This summer, I have had the privilege of leading and discipling incoming college freshmen who are working at Sky Ranch. Part of the curriculum is going through the book of James verse by verse. I have been very excited to teach through this book since it has been very controversial since the beginning of the Reformation. James 2:14-26 specifically has been the epicenter of the controversy. Protestants teach that we are declared righteous before by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. However, v. 21 says, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?” and v. 24, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” This passage seems on its face to clearly refute the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone. However, as we will see, rigorous exegesis proves otherwise.
Another interpretation that will be addressed is the interpretation that James is talking about the final judgment. There have been Protestants who believe in justification by faith alone that this passage is referring to the final judgment where God will evaluate the life of the professing Christian and will judge whether or not his or her faith was genuine. It is my contention that rigorous exegesis will prove this proposition otherwise as well. Moreover, I believe that rigorous exegesis will demonstrate that James is much more gracious than we give him credit for. This is James’ proposition in 2:14-26:
If there is no fruit in the life of the professing believer, it is evidence for the church to know the fact that person has not received the grace of God. – James 2:14-26
Or to put it more positively:
The free, abundant, steadfast grace of God will inevitably produce the fruit of holiness in the life of the Christian.
I believe this proposition can be validated by simply diving into one of James’ examples for a faith that works: the life of Abraham.
What is True Faith?
James is not the only place in Scripture that talks about true faith. The apostle Paul also talks about faith that saves in Romans.
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. – Romans 3:23-24
True faith recognizes that there is nothing we can do on our own to be righteous before God. Faith recognizes that we have sinned against a holy God who requires perfection. The medieval saying goes like this: “God will not deny grace to those who do what is within them.” The problem is there is nothing within us. Our whole being is corrupted by sin (Romans 3:10-18). This is why our justification before God must be a free gift of God’s grace as it says in v. 24. Have you ever paid your parents back or worked for your Christmas presents? No! What did you do on Christmas Day? You merely received the gracious gifts of your parents. So faith is a receiving of the grace of God, as the hymn goes, “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to the cross I cling.”
Paul then goes on to say,
And to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness. – Romans 4:5
Faith and works are contrasted here. If you’re not working, what are you doing? Resting! True faith rests in the finished work of Christ. As one pastor says, “Don’t just do something! Stand there!”
On his way to face trial in Rome, a dangerous storm threatened the lives on the ship that Paul was aboard. But God revealed to him that they would all survive. Paul proclaims to the passengers aboard,
So take heart men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. – Acts 27:25
True faith has the knowledge of what God’s word says and simply takes Him at His word, despite what may seem true to our eyes. What does our God proclaim to us?
All the Father gives to me will come to me and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. – John 6:37
Despite our eyes and hearts telling us that God only deals with us on the basis of justice, we take God at His word that He will never cast us out for anything or any sin. Our faith knows what Christ has said and we will trust it over our heart. We will be as reconciled to God on Judgment Day as we are now. It will be exactly as we have been told.
True Faith Produces Works
According to James, the faith that saves will produce good works, as he writes in 2:18,
But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. – James 2:18
Central to James’ concern is refuting a Christianity that has “faith” but no works. Good works are evidence before others that our faith is genuine. But look closely at James’ opponents. The quotation not only lists a practice of having faith without works but also having works without faith. For James, faith and works cannot be separated. Faith produces good works. But if you put works before faith, and do rest in the finished work of Jesus Christ for salvation, you will have neither salvation nor good works. All of our good works are nothing but “splendid sins” in the eyes of God apart from the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
Justification by Works?
Abraham is used by James as an example of a believer that demonstrates his faith through obedience to God. But first things first. Was Abraham justified by works? No, and yes. No, in the sense that he was declared righteous before the throne of God by his obedience to God’s command to sacrifice his son, Isaac. In the context of James, the least infraction of God’s law renders one guilty (2:10). It doesn’t matter if one is faithful to his or her spouse, if one murders someone. You’re still a rotten sinner before the holiness and purity of God.
In the context of the entire Bible, Paul is very clear that Abraham was not justified by works. Paul writes,
For what does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness. – Romans 4:3-5
Abraham was an ungodly pagan who worshipped the gods of the Chaldeans. It was not Abraham who first came to God, but God first came to Abraham and gave him the promise to bless all nations through him, which was ultimately fulfilled when the offspring of Abraham, Jesus Christ, took away the curse and blessed all who believe in Him with forgiveness and righteousness. Salvation does not come to the deserving, but to those who have done everything to deserve the wrath of God yet have rested in the One who has exhausted the wrath of God for them.
