Study 12            Faith and Works Continued

James 2:18-26

18. But someone will say, “you have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.

19. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe–and shudder.

20. Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that faith apart from works is barren?

21. Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?

22. You see that faith was active along with his works, and works completed faith,

23. and the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness;” and he was called the friend of God.

24. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.

25. And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?

26. For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.

These verses are a continuation, of course, from verses 14 through 17 that we looked at on our last study. Once again it is important for us to remember our conclusions in our last study, James is not saying we are saved by faith and works, but instead is saying, works always accompanies genuine faith. Our study today will cast more light on this most important topic.

Verse 18 But someone will say, “you have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.

James, knowing his audience, is anticipating a possible retort to his statements in verses 14 through 17 that works always accompanies real faith. For James there can be no division between grace and works. It is silly for one person to say they have faith without works accompanying that belief and it is just as silly to say that a person’s Christianity is based upon doing good void of faith. True Christianity is faith in the saving work of Christ, and that alone is where our salvation stems from. Our works are the result of that relationship (see introduction to our last study) and always accompany genuine faith. In other words, though both faith and works have different functions they go together.

One last thing before we move on. The verb, deiknymi translated “show” usually means make visible, but can also have the meaning of, prove or demonstrate. (Matt 16:21; Acts 10:28) James may well be challenging us to prove that we have faith by what we do.

Verse 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe–and shudder

James may well be using a bit of sarcasm here by reminding his “imaginary objector” (see study 11), “you shallow man,” that even the demons believe, but that does them no good because their knowledge doesn’t penetrate their hearts and produce a changed life. It is clear from what he is saying that a person who says he has faith but doesn’t absorb that faith into the heart is on the same ground theologically as demons.  Once again Moo gives an interesting insight into the verse. “So, James might be implying, as demons, knowing something of the true God, yet lacking true faith, shudder in fear of judgment, so also ought people whose verbal profession is not followed up with actions.” The Letter of James, pg. 131

Verse 20 Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that faith apart from works is barren?

This verse introduces James argument drawn from the Old Testament that faith that is not accompanied by good works is dead. (v.17) James is asking in this verse whether the “shallow man,” wants to be shown that the emphasis on faith without the corresponding works is empty and barren. How honest does this person want to be? The Greek, argos here translated as barren has the concept of being useless and a literal sense of “not working.” Thus, faith apart from the corresponding response through deeds or works is useless or not working. This is an interesting little play on words by James, “that faith apart from works is not working.”

Verse 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?

What better illustration than Abraham for a Christian Jewish audience. I also wonder if Paul’s insistence on the idea that the Christian church are now heirs according to Abraham may have been in the back of James thinking when he chose this illustration. Paul of course put the emphasis on the faith of Abraham (Gen. 15:6) and James may well be trying to remind his readers that though it is true we are saved by faith alone Abraham showed his faith by his obedience to God’s calling.

In verse 22 and 23 James will make it clear that Abraham’s faith was what was accredited to him as righteousness, but here in verse 21 he is very clear about being ‘”ustified by works.” So, what are we to make from this verse?

The key to understanding what is going on here is to understand what Paul means by justification and what James means by the term. For most of us, our understanding of justification comes from Paul. Moo points out, “Paul uses justify (Gk dikaioo) denoting God’s initial judicial verdict “of innocence” pronounced over the sinner who trusts Jesus Christ in faith.“ The Letter of James, pg. 133 James however, writing before Paul uses justify in a different manner from Paul. James uses the term in the same way it is used in the Old Testament and in Judaism.

Dikaioo has the meaning of vindicate by judgment. The verb occurs 44 times in the Septuagint. Moo points out, “Especially relevant are those texts in which God is pictured as the judge before whom one pleads one’s case (1 Sam. 12:7; Isa. 43:26; Mic.7:9) and who passes judgment on the lives of men and women. In these texts it is one’s actual conduct that forms the basis for God’s vindication………The general thrust of the O.T. therefore, is that ‘men are declared to be in the right on the facts, i.e. because in general or in a specific matter they are upright and innocent.’“ The Letter of James, 134.

Judaism maintained the same basic idea regarding justify. “dikaionsyne, a word from the same root that justify is from is related to correct conduct, as defined by God’s law, and the verdict of justification was pronounced over those who faithfully observed the covenant stipulations.” Moo, The Letter of James, pg. 134 This verdict of justification is based upon what a person has done in his/her life. (See Mt. 12:37)

For James the vindication of a believer at the final judgment is based upon what the person has done. For Paul justification is HOW a person gets into a right relationship with God, and for James justification revolves around WHAT a right relationship will look like.

