Note: I have also written a summary post of this sermon on James 2:14-26.
We all know that the Bible teaches that God gives eternal life to anyone who simply and only believes in Jesus Christ for it (John 3:16; 5:24; 6:47; etc). In this message, we come to a passage in James 2 that on first glance, seems to say exactly the opposite. We have said that faith without works gives eternal life, but James 2 says that faith without works is dead. We have said that we are justified by faith alone, but James 2 clearly says that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone.
This passage has caused so much confusion and controversy over the years, that some have even tried to remove it from Scripture. Martin Luther, for example, that great reformer who battled the Catholic church over the issue of how to receive eternal life, called the book of James, “a right strawy epistle” meaning that there was nothing in it but wood, hay and stubble. He was so insistent on justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, that he had trouble reconciling these truths with the teachings of James.
We will see that with a careful and contextual study of this passage, there is no problem in reconciling what James writes with what Paul and Jesus taught. But the context is the key. Have you heard the three rules of proper Bible interpretation? Number 1, context. Number 2, context. Number 3, context. Some call it studying the Bible with 20/20 vision. Look at the 20 verses before and the 20 verses after. But James 2:14-26 requires much more than just the 20 verses on either side. We need to get the complete historical, cultural and grammatical context of the passage in order to understand it.
Context of James 2
Let’s look at the historical/cultural context first. This asks who wrote the book, who it was written to. It asks historical questions like what challenges were they facing and what questions were they asking. It looks at cultural issues like what were the common practices and beliefs of people in that time and place that this book was written to? Let’s answer some of these questions.
Often times, the best place to look for answers is right at the beginning of the book. Turn to James 1:1.
James 1:1. James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. To the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad. Greetings.
So we learn first of all who wrote the book of James. It was James! But who was he? Well, there are several different men in the New Testament named James, but almost everyone agrees that this James was the half-brother of Jesus Christ. During Christ’s ministry on earth, James doubted that Jesus was the Messiah, but after Christ died and rose from the dead, James could not deny the facts, and so believed in Jesus for eternal life. He soon became one of the elders in the rapidly growing Jerusalem church, and when we come to Acts 15, we read that he presided over the Jerusalem council.
We’re still developing our context in James 1:1. We’ve learned who wrote the book. Let’s now see who he wrote it to.
Verse 1 says it was written to the twelve tribes scattered abroad. Who is this? Jews. And there are two kinds of Jews, believing Jews and unbelieving Jews. Which kind is this letter written to? Look at verse 2 where we read, my brethren. Skip down to verse 16. Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. Verse 19. So then, my beloved brethren.
Now up to this point, we could say, “Well, James is a Jew, and so he would refer to all Jews as his brethren, so really, so far, it is hard to tell who he is writing to aside from Jews in general.”But we get a much better picture in James 2:1. We read there, My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. This sort of statement can only be made to Jewish believers. And you can go through the rest of this letter and discover that quite clearly, James is writing to Jewish believers. And as such, it will not surprise us to see that James makes a lot of allusions to the Old Testament.
There were very few Jews, if any, who were Biblically illiterate. Almost all Jews knew the Old Testament and were schooled and trained in the Old Testament, and so whenever we read a book of the New Testament, like Matthew, or Hebrews, or James that was written specifically to Jewish believers, we must make sure we have a proper understanding of the Old Testament also. We will see how this plays into James 2.
So, James, the brother of Jesus, is the author. We have also learned who James was writing to – Jewish believers. Now, to round out the picture, we must understand his occasion for writing. We must discern the reason James wrote this letter. What issues were they facing? What questions did they need answered? What struggles did they have?
There are numerous ways to discover this. One of the simplest is to go through and see what issues James talks about and what questions he answers. And if you were to do that with the book of James, you would discover that James tells these Jewish believers how to stand up under persecution. How to stand up under temptation. He talks to them about the importance of obeying the Word, rather than just learning it. He warns them against showing favoritism toward the rich in the church. He tells them in chapter 3 how dangerous the tongue is and we need to watch what we say and to whom we say it. He tells them that if you think you are wise, the best way to show it is by living a Godly life. He warns them against pride and tells them how pride leads to strife in the church. He tells them not to judge one another and not to boast about your future. He reminds them that the rich will be judged for how they used their power and riches. He closes off his short letter with some careful instructions about prayer and helping restore wayward Christians.
