James 2.21-24



1.   Turn in your Bible to Hebrews 11.17.  When you find that verse, stand for the reading of God’s Word:

17     By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son,

18     Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called:

19     Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure.


2.   Listen to what Albert Barnes wrote about Abraham’s faith being tried by God in a comment on this passage:  “It does not mean here, as it often does, to place inducements before one to lead him to do wrong, but to subject his faith to a trial in order to test its genuineness and strength.  The meaning here is, that Abraham was placed in circumstances which showed what was the real strength of his confidence in God.”[1]

3.   When did this trial of Abraham’s faith occur?  What circumstances are referred to in this passage?  Remembering that faith was first found in Abram when God called him out of Ur of the Chaldees (what I have designated as “seeking faith”), Genesis 12-14, and remembering that faith is next found in Abram when he believed in the LORD and he counted it to him for righteousness, Genesis 15.6 (what I have designated “saving faith”), turn to Genesis 22, where we will find that I would like to designate “sacrificial faith.”

4.   We know that Abraham was 86 years old when Ishmael was born, according to Genesis 16.16.  Abraham was 99 years old and Ishmael was 13 years old when the rite of circumcision was instituted, Genesis 17.24-25.  Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac was born, Genesis 21.5.  Let us now read the account of Abraham’s trial of faith given to us by Moses.

5.   Genesis 22.1-14:

1      And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.

2      And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

3      And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.

4      Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off.

5      And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.

6      And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.

7      And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son.  And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?

8      And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together.

9      And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.

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.

13     And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.

14     And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovahjireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the LORD it shall be seen.


6.   If Abraham got saved about a year before Ishmael was born, then the events recorded in Genesis 15.1-6 occurred when he was 85 years old.  If the passage we have just read occurred when Isaac was around 15 years old, then Abraham would have been 115 years old.  That would mean this episode in Abraham’s walk of faith would have occurred 30 years after he got saved!

7.   To recapitulate, Abram had faith for ten years before he ever got saved.  From age 75 to age 85 he had what I have designated “seeking faith,” though he remained a lost man.  He was saved at around 85 years of age.  Following his conversion there is what we estimate to be 30 years of silence about Abraham’s faith, until his faith is tested by God on Mount Moriah.

8.   The testing of faith that God conducted showed the strength of Abraham’s faith, faith that I will designate “sacrificial faith.”  What is “sacrificial faith”?  Faith is faith, so “sacrificial faith” should be understood to be like “seeking faith” and “saving faith” in its essential characteristics.  Its source is God.  It’s a gift from God.  And it was acquired, like all real faith is acquired, by means of  hearing the Word of God, Genesis 22.1-2.

9.   But different kinds of faith also have distinguishing characteristics.  Abraham’s “seeking faith” was a faith that sought a relationship with God.  Abraham’s “saving faith” was a faith that actually took possession of a relationship with God.  What can we expect Abraham’s “sacrificial faith” to exhibit?  “Sacrificial faith” puts on exhibit for all to see evidence of a relationship with God by an obedience that is willing to sacrifice greatly to show great love and great devotion for God.

10. Such a display of Abraham’s “sacrificial faith” is best seen in James 2.21-24, which is my text for today.  Please find that passage and stand again for the reading of God’s Word:

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.


11. In this passage we see two characteristics of Abraham’s “sacrificial faith” that distinguishes it from the “seeking faith” and the “saving faith” that we have previously seen in his life.



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

1B.    In this portion of his epistle, James is using father Abraham as proof of his claim that genuine faith produces works that can be seen by people.  And who better to go to for an example to prove a point like that than the great Abraham?

1C.   James realized two important things when picking Abraham as an example of faith, just as did the apostle Paul in Romans chapter 4 and in Galatians 3.6.

2C.   First, there was that great delight that was felt by all Jewish people at having father Abraham as their ancestor.  Anyone who loved Abraham was looked upon favorably by the Jewish people.

