That Kind of Faith
In James 2:18-26, we enter into one of the most controversial texts in the entire Bible. In verse 1 of this chapter, James discusses the importance of holding the faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. He then talks about how that faith in Jesus must result in actions. In verse 17, James states his thesis for his readers: “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” The phrase “by itself” could also be translated “in itself.” In other words, people who simply trust in their faith, not in the One to whom that faith is pointing, really have a dead faith. James is clear that “that faith” (or, that kind of faith) does not experience salvation.
Now we enter more controversy. Verse 21 starts off by saying, “Was not our father Abraham justified by works.” Anyone who has been in the school of Christianity for pretty much any length of time probably sees an apparent problem in this text. It seems as though James is saying that we are made righteous by works. Hence, we come into a right relationship with God based on the good works we do. When we read verse verse 24, we have an even greater contrast with the Apostle Paul’s writings.
James 2:24 – “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
Romans 3:28 – “We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law;”
Look at the similar construct of the passage. What are James and Paul saying? Are they saying totally contradictory things? And, if so, can the Bible be trusted? Or, should James or Paul be out of the Scriptures because one of them is lying? Thankfully we can glean a few things from this passage, but let me say this first: just because people use the same word, that does not mean they are saying the same thing. For example, in chapter one, we studied about trial and temptation. In the Greek language, trial and temptation are the same word. Based on the context, this word can either mean something that is good for us or it can mean something that is dangerous if not fought against. It’s the same Greek word for lust and desire. Based on the context, it can mean something bad or it can mean something good.
If we look at the context of James’ letter, I believe James makes his point very plain. James is correcting people’s understanding of the mantra “Faith Alone.” Some people’s tendency is to say, “We can continue in sin that grace may abound” (an idea that even Paul is against). James is seeming to show irony by saying, “You’re faith alone is really a faith that’s all alone (a faith in itself). Therefore it is dead.” He’s not denying the importance and value of faith alone as declaring us righteous before God (as we’ll see in a moment), but he is denying that you can have faith and no works proceeding from that faith. There are a couple of reasons why works are necessary, according to James: 1) God promised to make us a firstfruit offering (Jas. 1:18) and 2) There is going to be a judgment and God’s mercy is going to triumph on His children’s behalf in granting forgiveness and, by implication, obedience (Jas. 2:12-13).
In order for James to drive his point home, he moves on with an illustration about Abraham offering up Isaac to be an offering to God. This story tells us that God commanded that Abraham take his son to an altar and sacrifice him there. While Abraham had the knife in the air to kill his own son, God stopped him and said, “Now I know that you fear God.” James says the following of this scenario: “You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 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” (vv. 22-23).
James says that this scenario happened for two reasons.
- Verse 22 states that this scenario with Abraham happened as a necessary of true faith’s goal of completion. Faith desires to be whole; therefore, Christians cannot make excuses for sin in their life (Jas. 1:4). Instead, they must fight (Jas. 1:12-15)! James is clear that faith comes first, and true faith has an objective of overseeing the process of having good works. Faith cannot grow apart from these godly actions.
- Verse 23 gives another answer as to why Abraham went through this scenario: so that the Scripture might be fulfilled that Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness. In other words, James again is saying that God declares people righteous when they believe and that righteousness must be lived out. God does not save someone without giving them the promise that they’ll live out that salvation. What’s interesting is that between the time that Abraham believed to the time that Abraham offered Isaac, there was sin that took place. And, there was unbelief. But, Abraham’s belief grew through testing and finally came to this great test of faith in God. Instead of questioning God, he did what God commanded even though he did not fully understand what God was going to do.
This situation can also relate to the Jewish Christians in their trials of being dispersed and persecuted (Jas. 1:1). They’re going through a significant test. Are they going to continue to sin and declare that they had a fake faith or are they going to prove that they have had a true faith? James says to them, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (v. 24). This word for justify is different from Paul’s primary usage. It is probably the same sense that Jesus gives it in the book of Matthew in chapter 11:19, where it says, “Wisdom is proved right by her actions.” “Proved right” is the word “justify.” Therefore, we could say that a person is “proved right” by works and not a faith that is alone. Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness. God said he was righteous, and that righteousness manifested itself in growing works – not perfection, but a growing obedience to God which leads to maturity (aka – perfection).
This truth is the same for believers today. God has made a promise to us. He is merciful towards you. Trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, and obey by the grace God has given you!