Do you want to know what the Jewish believers were struggling with? They were struggling with how to live with one another in this new church! It was all so new to them. They had trouble getting alone with one another. They had trouble knowing how much of the Old Testament law they still had to keep, and if they were supposed to keep any of it. They had trouble knowing who to put into positions of authority in the church. They had trouble with facing persecution – especially when it came from other Jews who used to be their friends. They had trouble knowing how to pray, and when to pray and what to pray for.
These are the questions that new Christians ask about how to live as a Christian. James is giving them a crash course in discipleship. “You’re going to face persecution – here’s how to handle it. The rich are going to try to get power in the church – don’t let them. There will some who will try to sound wise and educated – if they truly are wise, they will show it by their conduct. One of the biggest problems in church is gossip, so watch your tongue. Prayer is vitally important for the health of the church, so make sure you pray.”
This is Christianity 101. This is Christian boot camp. These are Christian basics. This is practical, down to earth stuff.
And what is one of the main questions that every new Christian asks? What about works? Every new Christian I have ever talked to who has clearly understood that justification is by faith alone in Christ alone has asked “So…I don’t have to do anything? Nothing at all? I just believe in Jesus and that’s it?” In fact, in my witnessing over the years, I have found this is one of the first questions new Christians ask. Let me go further. I have found that if I am explaining the gospel to someone, and they do NOT ask this question, they probably have not understood what I was saying. Do you want to know whether or not you are sharing the Gospel correctly or not? One litmus test I use is whether or not this question comes up. If you share the Gospel and somebody says, “Well, if what you are saying is true, then can’t I just go sin all I want?” you know that you have explained the Gospel clearly.
If you explain the Gospel, that that question doesn’t come up, then you probably have added works into the Gospel somewhere. Look at this way. In Romans, Paul clearly defines the Gospel. Chapters 1-3 explain our sinful condition. Chapters 4-5 explain that justification is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone no works at all anywhere. And what does the imaginary objector say in Romans 6:1? This imaginary objector basically says, “Well, if that’s true, why can’t I sin all I want?” There’s the question. Paul explained the gospel so clearly the person he was explaining it to said, “Well if I can be declared righteous simply by faith in Christ with no works at all, why can’t I just sin all I want?” The same question is asked again in Romans 6:15. Do you understand what I am saying here? Any gospel presentation which does result in this question is not the Biblical Gospel.
D. Martin Lloyd Jones says:
“If a man preaches justification by works, no one would ever raise this question. If a man’s preaching is, ‘If you want to be Christians, and if you want to go to heaven, you must stop committing sins, you must take up good works, and if you do so regularly and constantly, and do not fail to keep on at it, you will make yourselves Christians, you will reconcile yourselves to God, and you will go to heaven.’ Obviously, a man who preaches in that strain would never be liable to this misunderstanding. Nobody would say to such a man, ‘Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?’, because the man’s whole emphasis is just this, that if you go on sinning you are certain to be damned, and only if you stop sinning can you save yourselves…
“I would say to all preachers: If your preaching of salvation has not been misunderstood in that way, then you had better examine your sermons again, and you had better make sure that you really are preaching the salvation that is offered in the New Testament to the ungodly…”
If someone is able to present the Gospel, and at the end of it, the unbeliever or the new brand new believer doesn’t ask, “So, why can’t I just keep sinning all I want?” there is a possibility that the Gospel presentation was not clear enough. When people hear that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, the natural reaction is, “So what about good works?” A truly Biblical Gospel presentation almost always results in the question, “Well, if that’s true, why can’t I just sin all I want?” And let me tell you right now, there are many, many answers to that question.
