(If you missed Part 1 of this series, Click Here)
“Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?” (James 2:21)
“For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God.” (Romans 4:2)
What exactly is James talking about when he uses the term works? Let’s look back at the preceding verses and see if we can determine what he is saying in the context of this passage:
“What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?” (James 2:14-20)
The works that James is referring to are the actions that verify the professed faith. In the passage, there is no mention of the Law of Moses, nor is there any indication of what Paul referred to as the “works of the law.” The example given here is a very practical one. It is about actions that validate the words that are spoken.
Someone told me of an incident that happened in their church that illustrates this point. Before the sermon was delivered one Sunday morning, the Pastor invited anyone who had a prayer request to stand up and share it with the congregation before he led them in prayer. An elderly widow stood up when it was her turn and announced that her late husband’s retirement pension was insufficient to cover all of her expenses and that she was unable to pay her electric bill that month. She was very worried and concerned since it was the middle of Winter and she did not know what she would do if the utility company shut her power off. This was in a very cold climate where lack of household heating could very easily result in very serious consequences, especially for a frail, elderly person.
Heads nodded as they listened and even the Pastor seemed moved by her plight. When she concluded her prayer request, the Pastor replied with a tone of great sympathy, “Thank you, Sister, we will pray for you.”
“We will PRAY for you.” Now, I definitely believe that prayer can accomplish great things (James 5:16), but wouldn’t it really have been more beneficial to this poor widow to offer her something else in addition to prayer? The person who told me the story really found it ironic that the offering plates had just been passed around before this, filled with piles of cash. Who knows how much of that money had come from the widow herself, who gave from that which she lacked. I understand that there are financial considerations to operating a church building, but if a church board is unwilling to share of their increase with those among them in need, maybe they should reconsider even being in the ministry. Especially if their Pastor is going to piously stand before his congregation and “praise” God for the abundance of the tithes and offerings they receive. How much of a burden would it really have been to spare the small amount of money needed to pay the electric bill in this woman’s small apartment? If the Pastor and Deacons had been willing to take the money they would have spent on just ONE of their “after service” dinners in a restaurant that month, they could have more than paid the bill.
I believe that James had this very type of thing in mind when he wrote his epistle. He even states earlier, in Chapter 1, that taking care of those who cannot take care of themselves is the defining quality of “pure religion” (James 1:27). How can we say that we have “faith” in God when we are unwilling to do the actions (works) that prove what we say is true? However, I think that we read too much into what James is saying in James 2:14-20 if we look at this example as anything BUT an example. While his example is a good one, the lesson isn’t that we must give all of our possessions to anyone who asks for them, the lesson is that we are no different than those who tell someone “be warmed and filled” when we claim that our faith is in Christ and yet our actions do not back that claim up. Some have interpreted this passage to advocate the belief that we must add charitable acts to our faith in order to maintain our Salvation in Christ, but to interpret it this way is to miss the point.
Now, there are times in Paul’s writings that he speaks of the same type of “works” that James writes about (e.g., Romans 13:3, 1 Timothy 5:25, Titus 3:8), but this is not what he is talking about at all in Romans 4:2. He is referring to the “good works” that an unconverted sinner would bring with his “faith” in order to be justified with God. These are works done apart from the Spirit of God by which a person feels they have merited God’s Grace. This is what has been called “legalism”, which is the attempt by a person to obey God’s commandments through their own strength in order to warrant their own Salvation.
That this is not the “works” of which James speaks is readily apparent by the fact that he gives the example of Abraham, a man who lived more than 400 years before the Law of Moses. Abraham could not have been justified by the works of the Law because the Law had not yet been given. So then was he justified by his flawless obedience to the things that God did command him to do? No. The Book of Genesis gives us more than one instance where Abraham stepped out of the Will of God (e.g., Gen. 12:13, 16:2). Was Abraham justified with God by the single act of his willingness to offer up Isaac? Again, no he was not. Both James and Paul record what did justify Abraham with God, and that is faith (Romans 4:3 and James 2:23). They both are quoting the same Scripture (Genesis 15:6). So, how is it that they are saying two seemingly opposite things based on the same Scripture? Let’s look at what they meant by “justified.”
“Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ:” (Romans 5:1)
“Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.” (James 2:18)
Paul is focusing on justification with God, James is focusing on justification with man. I do not think that James is trying to say that we must justify ourselves before men, but I do think that he is stressing the point that, while God knows the faith that quietly rests in our own hearts, man can only know the faith that is lived out through our actions. While not the entirety of what James is saying, part of it is related to what Jesus said in Matthew 5:16. Our faith in God can only be demonstrated before man by the deeds we do, and when we demonstrate our faith by obeying the Will of God, it testifies to others of His glory.
Abraham found Justification and peace with God during his personal conversations with the Lord. God made promises to him and he believed that that which God promised, He would do. Genesis 15:6 tells us that Abraham was Justified with God at that point in time and nothing needed to be added to it. It would be many years later when he would live out the proof of his faith by offering up Isaac. It was not at the moment of Genesis 22:11-12 that God became aware that Abraham’s faith was genuine, God already knew. But for the people who later knew what he did, that he was willing to sacrifice his own son, including those of us who have read about it in the Bible, there can be no room for doubt that Abraham believed God and trusted in Him. He truly was a “friend of God.”
Next time, Lord willing, we will conclude this examination of what James is teaching in comparison with Paul.