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!
This past Sunday, I preached on James 1:12-18. Within the first chapter of this book, James addresses people by encouraging them to “count it all joy” and to know that God intends good for them – that their faith in the Lord would be trained. He does not want to see double-mindedness. Instead he spurs them on to emulate God’s single-focused liberality. He ensures them that the temptation they are facing is not from the Lord, but instead their own flesh trying to take them down.
So, how do we persevere? How do we stand against the onslaught of temptations during the trials we will face? Remember, we are to persevere by faith in God. That’s where verses 17-18 comes in.
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.
You might be tempted to think, “This situation I am in is too unbearable” – not remembering that God provides His children with a way of escape in every temptation. You might be tempted to think that God has forgotten you, and you want to quit. But, James gives a final blow to any of those thoughts in verse 18 (one of my favorite verses in the Bible). Just as the Father of lights said, “Let there be light and there was light,” He also said, “Let there be spiritual life, and there was spiritual life in His children!” What James is saying here is that God is the ultimate giver of great gifts and he never ceases to give great gifts. The ultimate gift is the one of salvation that keeps you secure in Him and won’t allow temptation and sin to completely and decisively overtake you. God’s salvation will keep you secure in trial and will ensure that you will remain steadfast under trial until you receive the crown of life.
James is using some very strong language here. More literally, James is saying, “Having made his decision….” God made His decision to rescue His children! Your ultimate confidence does not rest in your abilities. It rests in the God who made His decision for you and set his love on you before you even loved Him. It rests in a God who sent His Son to die in your place while you were yet a sinner. Therefore, because God made a decision for you, nobody and no circumstance can thwart God’s plan. God has made his decision. He remains steadfast towards you. He is resolute to every good giving and every perfect gift towards you in order that you may be perfect, complete – lacking in nothing!
This past Sunday, I preached from James 1:9-11. In essence, this passages teaches us that there is more to be had that financial status. The rich ought to not glory in their status as being rich and the poor ought to not think they’re less human simply because their poor. Instead, both should rejoice in their heavenly status. The rich should rejoice in their low status as slaves of Christ (which is really their salvation). And, the poor should exalt in their high position in Christ (which is far greater than riches).
There are a couple of truths I want to point out regarding this passage:
1) This passage does not mean that the poor should just stay poor and that they are not in need of help. This would be a wrong application of these verses, and James will get to that in the following chapters. God is very concerned for the poor, and we ought to be as well.
2) This does not mean that the rich should hoarde their money. Instead, the rich should realize their wealth does not save, and those in Christ should give more freely! Again, James will pick up on these topics in the coming chapters.
3) How we spend our money (or view our monetary status) can reveal whether or not we truly love God or simply love the passing things of this world. The is just one way we can see whether we’re buying into the mindset of the “double-souled” person.
4) Eternity is wonderful beyond our comprehension. James says that the things of this earth pass away quickly. Yet, we many times stand in awe of the things we see around us. To me, that speaks to the everlasting beauty of eternity. If you have trusted in the LORD – and you are a slave of God and the Lord Jesus Christ – you can look forward to a glorious future!
In verse 5, James says that if we lack wisdom, we are to ask of God for that wisdom. Then in verse 7, it says that the doubter should not expect to receive anything from the Lord because he is the the billowing sea. It is very interesting and beautiful how James brings together the thoughts on God the Father and the Lord Jesus in verses 1, 5 and 7. God the Father and God the Son are one. We are commanded to go the Father for His good gifts, and it is through His Son that we receive them!
This is a similar point that I made in Psalm 2:8. The Father says to the Son to ask of Him and He will give. Then, in the New Testament we find exhortations to ask of the Father and we will receive. I see two clear truths in this, 1) The Father gives gifts towards the Son, and 2) the Son calls us to trust in Him so that the Father will treat us like He does the Son.
The applications are many-faceted and astounding, and we can be confident that God will teach us these truths if we go to Him without a double-mindedness about Him. Therefore, ask God for wisdom as you meditate on these truths and find hope in the Anointed One, the Lord Jesus (Ps. 2 & Jas. 1:1, 7).
Maybe you’re following along with my Psalms and James series at Ventura and would like to learn more about these books of the Bible. Or, maybe you just want some good book/commentary recommendations. Here is a list of books that I’m utilizing as tools for my sermon series:
1) Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Psalms 1-72 by Derek Kidner
2) Psalms by Peter Steveson
3) Psalms – The Prayer Book of the Bible by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (This is a small booklet. It is a very easy read and very encouraging to help us see the gospel in Psalms.)
1) The Bible Speaks Today, The Message of James by J.A. Motyer (This is a commentary that reads like a devotional book.)
