We are back in the book of James again, and I want you to turn with me to James 2 and follow along as I read verses 14-26. This is a passage that has perplexed many, many Christians. In fact, some people think that it is the most controversial passage in the Bible. I'm not sure that's the case. But if you read it like James' congregation did – with the Old Testament in our hands, it need not be perplexing. This section is rooted in the Old Testament, and it comes to life once you understand the Old Testament normal-life court room distinctions. So let's read verses 14-26.
This passage is a wonderful, wonderful corrective to the carnality that you see in the church. And Satan knows that. So he has done everything he can to bring confusion to the church. If people are confused over this chapter, they will tend to avoid it. But I hope by the end of this sermon you will be thankful to God for this incredibly beneficial epistle. This section defines four essential doctrines:
What constitutes a saving faith? There are many people who think they are saved, and they have a counterfeit faith.
What constitutes works that are pleasing to God? Not just any works are pleasing to God. Hebrews for example talks of dead works that believers need to repent of. Paul talks about useless works that do not proceed from faith. So what kind of works in a believer's life are pleasing to God?
And then there is the question related to your handout: What are the four kinds of justification? The Reformers could tell you, but nowadays people have such a low view of the doctrine of justification that they can't help but see a contradiction between Paul and James. It's simply because they do not see these Old Testament distinctions. They are illiterate.
How can the doctrine of forensic justification be a practical tool for living; not just for conversion, but for living our lives for the rest of our lives.
Before we get into those teachings, it is probably useful to at least express briefly the kind of conflict that many people see in this chapter. We believe in the solas of the Reformation, right? And one of those is sola fide – justification by faith alone. Well, Roman Catholics will immediately turn to James 2 to try to prove that justification is not by faith alone – that it is by faith plus works. And verse 24 is triumphantly produced: You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. They say, "What could be more clear?" You would have to be blind not to see that works are involved in our justification."
But liberals attack both Protestants and Roman Catholics and say that this passage not only contradicts the Reformation; it contradicts Rome and it contradicts Paul. They pit Paul against James to try to disprove the Bible. And so let's look at some of the contrasts that the liberals bring up:
They will take these quotes from Paul out of context: God imputes righteousness apart from works…" (Rom. 4:6); and "we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified" (Gal. 2:16). James on the other hand says, "Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?" (2:21). James is appealing to the same Abraham that Paul is. And they will say, "Isn't that a flat out contradiction?" Or again, in chapter 2:24: "You see that a man is justified by works…" And again in verse 25: "Was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works…?" Paul says that we are justified apart from works and James says that we are justified by works. That is what has perplexed many people about this passage.
And the problem with Rome, with the liberals and even with the evangelicals who are confused, is that they have failed to interpret this in light of the Old Testament. I mean even Paul needs to be interpreted that way. You see, the only Bible that these Jews had in their hands at this point was the Old Testament. James is the first New Testament book to have been written. And James doesn't have to define his terms. He expects that these Jews know what he is talking about. And I believe that they did, just by understanding how court procedure worked in the Old Testament.
And that is why I have given the handout that explains four kinds of justification. There are actually two other kinds of justification in the Old Testament that are mentioned in the footnote. But I want to stick to these four. And having different definitions for a word is not unusual. Most English words and most Greek words have more than one definition. It's just part of the nature of language. For example, listen to this sentence. The archer put up his bow and made a bow so low that his bow tie touched the ground. Even though I used the word "BOW" in a way that had three different meanings, none of you had difficulty in knowing the meaning of the term, because of the context and the way it was used. Here's a trickier one. It's a sentence that uses the word "that" in different parts of speech, with slightly different meanings, yet all deriving from the same word. Think of a teacher who has written a sentence on the chalk board with three that's in the sentence, and the students are confused over one of the "that"s. They are arguing whether that particular that should be in the sentence. One of the students argues (using perfectly correct English):
"I'm telling you that that 'that', that that teacher used in a sentence was correct."
Each "that" is a different part of speech. You have a conjunction, a demonstrative pronoun, a noun form, an adverb and an adjective. If you are an English speaker, you don't need to know the names of the parts of speech to be able to understand it. And that is far more complicated than the simple differences of meaning in the word justification – all of which relate to the root meaning of being or appearing or being declared righteous. Righteous is at the root of the word.
