Justification Before God and Men
Our justification before God and before our fellow men are not the same. Before God we are justified by faith without works (Rom. 3:28; 4:5, 6). Before men we are justified by works and not by faith only (James 2:24). As soon as the repentant sinner accepts Christ by faith, his name is inscribed in the Lamb's book of life — he is registered as a member of the church universal. But in order to join the church on earth, something more than faith is required. He must show his faith by his works. Before heaven he is justified by faith. Before men he is justified by works.
Failure to understand the difference between justification before God and man has occasioned much misunderstanding over the interpretation of Paul and James. Paul declares that man is justified by faith. James says he is justified by works. Unless we understand that one is speaking of justification before God, and the other of justification before men, James would appear to flatly contradict Paul. But they were writing about different issues. Paul is concerned with the question, "How should man be just with God?" In Romans 3 he says that the whole world stands guilty "before God," and that by works no man can be "justified in His sight" (Verses 19, 20). Then in the next chapter he continues, "If Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God." Rom. 4:2. It is therefore clear that Paul is dealing with justification "before God" — right standing "in His sight."
James addresses himself to another problem. Here were professed believers hearing the Word without doing it. They were failing to bring forth the fruit of practical godliness. This was revealed in their attitude to their fellow men. So the apostle declared:
Notice that James is dealing with the matter of showing his faith:" . . . I will show thee my faith by my works." If "faith" yields no fruit, it is not faith at all, but a counterfeit. So James continues:
In his justification with God, Abraham believed God, and that was counted unto him for righteousness. But how do we know that his faith was genuine? How do we know that God's way of making men righteous in His sight is genuine? Abraham's life of implicit obedience proves this. It requires faith to obey God in all things.Writing on the problem of Paul and James, Luther declared:
Paul Justified by Works Before Men
Paul also knew that before men he was justified by his works. He frequently justified himself before the churches by recounting his works. To answer his critics, he magnified his office of apostleship and vindicated his course of action. In this manner of justification, Paul did not talk of his faith, but he talked of his works. To the Thessalonian believers he wrote:
Thus was the apostle justified by his works before the Thessalonians. Then, to answer his critics at Corinth, he wrote:
Thus was Paul justified by works before the Corinthians. And in many other places, and before many other people, Paul showed that he was justified by works.
No Works Could Justify Before God
When arraigned before his judges and accusers, Paul protested that he had done nothing worthy of death. He said that his conscience was void of offence toward God and toward men (Acts 24:16;25:11). But this was never his plea before God. His blameless life and holy ministry were not the basis of his right standing before God. So he declared: "I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not there by acquitted [justified — K.J.V.]." 1 Cor. 4:4, R.S.V. He well knew that his justification before God was by grace alone, by the blood of Christ alone, and that it was not ever on the basis of what the Holy Spirit had done in him, but on the basis of God's act of liberation on the cross in the Person of Christ (See Rom. 3:24, N.E.B.).
God's people must be grounded on this gospel of justification before Heaven can entrust them with the latter rain, for under the great outpouring of God's Spirit, signs and wonders will follow the believers as they proclaim the truth in the might of the Spirit's power. Yet with Paul they will still confess, "I am not hereby justified." It requires God's righteousness, all of His righteousness, to be accepted in His sight. That righteousness is found only in the Man Christ Jesus. We can rest our salvation on nothing less than His humiliation, suffering and death. His was not just the humiliation of a man, but of a God. His excellence of character was infinite, for His earthly life was the embodiment of divine perfection. His sufferings were infinite, His death of infinite value. The sacrifice of Christ amazed the angels. It will be the science, song and wonder of the redeemed for eternity. Upon this one magnificent and unspeakable Gift we must base our right standing with God for time and for eternity. Praise God that there is such a solid ground of hope! What comfort to know that we need never ground our salvation on anything that is within us! And to teach us these things God gives the Holy Spirit.