Justification & Works
July 24, 2022 Speaker: Bret Rogers
Topic: Justification Passage: James 2:14–26
Two Sundays ago, we broke from our series in Revelation to discuss the doctrine of justification. In part, I needed more time to study Revelation 12 and 13. But I also saw the need to equip you on justification, especially the ground of justification. In God’s court of law, on what grounds will you stand? Not your works. Not even your faith. It is Christ which faith looks to—he is our ground. When united to Jesus by faith, God credits to us the righteousness of Christ. It’s called the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Christ is not only our pardon; he is also our perfection—on that basis God declares us righteous.
Today, I want to discuss how that justification relates to good works. If justification isn’t based on works, do works matter at all? I fear that some profess faith in Jesus because they want the benefits of Jesus’ righteousness but quite apart from the transforming loveliness of his person. Turn them to a command and they might object, “Legalism!” Or maybe they don’t object at all when they hear commands from Scripture. But they never do them either. They’re what James would call hearers only.
I want to show you why that kind of thinking is wrong from James 2. James 2 has challenged the church for centuries. Paul says in Romans 3:28, “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Yet James asserts in verse 24 that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. So, the question is, Does James contradict Paul when it comes to justification and works?
The short answer is, No. The context will prove that James and Paul agree. They’re simply using the same words with slightly different meanings to address different problems. At the same time, we will learn how justification and imputation relates to good works. Basically, the main idea is this: true, justifying faith necessarily produces works. Let’s read the passage starting at verse 14…
14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 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. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and 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. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And 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? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
Saving Faith and Works Are Inseparable
Let’s start with the context. Verses 14-17 introduce an important contrast—saving faith versus a phony faith-claim. To this point in the letter, James has characterized the nature of saving faith. It perseveres in various trials, 1:3. It stays devoted to Jesus instead of wavering, 1:6. Faith works itself out in neighbor-love by showing mercy, 2:1. By the time we get to 2:14, we know the nature of saving faith. True faith comes with a transformative union with Jesus. Faith unites us to Jesus who, now living in us, produces a resolve to do God’s will.
By contrast, there is a phony faith-claim. Verse 14—someone says he has faith, but his lack of works proves that he’s not actively trusting in Jesus. That’s why James implies that such a faith cannot save. It’s altogether dead. When there’s no vital connection to the True Vine, the branch will not bear fruit.
James then sharpens his point in verses 18-19. He anticipates an objection: “Someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’” The objection assumes that works and faith can be separated. But James exposes the error. Verse 18, “I will show you my faith by my works.” Faith necessarily proves itself in works.
He’s not arguing that works earn salvation. James has already stated that God saved us by his own gracious initiative. 1:18, “Of his own will [God] brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” These are not works to earn salvation; they are works that exhibit salvation. The external works—works like steadfastness under trial, 1:12; works like compassion for the orphan and widow, 1:27; works like meeting the needs of our brothers and sisters, 2:15. These works demonstrate an internal reality. Faith and works are not equal; but they are inseparable. It’s inseparable from the new nature we possess in union with Christ.
To claim genuine faith while lacking works is so backwards, that James even calls it demonic in verse 19. What, then, does this broader context show us? The context shows us what James means by “faith alone” in verse 24. Saving faith is never alone with respect to works. Saving faith inevitably works. Now, to support this, James gives two Old Testament examples. Abraham and Rahab (2:21, 25). In both examples we’re told that they were justified by works. What does that mean? Five observations are crucial to understand James’ argument.
1. God imputes his righteousness by faith apart from works.
One, God imputes his righteousness by faith apart from works. You’re thinking, “Where are you getting that? James seems to say just the opposite in verse 24.” But look more closely at verse 23. James quotes from Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Crucial to note is that Abraham didn’t work for this righteousness. By simply trusting in God’s promise, God counted to Abraham a righteousness that wasn’t inherently Abraham’s. God gave his own righteousness to Abraham by faith alone.[i] Why take Genesis 15:6 that way?
