What does James mean that Abraham was justified by works? Can we be justified multiple times, once by faith and other times by works? Is James contradicting Paul? We answer these questions in the following exegesis of James 2:21.
21 Was not Abraham our father justified [edikaiōthē] by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?
What does James mean be “justified?”
The term used by James in the Greek is “edikaiōthē.” The way it is used in the Greek, is a aorist indicative verb that literally means “was justified.” However, as we shall show, the term “was justified” as opposed to simply “justified” had a different implication to Greek speakers. In short, edikaiōthē does not merely mean “justified” in the aorist tense. Rather, in common usage, it means “shown to be justified,” or “vindicated,” in short. The Greek language has no other word for “vindicated” other than edikaiōthē.
So, we may read the James 2:21 as, “Was not Abraham shown to be justified by works when he offered up Isaac…?” Hence, the passage does not pertain to another way to be justified (the first time by faith alone and the next time by works), but rather invokes Abraham as an example of how faith is shown by what we do (i.e. our works) as James makes explicit in verse 18.
What proof do we have that edikaiōthē means “vindicated” as opposed to justified as it is usually rendered in the translations? First, in every single recorded extra-biblical usage of the term edikaiōthē it is never translated to simply mean “justified.” Second, every single Biblical usage of the term edikaiōthē, when properly interpreted, pertains to vindication, and not literal justification. Third, the early witness of the Church shows that interpreters explicitly understood this meaning from the word when they were interpreting James. When we combine all of these reasons, it would mean that the burden of proof would be on any translator or theologian who would simply translate the term edikaiōthē as “was justified” instead of “was vindicated,” and not the other way around.
As we pointed out previously, the extra-biblical usage of the term edikaiōthē has been translated to mean either “vindicated” or “punished,” but never “justified.” Outside of the Bible, the word (known to us) has been used a total of ten times. In Dio Cassius’ Roman History, Book XXXVII, Chapter 12 the word is translated to mean “proved” (i.e. vindicated). In the seven other uses of the word in Dio Cassius’ Roman History and Aelian’s Characteristics of Animals the term is translated to mean “punished.”
The term’s usage was so rare, it is not used once in the Septuagint. However, in the extra-canonical Psalms of Solomon, in 8:23 it states, “Shown Himself righteous [edikaiōthē], God hath, in His judgements upon the nations of the earth.” From these historical usages of the term edikaiōthē alone we have a very strong reason to read into its usage the inference that vindication is likely being spoken about in James 2:21.
Yet, we have even more evidence that we are justified in such a rendering when we look at the Biblical usage of the term edikaiōthē by the Apostles. Each time the word was used, it is properly understood to mean “vindicated,”and not the word “punished” nor merely “justified.”
It appears five times in the New Testament as follows:
- Yet wisdom is vindicated [edikaiōthē] by her deeds (Matt 11:19).
- Yet wisdom is vindicated [edikaiōthē] by all her children (Luke 7:35).
We should take note that the translator in the above did not literally translate the term as “was justified” but literally changed the verb tense so that it says “is vindicated” in order to preserve the implication that what is being conveyed is a present tense reality (“is”) in which something that already occurred (the vindication) had took place.
- He who was revealed in the flesh, was vindicated [edikaiōthē] in the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory (1 Tim 3:16).
There are two other passages where edikaiōthē is used that are more questionable to our thesis here: 4. Rom 4:2 and 5. 1 Cor 6:11. The thesis is put into question because translators have commonly chosen the term “justified.”
However, we have two reasons to disagree with their translation of the term in Rom 4:2 and 1 Cor 6:11. First, we already know that the term edikaiōthē clearly means vindicated in the three above three verses. Comparing Scripture with Scripture, it would then be incumbent upon us to translated the term edikaiōthē as “vindicated” unless the text absolutely did not permit us to do so. Second, we will now demonstrate that the passages in question actually make more sense when we translate edikaiōthē to mean “vindicated” as opposed to “justified.”
First, let’s look at the use of edikaiōthē in 1 Cor 6:11–“Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified [edikaiōthēte] in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” If we were to swap the word “justified” out with “vindicated,” we may notice that the sentence appears to be a passing comment on baptism. Does this make the passage more sensible? Let’s see.
Those former drunkards and swindlers mentioned in verse 10 were washed from sin in baptism, sanctified by the sacrament, and were shown to be righteous (vindicated) through baptism as the sacrament visually represents (or effects if you believe in baptismal regeneration) our death to sin and spiritual resurrection with Christ (Rom 6:3-7). The Tridentine formulation (washed/sanctified/justified) appears to mirror the Triune Godhead mentioned in the end of the sentence (Lord Jesus Christ/Spirit/God [the Father]). This is no coincidence, as all Christians are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In light of the preceding, the use of the term “vindicated” in place of “justified” is not only workable, but necessary to draw out the parallels Paul must have intended. If we stick with the rendering “justified,” the passage’s parallelisms break down and its meaning less clear.
