There was one passage that we did not have sufficient time to look at closely in our sermon series on Matthew 12:33-37. James 2:14-26 is a crucial text to consult when working out our theology regarding the relationship between faith and works. What we have already discovered in the sermon series will help us to make sense of a passage that is a conundrum to many.
First, let’s recall the main ideas of those sermons. The Bible teaches both that justification is by faith and that good works will be necessary on judgment day in order to be justified. Both of these ideas are found all over the New Testament and in the writings of each of the New Testament authors. In other words, the Bible teaches that justification is both by faith and by works. How is this not a contradiction? We are justified by faith in one sense and we are justified by works in a different sense. The basis of our justification is the imputed righteousness of Christ that comes through faith alone. Good works are the necessary outward evidence of God’s salvific work in the life of a believer.
To use Jesus’ analogy from Matthew 12:33-37, good works are to faith what fruit is to a tree. Fruit is evidence of the condition of the tree. Good trees bear good fruit; rotten trees bear rotten fruit. So reliable is this relationship that no one cuts open a tree to discover its condition. The tree’s fruit tells the whole story. Likewise, those who have faith in Christ produce good works; those who do not have faith in Christ do not produce good works. So reliable is this correlation that Jesus says we will be judged according to our words (works) on the day of judgment. Is it the works themselves that save us? No, the works are the necessary outward evidence of inward saving faith. If we grasp these ideas, James 2:14-26 will make perfect sense to us.
Now let’s cut the passage in half and deal with it a section at a time:
14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe-- and shudder!
There are a couple of key things to notice. First, we should notice what the issue is. James asks in v14, can that faith save him? The issue at hand is what kind of faith saves. He demonstrates that there are two kinds of faith – faith that does not have works and faith that does have works. Which saves? The faith that has works. James describes the faith that does not have works as “dead,” that is, it does not save. In vv15-16, he portrays this kind of faith as useless.
Second, we should notice that James tells us explicitly what the role of works is. In v18, he anticipates the objection that faith and works can be separated – “someone will say, ‘you have faith and I have works.’” But James shows that they cannot be separated, for works are what demonstrate saving faith – “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” Works are the identifying mark of saving faith. To believe without bearing fruit makes one no better off than the demons (v19).
20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness"-- and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
Beginning in v20, James offers to give biblical proof that faith without works is not saving faith. A knowledge of how these events are recorded in Genesis is crucial. In v21, he writes that Abraham was justified by works when he offered up Isaac on the altar. This event is recorded in Genesis 22. In v23, James writes that this act fulfilled the Scripture that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” This declaration of Abraham’s righteousness is recorded in Genesis 15. In other words, Abraham was declared righteous, or justified, before the offering of Isaac. What this means is that Genesis teaches that Abraham was justified by faith (in the event recorded in Gen 15), and James teaches that Abraham was justified by works (in the event recorded in Gen 22).
Contradiction? Only if we assume that both indicate justification in the same sense. But James has already told us what sense he intends – works are evidence of saving faith (“I will show you my faith by my works”), evidence that is necessary for justification. He offers another clue that this is his intention in v23 in the words, “and the Scripture was fulfilled…” Abraham’s works in Genesis 22 were the fulfillment or completion or demonstration of the internal change that took place in Genesis 15. That Abraham is described in Scripture as being justified both at the point of belief and at the point of bearing good works is analogous to the already-not-yet character of justification that we discovered in the sermon series (justification is presented in the NT as both a present possession and a future event – Rom 5:1; Matt 12:37).
You see, James is using “justified” in the same sense Jesus did in Matthew 12:37 when He said, “By your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned.” Outward fruit is what demonstrates the reality of inward faith. That evidence will be necessary in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. Those who have saving faith will inevitably possess that evidence. Faith that saves is faith that produces works.
Posted by Greg Birdwell