Paul gives one answer in Romans 6. He gives a different answer in 1 Corinthians 3. Jesus answers this question in places in many of His parables. John answers this question in the book of 1 John. We will be studying all of these passages in the weeks to come. But tonight, just understand that James gives us an answer in James 2:14-26. James is writing to a new church filled with new believers struggling with how to live out their new identity in Christ. They are facing all of the questions and all of the struggles that new believers face – and among these questions is one that we all struggle with as well. “I’ve believed in Jesus for eternal life, but what role does works play?”
So we’ve seen the historical-cultural context of James 2. Who wrote the book? James. Who did he write it to? Jewish believers. What was the reason for writing? To instruct them on the basics of Christian living. What is the specific question he is answering in James 2:14-26? What role does works play in the Christian life? That is the historical-cultural context. But we still need to look at the grammatical context. That is, we look at the words James uses, and what they mean. We look at the sentence structure he uses and how the paragraphs are formed. We look at the flow of the arguments and the basis for those arguments.
James 2:14-26 in Detail
This passage hinges on correctly understanding four key terms. Correctly defining terms is the key to understanding the grammatical context of any passage. To correctly understand James 2:14-26, you must have accurately defined the words “save,” “dead,” “justify” and “perfect.” We will define these as we go through the text.
The Profitable Christian Life (James 2:14)
James begins in James 2:14 by asking two questions. First,
James 2:14. What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?
So right from the start, the issue is not eternal life, but profit. The question is, “What is profitable? What is beneficial? What will help most in your Christian life? Faith or works?” And then we come to the second question:
Can faith save him?
This is a negative rhetorical question in the Greek which means that the implied answer is an emphatic no. Can faith save him? No, of course not. Another way of translating it that brings this out could be, “Faith cannot save him, can it?”
Remember Ephesians 2:8-9? We read there, “by grace you are saved through faith.” In Ephesians 2, we read that we are saved by faith. But here, James says that faith cannot save. So are these two verses in contradiction? No they are not. Why not? Because of the definition of the word “save.” The word “save” is defined as “to deliver” and must always be understood in context.
It does not mean to be delivered or saved from hell and given eternal life unless the context indicates that this is the meaning. In Ephesians 2, the context tells us that our salvation, our deliverance is from sin and the eternal consequences of sin. So Ephesians 2 is talking about being delivered from sin.
But is that what James 2 is talking about? No, not even close. The context tells us what we are saved, or delivered from. Look at James 2:12-13. So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. These verses are talking about some sort of judgment that believers will face. Similarly, James 3:1 brings out the same concept of judgment for Christian teachers. My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.
So you see, James brackets the passage we are considering with this theme of a judgment that Christians will face. And it apparently is a judgment based on our works. There is only one judgment of this sort in the Bible. In fact, though there are several different times and forms of judgment in the Bible, the only one Christians will face is the judgment seat of Christ, sometimes called the Bema. It is there that we will be judged according to our works done in the body, whether good or evil (2 Cor. 5:10). It is there that reward is handed out and eternal privileges are distributed. Jesus tells frequent parables about this. Paul talks about it everywhere.
And it is what James has in mind right here. He says that when we stand before the judgment seat of Christ, although we will have the wonderful gift of eternal life, the issue that day will be what you did in this life with the gifts and talents and abilities God gave you. “In that day,” James says, “faith alone will not profit.” These new Christians have asked, “What role does works play?” and James has answered, “Before the judgment seat of Christ, it is works that will be profitable.”
Faith alone in Christ alone gets you into heaven. Works earn you reward in heaven. If all you have is faith in Christ, that will get you into heaven, but faith will not save your reward, or inheritance or profit that could have been yours in heaven. When Christians ask, “Why can’t I sin all I want?” the most basic Biblical answer is: “Because you will lose heavenly reward. You will be disinherited at the judgment seat of Christ.”
Caring for our Christian Brethren (James 2:15-17)
Now, James is a very practical pastor, and so he sets out to illustrate and apply this for his readers in James 2:15-16.
James 2:15-16. If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?
James says, “Look, one of your Christian brothers or sisters is without clothes and is starving. And you learn of their need, and so you go to them and say, ‘I believe God can supply for all your needs. I will pray for you. I have faith that God can give you clothes and fill your belly’ how did that help them or you?” Jesus didn’t say, “If you see someone who is thirsty and tell them you believe God can quench their thirst” then that’s good enough. Jesus said that if you give a cup of cold water in His name, you will not lose your reward in heaven (Matt. 10:42).