Second, let’s look at the use of edikaiōthē in Rom 4:2–“For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.” We can just as easily render the passage, and its immediate context, as follows and it makes more sense than it did before:
For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one. Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? For if Abraham was vindicated by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Rom 3:28-4:1-3).
Paul in 4:1 brings up Abraham as a case study to demonstrate a point to his audience. He writes that if Abraham was vindicated (shown to be justified) before us (the hypothetical audience) by his works, then this would be contrary to what he just taught in Rom 3:28 “that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.”
Further, as we may infer from verse two, Paul is thinking of the public nature of Abraham’s justification, for “he has something to boast about” before men in such an event, “but not before God.” Paul then demonstrates that the Scripture in verse three confirms that Abraham was shown to be justified to us by his faith when he trusted God’s promise for a son. By saying this, Paul finally proves that his contention in Rom 3:28 is true and the theoretical possibility that Abraham’s was shown to be made righteousness by works to be false.
Linguistically, it is not coincidental that James in 2:21 is using the same word (edikaiōthē) that Paul used in Rom 4:2. Why? For one, both are speaking of the same man, but drawing contrast between two different events. Second, in doing so both passages invoke works in different ways. In Rom 4:2 Paul emphasizes how we can see that Abraham was made righteous, while James 2:21 focuses on the proof (in light of verse 18) that Abraham was righteous. This is why Paul’s assertion, that works cannot show Abraham was righteous, does not contradict James’ view.
We have both emphases combined in Heb 11:17 where Paul writes, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac…” Here, we can see both the basis of righteousness and its result. Therefore, Paul is correct in saying in Rom 4:2 that Abraham was not vindicated before us by works when he believed, for he had performed no such works to be consequently justified at the time he believed God’s promise. However, James is also correct in saying that the attempted sacrifice of Isaac vindicates Abraham’s character (for its supposed righteousness) as Abraham’s faith had works that proved its existence.
While the preceding offer very strong evidence that we should be reading edikaiōthē to mean “vindicated” as opposed to simply “was justified,” the interpretations of the ancient Church lend additional credibility.
Cyril of Alexandria, a native Greek speaker, on the issue of the meaning of the term edikaiōthē (translated “justified” in Ancient Christian Commentary on the Scripture, New Testament VI), clearly explains that he believes that it refers to vindication, and not literal justification:
What can we say to those who insist that Abraham was justified by works because he was ready to sacrifice his son Isaac at the altar?…Abraham piously believed that all things are possible with God and so exercised this faith…So even if Abraham was also justified by his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, this must be regarded as an evident demonstration of a faith which was already very strong (Explanation of the Letter to the Romans, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on the Scripture, New Testament VI, p. 110).
As we can see, Cyril not only clearly explains that the sacrifice of Isaac demonstrates a pre-existent faith, he clearly says that we must regard the term edikaiōthē as to be specifically referring to this understanding.
Such an understanding hardly originated with Cyril. The earliest extra-Biblical commentary on the event in question is from Clement, who writes at a time contemporaneous enough with James’ to have a thorough understanding of edikaiōthē and the doctrine of the Apostles that is surrounding it. Citing James 2:23, and likely having the whole section in mind when exegeting Hebrews 11, he writes that Abraham proved his faithfulness in the performance faithful acts:
Abraham, who was called the friend of God [James 2:23], was found faithful, inasmuch as he rendered obedience to the words of God…and in the exercise of obedience, he offered him as a sacrifice to God on one of the mountains which He showed him (1 Clement, Chapters 10).
We have corroboration later in Clement’s letter that the sacrifice of Isaac was the evident demonstration of Abraham’s faith and that this faith is what blessed Abraham:
For what reason was our father Abraham blessed? Was it not because he wrought righteousness and truth through faith? Isaac, with perfect confidence, as if knowing what was to happen, cheerfully yielded himself as a sacrifice (1 Clement, Chapter 31).
Not only does Clement endorse the view that Abraham was vindicated by his sacrifice of Isaac, as he was found faithful in our sight because of it, he linguistically uses the term “justified” to mean “vindicated” elsewhere in the letter. In chapter 30, Clement uses the Greek term dikaioutai (“justified”) in reference to being, according the the translator, “justified by works.” However, if we read chapter 30 in context we can see that what Clement is really talking about is that works do not literally justify, but rather they are a demonstration of justification:
Let us clothe ourselves with concord and humility, ever exercising self-control, standing far off from all whispering and evil-speaking, being justified [dikaioutai] by our works, and not our words…Let testimony to our good deeds be borne by others, as it was in the case of our righteous [dikaioutai] forefathers (Chapter 30).
