Faith Alone Justifies, but not the Faith that is Alone
We’ve been studying James 2:14-26 on the issue of justification by faith. Or is it by works? The time has now come to walk briefly through the text itself. To do so I want to divide the text into three parts. Continue reading . . .
We’ve been studying James 2:14-26 on the issue of justification by faith. Or is it by works? The time has now come to walk briefly through the text itself. To do so I want to divide the text into three parts.
First, in vv. 14-17 James labors to demonstrate that a so-called “faith” that does not produce works of obedience and compassion and generosity and kindness is not saving faith. What good is it, he asks, if you say you have faith but there are no works? “Can THAT faith save him?” (James 2:14b). No, says James. “That” kind of faith is not saving faith and we know it isn’t saving faith because it is not a working faith. As you’ve heard countless times, faith alone justifies, but not the faith that is alone. James isn’t saying that you need works as the cause of your justification. He is saying that you need works as the consequence of your justification.
Second, in vv. 18-19 he provides yet another line of evidence to make his point. He puts forth a hypothetical discussion between two people. The principle here is the same: How do I know you have faith in the absence of works? If you have no works, if you have no desire to obey Jesus, if you fail to display the fruit of the Holy Spirit such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and so on, how am I supposed to know you really have faith? Do you expect me simply to believe because you say so? Instead, let me demonstrate to you the reality of my faith precisely in the works that I love to do for the sake of God’s glory.
But someone objects: “Wait a minute. I have true beliefs about God, just like you. I affirm that God is one, that there is only one God and not many. Isn’t that good enough to prove that my profession of faith is real and saving?” No, says James, for “even the demons believe” that God is one. And they not only believe it, they are terrified by it. They tremble when they think of God. They fear the coming judgment that God will impose on them. But their knowledge of who God is doesn’t change the fact that they are still demons! And your knowledge of who God is doesn’t by itself mean you aren’t still an unbeliever and lost in your sin.
Orthodoxy by itself proves nothing. Is having right beliefs and sound, Scriptural theology important? Absolutely! But merely asserting in your mind and giving intellectual assent to the truth of what the Bible says does not in itself mean you are in good standing with God. Faith certainly involves believing truths about God and sin and Christ and the cross. But if you don’t actually and authentically trust and rely upon and cast your hope in who Christ and what he has done, your theology amounts to nothing. And the way we can know that you have authentically trusted in, relied upon, and put your hope in Jesus is whether or not this so-called “faith” gradually and incrementally transforms how you live.
Third, James gives two more examples of his point in vv. 20-26. He cites the example of Abraham in vv. 20-24 and of Rahab in vv. 25-26. This by itself is remarkable. Abraham was a patriarch. Rahab was a prostitute!
Let’s look first at the illustration from the life of Abraham in vv. 20-24. James obviously believes that the experience of Abraham proves his point about the nature of true, saving, justifying faith. And in these verses he points our attention to two events in Abraham’s life. In vv. 21-22 James directs our attention to Genesis 22. That is the story of when Abraham, in obedience to God, took Isaac up on the mountain and made preparations to offer him as a sacrifice on the altar.
In v. 23 James directs our attention to something that happened much earlier in Abraham’s life. V. 23 is a reference to Genesis 15:6 where Abraham is described as having believed God, the result of which “it was counted to him as righteousness.” In other words, Abraham was justified and reckoned righteous in God’s sight in Genesis 15 when he first exercised faith and trust and belief in God’s promise.
But 30 years later (30 years after God had reckoned Abraham to be righteous through faith alone) God commanded Abraham to offer up his son Isaac as a sacrifice. And Abraham obeyed, or at least until God stopped him and delivered Isaac and provided a lamb for the sacrifice.
Do you see what is going on here? James makes it clear that Abraham was declared righteous in God’s sight by faith alone when he believed God’s promise in Genesis 15. But 30 years later Abraham was justified by works when he offered up Isaac on the altar. How are we supposed to reconcile these two events? There are three possible answers.
(1) Some argue that here James is using the word “justify” in a sense different from how Paul used it. Paul used the word “justify” to mean that God declares a man righteous in his sight at the beginning of his spiritual life or at the moment of his initial conversion. James uses the word “justify” to mean that a man demonstrates that he is righteous in God’s sight subsequent to his initial conversion. Does the NT ever use the word “justify” in this latter sense of “to demonstrate” or “vindicate” or “publicly prove”? Yes.
We see this in Matthew 11:19 Jesus responds to the accusations of the religious leaders: “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” Clearly the word “justified” here means vindicated or publicly shown to be in the right. In other words, “the existence and value of wisdom are demonstrated in the actions that arise from it” (Moo, 135). We see similar uses of “justify” in Luke 10:29; 16:15; 1 Cor. 4:4; 1 Tim. 3:16.
If this is how James is using the word in vv. 21 and 24 the idea would be that whereas Abraham was declared righteous (justified) by God in Genesis 15 through faith alone, his faith was vindicated or publicly proven (justified) to be real and saving in Genesis 22.
(2) Another possibility is that Paul is referring to our justification that comes when we first exercise faith, when we are first converted. That initial declaration that a man or woman is righteous in God’s sight comes through faith alone. James, on the other hand, refers to our ultimate justification at the final judgment. When the believer stands before God on judgment day God will once again declare him/her to be righteous in light of the evidence of the good works they have performed throughout the course of his/her life. Works are not the basis of that declaration. Rather, our works are the evidence that the declaration made when we first came to faith is true and right and just.
(3) Another possibility is that James speaks this way because good works always follow justifying faith to such a degree that when the works occur we can rightly say that a person is justified by them. Faith alone justifies, but the faith that justifies always works so that when Abraham obeyed God we can say God justified him. These works of Abraham “completed” his faith (v. 22b) in the sense that the plant or flower “completes” or fulfills the purpose of the seed.
If Abraham had stubbornly and defiantly refused to obey God’s command to sacrifice Isaac, if he had rebelled and not repented of such, we would know that his “faith” that supposedly justified him back in Genesis 15 was not genuine saving faith. But just as the seed planted and watered brings forth the plant and the flower, so also Abraham’s faith in Genesis 15 brings forth the obedience and good works of Genesis 22.
The obedience of Abraham in Genesis 22 when he was willing to sacrifice his son demonstrated that his “faith was completed by his works” or was made manifest by his works or his works fulfilled his faith and showed it to be genuine. Abraham was justified by his works in the sense that his obedience to God’s command proved that his faith, that faith he exercised 30 years earlier as recorded in Genesis 15, was real, genuine, saving faith.
But wait a minute. How can James appeal to the example of Abraham to make his point? After all, Abraham was hardly typical. He was the father of the Jewish people. He is the man of preeminent goodness and an example to us all. James knows that you might object in this way, so he cites yet another OT person to prove his point: Rahab, the prostitute! No one would appeal to her as an example of godliness!
We know from Hebrews 11:31 that Rahab exercised faith in God. She turned from her pagan ways and from her immoral lifestyle and embraced in faith Yahweh, the God of Abraham. And how do we know this to be true? What evidence is there that she, like Abraham, was justified in God’s sight? We know it because at great risk to her own physical welfare she provided a way of escape for the Israeli spies who had been sent by Joshua to spy out the city of Jericho.
To be continued . . .