3C.   Second, because he was the patriarch of the one group and the prototype for the other, nothing which was contrary to the life’s testimony of Abraham would be acceptable to any Jewish person or to any Christian, and these readers were both Jewish and Christian.

2B.    So, Abraham was “justified by works.”  The phrase “justified by works” has created a bit of consternation for people, who fear that James is leaning a bit toward salvation by works in his teaching.  However, that concern can quickly be laid to rest.

1C.   Turn to Genesis 15.6:  “And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness.”  This is the point in his life where Abraham was saved by faith.  He (Abraham) believed God and He (God) counted it to him (Abraham) for righteousness.

2C.   But does James 2.21 refer to this event in Abraham’s life?  No.  As you have no doubt already figured out, James refers to an occurrence that is recorded in Genesis 22.10-12, perhaps 30 years after the time when Abraham had gotten saved.

3C.   Just as we have seen confusion resulting from an ignorance of the fact that there are different kinds of faith, so we find here that there two kinds of justification in the Word of God.  Justification, remember, has to do with the declaration that someone is in the right.[2]

4C.   These two different kinds of justification are implied in Romans 4.2, where Paul writes, “For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God.”  There is a justification by works, though Paul’s interest lies only with justification by faith.

5C.   You see, it is possible to be justified by works, or to put it another way, to be justified before men.  And although the apostle Paul never dwells on this kind of justification, per se, James does, as we see here in James 2.21.  Let me explain:

1D.   Justification before God occurs when a person gets saved, when through faith in Jesus Christ righteousness is imputed to him.  Justification before men, on the other hand, occurs after a person gets saved, when friends, neighbors and relatives are convinced by your deeds that you are really a saved person.

2D.   Justification before God is the result of naked faith in Christ, trusting in Him alone.  Justification before men is the result of a working kind of faith that evidences itself after a person is already saved that proves itself to observers to be real.

6C.   Abraham’s “sacrificial faith,” then, was a faith that exhibited itself in the works that it did which men could see.  No man can witness anyone’s “saving faith,” because that is a matter of the heart, “for with the heart man believeth unto righteousness.”[3]  But when faith works, as Abraham’s “sacrificial faith” did when he offered up Isaac, evidence of its existence is undeniable.



This is seen in the perfecting of his faith, the fulfilling of Scripture, and his friendship with God.

1B.    First, the perfecting of his faith, is mentioned in James 2.22.

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

1C.   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.

2C.   Faith wrought through his works means that faith had works with it.  It means that faith used works to show itself.  Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac demonstrated his faith in way that could not be denied by any man.  This man’s sacrifice showed that he trusted God!

3C.   Faith accompanied by works made Abraham’s faith perfect.  Literally this means that faith, using works, reached its goal.  And what is the goal of faith?  What is the goal of anything for God?  The goal of faith is to glorify God.

4C.   Did Abraham glorify God by offering up Isaac?  Yes, he did.  By his “sacrificial faith” he showed that God is worthy of all trust, and that God can be obeyed even when what He asks us to do is both costly and difficult to understand.

2B.    The next phrase has to do with 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?

1C.   In Genesis 15.6, God counted Abraham’s “saving faith” for righteousness.

2C.   This offering of Isaac, though it happened many years later, proved that what happened in Genesis 15.6 was the real thing.

3C.   There were many events in the life of this man that proved his faith to be genuine, but James used the supreme example of Abraham’s “sacrificial faith” to prove his point:  Real faith produces corroborating works.

3B.    The last result of Abraham’s faith is the declaration that he was called the Friend of God.

“and he was called the Friend of God.”

1C.   What a grand testimony of a man’s life, that “he was called the Friend of God.”  Would you not like to be known as the friend of God?  I would.  And upon what basis was Abraham called the friend of God?  It was on the basis of faith, which resulted in obedience, that could be seen by one and all.  There is no denying it.  The man exhibited “sacrificial faith” to become the friend of God.

2C.   Turn with me to John 15.13-16, where Jesus tells us how friends of God 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.