If you look at your handout I want to walk you through the sheet. It says,
Just as the word "sanctification" has a variety of meanings, the word "justification" has a variety of meanings as well. The Old Testament used the term "justification" in at least three ways: 1) stative justification – [which is] a state of being righteous (e.g., Job 4:17).
Let's stop there. In this definition, Jesus was the only man who was perfectly justified. Job 4:17 says, Can a mortal be more righteous than God? Let's look at the next definition:
2) demonstrative justification - being shown to be righteous (Jer. 3:11)
Jeremiah 3:11 says, Then the LORD said to me, "Backsliding Israel has shown herself more righteous than treacherous Judah." The phrase "shown righteous" is one word in the Hebrew. It is the word "justified." But the context mandates the translation "shown justified." Keep this one in mind, because this is one of two definitions that James picks up on.
The most common use for justification however, is the next one: forensic justification. Scott Polski is a lawyer who has had to study forensics. Anything dealing with the court room is forensics. If there was foul play in a death, there can be forensic medicine that tries to determine for the court whether a crime took place or not. So it says that forensic justification is where a person is justified or acquitted or declared righteous by a court of law. Let me read you Deuteronomy 25:1 as one of many Biblical examples that could be given. If there is a dispute between men, and they come to court, that the judges may judge them, and they justify the righteous and condemn the wicked. So to justify means to affirm the uprightness of either the plaintiff or the defendant.
But look at the subpoints because there were three different kinds of forensic justification in the Old Testament. Let me just read the paragraph and then we will look at the main section which amplifies on those three:
and 3) forensic justification (the most common usage), where a person is declared righteous by a court of law (Deut. 25:1). But the Old Testament also further subdivided forensic justification into three categories: a) First in order was mediate justification (that is, the means of getting justified – [which would involve] an appeal to a court). This was key as there could be no justification/acquittal apart from appeal: [And here's a sample verse:] ("state your case that you may be acquitted [same word as justified]" – Is. 43:26). In this sense the accused is justified by appeal. You can see how this parallels our spiritual justification by faith. b) Second in order was meritorious justification (the presentation of the merits/grounds/evidence of the case). According to Biblical principles of justice, there had to be merits to the case [and I give an example proof text:] ("Let them bring out their witnesses, that they may be justified" - Is. 43:9). 3) The third forensic component was Judicial justification (the judge's legal declaration of acquittal/justification (Deut. 25:1). Such a declaration could not happen apart from a) appeal and b) evidence that justified such a declaration. [So in one sense, all justification is by works. But in the court room it is by the works of Christ. Outside the court room it is by our works. Anyway, going on] Once a person left the court room, he was called upon to show the truth of the court's declaration (declarative justification). He was not subject to the court any longer, but he still had an implied obligation to live his profession.
I'm repeating here, because it is critical that you be able to understand and defend this doctrine. Let's go to the chart section of the paper. You will notice first of all the left hand margin where it defines the first three kinds of justification as all taking place in the court room. The fourth kind happens once a person leaves the court room. When Satan or anyone else brings up charges against us, we can appeal to the court declaration. God has heard the case, and there can be no double jeopardy. And of course, that can happen when it comes to an earthly court and earthly charges. If you have already been tried in an American court, you can't be tried again for the same thing. But he needs to show a desire to live consistently with what the court has declared. So let's look first of all at the three kinds of justification that you see in the court room:
1. [The first one says] We are justified MEDIATELY by faith alone (Rom. 3:26,30; 4:5; 5:1; Gal. 2:16, 3:24; James 2:23). [Mediately means the means or channel of getting something done. So the paragraph goes on to say] Faith is the legal channel or means by which that righteousness is claimed or received. Unless we appeal to the court for justification, we are not justified. But in the court room we must by faith appeal to Christ's works, not our own. The moment our own works are brought into the court room, a guilty verdict must come against us. As James makes clear, if we violate even one law, we have broken all (2:10). [Let me go ahead and read that reference for you. James 2:10 says, For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all" James is no idiot. He knows that your good works can't outweigh your bad works. You are either guilty of sin, or you are not. Just like you can't be sort of pregnant, you can't be sort of guilty. You either are or aren't when it comes to God's justice and God's court room. Last sentence of first point:] In the court room, faith alone can shine, because faith alone appropriates Christ's merits.
