy him forever. We do not receive him savingly when we receive him as a ticket out of hell or into heaven. He is not a ticket. He is a treasure — the greatest Treasure. He is what makes heaven heaven. If we want a pain-free heaven without him there, we do not receive him; we use him.

Therefore . . . it is helpful to insist that justifying faith means receiving, welcoming, embracing Jesus for all that God is for us in him.

Such faith in Jesus not only justifies but also will make us progressively holy in him (what we call “sanctification”) as it severs the root of sin in sinful desires.

And beyond the nature of justifying faith as the glad receiving of Christ, we’re also not left with our faith hanging on its own. A divine Person always stands behind it and works in and through it. God himself, by his Spirit, not only creates justifying faith in us, but sustains it. He who began a good work in us will complete it (Philippians 1:6). Already-now justification always happens “by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11), and never apart from “the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom [God] poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5–6).

We will do well to ask about our “locus of astonishment,” in Sproul’s words, when we come to ponder and teach and herald our doctrine of justification. When we see that James 2 (and Matthew 11–12) says what we should expect to hear from any century about the final judgment, then we may see with greater clarity, and experience an even greater joy over, what Paul so plainly and shockingly teaches: in Christ, through faith, not our deeds, we sinners are received as fully righteous before the infinitely glorious God. This is the real scandal of justification.