Clearly “let testimony to our good deed be borne by others” refers to the public nature of these works of justification. For this reason, such a passage’s invocation of works speaks to their role in vindication (as Clement was speaking of in chapter 10) and not them being the literal means of justification.
If the context of what is already written does not prove out our reading of Clement, surely his comments on the matter in chapter 32 seal the deal. In this chapter he writes that we “are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men.”
Surely, Clement is not contradicting himself in the space of two chapters. So, when he says that we are “justified by our works, and not our words,” Clement is clearly is speaking of vindication by works. Even though he uses the word dikaioutai (i.e. “justified”/”righteous”), he writes a few sentences later without equivocation that literal justification does not come by works. Hence, the only rendering for dikaioutai that makes sense is that of “vindication.”
Being that the Greek language had no other word that meant vindication in the present tense, Clement would have had no other way to communicate the notion. In fact, in the space of four chapters (10, 30-32) Clement so clearly describes what occurs during justification and what does not occur, we are left no doubt as to what his meaning is.
Other men of the Church arrived at the same conclusion, for linguistic reasons or otherwise. Cyprian of Carthage writes:
In Genesis: “And God, tempted Abraham, and said to him, Take thy only son whom thou lovest, Isaac, and go into the high land, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell thee.”4282 Of this same thing in Deuteronomy: “The Lord your God proveth you, that He may know if ye love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul.”4283 Of this same thing in the Wisdom of Solomon: “Although in the sight of men they suffered torments, their hope is full of immortality; and having been in few things distressed, yet in many things they shall be happily ordered, because God tried them, and found them worthy of Himself. As gold in the furnace He proved them, and as a burnt-offering He received them. And in their time there shall be respect of them; they shall judge the nations, and shall rule over the people; and their Lord shall reign for ever.”4284 Of this same thing in the Maccabees: “Was not Abraham found faithful in temptation, and it was accounted unto him for righteousness?”(Three Books of Testimonies Against the Jews, Book III, Chapter 15).
As we can see, the whole passage is about, as the translator notes, “men are tried by God for this purpose, that they may be proved.” Clearly, the sense of 1 Macc 2:52 quoted in the last sentence pertains to Abraham’s “vindication” and contextually such a translation makes more sense as the whole passage is about righteousness (something interior) being proved (i.e. made visible.) Hence, Cyprian understood the sacrifice of Isaac as pertaining to vindication and likely so did the author of Maccabees being that the passage he wrote pertains to Abraham being “found” faithful.
A later Latin writer, Hilary of Poitiers, also recognized that the passage (or the event the passage speaks of) in question pertained to vindication and not literal justification. He wrote:
We cannot, then, doubt that the knowledge of God depends on the occasion and not on any change on His part: by the occasion being meant the occasion, not of obtaining but of declaring knowledge, as we learn from His words to Abraham, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou anything unto him, for now I know that thou fearest thy God, and hast not withheld thy beloved son, for My sake. God knows now, but that now I know is a profession of previous ignorance: yet it is not true, that until now God did not know the faith of Abraham, for it is written, Abraham believed in God, and it was counted to him for righteousness, and therefore this now I know marks the time when Abraham received this testimony, not when God began to know. Abraham had proved, by the sacrifice of his son, the love he bore to God, and God knew it at the time He spoke: but as we cannot suppose that He did not know before, we must for this reason suppose that He took knowledge of it then because He spoke (On the Trinity, Book IX, Chap 64).
The preceding shows us that even without reading into the subtleties of Greek usage, Latin readers shared the same understanding of the event in question in verse 21.
Centuries later Bede, one of the few medieval Western Europeans literate in Greek, wrote concerning the passage as follows:
Abraham had such vibrant faith in God that he was ready to do whatever God wanted him to. This is why his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness…It was by his perfect accomplishment of God’s command that the faith which he had in his heart was shown to be perfect (p. 32-33).
What must we conclude from all the previous commentators? Being that from the very beginning of Church history the sacrifice of Isaac was understood to be talking about Abraham’s faith being shown, and not his literal justification before God, we must therefore reject the idea that works justify. Certainly our works vindicate us inasmuch that they show that we are justified by grace through faith, producing the fruits of faith. However, we must also confess that works wrought in holiness of heart cannot justify either in part or in whole.
The Church has historically understood that sacrificing Isaac was not one work, among others, that made Abraham righteous. There is no indication that there are multiple justifications, the first by faith and subsequent ones by works or whatever else. Rather, Abraham’s experience is a demonstration to us of a faith that was already very strong, and so his attempted sacrifices shows us his righteousness.