Faith Without Works Is Dead (Part 2)
Passage: James 2:18–2:26
Sermon from James 2:18-26 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Series: James: Living the Implanted Word
Delivered on June 12, 2016
We’re covering a section that has challenged the church over the centuries, especially Reformed Protestants who rightly confess that justification is by faith alone apart from works. That’s nearly a quote from Romans 3:28, “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” And yet—at least at first glance—James seems to be asserting something different. He says in verse 24 that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. So the famous question becomes, “Is James contradicting what Paul says in Romans 3:28, that we cannot be justified by works?”
Even the most famous Reformer, Martin Luther, had difficulty reconciling James with Paul. At one point he said, “Many have mightily labored to reconcile James with Paul…but not with real success. These are at odds: faith justifies, faith does not justify. If there is anyone who can bring these into harmony with one another, I will set my biretta on him [i.e., his professor’s hat], and let him scold me as a fool.”[i]
Luther had a way with words. But if we truly believe that the Spirit who inspired James is the same Spirit who inspired Paul, I think we must see how these two complement one another. I think many in church history have shown that James is not contradicting Paul when he says that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Rather they’re using the same words with slightly different meanings to address different problems.
My wife, Rachel, grew up in Ghana. Ghanaians love to play football. But if a Ghanaian came to visit you in the US, and you took him out to play football at the local park. You’d have a very confused Ghanaian. Football in Ghana—and really the rest of the world—is what we call soccer in the US. What determines the meaning of words is the context in which we use them.
And once we grasp the context in which James is using words like “faith” and “works” and “justification,” we’ll come to see that he and Paul are preaching the same message. Essentially, that message is this: true, justifying faith necessarily produces works. If it doesn’t, then it’s dead. It’s like a corpse. Let’s read the passage before we get started here. Look with me at verse 18,
18But 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. 19You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23and 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. 24You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25And 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? 26For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
Saving Faith & Works Are Inseparable
The first thing James establishes in verses 18-19 is that saving faith and works are inseparable. Verses 14-17—which we covered last Sunday—introduced an important contrast to keep in mind. James contrasted two kinds of “faith.” On the one hand, there’s saving faith—which involves a real, substantive reliance upon Jesus that necessarily produces works (cf. Jas 1:3, 6, 22; 2:1, 5), and a phony faith-claim that produces no works because it lacks a union with Jesus (Jas 2:14).
James is now making that point even sharper. He anticipates an objection: “Someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’” The objection seems to be that James can’t just start condemning folks who don’t have any works—“Isn’t it possible that works and faith could be isolated from each other?” Absolutely not.
For James, saving faith will necessarily prove itself with works. That’s what he says in verse 19: “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” A true reliance upon Jesus in the heart, will necessarily demonstrate itself by works. And when you hear “works,” don’t start thinking “things you’re trying to do to earn God’s favor.” James means works that flow from a heart already transformed and enraptured by the grace of God in Christ.
That’s where it all started, according to 1:18, with the grace of God. “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” Faith didn’t come out of nowhere. Faith is the cry of the new birth; it’s a gift from God—even Paul alludes to that in Ephesians 2:8. And it’s quite unthinkable to James that if God gives you his nature through the new birth that you wouldn’t live like him in speech, in compassion, and in holiness (cf. Jas 1:18, 22, 25-27).
Likewise, it’s just as unthinkable to James that any true and saving faith would lack works. Saving faith will be observable to others in the same way that we can tell whether a tree is good or bad by looking at its fruit, to use a very common example from Jesus’ ministry (Matt 7:17; 12:33; Luke 6:43). True and saving faith necessarily produces works. Faith and works are not equal; but they’re inseparable.
And to make his point even sharper, he basically says that a “faith” lacking such works looks more like the “faith” of demons. Verse 19, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” In other words, the nature of this dead “faith” amounts to a mere intellectual assent to truths about God.
Don’t get him wrong. He’s not denying the importance of propositional truth—that too is a necessary component to our faith. But if that’s all it is—and there’s no trust in, no transformative union with the person of Jesus—then your faith isn’t any better than that of a demon. Demons know more about God than any of us—even to the point of trembling—but they never please God. That’s not true of someone with saving faith.