2. We are justified MERITORIOUSLY by Christ alone (Is. 53:11; Rom. 3:24; 4:23,25; 5:8,9; 10:4). [Let me read a couple of those verses: Isaiah 53:11 says of Jesus, "My righteous Servant shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities." Jesus becomes our substitute. Romans 3:24 says "being justified freely by His grace [this is different than the passage which says we are justified by faith. No, this one says, "being justified freely by His grace"] through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." Reading on in point 2:] This is the legal ground ([and ground is equivalent to saying]basis/merit) for that declaration of God. Since God "justifies the ungodly" (Rom. 4:5), the ungodly sinner who comes for mercy has no merit of his own. [Let me stop there for a moment. That is a key, key phrase. When Paul talks about God's justification; in otherwords, the forensic justification which has to be by faith alone, it can't be by our works because God already knows that our works work against us. Let me read Romans 4:5: "But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness." Moving on] Instead, the righteousness of Christ must be imputed [imputed means credited to our account or "treated as if we had it." So it says, "Instead, the righteousness of Christ must be imputed"] to him. When faith unites us to Christ, our sins were imputed to Jesus (who suffered in our place) and His righteousness is imputed to us. There can be no justification apart from the perfect works of Christ.
3. We are justified JUDICIALLY by God alone (Rom. 3:26,30; 8:30,33). This is a legal declaration that was made by God as Judge once and for all that we are: 1) legally not guilty and 2) we are legally righteous. No one but God can make this judicial declaration. [A pastor can't make that declaration. An angel can't do it. Only the judge of the earth can condemn or justify as James 4:11-12 makes clear. So those are the three justifications that take place in the court room.]
[But let's say that you are a justified and saved Christian, like these Jews were who were in James' congregations. How do you live as saved saints? That's what the fourth justification is about. And the chart says:]
**4. We are justified EVIDENTIALLY by works alone (James 2:21-25; 1 Jn. 2:4,15,19, 3:6-10,24; 4:8,20). ** [Let me stop there for a moment. Both James and 1 John are concerned about our testimony. How does the world judge our Christianity? It isn't by our profession, but by the changes that people see in us. 1 John 2:4 says, He who says, "I know Him," and does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him. Why? Because if a person was truly justified by faith before God's court room, that means that God gave him faith, which means that he is regenerate, which means that his nature has been changed, and you will begin to see changes in him. You cannot separate justification and sanctification. And just as definitive sanctification at conversion made us saints and immediately begins the life long process of internal sanctification (so there ar two kinds of sanctification there: definitive and progressive), so too definitive justification before God always leads to demonstrative or evidential justification before men. We are totally secure in God's once and for all declaration at our conversion that we are saved and secure in Jesus. We will never have to go back to the court room again. We can never lose our salvation. But if we have truly been justified, it means we have the internal changes that will manifest themselves in a love for the law and an outward justification before others. The opposite of evidential justification is for the world to look at the church and to see absolutely no difference between them and us. According to Paul and James and the whole Bible, that is scandalous; it is unthinkable. So reading on in the handout, it says:] Works is the visible demonstration that we have a saving faith and that the court has indeed vindicated us. Since faith is an inner quality that cannot be seen, faith cannot demonstrate anything. Works are the only demonstration by which others can see that we are justified Christians. (See Christ's statement: "by their fruits you will know them.") If there are no works, it is evident that there was no faith, and thus that there was no judicial declaration that we are acquitted. As the Reformers worded it, "We are justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone."
If you keep those four distinctions in your mind (mediate, meritorious, judicial and evidential justifications), you should instantly be able to determine what kind of justification is being talked about in most verses of the Bible. There will be no problems. The context will always indicate which kind of justification is being talked about.
James makes clear that there is more than one kind of justification
The word "only" in verse 24 is an adverb, not an adjective (as many English readers mistake it to be). It modifies "justified" rather than "faith." He is distinguishing between a by-faith justification and a by-works justification. By using the word only to modify "justified" he is saying that justification by faith is not the only kind of justification a believer has.
