James 2:21-26 (ESV): It’s true you can be justified by works.

 By Spencer D Gear PhD [1]

It’s true clip_image002

You can be justified by works clip_image004

Is James a preacher of falsehood?clip_image006

1. Introduction

It was early May 2015 and our backyard was flooding with water pouring onto it from the neighbour’s property. I needed sandbags to stop the water from coming into our house. To go to the Council’s works’ depot, I drove down Boundary Rd., North Lakes towards Deception Bay Rd. I came to the creek and the water was flooded over the causeway. Instead of trying to cross, not knowing the depth of the water, I turned around. Was I justified in not crossing the flooded causeway? Of course!

In my writing of this paragraph of my sermon, I have used the ‘justify’ format so that my writing is carefully aligned on the right and left margins. I have used the “justify” format function of MS Word for this paragraph.

 

Daniel morcombe.jpg(Daniel Morcombe photograph, courtesy Wikipedia)

 

DANIEL Morcombe, 13, went missing while waiting for a bus in 2003 [on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast]. It was almost eight years before his remains were found’. In 2014, Brett Peter Cowan faced trial charged with his murder’.[1a]

ABC News (Australia) reported on 15 March 2014 that

Brett Peter Cowan has been sentenced to life in jail with a minimum non-parole period of 20 years for the murder of Sunshine Coast teenager Daniel Morcombe.

Cowan was … found guilty of murder, indecent treatment of a child and interfering with a corpse.[2]

He was sentenced in Brisbane’s Supreme Court by Justice Roslyn Atkinson. Was the Justice justified in sentencing Cowan to life in prison?

Here I have used the English word, ‘justified’, to mean 3 different things:

Flower24 Justified in not crossing a flooded road;

Flower24 A paragraph of my typed sermon justified as part of its written format;

Flower24 A justice in court justified in inflicting punishment on a criminal, based on Australian law.

Please keep these examples in mind as we examine the language of this passage from James 2:21-26.

(a) Abraham justified by works (v. 21);

(b) Rahab, the prostitute, justified by works (v. 25);

(c) ‘You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone’ (v. 24);

(d) Then Paul has the audacity to state this of believers: ‘Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Rom 5:1 ESV).

1.1 A quick review (James 2:14-20)

Since I preached on James 2:14-20 a month ago, you may have forgotten some of the content. James 2:17 gives a quick summary of this passage: ‘So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead’

1.1.1 Faith by itself isn’t enough.

1.1.2 Unless faith produces good deeds, it is not the real thing.

1.1.3 Faith without good deeds is dead or useless.

True faith is demonstrated by the good works that follow faith. James is not teaching that good works are need for you to obtain genuine faith. But if you have fair dinkum faith, we will see that unseen faith by the seen good works that you do. That’s the fundamental teaching in James 2:14-20.

Now to understand what James is saying that caused Luther so much heartache. It is not that difficult to understand if we keep this in mind the negative aspect in vv 14-20 – faith without works is useless. Now James turns to what a genuine, saving faith will look like.

He gives one example that we could expect – Abraham. But the other seems out in left field – Rahab, a prostitute. These 2 OT characters are as different as chalk and cheese by outward appearances. But when we get to the heart of the matter they are on the same page. You might say: What? Abraham the man of faith and Rahab the harlot. Those 2 examples seem such an unlikely couple to demonstrate justification by works.

To understand James 2:21, we must know the meaning of James 2:20. It reads, ‘Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?’ (ESV).

Now James sets out to demonstrate that genuine faith that is not followed by good works is useless. Look who he uses as his first example.

2. Abraham justified by works?

Faith & WorksNote the entire verse 21 (ESV): ‘Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?’ The NIV translates as: ‘Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?’

This verse refers to Abraham’s offering up Isaac, recorded in Genesis 22. When Abraham was obedient to God’s test and bound Isaac to the wood on the altar, took the knife to slaughter his son (Gen 22:10) but the angel of the Lord intervened to stop this sacrifice of Isaac. These are the works that James is speaking about.

2.1 Didn’t this happen when he offered Isaac on the altar? (v. 21)

What we are not told in verse 21 is about Abraham believing God and being justified by faith, or being counted as righteousness. We have to wait until James 2:23 to read about that.

However, it is critical for our understanding that we know that Abraham’s being justified by works in James 2:21 follows Abraham’s being justified by faith.

