How Does James Use the Term Justify in James 2:14-26?
What does the word “right” mean? Is it a direction or does it mean correct? There is no way to know, unless you read the word “right” in a context. Other Biblical terms are the same way. The Greek word for “church” in the New Testament does not always mean a body of called out believers. In Acts it was used to describe the mob that wanted to kill Paul in the temple. The Greek term for “lust” is not always a negative term. It can also be used to describe the positive consuming desire of a God called man to the office of elder. The word “justify” is no different than any other term used in the New Testament. We tend to think of the term referring to how a man is declared righteous before God, like in Romans 3:20 when Paul writes that “by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” This passage describes how God declares a sinner to be righteous not based upon the sinners work or righteousness, but based upon the righteousness of God imputed through faith alone in Christ alone. Though this is the most common way to think about the term “to justify,” this is not the only way it can be used.
Psalm 51:4, is an example of one way the Greek term for “justify” is used in the LXX is used. David wrote:“Against you only, have I sinned, and done this evil in your sight: that you might be justified when you speak, and be clear when you judge.” David is saying that God’s just actions declare His righteous character or demonstrate that He is indeed righteous before men. In Luke 10:29, we see another example of someone being justified in a sense that is quite different than the example in Romans 3. This man, “willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbor?” The man was trying to demonstrate his own righteousness before Christ, by excusing his hidden prejudice toward Samaritans. A third example is found in Luke 7:29 “And all the people that heard him, and the publicans, justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John.” When the publicans heard the gospel of the Kingdom, and willingly identified with John’s message though baptism, they were declaring God to be righteous and themselves to be unrighteous. As you can see, all four passages are examples of a person being declared righteous, but the contexts are all very different.
I will seek to clarify this use of “justify” with the following illustration. You have a friend named Mr. Smith, an excellent teacher, who handles his job in a local high school as well as any teacher in the school. One day, Mr. Smith is forced to deal with a very difficult situation in the classroom. The way he handled the situation was flawless, yet, after the incident, the student who provoked the incident filed a formal complaint against Mr. Smith. Though Mr. Smith has an outstanding reputation, his actions were going to be reviewed by his superiors. When Mr. Smith enters his superior’s office, his superiors, will read the accusations against Mr. Smith, then the following statement will be made. Mr. Smith you declare that you are innocent. Please present the facts that justify your statement of innocence. The word “justify” in this context simply means to present the facts that vindicate your claim of innocence. After Mr. Smith presents the facts, and presents a host of witnesses to the truthfulness of his story, he will sit down and wait for the verdict. Mr. Smith’s superiors will leave the room to discuss what they have heard and then gather in the office to present their judgment of the case under review. After hearing all the evidence, and comparing the facts to Mr. Smith’s claim of innocence, Mr. Smith’s superiors would make the following legal declaration. Mr. Smith based upon the facts laid before us, and your statements declaring your innocence, we declare that your actions and your statement of innocence have been vindicated. Your actions and statements were justifiable. In other words, we have judged your statement to be good, righteous, or correct. This analogy is similar to what James is saying in James 2:14-26. Mr. Smith’s declaration of innocence was being examined by his superiors, and his superiors determined his statement of innocence was correct. In the same way, James is saying that if a man claims that he is converted or has faith, he is only justified, or declared righteous by his peers when his life reflects what he says is true about himself. Simply put: “I will show you, my faith by my works.” James is not explaining how a man is declared righteous before God in the courtroom of heaven. He is not talking about how a man’s sins can be forgiven. James is explaining how a man’s claims to be a Christian are vindicated before men. If genuine conversion produces righteous living, and it does, then we can be confident that genuine conversion will be evidenced before others.