Because that’s how Paul uses it in Romans 4:3-6. Paul’s contemporaries loved to use Genesis 15 to show that Abraham was righteous in himself. But Paul draws from the book-keeping language of Genesis 15:6 to make a much different point. He uses Genesis 15:6 to show that God justifies the ungodly. In terms of righteousness, Abraham’s bank account is zero. He’s ungodly. But by trusting in God who justifies the ungodly, Abraham’s faith is credited for righteousness. His faith connects him to God’s promise of righteousness now revealed in Jesus Christ.[ii] James echoes the same truth here. By quoting Genesis 15:6, James builds on the truth that God justifies the ungodly by faith alone. Keep that in mind as we move next to a second observation…
2. Justifying faith is presupposed throughout James’ argument.
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 works to his faith. Rather, his faith stood 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 makes the same point. Abraham’s faith had already linked him with God’s promise before he offered up Isaac. Hebrews 11:31 observes the same about Rahab. Faith stands behind their works.
Notice also what James says in verse 22: “faith was completed by works.” Faith finds its full expression in works. Works are the observable fruit of justifying faith.[iii] Paul agrees. Now, Paul doesn’t contrast saving faith from dead faith like James. But Paul regularly shows that faith necessarily leads to obedience. What is the goal of his missionary work in Romans 1:5? The obedience of faith among the nations. In Galatians 5:6, he speaks about “faith working through love.” The only faith that justifies inevitably produces works. That’s presupposed throughout here.
3. Christ’s imputed righteousness has an inevitable external embodiment.
Third, Christ’s imputed righteousness has an inevitable external embodiment. This was a huge connection for me. In verse 23, James says that Abraham’s works fulfilled Genesis 15:6, which itself teaches that Abraham is justified by faith alone. Follow the logic. Genesis 15:6 teaches that justification is by faith alone. In justification we receive God’s gift of righteousness by imputation. That justification apart from works then 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 in Genesis 22. Works are the inevitable embodiment of the justifying faith that links us to Christ’s righteousness. Works do not increase the righteousness already received in Christ. Rather, works manifest the liberating power of Jesus’ righteousness. To be linked to Jesus’ righteousness is to be linked to Jesus; and Jesus transforms people.[iv]
4. Therefore, works manifest the presence of justifying faith.
Therefore, works manifest the presence of justifying faith—that’s number four. When we think of justification, we normally think of God’s legal declaration the moment we trust in Jesus. But justification can also carry slightly different nuances. Take Matthew 12:37, for example. Jesus says, “…by your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned.” Jesus pushes justification to the future judgment, and, in some sense, he relates that justification to our words.
How do these nuances fit together? They fit together in that one is the public display of the other. Sometimes “to justify” refers to being “shown to be righteous,” or “proven to be righteous.”[v] In this case, good works are the “inevitable external badge of…internal justifying faith,” to use the words of Greg Beale.[vi]
Theologians like John Owen, Francis Turretin, Jonathan Edwards—they would distinguish declared justification from manifested justification. Declared justification is when God declares a sinner righteous in the moment he trusts in Jesus. Manifested justification speaks to God giving proof that a person is righteous by their works. Their works become the necessary evidence of internal, justifying faith.[vii] Usually the Bible pushes manifested justification to future judgment.[viii] James sets the manifested justification within Abraham and Rahab’s lifetime. It occurs when their faith works.
Let’s see if can pull the various threads together like this. The only way a sinner can enter a relationship with God is by receiving the imputed righteousness of Christ by faith alone. In that moment of trust, God makes a legal declaration of righteous. Standing right before God then opens a whole new life where we can and we want to obey God.* Then throughout the Christian’s life God looks on our works that are rooted in his liberating, justifying grace and he says, “This one is righteous. I declared her righteous when she believed in my Son. And this work over here, and that work over there—they’re all miniature testimonies that my Son lives in her, and that justifying faith is present and active and will in fact vindicate her on the last day.”