So let's do some sleuthing. We could start anywhere in the passage and see all kinds of clues. But let's look first of all at verse 24. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. Most people who argue against sola fide treat the word only as if it said, "alone;" as if it was an adjective. But the Greek word is clearly an adverb, not an adjective. Let me quote a commentator on this to clarify the distinction. "The Greek adverb "only" (monon) … does not qualify (or modify) the word faith, since the form would then have been moneis. As an adverb, however, it modifies the verb justified implied in the second clause ["and not only justified by faith"]. James is saying that a by-faith justification is not the only kind of justification there is. There is also a by-works justification. The former type is before God; the latter type is before men." (Zane Hodges)
Why does James have to distinguish between a by-faith justification and a by-works justification. Because he has just finished looking at two periods in Abraham's life where each type of justification can be seen.
He uses Abraham to illustrate both types of justification: verse 23 shows a legal justification by belief alone for pagan, uncircumcised Abraham. Verses 21-22 show a non-legal justification that occurred 40 years later for Abraham the saint. The second justification is the main point of James' discourse: that saving faith shows itself through works, and that a person who has truly had Christ's righteousness imputed to him (v. 23) will also have Christ's righteousness imparted to him in a way demonstrable to all. (See the numerous references to demonstration below.)
Look at verse 23. This verse could easily be put into Romans and it comes from exactly the same period in Abraham's life that Paul argues from – at the time of Abraham's conversion. Verse 23 says, And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, "Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness." That's exactly what Paul says. In Galatians 3:6 Paul says, "Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness." That's word for word identical. The word "accounted" is a legal term that belongs to a court of law. It is the Greek word logizomai, which means to account or to credit something or to impute something. In systematic theology, this is the word for imputation. Something we don't have is being imputed to us. What is being imputed? Righteousness. And James is quoting Genesis 15 when Abraham was an uncircumcised pagan who had just been granted the gift of faith. Now that ought to be encouraging to those of you who have old relatives who have not come to faith. He came to faith at age 85. So you can see that James has no problem whatsoever with justification by faith at conversion. He is teaching the same thing as Paul. And the last phrase of verse 23 doesn't indicate that Abraham earned God's friendship. It says, And he was called the friend of God. When? At the time he was justified. And when was that? At the time he believed. That means that he became God's friend the moment he believed. And the moment he believed, God treated him as righteous even though he was not, and even though he hadn't had a chance to do anything yet. The righteousness was imputed to him. So far so good.
But in verses 21-22 we have an entirely different justification, and the reason we know it is entirely different is because it takes place 40 years later than verse 23. The justification by faith in verse 23 occurred in Genesis 15 when Abraham was 85 years old. The justification by works that occurs in verses 21-22 occurred in Genesis 22, when he offered up his 25 year old son Isaac. And Abraham was 125 years old. Just for the record, Abraham lived to be 175. But let's keep these contexts distinguished in our minds. In verses 21-22, a man who has already been a justified saint for 40 years is said to be justified by works. Is it obvious which category that should fit into? Yes. It's the fourth category of evidential or demonstrative justification. Let's read the verses: Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? It wasn't his court justification that was made perfect. It was his faith. It wasn't his court justification that took place by works. That was 40 years earlier, and no one was there to witness that. That was a justification before God. He's out of court now. This was a justification before man that his faith in God expressed years before was so authentic, that he was willing to give up his dearly beloved son to the Lord. His faith was tested. And according to Hebrews, Abraham was so convinced of the truth of God's promise in Genesis 15, Abraham believed that God would be obligated to raise Isaac from the dead if he had to carry through on the sacrifice. You can read that in Hebrews 11. He demonstrated the reality of the faith that justified him.
And that is a good question to ask each of you. "If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?" Is your life so characterized by good works that everyone would know that you are different.
Though James (like Paul) acknowledges other aspects to justification, his emphasis is on "evidential justification" (sometimes called "demonstrative justification") by which saved people can demonstrate or evidence their living and saving faith.
But let's do some more sleuthing to make sure that what we are saying is right. If James is really talking about evidential justification, then we should be able to expect that he is talking to Christians showing their justified state rather than talking about pagans receiving a justified state.
He is talking to people in the church ("my brethren" - 1:2; 2:1,14; "my beloved brethren" – 1:16,19; 2:5) who are already professing believers (1:3,12,18; 2:1) but who are living inconsistently with their profession (2:1-13)
First of all, let's check to see if James is focusing on pagans or on Christians. Let's start at chapter 1:2. Notice he calls his audience my brethren. Look at verse 9:
James 1:9 Let the lowly brother glory in his exaltation,
James 1:16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren.