James says the same thing here. He says that when you are standing before Christ in heaven, and He asks you how you have helped those who were in need, it is not going to be a satisfactory answer to say, “Well, I had faith that God could help them. I believed that God would take care of their needs.” Jesus will say, “You should have helped them. You should have met their needs.” On that day, all the faith in the world will not be profitable. You need works. On that day, faith will be useless. Which is exactly what we read in James 2:17.
James 2:17. Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
Here is another one of those terms to define. What does the word “dead” mean? Useless. Ineffective. We could probably even say in context, unprofitable. It never in the Greek, in the Hebrew, or even in English means “non-existent.” There are some who teach that a dead faith is no faith at all. But the definition of dead is useless, and unproductive. Ineffective. Unprofitable. It doesn’t mean “non-existent.” When we stand as Christians before the Bema seat, Christ looks at our works, not at our faith. Faith is dead, useless on that day. Faith is unprofitable.
James also implies here that works are profitable in this life also. They first of all profit the person who we help with our works. Feeding somebody helps get rid of their hunger. Clothing somebody helps keep them warm. So works are profitable at the Bema, and profitable in helping others. But James says that works are profitable even beyond this. He implies here in verse 17, and will get into much greater detail later, that works help energize and mature our faith, but they do not save us from hell.
This is a challenging thought for some people to understand or even accept. We are so convinced sometimes that there is no connection between faith and works, we do not see how works can help energize and mature our faith. So in James 2:18, someone objects to what James is teaching. We come in James 2:18 to someone who doesn’t really like what James is teaching, and so they voice an objection. James has apparently had this conversation with other Jews before, and he knows what some of them are thinking. So he includes it here in his letter.
The Objection to James (James 2:18-19)
Now the problem here is what exactly the objector says. There is much disagreement here on how far we should take the objector’s quotes. And I’ll tell you right now, you cannot tell just by looking at the quotation marks in your Bible. You see, Greek does not have punctuation like we do. They do not have quotation marks. When we want to show what a person says, we bracket it with quotation marks. But Greek didn’t have this, so authors had to use other things to show when a quote started and when it ended. (See my article on “Epistolary Diatribe.”)
Let me show you what they did. Flip over to 1 Corinthians 15:35-36.
“But someone will say, ‘How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?’ Foolish one, what you sow is not made alive unless it dies.”
Paul introduces this objector with the phrase “But someone will say.” This phrase is like saying “quote.” And then, after he is done quoting the objector, Paul uses a somewhat derogatory phrase to begin his rebuttal. He says, “Foolish one…” That phrase is like saying, “unquote.”
We see the same thing in Romans 9:19-20.
“You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?’ But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God?”
So once again, Paul introduces this objector with the phrase, “You will say to me then.” This is followed by the open quote. And then, Paul indicates the end of the objectors comments by using a derogatory phrase. He says in verse 20, “But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God?” Do you see how they get around not having quotation marks? They introduce the objector with the phrase, “But someone will say” and then they conclude the objection with a somewhat derogatory phrase. Now, let’s see if James uses this same structure back in James 2.
In James 2:18, we read But someone will say. So James does open the quote in the normal way by introducing the objector. But then where does the objection end? Well, the NKJV puts it half way through verse 18. But there is no derogatory phrase there. The NAS takes it a bit further and carries the quote all the way to the end of verse 18. But there is no derogatory phrase there either. Where is the derogatory phrase? Where should the end quote be? Look at James 2:20. But do you want to know, O foolish man,…
James 2:20 is where James begins to respond to his objector. The Objector’s arguments are contained in James 2:18-19. The end quotation mark should not be until the end of James 2:19. And really, this is the only way the objection makes any sense at all. If you carefully and thoughtfully work through the logic James’ argument up to this point, and then look at the objection, you must include all of James 2:18-19 in the objection.
James 2:18-19. But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works. Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!”