Saving faith and works are inseparable…which also helps us understand what James means by “faith alone” in verse 24. He knows of no saving faith that is alone with respect to works. Faith inevitably works. If it doesn’t produce works, then James says that it’s not a faith that will save you from God’s judgment. It’s totally useless in what matters most, namely, our relationship with God.
Works Manifesting the Presence of Justifying Faith
And this he then supports with two Old Testament examples. The first example is Abraham, when he offered his son Isaac on the altar (Jas 2:21). The second example is Rahab, when she hid the spies before Joshua’s conquest of Jericho (Jas 2:25). And in both examples we’re told that they were justified by works. Of course, now we need to flesh out what he means by saying that Abraham and Rahab were justified by their works, and compare that to Paul along the way. So let’s do that now by making five crucial observations from this passage.
God imputes his righteousness to us by faith apart from works
Number one: God imputes his righteousness to us by faith apart from works. You may be asking, “Where in the world are you getting that, since James seems to be saying just the opposite?” But let’s look more closely at verse 23.
James quotes from Genesis 15:6. You may remember the story. Years have passed. Abraham is still childless even though God promised him a unique offspring. Then God brings Abraham outside and says, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you’re able to number them…So shall your offspring be.” And then it says that “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”
He didn’t work for this righteousness. By simply trusting in God and his promises, God counted to Abraham a righteousness that wasn’t inherently his. God gave his own righteousness to Abraham by faith alone.[ii]
Paul makes a big deal of this in Romans 4:3-6; and he uses book-keeping language to get this point across. In terms of righteousness, Abraham’s bank account is zero. And he doesn’t fill it up with righteousness by works. It’s impossible. God must do it for him. And by simply trusting in God who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited for righteousness. That is, his faith connects him to God’s promise of righteousness.
That’s how it is for anybody who wants to be made right with God. We’re all bankrupt before God. We’ve got nothing. All we bring to God’s judgment seat is our sin. And there’s two big things we need to escape condemnation: we need forgiveness of sins and we need the righteousness of God. The good news is that by simply trusting in Jesus, relying on him to save us—God forgives all our sins and he imputes to us all his righteousness. In the moment we trust in Jesus apart from works, God declares us righteous before his judgment seat.
So, by quoting Genesis 15:6, James is trumpeting that God justifies the ungodly by faith alone and not by works of the law—just like Paul did in Romans 4. They both agree, in other words, that justification is by faith apart from works. Faith unites us to Jesus’ righteousness, and based on Jesus’ righteousness, God declares us not guilty.
Justifying faith is presupposed throughout James’ argument
Number two: justifying faith is presupposed throughout James’ argument. In verse 22, James says that faith was active along with Abraham’s works. That doesn’t mean Abraham was adding a little works to his faith along the way, but that his faith was standing in and behind the works all along the way. It’s not a matter of faith and works, but faith producing works. Hebrews 11:17-19 make the same point. Abraham’s faith had already linked him with God’s promises even before he offered up Isaac. And it was Abraham’s faith that God was even able to raise Isaac from the dead—it was that faith that led him to act the way he did in radical obedience to God’s word (cf. Gen 22:5).
Hebrews 11:31 makes a similar observation about Rahab: “By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.” Faith stands behind their works. James also says in verse 22 that faith was completed by works. Meaning, his faith found its ultimate expression in works. Works are the observable fruition of justifying faith.[iii] But the point is the same, faith is presupposed here—it’s beneath the works.
Paul agrees with this as well. He doesn’t make a distinction like James does between saving faith and dead faith. But Paul is constantly showing that faith necessarily leads to a new obedience. He calls it the “obedience of faith” in Romans 1:5, the “work of faith” in 1 Thessalonians 1:3. In Galatians 5:6 he talks about “faith working through love.” Paul knows no other kind of faith, and it’s this faith that ends up justifying one before God (cf. Rom 4:20-22).