I recently was reading a paper on the three angels of Revelation 14 and the author quoted the following statements, which seem quite relevant to our discussion. ”One way this has been described is that faith alone saves, but saving faith always results in the righteous works of God manifested in the believer. In other words, true faith always leads to good works, but the good works are the EFFECT of salvation, NOT ITS CAUSE.” The Realm of the Dead, Pt.1: Blessed are the Dead, John McCaull

Verse 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and works completed faith,

In case anyone thinks that James is saying that works are what saves a person he quickly heads off the question with verse 22. He makes it clear that for Abraham works completed faith. James presupposes that his readers were familiar with Gen. 15:6 and understood, of course, Abraham was saved by faith and righteousness was accredited to him because of his faith. James, however, is stressing the fact that Abraham, when he heard the message to take Isaac and give him for a sacrifice, responded to God by doing what God commanded. His argument is simply if Abraham had said to God, “I believe you God, I know what I need to do,” but then sat down in his tent and took a nap, then his faith was useless because it didn’t stir him to obedience to God. Abraham’s faith was constantly demonstrated in his actions and his actions were the constant companion of his faith. Faith and works worked together in Abraham’s life, but because they were both present in his life doesn’t mean they are co-equal for justification.

Let’s take a moment to review Paul and James view of justification respectively. For Paul, justification is a legal transaction that declares us reconciled to God on the basis of the cross event and our acceptance by faith. For James justification is the end result of what a right relationship with God (obedience to His will) will look like. Each man is stressing a different aspect of justification. For Paul, as I said earlier, justification is how we get into a right relationship with God, and for James it is the end result of a relationship with God. Abraham’s faith reached its intended goal when he obeyed God.

Verse 23 and the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness;” and he was called the friend of God.

Here James continues from verse 22 and makes it clear that he understands that Abraham believed God and was thus reckoned righteous. He is not discrediting Paul as the false teachers in Galatians tried to do, but is agreeing with Scripture that it is faith that reconciles us to God. His argument, and I will state it again, is that even Abraham’s faith was useless if he didn’t follow through on God’s directive.

The term friend of God is not found in the O.T. but was widespread in Jewish tradition and probably had its roots in the “beloved of God” verses that refer to Abraham. (2 Chron. 20:7; Isa. 41:8)

Verse 24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone

James in verse 24 shifts from the “imaginary objector” to address his audience with a direct appeal. We have come to the crux of the argument, but it need not throw us for a loop. Remember the difference between how Paul and James understood justification. Moo writes, “Paul refers to the initial declaration of a sinner’s innocence before God; James to the ultimate verdict of innocence pronounced over a person at the last judgment. If a sinner can get into relationship with God only by faith (Paul), the ultimate validation of that relationship takes into account the works that true faith must inevitably produce (James).” Moo, The Letter To James 

Also, key to this verse is the fact that James doesn’t say that faith does not make you right with God. His attack is upon faith alone that rejects the idea of manifesting a life of good deeds as a result of that faith. Paul would not disagree with James on this passage because he also believes that faith shows itself through our actions. (Galatians 5:6; Romans 1:5) James is rejecting cheap faith that is focused on empty words that leaves a Christian in the same place spiritually that he was before he professed Christ. These actions or works during the time of Paul and James were often equated with witnessing that led to martyrdom. Thus, for James a pronounced faith that didn’t lead you into the fray against the powers of darkness was a useless faith.

Verse 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?

James is not adding a new argument with the introduction of Rahab but instead introducing a person of great contrast to Abraham. She was a gentile and probably a prostitute yet she was justified by her response to faith the same as Abraham. Remember how James understands Justification. Abraham and Rahab are also probably contrasted with the dead faith of the man in verses 15 and 16 who would not give aid to people in need. Of interest is the 1st Century writing of 1 Clement where Abraham and Rahab are connected through their faith and their willingness to show hospitality to strangers.

Verse 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.

This seems to be a repeat of verses 17 and 20 For James, faith that is not accompanied by good works is useless and barren. Remember, James is not saying faith should be ADDED to works, he is stating that real, honest, and true faith is always a faith THAT works. Luther in his Preface to Romans wrote:

“O it is a living, busy active mighty thing this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good things incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done this, and is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such works, however, is an unbeliever. He gropes and looks around for faith and good works, but knows neither what faith is nor what good works are. Yet he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works.”

Next study we enter into chapter three. Please let me know your thoughts on this study and whether or not you agree with my conclusions. I am always open to discussion and would love to know your views. Thanks for reading and please tell a friend.