For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous [or justified]. – Romans 2:13
How exactly does this verse square with the doctrine of justification by faith? Even more importantly, how does this square with the statement in the next chapter of Romans that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified [same word] freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:23-24)? In Romans 2, it is obedience to the law which justifies; in Romans 3, it is the free grace of God which justifies. What’s up with that?
The answer lies in the notion of semantic range. Words can have a range of meanings. Which particular meaning is in view depends on the context in which the word is used.
The Greek word dikaioo, translated “justify,” can mean “count as righteous,” which is the sense Paul is using in Romans 3 (and elsewhere in Romans where justification by faith is expounded). But it can also mean “prove right.” A vernacular example of this usage of justify might be: “The Cardinals’ play in the National League Championship Series justifies my preseason prediction.” The fact that they are playing for the pennant justifies (proves right) my preseason claim.
It is this second use of dikaioo which both Paul (Romans 2:13) and James (James 2:24) are using when they speak of justification by works. The case study for both types of justification is Abraham (see Romans 4:1-3 and James 2:20-26), which should be your first clue that there is no tension between the two – the same guy demonstrates both. Here is a succinct quote from the study notes in my Bible that sums it up neatly:
Paul consistently referred to Abraham’s faith as exercised in Genesis 15:1-6 [as a model of justification by faith]. In the Genesis 15 account, justify means “count as righteous:” “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Ge 15:6). James, however, recalled an episode (recorded in Genesis 22) that took place after Isaac had been born and grown into young adulthood. In the Genesis 22 account, “justify” means “proved right,” as indicated by the fact that God was testing Abraham and that Abraham’s justification consisted in his passing the test: “Now I know that you fear God” (Ge 22:12). James agreed with Paul that Abraham was initially counted as righteous when he believed God’s promise (Jas 2:22-23), but he added that Abraham’s later obedience proved the earnestness of his earlier faith.
The proper understanding of Romans 2:13, in light of the rest of Romans, is that “a believer’s later obedience proves the earnestness of his (or her) earlier faith.” We are justified (declared righteous, at the moment of salvation) by faith. And we are justified (proved right, at the end of life) by obedience. Or, as the Reformers said, “We are saved by faith alone; but the faith that saves is never alone.”