2) Pillar New Testament Commentary, The Letter of James by Douglas J. Moo
Recently someone asked me a question regarding Jesus being Lord. It has spurred me to ponder this word more, and as I thought through it, I was reminded of a good portion of a Systematic Theology that talks about Jesus being called “Lord.” For those of you studying James along with Ventura Baptist Church, this can help us to understand more fullness to what James means when he calls Jesus “Lord” in both 1:1 and 2:1. For those of you who may wonder how the Bible address Jesus being God, this can be a wonderful tool to point you to the Scriptures!
b. The Word Lord (Kyrios) Used of Christ: Sometimes the word Lord (Gk. kyrios) is used simply as a polite address to a superior, roughly equivalent to our word sir (see Matt. 13:27; 21:30; 27:63; John 4:11). Sometimes it can simply mean “master” of a servant or slave (Matt. 6:24; 21:40). Yet the same word is also used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which was commonly used at the tiem fo Christ) as a translation for the Hebrew yhwh, “Yahweh,” or (as it is frequently translated) “The LORD,” or “Jehovah.” the word kyrios is used to translate the name of the Lord 6,814 times in the Greek Old Testament. Therefore, any Greek-speaking reader at the time of the New Testament who had any knowledge at all of the Greek Old Testament would have recognized that, in contexts where it was appropriate, the word “Lord” was the name of the one who was the Creator and Sustainer of heaven and earth, the omnipotent God.
Now there are many instances in the New Testament where “Lord is used of Christ in what can only be understood as this strong Old Testament sense, “the Lord” who is Yahweh or God himself. This use of the word “Lord” is quite striking in the word of the angel to the shepherds of Bethlehem: “For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). Though these words are familiar to use from frequent reading of the Christmas story, we should realize how surprising it would be to any first-century Jew to hear that someone born as a baby was the “Christ” (or “Messiah”), and, moreover, that this one who was the Messiah was also “The Lord” – that is, the Lord God himself! The amazing force of the angel’s statement, which the shepherds could hardly believe, was to say, essentially, “Today in Bethlehem a baby has been born who is your Savior and your Messiah, and who is also God himself.” It is not surprising that “all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them” (Luke 2:18).
When Mary comes to visit Elizabeth several months before Jesus is to be born, Elizabeth says, “Why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43). Because Jesus was not even born, Elizabeth could not be using the word “Lord” to mean something like human “master.” She must rather be using it in the strong Old Testament sense, giving an amazing sense to the sentence: ‘Why is this granted me, that the mother of the Lord God himself should come to me?” Though this is a very strong statement, it is difficult to understand the word “Lord” in this context in any weaker sense.
We see another example when Matthew says that John the Baptist is the one who cries out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Matt. 3:3). In doing this John is quoting Isaiah 40:3, which speaks about the Lord God himself coming among his people. but the contest applies this passage to John’s role of preparing the way for Jesus to come. The implication is that when Jesus comes, the Lord himself will come.
Jesus also identifies himself as the sovereign Lord of the Old Testament when he asks the Pharisees about Psalm 110:1, the Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, till I put your enemies under your feet” (Matt. 22:44). the force of this statement is that “God the Father said to God the Son [David’s Lord], ‘Sit at my right hand. . . .'” The Pharisees know he is talking about himself and identifying himself as one worthy of the Old Testament title kyrios, “Lord.”
Such usage is seen frequently in the Epistles, where “the Lord” is a common name to refer to Christ. Paul says “there is one god, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whome are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor. 8:6; cf. 12:3, and many other passages in the Pauline epistles).
A particularly clear passage is found in Hebrews 1, where the author quotes Psalm 102, which speaks about the work of the Lord in creation and applies it to Christ:
You, Lord, founded the earth in the beginning
and the heavens are the work of your hands;
they will perish, but you remain;
they will all grow old like a garment,
like a mantle you will roll them up,
and they will be changed.
But you are the same,
and your years will never end. (Heb. 1:10-12)
Here Christ is explicitly spoken of as the eternal Lord of heaven and earth who created all things and will remain the same forever. Such strong usage of the term “Lord” to refer to Christ culminates in revelation 19:16, where we see Christ returning as conquering King, and “On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, King of kings and Lord of lords.”
James, throughout his book, exhorts believers to many works. In this verse, James is calling the believers to have joy in the midst of trials because the end result is perfection/maturity and competion/wholeness – which means no lack in any area of one’s life.
What I find intriguing about this verse is how James does not call us to work. He commands us to let steadfastness have its full effect/work. There’s something that works behind the scenes to strengthens us, and we are to let it work to its fullness.
This past Sunday, I shared an analogy on what I think this verse means. I relate it to my children and when I put them on my shoulders. When they’re young, they seem very nervous – grabbing my hair, ears or whatever else they can grab. After a little while, they may start to relax. At that moment, I will jump or do something to “shake things up.” As soon as I do that, they begin to grab my face because they’re scared. Then I say those important words, “Trust me. I’m holding you.”
We are like children. As James 1:1 makes clear, we have becomes slaves of God. We are on His shoulders now. He guides us. He walks along the path, and His goal is that we trust Him more because that is for what we were created! This passage teaches us that God desires for us to be perfect and whole, and this perfection and wholeness comes through a growing reliance on God. Therefore, God will even use the trials of life in order to strengthen our faith in Him.
So, remember to let endurance have its full work. Keep going because God won’t let go of you. The Apostle Paul puts it another way, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12b-13). We work ultimately because God is working in us for His good pleasure – continuing to rescue us because of Christ’s work.
Watch God work in you, be amazed at His work, and live out that work so others might see it! This is all a part of the pathway to maturity.