What About the Final Judgment?
Is there an initial justification based upon grace and a final justification based upon works? James is clear this is not the case. James says nothing about how Abraham’s works justified him before God in the final judgment. Instead, v. 21 says Abraham was justified when he offered up Isaac, which happened thousands of years ago. Moreover, this justification is before other believers, not before God. Verse 24 says, “You see,” not “God sees.” Finally, when we face the final judgment nothing that we have done will merit entrance into the new heaven and new earth. The only condition is having been written in the lamb’s book of life (Revelation 21:27). God’s judgment will “Passover” those who have covered themselves in the blood of the lamb of God, Jesus Christ.
The Example of Abraham
Verse 23 says that when Abraham offered up Isaac in obedience to God’s command the “Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness…’” James is clear: Abraham’s good works only evidenced the fact that he was justified by faith alone. But take a closer look. Abraham’s justification before God is announced in Genesis 15. Abraham’s good works happen in Genesis 22. What happened between Genesis 15 and 22?
In Genesis 16, Abraham does not trust God’s promise to bring offspring from Sarai. Instead, he attempts to get the offspring through Hagar (16:24). Paul identifies this historical event as allegorical for attempting to be justified by works (Galatians 4:23-24) which merits no blessing of God, but the curse of God (3:10). Not only did Abraham not believe God (the greatest sin of all), he also committed adultery against his wife Sarai. And as we will know “God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous” (Hebrews 13:4).
How did God respond to Abraham’s sins? He again promises that Sarah will bear him a son and that kings will come from her (Genesis 17:16). But Abraham laughed at God and offered up Ishmael, the offspring of Hagar, as a substitute for God’s plan to bless all nations. I can think of nothing more terrifying than laughing at a holy God and offering up what the Bible calls “polluted garments” to His purity (Isaiah 64:6). But God, in the very next verse, still promises Isaac will come from Sarah (Genesis 17:19).
In Genesis 18, Sarah is found laughing at God’s promise to bring offspring from her (v. 12). This is evidence of the fact that Abraham was not leading his wife well spiritually. He should have been constantly reminding her of God’s promise. But God still promises that all nations of the earth will be blessed in him (v. 18).
In Genesis 20, Abraham lied to Abimelech, king of Gerar, that Sarah was his sister and allowed Abimelech to almost sleep with her (v. 2-6). If you know your Bible, you would know that Abraham did the exact same thing in Genesis 12:10-16. Abraham lied to Pharaoh not only for his self-preservation but also for his own gain (v. 16). There is debate as to whether Abraham was justified by faith in Genesis 12 when God first appeared to him or in Genesis 15 when his justification is formally announced by the author. In any case, you either have Abraham committing the same sins when he was an unbeliever or committing habitual sin as a believer. Not great for the Romanist interpretation or the Pietist interpretation.
How did God respond to Abraham’s innumerable sins in Genesis 21? The birth of Isaac. The one God promised to Abraham and Sarah. Exactly as they were told.
What happened in Genesis 22? God tested Abraham by commanding him to offer up Isaac (v. 1). And he obeyed. Why did he obey? “He considered that God was able to even raise him from the dead…” (Hebrews 11:19). Abraham’s trust in the grace of God and demonstrated to the world his faith by his works.
James 2:14-26 brought to mind three problems that are universal to the Christian experience:
1) We do not fully realize the grace of God in the midst of our sins as Christians. God did not revoke His grace to Abraham; neither will he from you. “Whoever comes to me I will never cast out.”
2) We do not have a realistic expectation of fruit in the life of the Christian. Abraham’s life was full of sin with good works sprinkled in. We ought not to lose heart when we look at ourselves. As Martin Luther said, “When I look to myself, I don’t see how I could be saved. But when I look to Jesus, I don’t see how I could ever be lost.”
3) We do not understand how the grace of God creates and motivates the fruit of holiness in the life of the Christian. Abraham’s life is evidence of the fact that God is “rich in mercy” and desires to lavish us with “the immeasurable riches of His grace.” It is also evidence of the fact that the richness of God’s mercy will inevitably overwhelm a believer to the point that a believer’s heart will overflow with God’s love for God and neighbor.