We are told about this justification by faith in Genesis 15 in God’s Covenant with Abram. God’s promise was his very own son to be Abram’s heir (Gen 15:4) and Abram’s descendants would be as many as the stars in the heaven (Gen 15:5). Then in Gen 15:6 we have these words from Abram, ‘And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness’. This is where Abram was justified by faith in God alone.

This is the verse to which Paul refers when he wrote to the Romans 4:3, ‘For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”’. To the Galatians 3:6, Paul wrote, ‘Just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”’. In these 2 verses in Romans and Galatians, Paul is referring to Gen 15:6 when Abram was justified by faith.

However James 2:21 is referring to another incident in the life of Abraham when he offered up Isaac as a sacrifice, a demonstration of Abraham’s faith in God.

Commentator C. E. B. Cranfield summarised this very well:

For James, no less than for Paul, the words of Gen. 15.6 quoted in [James 2] verse 23 (“And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness”) are decisive. It was by his faith that Abraham was justified. His works (his readiness to offer up Isaac related to Gen. 22) did not earn his justification (about which we hear already in Gen. 15): they were simply the fruit and the outward evidence of his faith (Cranfield 1965:340).[3]

That’s an excellent statement and summary. Even though these verses got Luther tangled up, they are not all that difficult to understand if we consider the context in James 2 and the references to Genesis 15 and Gen 22. In James 2:21, Abraham is stated as being justified by works. This is an illustration of the true faith that Abraham already had. Abraham’s good works and his faith are inseparable, but the works DO NOT lead to Abraham’s faith and righteousness before God. Abraham’s work of offering up Isaac is a proof of genuine faith.

Again, Cranfield said it well, ‘Had there been no works, Abraham would not have been justified; but that would have been because the absence of works would have meant that he had no real faith’ (Cranfield 1965:340).[4]

So to answer the question, ‘Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac?’ We say, ‘Yes, Abraham the father of the Jews, including Jewish Christians, ‘was shown to be right with God by his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar’ (that’s the NLT translation). However, this demonstration of works was based on Abraham’s being declared to be righteous by faith.

The same applies to all believers. Our good works demonstrate that we are already believers who have been justified by faith. This leads to the summary in James 2:22,

2.2 Faith active with works (v. 22)

This is what I’ve just explained and James 2:22 states, ‘You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works’. Or as the NLT puts it, ‘You see, his faith and his actions worked together. His actions made his faith complete’.

What could it possibly mean that Abraham’s

3. Faith completed by works (v.  22)

arrow-small NASB, ‘as a result of the works, faith was perfected’.

arrow-small CEV, ‘He proved that his faith was real by what he did’.

arrow-small NRSV, ‘faith was brought to completion by the works’.

‘Was completed or perfected’ is the aorist tense (point action) of the verb, teleiow, meaning ‘to carry to the end, to complete like love in 1 John 4:18’,[5] which reads, ‘There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love’. The same verb is in James 1:4 with ergon teleion, ‘And let steadfastness have its full effect (or ‘must finish its work’ NIV), that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing’ (ESV).

Faith is ‘brought to its intended goal’ by good works. Abraham was justified by faith (Gen 15) but his faith was made complete by his offering of Isaac as a sacrifice (Gen 22). Your works will demonstrate whether your faith is the real thing.

My wife, Desley, and I really enjoy custard apples. They are grown in different parts of the Queensland east coast and into northern NSW. A custard apple tree is made perfect, brought to its intended goal, by producing custard apple fruit. If you have faith that is genuine, you will have that faith perfected by your doing good works (Hiebert 1979:194).

Let’s use a down to earth analogy: This photo is an example of justification by works for the custard apple tree.

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(courtesy www.custardapples.com.au)

This is the justification by faith for the custard apple tree – flowers:

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(photo courtesy toptropicals.com)

Wherever you have a genuine custard apple tree and flowers, it must blossom into the good works of custard apple fruit.

So, wherever people have genuine faith, it must blossom into good works – feeding the hungry, clothing those needing clothes, and meeting human need. It will also blossom into Christians proclaiming the Gospel. Timothy was a pastor who cared for people. However, what did Paul say to Timothy? ‘But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry’ (2 Tim 4:5 NIV). Primarily, he was not an evangelist, but God’s instruction still was, ‘Do the work of an evangelist’.

No matter what the gifts of people, we need to engage in practical good works among needy people. We may choose to do it locally or through international humanitarian groups such as Compassion, Voice of the Martyrs, Open Doors, Mercy Ships, or many other ministries.