What is the objector saying? He is basically saying that there is no true connection between faith and works. Let me reword the objection here to help you understand it.
Here is what the objector is saying:
“But someone is going to say, ‘All right then! Let’s say that you have correct beliefs and I have correct actions. Go right ahead! Take some belief of yours and make it visible by means of your actions. And if you can do that (but, of course, you can’t!), then I will take my actions and will make my belief visible through them (utterly impossible!)
“Oh, I know! You’ll claim that your faith in the unity of God is demonstrated by your good conduct. I disallow that claim. The demons also believe the same thing you believe and they don’t do good. They only tremble!'”
Do you see what the objector is saying? It’s somewhat difficult to grasp. He is saying that beliefs do not result in actions, and actions do not reveal beliefs. And he uses the cardinal doctrine of Judaism as a test case – that God is one. The objector says, “Look, you believe that God is one and as a result, you live as you think you should. But there are a lot of people who live their life just as good as you do, but they don’t believe that God is one. And so actions do not reveal beliefs.”
“Furthermore,” the objector says, “let’s take this belief again and apply it to demons. They certainly believe that God is one. They are good theologians. But they certainly don’t do good works. They do evil works. So again, correct beliefs do not result in actions. There is no connection between faith and works. People can believe what they believe without it effecting their works, and people can do whatever they want to do without it revealing what they believe.”
Let me apply this to a modern day situation. One that is near and dear to all of us: Christians who do not have good works in their life. Look at it from both perspectives. First, take their beliefs. They say they believe in Jesus for eternal life. They believe that Jesus Christ is God’s Son, was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, died on the cross for their sins, was buried and raised to life three days later. But their life is in shambles. They sin constantly. This objector in James 2 would say, “See? Their faith has no connection with their works.”
And then take exhibit B. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses and Buddhists. We know that they all have incorrect beliefs about God and Jesus Christ and eternal life. But many of them live much better lives than the average Christian! So once again, this objector has seemingly proved his point. Good actions do not reveal correct beliefs. There seems to be no connection between faith and works.
Now, James is going to respond to this and point out the error in a masterful way in verse 20 and following. But before we look at that, I want to make one point about verse 19 before we do. I cannot tell you how many times I have been accused by other Christians of teaching easy-believism because I teach that the only thing one has to do to receive eternal life is believe in Jesus for it. Now, first of all, it’s not me who teaches this, it’s the Bible. But without fail, the only verse these accusers quote at me is James 2:19. They always say, “Well, it has to be more than just believe, because the demons believe and they aren’t saved.” I always sigh when I hear that. Those who use such an argument have only revealed their complete ignorance of the passage they have just quoted.
First of all, they are not quoting James, but an objector to James. That’s like quoting Satan when he tempts Christ and then calling it truth. If you are going to quote Scripture, quote someone is teaching the truth, rather than someone who is objecting to the truth. But even beyond this, what is it the demons believe here? They believe that God is one. That God is unified. Now since when is that a belief that has ever given anybody eternal life? All Jews believe that God is One. All Muslims believe that God is One. But how many Jews and Muslims have eternal life because they believe that God is One?
Zero! You do not get eternal life by believing that God is One. You get eternal life by believing in Jesus for it. And the demons have never and will never believe in Jesus for eternal life. Why not? Because it hasn’t been offered to them. Jesus did not die for the sins of demons. No demon believes in Jesus for eternal life. So don’t allow people to tell you that it has to be more than just believe because the demons believe. That is ripping this verse completely out of context.
The Response of James to the Objection (James 2:20-26)
But let us get to the rebuttal of James in James 2:20.
James 2:20. But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?
James begins his rebuttal by repeating what he said in verse 17. He said there that faith without works is dead. Works empowers and energizes faith. Works make faith profitable. James says, “So, you don’t believe that there is a connection between faith and works? Let me show you what the Bible says.” Now the objector used one of the cardinal Jewish theological beliefs to make his case – the truth out of Deuteronomy 6 that God is One. So James says, “Oh yeah? Two can play that game.” And James, to make his case, uses the premier figure of faith in the Old Testament, the father of faith and the father of all Jews. James pulls out the trump card and flops it on the table. James uses the example of Abraham.
