Calvary Road Baptist Church

“JUSTIFICATION BY WORKS?”

James 2.21-26

I hope you folks will excuse me for not preaching this portion of the letter written by James in the most optimal fashion. I say this because James presents in his letter a well-reasoned argument, in verses 14-26 of James 2, which is obscured to a degree when each aspect of the argument is separated from the others by a week. The problem, of course, is that a proper treatment of James 2.14-26 would take about two hours time, far more than we are used to sitting and holding our attention. Therefore, I resort to reviewing and reminding in order to capture the flow of James’ reasoning. Stand with me to read the entire passage this morning:

14     What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?

15     If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,

16     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?

17     Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.

18     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.

19     Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.

20     But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?

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

22     Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?

23     And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.

24     Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.

25     Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?

26     For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

Though most of those to whom James was writing knew how to read, they still lived in what we would call an oral culture. The reason for this was the very high cost of reproducing written material in that day, an expense that was usually only justified by reproducing copies of the Hebrew Scriptures. Just about all other writing would be confined to business and legal documents of various kinds. When it came to notes and reminders, the writing material was not papyrus, but broken pieces of pottery that provided a smooth enough surface to contain a message that would be conveyed to its intended recipient. Thousands of such ostraca, as they are called, of different sizes and shapes have been found by archaeologists.[1] Therefore, it is almost certain that when the original letter written by James on a scroll arrived, or when a copy of his letter that had been made for distribution arrived, the fact that it was a letter that arrived would make it the subject of interest and curiosity. Then the congregation would be assembled, at which time it would be read through and then explained during a single gathering of God’s people.

In two sermons previously from this letter from James, we observed that he began to alert his readers as to the possibility they were not saved if their life did not show it. James concluded that “Faith if it hath not works is dead, being alone.” In our last session in this letter from James, he hit the subject hard again, closing with this remark, “Faith without works is dead.” Of course, the reason for this is that the passages we dealt with two sermons ago, last week, and will deal with this morning, are all part of the single thrust James is communicating. It would not surprise me upon my arrival in heaven to learn that when James’ first readers read his words or heard the letter read to them, they began to think in their minds something along the lines of what the Apostle Paul later wrote in Ephesians 2.8 and 10, “For by grace are ye saved through faith . . . For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” No doubt, some of his readers tried to justify their lazy approach to Christianity. However, James awakened them all to the fact that some may not be lazy at all. They may in fact be dead.

It has been argued over the years that James and the Apostle Paul are in fundamental disagreement with respect to the place of faith and works in the Christian life, that Paul emphasized faith apart from works and that James strongly emphasized works. However, I challenge that notion, as do so many others. To respond to such allegations that go directly to the credibility of God’s Word, I read Paul’s take on the matter of faith and works in case there are some here who think Christians ought not to work after they are saved.

First Thessalonians 1.1-10:   1      Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus, unto the church of the Thessalonians which is in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

2      We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers;

3      Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father;

4      Knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God.

5      For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance; as ye know what manner of men we were among you for your sake.

6      And ye became followers of us, and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Ghost:

7      So that ye were ensamples to all that believe in Macedonia and Achaia.

8      For from you sounded out the word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith to God-ward is spread abroad; so that we need not to speak any thing.

9      For they themselves shew of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God;

10     And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come.

Ephesians 2.8-10:  8      For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:

9      Not of works, lest any man should boast.

10     For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.

So you see, Paul and James really do agree that truly saved people are workers in the gospel ministry.

What about the case of a genuine Christian who slacks off and becomes lethargic?

Romans 13.10-11:    10     Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

11     And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.

First Corinthians 15.34:    “Awake to righteousness, and sin not; for some have not the knowledge of God: I speak this to your shame.”

Ephesians 5.14:  “Wherefore he saith, Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.”

This last verse I read reminds me of Jonah, fast asleep in the ship during a terrible storm, when the shipmaster came to him and said, “What meanest thou, O sleeper? arise, call upon thy God, if so be that God will think upon us, that we perish not.” Thus, we see that the Apostle Paul would hardly tolerate Christians sleeping when they should be serving, or being lazy when it came time for spiritual heavy lifting.