Notice the emphasis of James 2:23:

3.1 Scripture was fulfilled (v. 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’.

This refers back to Gen 15:6, which I’ve already covered, when Abraham was justified by faith.

3.1.1 Abraham believed God (v. 23)

3.1.2 It was counted to him as righteousness (v. 23)

a. Abraham was called a friend of God (v. 23)

Where is Abraham called ‘a friend of God’? These words do not come from Gen 15 or Gen 22. So to what is James referring? Here are a few possibilities:

clip_image012A close relationship between God and Abraham is implied in Gen 18:17-18 (ESV): ‘7 The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18 seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?’

clip_image012[1]We know from 2 Chron 20:7 that King Jehoshaphat while addressing God, spoke of Abraham as ‘Abraham your friend’ (ESV).

clip_image012[2]In Isa 41:8, God spoke of ‘Abraham, my friend’.

So there you have a few examples of Abraham’s intimate relationship with God so that Abraham could be called a ‘friend of God’.

Now James 2:24 gives a summary:

4. This means: A person is justified by works (v. 24)

‘You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone’. How is that possible? As I’ve attempted to show in my last message and this one that being justified by works and not faith alone means that genuine faith, fair dinkum faith in Christ alone for salvation, is not the real thing unless it is shown by its good works. Good deeds follow salvation but they are a package. If there is no good works, there is no genuine faith. So it is biblically sound to say that a Christian is justified by works and not faith alone, as long as one remembers that faith and works are used interchangeably as a demonstration of genuine faith in Christ alone for salvation.

4.1 Not justified by faith alone (v. 24)

Miss Placed FaithNow, you won’t accuse me of preaching a false doctrine when I say that we are not justified by faith alone, will you? That’s exactly what James taught because of the compulsory combination of genuine faith expressed through good works. If you don’t have the good works, you don’t have real, saving faith. But the good works come after saving faith. They demonstrate that you already have faith.

Then we come to an unexpected example of justification by works. We can understand Abraham demonstrating his faith by moving to sacrifice Isaac on the altar. Abraham was a hero of the faith.

But then we have this provocative example in a Jewish culture that treated women as sub-standard. Bible History online has an article, ‘Jewish women and the Temple’, in which it says this about Jewish women in the first century AD:

Rabbinic literature was filled with contempt for women. The rabbis taught that women were not to be saluted, or spoken to in the street, and they were not to be instructed in the law or receive an inheritance. A woman walked six paces behind her husband and if she uncovered her hair in a public place she was considered a harlot.

In ancient Israel the Jewish culture was one of the most male dominant cultures in the whole world…. The Mishnah taught that a woman was like a gentile slave who could be obtained by intercourse, money or writ (m. Qidd 1:1).[6]

The Mishnah dealt with the debates on the Jewish oral law that were composed by the Jews between AD 70 and 200 and forms part of the Talmud. If you want to investigate any teaching (such as that on women) within the Mishnah, that is called a Midrash.[7]

Now to …

5. Rahab, the prostitute, justified by works (v. 25)

She is a very unexpected example. Not only was she a woman, but also she had been a prostitute. We read about Rahab in Joshua chs 2-6. Remember the story? Paul Cornford has been preaching about her in recent weeks. Just a few incidents from her life are mentioned here in James:

5.1 She was justified by works (v 25)

This verse from James 2:25 (ESV) states, ‘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?’

Don’t miss the introductory words, ‘And in the same way’ (homoi?s). And in the same way as Abraham, but what a prominent contrast. James has taken 2 people of very different characters and demonstrated how their faith was followed by works, thus proving their justification by faith.

Remember the story?

5.1.1 When? Receiving messengers & sending out by another way (v. 25)

What were the works that justified her? We know from Joshua 2:1 and 6:17, 22 that Rahab received the spies (here in James they are called messengers). Joshua had sent 2 spies to check the land of Canaan, but especially Jericho. Rahab hid these spies in her house. The King of Jericho went to Rahab saying, ‘Bring out the men who have come to you, who have entered your house for they have come to search out all the land’ (Josh 2:3).

To protect the spies, what did Rahab do? ‘She let them down by a rope through the window, for her house was built into the city wall’ (Josh 2:15). The spies departed by another way and Rahab ‘tied the scarlet cord in the window’ (Josh 2:21).

That’s all we have reference to here in James 2:25, but that’s enough to demonstrate she was justified by works. HOWEVER, where is Rahab’s faith that preceded her good works?