James 2:21. Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?
Some critics look at this and see a contradiction in the Bible. Paul, in Romans 3-4 and in Galatians 2-3 holds up Abraham as the father of faith because he believed God and so was justified by his faith. He says that Abraham was justified by faith, apart from works! But James says exactly the opposite, that Abraham was justified by works.
To understand what is going on, you need to understand that Paul and James are talking about two completely different events in the life of Abraham. Paul, in saying that Abraham was justified by faith, refers to the events in Genesis 15 where God promises to Abraham that he will be the father of many nations and that the Messiah would come through Abraham. And we read in Genesis 15:6 that Abraham believed God and his faith was credited to him as righteousness. He was declared righteous in the sight of God. He was justified before God. And this is exactly what we read in Romans 4:3 and Galatians 3:6. How do we get eternal life? How are we justified? The same way Abraham was. By faith alone.
But James says that Abraham was justified by works. But do you notice when James says this happened? …when he offered Isaac his son on the altar. When was that? This was 15 years later in Genesis 22! Abraham was justified, or declared righteous by God in Genesis 15, but then he was also justified, or declared righteous again in Genesis 22. Only this second time, it was not by God, but by men.
Justification does not mean “get eternal life.” It means “to declare righteous.” And we can only tell by context who is doing the declaring. The Scripture contains two different kinds of justification. The first is the kind we are most aware of. It is justification through faith alone in the sight of God. Galatians 3:11 talks about being justified in the sight of God. The other kind of justification though, is not through faith, but is through works and is in the sight of men. This is the kind of justification James is talking about here and the kind of justification Abraham received in Genesis 22. Paul hints at this second kind of justification in Romans 4:2.
James is a Bible scholar and he knows that Abraham had faith in Genesis 15, but he is pointing out to his objector here that Abraham’s faith was maturing and being energized by his works. This is what he says in James 2:22.
James 2:22. Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?
The word perfect in the Greek means mature. Our faith, our relationship, out intimacy, our fellowship with God, matures and grows and develops only as we live in obedience to Him. Do you want to know why the faith of some grows cold? Because they do not work. Do you want to know why some Christians lack vibrancy and joy and the intimacy and closeness with God they wish they had? Because they don’t have works. Do you want to know why God sometimes feels distant and like you are out of fellowship with Him? Because you don’t have works. Do you want to know why some Christians always seem to be immature and never grow? Because they don’t have works! Do you want to know why some Christians always struggle with sin? Because they don’t do the works that they can do. Good works causes our faith to grow. Works help keep your faith alive and vibrant and exciting and growing.
For Abraham, it took a long time for his faith to mature. As it does for us also. He experienced ups and downs. He doubted God for a while. He lied about his wife. He got involved in sexual immorality with his maidservant Hagar. He was not a good father to Ishmael. Abraham had some serious sin issues. But his faith was maturing because even though he had numerous failures, he was trying day by day to walk with God. This all comes to light between Genesis 15 and Genesis 22. In Genesis 15, Abraham believed God and so was justified in the sight of God. But it was not until Genesis 22 that Abraham’s faith had matured enough through his works that people began to think of him as righteous also.
This is what James 2:23 points out.
James 2:23. And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God.
Here we have the whole spectrum from Genesis 15 to Genesis 22 condensed down into one verse. Justification in the sight of God eventually led to justification in the sight of men. Do you see that little phrase there at the end of James 2:23, “and he was called God’s friend”? Who do you think called him that? The servants of Abraham, and the people who lived near Abraham had heard how God spoke to him and had heard how Abraham had promised to follow God and obey him completely. And so they watched him to see what he would do. It’s like us when we become a Christian, and our friends, family and co-workers watch us to see if there will be any change. That is what they did with Abraham. They watched him – for 15 years. Sometimes he seemed righteous. Sometimes he didn’t. During this whole time, Abraham had been claiming to have been declared righteous by God. Many people who witnessed his life, however, may have been skeptical.