Back to our text for today, where James undertakes to teach what the Apostle Paul declared in Ephesians 2.10, only coming into it from a different perspective, that saving faith, genuine faith, living faith, actually provides evidence of its existence by working. You may remember me pointing out in last week’s message that truth is established by means of two or three witnesses. I showed you where the principle was introduced in the Bible, where it was formally taught as a governing principle requirement of the Law of Moses, where John the Baptist illustrated the principle, by the Lord Jesus Christ, and by God Himself.[2] The purpose of pointing out the principle of two or three witnesses in last week’s message was to show how James operated by means of the principle when arguing for corroborating evidence to support a Christian’s claim that he has faith in Christ.

Today I will show that James does it again, this time using two examples from Jewish history known not only to every Jewish Christian, but also to every Jewish person, to prove his point:

THE FIRST EXAMPLE OF WORKING FAITH IS THE PATRIARCH ABRAHAM

Verse 21 describes the evidence of Abraham’s faith: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered Isaac his son upon the altar?” Who better to go to for an example to illustrate the principle of faith that produces the fruit of works to Jewish Christians than the great Abraham? James realized two important things when by inspiration of the Holy Spirit he picked this man as an example: First, there was that great delight felt by all Jewish people at having father Abraham as their ancestor. The Jewish people loved anyone who loved Abraham. He was the first Jew, the man chosen by God, and the man with whom the covenant was made.[3] Second, nothing that was contrary to the life of Abraham would be acceptable to a Jewish person or to a Christian, and these readers were both Jewish and Christian. James shows that faith that is evidenced by works goes to the very core of who Abraham was. The term “justified by works” is rightly of great concern to many who read this verse. Some think that James may be teaching salvation by works here, though he is doing nothing of the kind. Turn to Genesis 15.6, which records the occasion of Abraham’s justification by faith: “And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness.” How can we be sure this is when Abraham was justified in the sight of God? The Apostle Paul asserts the same in Romans 4.3, where he writes, “For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.” Back to James 2.21. Does James here refer to this event in Abraham’s life; refer to this point in time? Absolutely not. Note that Genesis 15.6 records an event that occurred before Isaac was born. However, James refers to an occurrence that took place decades later in which Abraham offered up his son Isaac that is recorded in Genesis 22.10-12:

10     And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.

11     And the angel of the LORD called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I.

12     And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.

The issue comes into focus when you recognize that there two kinds of justification found in the Word of God. Justification means to pronounce just, to declare righteous. The Apostle Paul refers to these two different kinds of justification, or at least lets us know there is another kind in Romans 4.2, where he writes, “For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God.” Thus, there is justification that is by works, but not before God. It is possible to be justified before men, and although Paul never dwells on this kind of justification at length, James does. Justification before God occurs when one is saved from his sins, when through faith in Jesus Christ righteousness is imputed to you. That is the justification Paul focuses on in Romans and Galatians. Justification before men, on the other hand, occurs after you come to know Christ. It is this second kind of justification that James refers to in James 2.21. To restate for clarity: Justification before God is the result of naked faith in Christ, trusting in Him alone. Justification before men is a result of working faith, and it proves faith to be real by giving evidence that faith (which cannot be seen) is present by means of faith’s fruit (which can be seen).

This brings us to the results of Abraham’s faith. This is seen in the perfecting of his faith, the fulfilling of scripture, and his friendship with God: The first result of Abraham’s faith was the perfecting of his faith, verse 22: “Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?” Notice the words “Seest thou.” This clues us in to the fact that James is not talking about saving faith (which cannot be seen), but about the fruit of saving faith (which can be seen). The phrase “faith wrought through his works” means that faith had works with it, it means that faith used works to show itself. Faith accompanied by works is said by James to make Abraham’s faith perfect. Literally, this means that faith, using works, reached its goal.[4] What is the goal of faith? What is the goal of anything for God? The goal of faith is to glorify God. Did Abraham glorify God by offering up Isaac? Yes, he did. He showed that God is worthy of all trust, and can be obeyed even when what He asks us to do is difficult to understand. The next result of Abraham’s saving faith was the fulfillment of scripture, verse 23: “And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness.” How does this event in the life of Abraham fulfill scripture? We have already noted, in Genesis 15.6, that God counted Abraham’s faith for righteousness. This offering of Isaac, though it happened years later, proves that what happened in Genesis 15.6 was the real thing. There were many events in the life of this man that proved his faith to be genuine, but James used the supreme example to prove his point: Faith produces works. The last result of Abraham’s faith is the declaration that he was called the Friend of God.[5] The Arabs, to this day, call Abraham El Khalil or “The Friend.”[6] Thus, we see that God declares a man righteous the moment he believes, but his fellow men declare him a friend of God after they have seen him walk with God in obedience for a period of time. Would you like to be a friend of God, a friend of the Savior? Turn with me to John 15.13-16, where the Lord Jesus Christ tells us how His friends are made and what is expected of them:

13     Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

14     Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.

15     Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.

16     Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you.

What is expected of us is obedience, compliance with His will, cooperation with His goals and objectives, which is for us to bear the kind of fruit that remains.

What conclusion does James bring us to using the example of Abraham? Verse 24: “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” Justification in the vertical direction (h) is by faith only. This is the justification the Apostle Paul devotes his attention to. However, James is talking about justification in this direction (), the horizontal. Father Abraham’s life was a testimony that works must accompany faith in this direction (h) or else the faith is shown to be faulty, bogus, and illegitimate.

THERE IS ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF WORKING FAITH, RAHAB THE HARLOT

We read about Rahab in connection with the children of Israel under the leadership of Joshua crossing the Jordan River, at which time he sent two spies to spy secretly. While in the city, they encountered Rahab.[7] What greater contrast of persons could there be for the Jewish people than these two?

·               The first Hebrew on one hand versus a Gentile on the other.

·               The friend of God versus the friend of any man with money.

·               The righteous man versus the unrighteous woman.

·               The worshipper of God versus the idolater.

Surely, if the lives of these two yield the same spiritual lesson then the readers of this letter written by James will have to be convinced.

Verse 25 shows Rahab’s justification by works: “Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?” Have I not stated that there must first be a justification by faith alone before there can be a corresponding justification by works that gives evidence of genuine but unseen faith? Turn with me to Joshua 2.1 This verse begins with Joshua’s spies in the city of Jericho, in Rahab’s house: “And Joshua the son of Nun sent out of Shittim two men to spy secretly, saying, Go view the land, even Jericho. And they went, and came into an harlot’s house, named Rahab, and lodged there.” Of course, to those in the city she would have been a traitor, but notice her appraisal of the situation, Joshua 2.9-11:

9      And she said unto the men, I know that the LORD hath given you the land, and that your terror is fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land faint because of you.

10     For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red sea for you, when ye came out of Egypt; and what ye did unto the two kings of the Amorites, that were on the other side Jordan, Sihon and Og, whom ye utterly destroyed.

11     And as soon as we had heard these things, our hearts did melt, neither did there remain any more courage in any man, because of you: for the LORD your God, he is God in heaven above, and in earth beneath.

Truly, it was her trust in the LORD; it was her saving faith that prompted her to help these men. However, it is important to note that she trusted God before these men had arrived. She had faith, and then God providentially worked in her life to provide for her the opportunity to show evidence of her faith. It was this act of faith, this work of faith, which showed the entire nation of Israel that she indeed had the righteousness, which is by faith. May I digress for just a moment to point out how very disloyal Rahab was to her people? I state her situation in this way because someone who is considering the claims of Christ or who finds himself as a new Christian with a choice to make concerning allegiances sometimes thinks, and is sometimes told, that turning your back on family and friends is somehow disloyal. However, sinners who have banded together to sin against God deserve no one’s loyalty. It is God who deserves loyalty, and someone is only truly loyal when he turns from his sins in repentance and trusts Christ, and then displays his newfound faith in Christ by walking away from the old life and those old friends who will not come with you to church. No one can be loyal to both God and those who align themselves by behavior and belief against God. Rahab came out of the darkness of her wicked culture, and her own wicked sins, to first be justified by faith, and to then give evidence of her newfound faith once the spies came to her house. A final comment about Rahab already known to James’ readers. Rahab eventually married a man from the tribe of Judah named Salmon and gave birth to a man named Boaz, who eventually married the Moabite woman named Ruth. Boaz and Ruth were grandparents to David, king of Israel, and ancestor of the Lord Jesus Christ.[8] Thus, the Savior’s family tree included not only David, and his grandmother Ruth, but also both Rahab and her husband’s ancestor Abraham. Is it not amazing what God accomplishes by grace through faith?