Christ’s imputed righteousness has an inevitable external embodiment
Number three: Christ’s imputed righteousness has an inevitable external embodiment. In verse 23 James says that Abraham’s works fulfilled Genesis 15:6, which teaches that it’s by faith apart from works that he’s justified. This was huge for me. We just saw from Genesis 15:6 that justification is by faith alone apart from works. And in that justification we receive Christ’s righteousness by imputation. But that justification apart from works reaches its full expression in doing works. Do you see it?
Justifying faith—like we see with Abraham in Genesis 15:6—reaches its full expression in doing works—like we see with Abraham offering up Isaac. Works are the inevitable embodiment of the justifying faith that links us to Christ’s righteousness.
Be careful: the works do not increase the righteousness that we’ve already received by faith alone—that’s Catholic theology and it undermines the gospel. Nothing needs to be added to Jesus’ perfect righteousness. Rather, the works manifest the liberating power of Jesus’ perfect righteousness.
This is why a “faith” that lacks works is such nonsense. How’s it even possible that someone be united to Jesus and his righteousness and not do righteousness? This is why the “Free Grace” theology of Zane Hodges and others who say that you can make Jesus your Savior without making him Lord makes nonsense of the Bible. Faith unites us to Jesus and his perfect righteousness, and that righteousness necessarily frees us and transforms us and converts us into a people who want to do righteousness.
If faith truly connects you to a living Lord, who is victorious over sin’s power, and who is someone who lives for God—if he’s truly living in here—how can it be that we not live as he lives in obedience to God and love for our neighbors? Jesus’ righteousness won’t let us remain as we are; it is powerful to effect change.
And with this, Paul also agrees. In Ephesians 4:24 he says “to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” The new self in Christ must act in accordance with what it possesses, God’s image-bearing righteousness (cf. Rom 6:17-18).
Works, therefore, manifest the presence of justifying faith
Number four: works, therefore, manifest the presence of justifying faith. And here’s where we come to a better understanding of the way James is using the word justify. When we usually think of justification, we normally think of God’s legal declaration of righteous when we simply trust in Jesus. But justification in the Bible can also carry slightly different nuances.
Even this week in my quiet time, I ran across a different nuance of justification in Matthew 12:37, “for by your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned.” We normally understand justification as something that happens when we believe. It’s a sealed reality in the past. We have peace with God. He declared us righteous in the moment of our conversion. But in this case, Jesus pushes justification to the future judgment, and he bases it on works.
How do these two fit together? They fit together in that one is the public manifestation of the other. Sometimes “to justify” refers to being “shown to be righteous,” or “proven to be righteous” (e.g., Matt 11:19; Rom 3:4; 1 Tim 3:16). In this case, good works are the “inevitable external badge of…internal justifying faith,” to use the words of Greg Beale.[iv]
This is why theologians like Jonathan Edwards and others would make a distinction between declared justification and manifested justification. Declared justification is when God declares a sinner righteous in the moment he trusts in Jesus. That’s how somebody enters into a relationship with God. Manifested justification speaks to God giving proof that a person is righteous by their works. That is, their works become the necessary evidence of internal, justification by faith.[v]
Usually the Bible pushes that manifested justification all the way to the future judgment (Matt 12:37; Rom 2:13; 3:20; cf. 1 Cor 4:3-5; Rev 20:11-15). But James sets it within Abraham and Rahab’s lifetime. Manifested justification occurred when their faith took action. So, it goes something like this.
The only way a sinner can come into a relationship with God is if he receives the imputed righteousness of Christ by faith alone. In that moment of trust, God makes a legal declaration of righteous in Christ. The righteousness of Christ then liberates us to obey God; it opens up a whole new life where we can and we want to obey God.
Then throughout that Christian’s life, God looks upon those works which are rooted in his liberating grace and says, “This one is righteous. I declared him/her righteous when they believed in my Son. And this work over here and that one over there—they’re all miniature testimonies that my Son lives in them, and that justifying faith is present and active and will in fact vindicate them on the last day.”
So…James’ concern with justification isn’t to explain how someone gets right with God—which is Paul’s concern in places like Romans 3:28 where he says that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. That’s not James’ concern. James’ concern is to explain the inevitable results once someone is right with God. “Justification by works” in Romans 3:28 means gaining a right standing with God through works, which we should deny. “Justification by works” in James means evidencing a right standing with God through works which we should affirm. Those two things are not contradictory. Or, to say it another way, we’re justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that remains alone.