This we know:

clip_image014 Rahab has her name in Christ’s family tree, his genealogy, according to Matt 1:5 (ESV): ‘and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse….’

clip_image016 Here’s the BIG one regarding Rahab’s faith: ‘By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies’ (Heb 11:31 ESV).

In the great faith chapter of the Bible we have proof of Rahab’s faith and this meant she did not perish with the disobedient ones because of what she did for the spies.

When James asks, ‘Was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works?’ He is asking: What works did Rahab do to demonstrate she had faith in the living God? Her good works entailed what she did for the spies, the messengers.

Now James concluded his discussion:

6. Faith without works is dead (v 26)

James 2:26, ‘For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead’ (ESV).

6.1 Just as the body apart from the spirit is dead (v. 26)

What happens when your spirit leaves your body when you breathe your last breath? We have information about this in Eccl 12:6-7 (NLT):

‘Yes, remember your Creator now while you are young, before the silver cord of life snaps and the golden bowl is broken. Don’t wait until the water jar is smashed at the spring and the pulley is broken at the well. 7 For then the dust will return to the earth, and the spirit will return to God who gave it’.

The analogy is:

6.2 In a similar way, faith without works is dead (v. 26)

I hope you have gained the message in my expositions on James 2 that if you don’t have works that follow faith, then your faith is not genuine.

So to say that you are justified by your works is using justify to mean demonstrate to be righteous. Just as custard apples justify the existence of a living custard apple tree that blossoms and produces fruit, so a Christian’s works justify that he or she has genuine faith. Unless you have works accompanying faith, you do not have fair dinkum faith that saves.

7. Conclusion

Wayne Grudem, a Reformed Baptist theologian, summarised his interpretation of James 2, stating that

“show to be righteous” is an acceptable sense for the word justified, but also on the consideration that this sense fits well with the primary purpose of James in [James 2].[8] James is concerned to show that mere intellectual agreement with the gospel is a “faith” that is really no faith at all. He is concerned to argue against those who say they have faith but show no change in their lives. He says, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith” (James 2:18) [Grudem 1999:322].

Now to some,

7.1 Applications of James 2:21-26 to your life and this church

Let me suggest a couple before I ask for your contributions:

  1. What does it mean to be justified by works? It means that you will SHOW you are righteous before God by your good deeds. What good works should we be doing as individuals and as a church?
  2. No matter how bad your past, Rahab is an example that demonstrates that justification by faith leads to justification by works – the practice of good works.
  3. Is the title of this sermon accurate? ‘It’s true! You can be justified by works!’ Dare I add, true Christians MUST be justified by works!
  4. Now it’s over to you. How can you apply this message to your life and this church’s ministry?

8. Works consulted

Cranfield, C E B 1965. The message of James. Scottish Journal of Theology 18 (3), September, 338-345.

Grudem, W 1999. Bible Doctrine: Essential teachings of the Christian faith. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press.

Hiebert, D E 1979. The Epistle of James: Tests of a Living Faith. Chicago: Moody Press.

Robertson, A T 1933. Word Pictures in the New Testament: The General Epistles and The Revelation of John, vol 6. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press.

James 2:21-26 English Standard Version Anglicised (ESVUK)

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.

9.  Notes


[1] Preached at North Pine Presbyterian Church, Petrie Qld., Australia, Sunday 17 June 2016, PM Service..

[1a] The Courier-Mail 2013. 10 years later, the life and death of Daniel Morcombe (online), December 06. Available at: http://www.couriermail.com.au/news/queensland/years-later-the-life-and-death-of-daniel-morcombe/story-fnihsrf2-1226776823830 (Accessed 28 August 2016).

[2] ABC News, 2014. Daniel Morcombe’s killer sentenced to life in prison (online), 15 March. Available at: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-03-14/daniel-morcombe-killer-brett-peter-cowan-sentenced/5320538 (Accessed 7 May 2016).

[3] This Cranfield citation is from Hiebert (1979:192).

[4] This citation is taken from Hiebert (1979:193).

[5] Robertson (1933:37).

[6] Bible History online n d. ‘Women in Jewish history’. Available at: http://www.bible-history.com/court-of-women/women.html (Accessed 10 May 2016).

[7] What is a midrash? (online), Got Questions? Available at: http://www.gotquestions.org/Mishnah-midrash.html (Accessed 10 May 2016).

[8] The original said, ‘this section’.

 

Copyright © 2016 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 28 August 2016.