Thus, James sets before us two powerful examples in the lives of two historic but dramatically diverse individuals who had faith, living faith, working faith.

James concludes by stating: a principle.

CALL IT THE PRINCIPLE OF FAITH AND WORKS, IF YOU WISH

Verse 26: “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.”

How dead is a person when that last breath is gone? He is dead, is he not? In exactly the same way . . . faith that has not works is also dead.

How much more plain can the truth be? Somehow you come under the preaching of the gospel, are convicted of your sins, and you flee to Jesus Christ for forgiveness and cleansing. You trust Him. You believe in Him. You have faith in Christ. How do you know you have faith in Christ? Faith is not something you can see, smell, taste, touch, or hear. Therefore, how do you know that what you have concluded, that you actually have faith in Christ, is a correct conclusion, and you really do know Christ, and you really are saved from your sins?

For dealing with matters to which you are not a witness, insofar as your own five senses are concerned, and to which other people are not witnesses, a long established Bible principle must be employed, the principle of two or three witnesses to verify, to attest to the truth of something, to provide corroboration. Last week we saw that genuine faith (which cannot be seen, remember) gives evidence of its genuineness by working. Indeed, faith that does not produce the evidence of working is actually no better than the faith of the demons, since they at least tremble at the thought of God. By work, of course, James does not mean working a job. He is referring to the work of faith, service to God, ministry for Christ.

The fact is, if your life is not punctuated by service to God, you simply are not saved. I know people will object to this truth. That is why James is rarely taught in churches today, in this age of decisionism.[9] Yet the Bible shows that you cannot live after you have trusted Christ the same way you did before you trusted Christ.[10] If you can live after coming to Christ the way you lived before coming to Christ, then tear out the second chapter of James from the Word of God.

Are you without works today? Is your faith dead? Are you dead in your trespasses and sins? Then you need to be saved from your sins. “But I don’t feel unsaved.” Salvation is not feeling, it is a relationship that is established by faith. “It is not that I am lost. I just like to do my own thing.” Faith without works is dead being alone. “You do not understand. I am not ready to serve God.” Even so, faith, if it hath not works is dead being alone.

Beloved, anyone can fool me into thinking he has saving faith. Anyone can fool himself into thinking he has saving faith. However, no one can fool God. Are you saved or are you lost? The way you live tells a great deal.



[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ostracon 1/11/13

[2] Numbers 35.30; Deuteronomy 17.6, 7; 19.15; Matthew 18.16; Matthew 11.2-5, where we see John the Baptist sending two to inquire of the Savior and the Savior provides six evidences to support His messianic claim, and 1 John 5.6-9, where the principle is seen in heaven. Yet another example is Revelation 1.1, where the Apostle was provided corroboration of the message given to him by the angel in the form of a sign, see Fritz Rienecker & Cleon Rogers, Linguistic Key To The Greek New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Regency Reference Library, 1980), page 811.

[3] Genesis 14.13; 12.1-3;

[4] Spiros Zodhiates, The Behavior Of Belief, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973), Part Two, page 43.

[5] Isaiah 41.8; 2 Chronicles 20.7

[6] Ibid., page 53.

[7] Joshua 2

[8] Matthew 1.5

[9] Decisionism is the belief that a person is saved by coming forward, raising the hand, saying a prayer, believing a doctrine, making a Lordship commitment, or some other external, human act, which is taken as the equivalent to, and proof of, the miracle of inward conversion; it is the belief that a person is saved through the agency of a merely external decision; the belief that performing one of these human actions shows that a person is saved.

Conversion is the result of that work of the Holy Spirit that draws a lost sinner to Jesus Christ for justification and regeneration, and changes the sinner’s standing before God from lost to saved, imparting divine life to the depraved soul, thus producing a new direction in the life of the convert. The objective side of salvation is justification. The subjective side of salvation is regeneration. The result is conversion.

[10] 2 Corinthians 5.17



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