Friendship with God is the goal of justifying faith
Finally, observation number five: friendship with God is the goal of justifying faith. James writes in verse 23, “and he was called a friend of God.” Glance over at 4:4. He says this: “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” What does it mean to be a friend of God?
It means that you’re no longer part of the world’s system of evil and rebellion against God. Something fundamental about you has changed. This is the goal of faith. The goal of faith isn’t just forgiveness and a get-out-of-hell-free card; the goal is to be God’s friend. We were made to walk with our Maker and live as he created us to live. We can’t do that when trapped in our sins. But by trusting in Jesus—whose death liberates us and whose righteousness transforms us—we can now live as we were once created to live, as God’s friend, loving his presence, following his words, doing his will. Good works are the inevitable outworking of our friendship with God.
Is friendship with God the goal of your faith? Or, are you professing to know Jesus, just because you don’t want to go to hell? Or, are you a Christian merely because you think it’s the best philosophical answer to the world’s problems? It certainly is the best answer, but the goal isn’t a mere mental assent to the truths of Christianity. The goal is friendship with God—knowing him, and, more importantly, him knowing you.
Jesus’ blood and righteousness have given you free access to God by faith alone. If you’re trusting in Christ, your friendship with the world has ended. Walk now with your Maker. You were saved to have God and commune with God and walk with God and obey God in all that you do.
Two Examples of Faith-filled Works as a Friend of God
And you know what happens when you’re a friend of God? Your faith produces a life that looks something like Abraham’s and Rahab’s. Something I mentioned last week is that in the midst of all the theological discussion on justification and works, it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of the very works James identifies in his argument. In verses 14-17 is was caring for poverty-stricken brothers and sisters in Christ. But what are the works he identifies here with Abraham and Rahab? What other sorts of works does saving faith produce?
Faith produces radical obedience to God’s word
With Abraham we find radical obedience to God’s word. God tested Abraham’s faith in a most radical way. He called him to sacrifice his only son. All throughout his life, Abraham had trusted in God in the face of great odds. Sarah was barren and past the age of having children; yet God miraculously gave him Isaac. But now Abraham was being called to trust God’s promise even at the cost of his only son. And he still acts on what he knew to be true about God—that even if this knife falls, “my son’s coming back down the mountain with me (Gen 22:5). God will provide the lamb (Gen 22:8). God will raise my son from the dead (Rom 4:17-21; Heb 11:19). Why? Because there’s a promised Savior bound to this son’s lineage. He must save.” And so his faith gives way to radical obedience.
God’s word calls all of us to radical obedience to his word. That’s not to say that all of us will be led to do the very same things. But it will mean that all of us submit to God’s revealed will in Scripture. And that revealed will in Scripture calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus daily.
It calls us to give our total allegiance to Jesus when the surrounding culture is against us. It calls us to not compromise on Christian principles when the rest of the world is fudging to play politics. It calls us to love our neighbor sacrificially even when love is not reciprocated to us. Is there anything that you’re holding back from God, anything that’s hindering you from giving yourself wholly to his will?
Consider again the faith of Abraham, or better, consider the God of Abraham’s faith. He has the ability to do all that he has promised for the world. He has the wisdom to bring all his purposes to pass. He has the ability to meet all your needs according to his riches in Christ Jesus. He has sovereignty over all nations and their leaders. He has the power to raise the dead, as we see most pointedly in our Lord Jesus Christ. We can give ourselves wholeheartedly to this God’s word. He is trustworthy.
Faith produces risk-taking action for God’s kingdom
With Rahab, we also learn that faith produces risk-taking action for God’s kingdom. Rahab was part of the Canaanite nation. She lived in Jericho, a city that God was about to destroy. She also lived under the rule of the Canaanite king. And when the king learned that spies from Israel had come to her, he sent and asked her to bring them out (Josh 2:3). But as the story unfolds, we see that Rahab’s ultimate allegiance isn’t to the king in Canaan but to the King of all kings, the Lord himself (Josh 2:4-7).
