Justified by works….well, not works only.

No Christian should say that “I am justified by works alone.”  This is well-known. What may not be as well-known is that neither should you say “I am justified by faith alone.”

Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 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. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. (Jas 2:20-26)

The discussion that James started in verse 14 continues with another question. As I understand the question, a person who believes that faith separated from works is just fine, is a foolish individual. It is a rhetorical question but James answers it anyway.

Anytime a person is going to be termed as a fool or foolish, we should sit up and take notice.  Jesus both cautioned in using the term (Mt 5:22 “Raca” in NKJV) and yet used it himself in appropriate ways (Mt 23:17).  A good working definition of a fool, is “one lacking sense” perhaps even wisdom.  So if I were one of these James is writing to who believed in faith only, I would certainly hope I would pay more attention. 

As noted before, the problem of this passage should be dealt with first as Christians. Then we can deal with it as it relates to our initial salvation since I do think that the principle applies there as well.

As Christians, is it logical to believe that faith apart from works is perfectly ok? Apparently not, and James is going to use Abraham and Rahab to prove his point.

Abraham, whose faith was counted at righteousness, shows us that faith needs to go together with works. What God said to Abraham in Gen 22 was “Now I know you fear God…” It was this event in Abraham’s life that James says fulfilled the event that happened in Gen 15. (Where Abraham believed God and it was counted as righteousness) The order is the same, Faith does proceed works. One could even point out that Abraham did not have perfect works since in between Gen 15 and Gen 22, Ishmael was born and Abraham lied for a 2nd time about his wife Sarah. Still, James affirms that this the event of Abraham (nearly) sacrificing his son shows how we know Abraham had faith.

Rahab also was ‘justified by works’ in her actions. If you read her story, you know that she has heard all about Israel and she believed. So did other people but she was willing to help, others just sought the spies to kill them.

One could turn the question around and ask: What if, in their belief, they had not acted? Would they mean that they didn’t believe? No, but it would mean that they were not  faithful, trusting, willing to obey, etc. The demons believe and shudder but that is all they do. We at least, in our faith, set out to obey.

James nowhere in this discussion says that a person does NOT have faith. He simply asks and answers the question about whether faith without action is sufficient to save. We should be able to see that James is using ‘faith’ in a way that is not used elsewhere. He is pulling it apart into separate components.

Look at all the men and women of faith in Hebrews 11. “By faith” they did this or that.  There was a trust in God and His promise and it resulted in obedience to his will. Perfect obedience? No. Perfect trust? again, no. Yet there was both trust and obedience nonetheless in these men and women, not just belief or, as James says, ‘faith only’ (NKJV) or ‘Faith alone’ (ESV).  Such a faith is dead. As dead as a body without the spirit.

The problem I think is that in today’s century the word faith IS used so often in the way James is saying we shouldn’t use it.  It carries with it a mysterious surreal concept but the Bible teaches that it is an anchor of our salvation. For the Christian who believes (and has believed) the teaching of Christ, Hebrews 2:1 would seem to apply: Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.

***

After writing this, I recalled James 1:22 “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”  I have to ask if in that short verse, he has not summed up everything he said in Chapter 2:20-26

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About Steven Sarff

If I were to offer any one piece of advice to one wishing to serve God, it would be to put Hebrews 11:6 and Acts 17:11 into action and let God guide you to grow in the grace and knowledge of His Son Jesus Christ.

Posted on December 16, 2011, in Christianity, Faith and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Great words, Steven. Our culture has decided that something done in the past provides evidence of our salvation, but James and all the writers of Scripture confirm the evidence is found in the present. We are to continually examine our lives for fruit being produced, or works as James describes. I believe I like the statement, “We are saved by grace through faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone.” Thanks and God bless.

  2. Excellent article Steven,

    “No Christian should say that “I am justified by works alone.” This is well-known. What may not be as well-known is that neither should you say I am justified by faith alone.”

    What a quick but clear way to get the point across from James’ letter. The interesting thing about this section is that if faith alone is not enough to stay in a right relationship with God then how can we expect faith alone to start one to begin with?

    I believe you’re 100% right when you say that in today’s world a saving faith is taught to be something that it is not. So often we underestimate, misconstrue, abuse and confuse what faith (at least a faith pleasing to God) is really all about – that’s action, confidence, trust and assurance (Hebrews 11:6).

  1. Pingback: Who is Jesus to you, really? « Lost Pines church of Christ

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