Does that help? Or let’s put it like this. James’ concern with justification is not to explain how someone gets right with God. That’s Paul’s concern in places like Romans 3:28. James’ concern is to explain the inevitable results once someone is right with God. It’s a difference between gaining a right standing with God through works, which we should deny, and evidencing a right standing with God through works, which we should affirm. These are not contradictory but complementary. To use words from the Reformed tradition, we’re justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that remains alone.[ix]
I once heard Kevin DeYoung illustrate it this way.[x] Write the equation, F = J + W (i.e., Faith = Justification + Works). Paul is trying to keep people from putting the W on the wrong side. James is trying to keep people from acting like the W doesn’t matter. Faith alone leads to Justification, and the inevitable fruit of justifying faith is Works.
5. Friendship with God is the goal of justifying faith.
Fifth, friendship with God is the goal of justifying faith. Verse 23 says of Abraham, “he was called a friend of God.” What does it mean to be a friend of God? 4:4 says that friendship with the world is enmity with God. So, to be a friend of God means that you’re no longer part of the world’s system of rebellion. God has brought you into fellowship with himself, such that now you enjoy God and delight in his ways.
This is the goal of justifying faith. The goal isn’t just forgiveness. It’s not just freedom from punishment. The goal is to be God’s friend. You were made to walk with your Maker. You were made to enjoy his company. Is friendship with God the goal of your faith? Are you professing to know Jesus just to escape punishment? Are you a Christian just because you think it’s the best philosophical answer, or because you think it works? It’s certainly the best answer. But the goal isn’t a mental assent to the truths of Christianity. The goal is friendship with God—knowing him, loving him, enjoying him.
Examples of Faith-filled Works as a Friend of God
And you know what happens when you’re a friend of God? That friendship produces a life of good works that displays the person and worth of Jesus. So, how does justification by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness relate to works? It’s the cause of good works. In brings us into a friendship with God that inevitably produces good works. It grafts us into the True Vine such that the branch inevitably bears good fruit.
Now, in all the theological discussion on justification and works, it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of the works James himself identifies in his argument. I don’t want us to fall into that error. For James, theology is not kept in the abstract; it plays itself out in very tangible ways. He can tell what someone believes about faith and justification by the way they live and interact with others. If you are declared righteous in Christ by faith alone, what kind of works will your faith produce?
One example is compassionate care to brothers and sisters in need. James mentions the poor in verse 15. “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” To claim to know Jesus and then refuse to treat other people like Jesus treated them is contradictory. A genuine faith-union with Jesus will produce compassion to other Christians in need.
What is your faith producing towards Christians in need? Are you seeing the needs of brothers and sisters around you? Do you want to know the needs? Once you learn of the needs, how are you driven to meet those needs? Husbands and wives, when your spouse needs help—help with the house; help with the kids; help with some much-needed rest; help with counseling; help with physical inabilities—whatever needs are there. Do you actively look for them? Are you responding with compassionate care to meet those needs? Husbands, that’s especially on us since we’re called explicitly to love our wives as Christ loved the church. We must lead, here.
We’ve also got some younger Christians in our church—a couple young men joined two Sundays ago, ages 15 and 13. Let me encourage you younger folks to look for ways you can meet needs at home. Watch out for your brother or sister. Actively pursue ways to help your parents. Let your family become a training ground to learn how to meet needs in the church as you mature in the Lord.
Others of you can be on the lookout for needs in the church. Parents with numerous children often need help in the pews. The elderly need people to reach out to them when they can’t make it due to physical inabilities. Others with chronic illness may need assistance with cleaning at home during the week. New mothers need naps—compassionate care may look like sitting with the baby while mom rests. Medical bills can sometimes be daunting to overcome. Whatever the case, justifying faith will produce in God’s people compassionate care for those in need.
Isn’t it Jesus who first showed us compassion? Isn’t it Jesus who not only saw the depth of your need; he also laid down his life to meet your greatest need? He didn’t just send you a word; he took on flesh and endured the cross to raise us up with him.