She heard of God’s kingdom coming. She heard of God’s power to destroy nations. She heard of how great his wrath really is. She heard of his fame and glory. And even before the spies arrived, she had already put her faith in the Lord (Josh 2:8-11). She knew that the Lord showed steadfast love to all who feared him (Josh 2:12, 14). And this faith led her to risk-taking action for God’s kingdom. She served the spies even when it could cost her life.
Does your faith evidence itself in this way? Is there a willingness to take risks to see God’s kingdom advance? Maybe that risk will mean serving in a context that’s less comfortable for you. Maybe risk will look like standing up to your employer when he asks you to do things that are contrary to God’s word. Maybe it will mean sharing the gospel with that coworker you’ve been praying for. Maybe that risk will mean stepping into a leadership role that you notice needs filling. Maybe that risk will mean moving overseas to spread God’s fame among peoples who have no access to the gospel. Risk will look different for all of us, but the aim will be the same: the advance of God’s kingdom and the spread of his glory.
God’s justifying grace in Christ can transform anyone
And one final point to take home: why would James choose Abraham and Rahab as his two examples? The writer of Hebrews uses Abraham and Rahab as well, but alongside a long list of others. Why does James use these two examples in particular?
Perhaps it’s to show us that God’s justifying grace in Christ is able to transform anyone. James hits the two extremes, doesn’t he? The patriarch and the prostitute; the father of the Jews and a ‘nobody’ among Gentiles; a man popular for his wealth and a woman known for her promiscuity. One take away from that spectrum, I think, is that the gospel of justification by faith alone can transform anybody’s life. It doesn’t matter where you’ve come from, what ethnicity you belong to, what sins you have in your background, what mess you’re currently going through, God’s grace can reach you wherever you are and transform you by the righteousness of Christ. God justifies the ungodly—that’s the good news!
And that’s true in our mission to others that you’re going to talk to tomorrow at the office and on the road and at the workbench, and family members you’ll visit this summer and acquaintances on your street—God’s grace can change any of them through the gospel of justification by faith alone. We can offer to any of them the person of Jesus in all his righteousness. And by simply trusting in him, all of their sins will be forgiven and all of Jesus’ righteousness will become theirs.
And it won’t leave them the same either. As we talked about earlier, it will transform them into a people who show compassion for those in need, who obey God’s word at all costs to themselves, and who take risks for the kingdom of God. Let’s not miss the opportunities that God may give us this next week to share with others his incredible grace in justification.
[i]Original found in WA TR 3, 253: 3292a. English translation taken from Timo Laato, “Justification According to James: A Comparison with Paul,” TrinJ 18NS (1997), 44.
[ii]Especially helpful is the treatment by O. Palmer Robertson, “Genesis 15:6: New Covenant Expositions of an Old Covenant Text,” WTJ 42 (1980): 259-89. In addition to Genesis 15:6, Robertson gives other examples from the OT where similar vocabulary appears, like Genesis 31:15 and Numbers 18:27, that also show how a person is reckoned something he is not.
[iii]Cf. also the use of the same verb (teleiow) in 1 John 4:12, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” Moo rightly notes that “our love does not ‘complete’ God’s love in the sense that the love of God is inadequate or faulty without our response. It is rather that God’s love comes to expression…when we respond to his grace with love toward others.” Doug Moo, James, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 137. See also the comments by Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 2, trans. George Musgrave Giger (Philipsburg: P&R, 1994), 682.
[iv]G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 524.
[v]Jonathan Edwards, Justification by Faith Alone (Morgan: Soli Deo Gloria, 2000), 140. John Owen made a similar distinction. He argued that a person’s “evangelical righteousness”—his good works—flows from his “legal righteousness”—his right standing with God by faith alone. John Owen, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith Through the Imputation of the Righteousness of Christ Explained, Confirmed, and Vindicated (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2006), 169. Ronald Fung adds yet another set of clarifying labels, namely, “forensic justification by faith” and “probative justification by works” (i.e., probative in the sense of giving proof to something). Ronald Y. K. Fung, “‘Justification’ in the Epistle of James,” in Right with God: Justification in the Bible and in the World, ed. D. A. Carson (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1992), 146-62.
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