But then something happened,…God asked Abraham to take his one and only son, the son that Abraham had waited 100 years for, the only son of his inheritance, God asked Abraham to take that son, and go offer him up as a sacrifice on an altar. What did Abraham do? Genesis 22:3 says that Abraham left early the next morning. He did not wait around. He did not question God’s request. He obeyed, and he obeyed quickly. And what happened? You all know the story. God stopped the knife of Abraham just before it took the life of Isaac, and gave in his place a ram from among the thorns. You can believe that news of this spread quickly, and Abraham’s faith was make evident to all, and when Abraham went walking by, people would say, “That man is God’s friend.” He was called the friend of God. He was justified in the sight of men.
Do you want to be known as a friend of God? Jesus tells us how in John 15:24. He says there, “You are my friends if you do what I command.” We have been saved by faith alone in Christ alone. We are headed for heaven. We are the children of God. But faith alone in Christ alone does not make you the friend of God. And what does it take to be the friend of God? Jesus said, “You are my friend if you do what I command.” Abraham did what God commanded, and he was called God’s friend. Faith alone gave Abraham justification in the eyes of God. Works gave Abraham justification in the eyes of men. They looked at him and said, “Yes, he is righteous. He is God’s friend.”
This is what James says yet again a third time in James 2:24.
James 2:24. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.
So James has done a pretty good job refuting the objector. He has clearly shown that there is a connection between faith and works. While it is true that works do not really reveal what a person believes, works are intimately connected with faith for works help faith mature. Works energize our faith. Works make our faith vibrant.
But James is not done. James knew that for many of his readers, Abraham was a hero. He was the “first Jew.” He was their founding father. If you could take Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Abe Lincoln and put them all into one person, together, they would not equal the way the Israelites felt about their forefather Abraham. So, while all Jews wanted to be like Abraham, some of them may have been saying “Well James, we see your point, but Abraham’s faith was so for beyond the level of ours, that what you’re saying doesn’t really seem to apply to us.” So, James gave another example. And this example is the exact opposite of Abraham. It’s found in James 2:25.
James 2:25. Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?
Rahab was the exact opposite of Abraham. Abraham was man. Rahab was a woman. Abraham was the father of Israel. Rahab was a Gentile. Abraham lived a pretty good life, so most Jews thought. Rahab was a prostitute. But James says that even Rahab was justified by her works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way. And if anything, her faith matured much faster than Abraham’s.
For the two Israelite spies showed up in Jericho, and stayed with Rahab, and probably told her that God was going to destroy Jericho and give the promised land to Israel. And Rahab believed what God had said, and so was justified in the sight of God. And maybe she told the spies that she believed, and so would they please spare her and her family when they destroyed Jericho? But they could not actually know if she was telling the truth or not, and so they asked her to energize her faith with works. They told her to protect them, hide them, let them escape without getting caught, put her own life in danger by not revealing where they had went, then gather her family members into her house, and lower a scarlet cord from her window in the wall, and God would deliver her.
And this is what she did, and so she was justified by her works in the sight of men. She acted in faith, and by so doing, she saved the lives of the two spies, and she saved her own life and the life of her family when Jericho fell to the Israelites. Incidentally, as we see from Matt. 1:5, Rahab was further blessed by God to become a part of the Messianic line.James closes his argument with an analogy from our body in James 2:26.
James 2:26. For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
Just as the spirit energizes and makes the body useful, so works energizes faith and makes faith productive and profitable. When we stand before Christ at the Bema, the question will be “Was your faith profitable or dead and useless?”
What place do works have in the life of the Christian? They don’t get us eternal life. They don’t help us keep eternal life. They don’t prove we have eternal life. But they do make our faith profitable for that day when we stand before the Bema seat, and they do help us have better fellowship with other Christians and they do help our faith mature and grow as God wants it to.
Can a person believe in Jesus and not have works? Well, probably everybody will have some works, but those who neglect good works are missing out on all that God has for them here and now, are ruining their witness with the world, are destroying their fellowship with other Christians, and will miss out on the rewards they could have had in heaven. Are works important? You bet they are. They will save us from a negative judgment at the Bema, they help justify us before men, and they energize our faith here and now.