Another example of the works faith produces: radical obedience to God’s word. James uses Abraham offering Isaac in verse 21. Abraham had to trust God’s promise even at the cost of his only son. Abraham had to act on what he knew to be true—that even if this knife falls, “my son’s coming back down the mountain with me (cf. Gen 22:5). God will provide the lamb (Gen 22:8). God will raise my son from the dead.”[xi] Abraham believed God; and his faith produced radical obedience.
I don’t know all the things God may set before you in coming days. It could be taking another job so that you can tend to your family better, as God lays out in Scripture. It could be choosing to serve a family with immense needs, and yet you will have to learn to trust God to meet those needs. It could be standing up to an employer when asked to do things that contradict God’s word. Like Abraham, where will you place your faith? In all circumstances, God will come through for us. Again and again, he came through for Abraham. In Christ, he will come through for you, child of Abraham.
Then there’s the example of Rahab. In Rahab we find 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 a 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 goes, we see that Rahab’s ultimate allegiance isn’t to the king in Canaan but to the King of heaven (Josh 2:4-7).
She heard of God’s kingdom coming. She heard of God’s power. 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 her neck for God’s kingdom.
What about you? What sort of risks have you taken to see God’s kingdom advance? In the path of obedience, not all of us will do the very same things. Risk may mean serving in a context that’s less comfortable. Risk may look like sharing the gospel with a coworker. Risk may be stepping into a leadership role. Risk may mean mission work overseas. It might mean planting a church in Fort Worth, and at great cost to yourselves seeing it onto maturity. Risk will look different for all of us, but the aim will be the same: God’s kingdom and glory above all.
These are the examples James sets before us. They’re not exhaustive. But they certainly illustrate the sort of works that inevitably flow from a believer’s life. For many of you, I see these works in your life every week. I hear of them. Some of my favorite moments as a pastor is learning how you serve the needs of others. Sometimes I’ve just learned of a need, and it’s already being met by others in our church. In the words of Paul from 1 Thessalonians 1:3, I give thanks for “your work of faith and labor of love.”
Perhaps a few of you, though, are thinking, “I’m not sure that I’ve seen much fruit in my life. I don’t see these good works at all. I don’t enjoy a friendship with God. I am that person who just wanted Jesus’ benefits but apart from Jesus.” If that’s you, don’t ignore the Spirit of God speaking through this word. Don’t resist the kindness of God in showing you the true state of your soul. “Today is the day of salvation.”
God’s justifying grace can transform anyone. Why would James choose Abraham and Rahab as examples? 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. What’s the point of hitting those two extremes? 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, 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 point of the gospel!
God’s grace can change anybody through the gospel of justification by faith alone. By trusting in Jesus, all sins are forgiven and all of Jesus’ righteousness is yours. But when you trust in Jesus truly, he won’t leave you the same. He will transform you into a person who shows compassion for those in need, who obeys God’s word at all costs, and who takes risks for his kingdom. It’s not too late. Repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.
[i]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.
[ii]For a fuller treatment of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, see the following sermon: https://www.redeemerfortworth.org/sermons/sermon/2022-07-10/christ-our-righteousness. For a more extensive treatment of Romans 4:3-6, see D. A. Carson, “The Vindication of Imputation: On Fields of Discourse and Semantic Fields,” in Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Debate, eds. Mark Husbands and Daniel J. Treier (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004), 46-78.
[iii]Cf. Doug Moo, James, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 137, when he comments on the same verb that appears in 1 John 4:17. See also Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 2, trans. George Musgrave Giger (Philipsburg: P&R, 1994), 682.
[iv]Paul 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.
[v]E.g., Matt 11:19; Rom 3:4; 1 Tim 3:16.
[vi]G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 524.
[vii]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.
[viii]E.g., see Matt 12:37; Rom 2:13; 3:20; cf. 1 Cor 4:3-5; Rev 20:11-15.
[ix]E.g., see “Of Justification” in the WCF 11.2.
[x]See Kevin DeYoung’s sermon from James 2 at https://christcovenant.org/sermons/wait-i-thought-we-were-justified-by-faith-alone/.
[xi]Rom 4:17-21; Heb 11:19.