3C.   What needs to be understood is that “saving faith” will result in what I have called in Abraham’s case “sacrificial faith.”  God chose him and gave him “seeking faith.”  After a time God gave him “saving faith.”  Then God gave him “sacrificial faith” that produced visible works that testified to others that this man was, indeed, justified.

4C.   I have designated the faith we are now considering “sacrificial faith,” but perhaps it is not a precisely fitting term.  For you see, it is no sacrifice to give to God anything He asks for.  Perhaps we could call it “friendly faith,” since it is the faith that does whatsoever is commanded and makes known that the person is a friend of God.



What does verse 24 indicate that we are to learn by this example of Abraham’s faith? 

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

1B.    Justification in the vertical direction, the kind of justification Paul always writes about, is by faith only.  God can see the faith of any man’s heart.  And only God really knows your heart.  But no man can know your heart perfectly.  As well, no man can see your faith in God.

2B.    What James is talking about is justification in this direction, the horizontal.  Works must accompany faith in this direction or else the faith is shown to be faulty, bogus, illegitimate.  So, if you are called upon by God to demonstrate “sacrificial faith,” as Abraham did, let us call it “friendly faith,” you will be justified in the sight of men, you will be pronounced just from what men have seen in your life that shows you to trust God.



1.   I suppose it is my western mind’s tendency to systematize and categorize things that has resulted in me designating the faith in Abraham’s different stages of life with various labels.  So far we have seen his “seeking faith,” his “saving faith,” and now his “sacrificial faith,” or “friendly faith.”

2.   I suppose the eastern mind would more likely look at this matter of Abraham’s faith as one faith, but accomplishing different things at different times in Abraham’s life.

3.   However your mind works, we can see that there was a ten year period of time in Abraham’s life when he had faith but was not justified in the sight of God.  Had he died he would have gone to Hell.  In Genesis 15.6, he was justified by faith in the sight of God.  Then, perhaps 30 years later, in Genesis 22, when he offered up his son, Isaac, Abraham’s faith worked in such a way that he was justified by works . . . in the sight of men.

4.   At what point does a man with faith have a guarantee of sins forgiven and heaven as his home?  Certainly not with “seeking faith.”  Such a guarantee of sins forgiven and heaven as your home comes only when you are justified by faith, which is when you have “saving faith.”  But only God knows for sure that a person has “saving faith,” everyone else has to wait until there is some evidence of faith in the person’s life and behavior.

5.   This creates an interesting set of problems for the pastor of a Baptist church.  Baptists have historically claimed, and are entirely correct scripturally, that only believers are qualified as candidates to be baptized and to join their churches.  But what makes a person a qualified candidate is nothing more nor less than faith in Christ.\

6.   Tragically, too many Baptist churches these days will baptize those who are in no way fit candidates, either because they have only “seeking faith” and are not genuinely converted to Christ, or because they have absolutely nothing in the way of faith.

7.   What is required to be qualified for believer’s baptism is “saving faith.”  None of us would dispute that.  But what man can tell when one or another has “saving faith”?  That which justifies in the sight of men, which is to say, that which can be discerned by others, is faith of another kind, which I have designated “sacrificial faith,” or “friendly faith,” for want of better descriptive terms.

8.   So, how does the pastor of a Baptist church exercise good stewardship so he does not baptize the lost, while certainly baptizing the saved?  Dare he wait the 30 or so years that took for Abraham’s faith to evidence itself with the sacrifice of Isaac?  Of course not.  But, likewise, dare any pastor baptize someone simply because they desire immersion.  That, too, would be dangerous for the well being of the congregation.

9.   What, then, is to be done about who to baptize, who to receive as members?  That is the question we will seek to answer from our further consideration of God’s Word.

[1] Albert Barnes, Albert Barnes’ NT Commentary, (Bronson, MI: Online Publishing, Inc., 2002), bible@mail.com

[2] See the note on Romans 5.1 in Fritz Rienecker & Cleon Rogers, Linguistic Key To The Greek New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Regency Reference Library, 1980), page 359.

[3] Romans 10.10

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