Whenever we approach the Word of God, remembering the distinction between concept and doctrine can be very helpful. Concept refers simply to the use of a specific term in a specific context. Doctrine refers to the full-orbed biblical understanding of a certain point of theology, which understanding is deduced by examining all the references to a certain concept in the Bible. When we read a term in the Bible, it may refer to the full-orbed doctrine or a limited concept.
Let us illustrate this principle, and since we are considering James’ presentation on justification, we will take the term justification as our example. We are no doubt used to seeing the term justification in Scripture and reading into it our full-orbed doctrine, which states that God declares men and women righteous and acceptable to Him on account of the perfect righteousness of Christ, which He imputes to believers when they trust in Jesus alone for salvation. In his use of the terms justification, justified, and so forth, the apostle Paul is usually speaking doctrinally, having the full-orbed biblical doctrine of justification in view (Rom. 4; Gal. 2:15–16).
Justification also appears in Scripture as a concept. Jesus says in Luke 7:35 that “wisdom is justified by all her children.” Obviously, our Lord does not have the doctrine of justification in mind, for it makes no sense to say that an abstract concept like wisdom is declared righteous through faith in Christ alone. The primary sense here is demonstration — wisdom reveals its presence through wise actions.
Actually, the conceptual use of the term justification to mean demonstration falls under the full-orbed doctrine of justification. The Protestant Reformers, in summarizing the biblical teaching, were clear that justification is by faith alone but not by a faith that is alone. We are not saved by a mere profession of faith but by the possession of faith, and when faith is truly present in the heart, it necessarily, inevitably, and immediately bears fruit as good works of service to God and neighbor. These works in no sense merit a right standing with God, but if they are not present, neither is justifying faith. James 2:14–26 speaks of works as a justification of faith — as faith’s demonstration — and is not claiming that our deeds earn a right standing with God. “As the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” (v.26).