James 1:19 So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath;
James 2:1 My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. So they are not only called brethren, but brethren who hold the faith of Christ.
James 2:5 Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?
James 2:14 What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?
James 2:15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food,
James 3:1 My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.
There are a bunch more, but it is clear that he treats them as brethren, and treats unbelieving Jews as not brethren. So we are on the right track.
He is talking about claims to faith ("hold the faith… so speak and so do as …says he has faith… says… will say…")
Secondly, he is talking about at least claims to having faith. Chapter 1:3 says, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. Chapter 2:1 they are holding the faith in a way that is inconsistent, but they are still holding it. Verse 14: What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? And we will see shortly that the word "that" should be placed before "faith." It is the Greek word hei. It is a professed faith, but that kind of faith will not save him. So you ought to write in pencil the word "that" before the word "faith" in the last phrase of verse 14. James is not nervous about telling people that if their fruits are inconsistent with their profession, they need to check whether they really have saving faith.
Verse 18 shows that they have been born again: Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures. I could give other evidence in the book. I don't think it can be denied that he is writing to believers, or at least to professing believers who are acting somewhat inconsistently with that profession.
He is talking about demonstrating faith, and demonstrating a justified status ("shown… show… speak… do…shown…show me… I will show you")
Thirdly, and this is perhaps the most important point, notice that he keeps using the term "show" in this chapter. In verse 18 it says, But someone will say, "You have faith, and I have works." Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. The Greek word is deixon which means to exhibit or to show or to display. And you see this all the way through the chapter. If you want to circle all the times, I will try to go slowly enough to do so.
James 2:4 have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
James 2:9 but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors.
James 2:12 So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. He wants more than speech. He wants action to exhibit it. So circle the speak and do.
James 2:13 For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
And then there are two "show"s that we read in verse 18. And there are other examples later in the book because this is a major theme for James.
Notice the contrast between two aspects of justification in Abraham's life
In verse 21 James alludes to a justification that took place in Genesis 22. There God said "because you have done this… because you have obeyed My voice" (v. 16,18). Abraham's works were necessary to demonstrate to his son, to the angel of the Lord, and (by revelation) to the whole world, that He was indeed a man of saving faith. It was an evidential justification.
In verse 23 James clarifies that this justification by works is not be confused with the justification by faith alone in Genesis 15:6. James treats the Genesis 15 incident exactly as Paul will – as a legal declaration that Abraham was righteous by faith alone.
a. The Greek word for "accounted" or "credited" (margin) is logizomai which means "imputed." It was not a righteousness that Abraham had in himself. It was an alien righteousness which was imputed to Him.
b. There were no witnesses to "show" his faith to. This was simply a declaration of God from His court room as to His acceptance of Abraham as a saved man.
c. From that moment on He became the friend of God. He didn't earn this friendship. It was given to him.
d. All of this James says came because "Abraham believed God."
e. James says that Genesis 22 "fulfilled" the truth of a justification that occurred 40 years before (Gen. 15). The profession of Genesis 15 was being lived out in Genesis 22. Genesis 22 was a test of a faith that Abraham had for the past 40 years. His faith and His justified state were demonstrated by works.
James is seeking to show that a genuinely saving faith is a faith that is not alone; it is a faith that works
The next proof of the fact that James is not trying to get them justified, but is trying to show them justified is that he is seeking to convince them that there is a false faith and a saving faith. He points out that saving faith always leads to good works, which means that justification at conversion that can only be seen by God will always lead to justification ongoing that can also be seen by men. His solution to the whole question is not to get pagans to do good works. Those good works would be useless to their salvation, because in verse 10 he says that unless their works were perfect, they would be lost. The whole law is broken if there is even one sin. So his solution is not to get pagans to do good works, but to get weak Christians to gain assurance of their salvation by producing works by faith. Works apart from faith are dead works. Works produced by a saving faith are good works. In fact, if you want, you can add some words to the two brackets on the bottom left of your sheets. Under the forensic or the court room justification you can write the justification of a sinner. Under the evidential justification you can write down the justification of a saint.
And to show this, let me briefly comment on each verse and show how it relates to the context. In verses 1-13 he acknowledges that they are professing believers, but is troubled that some of their behavior is inconsistent with their profession. If they truly have saving faith, why are they so content with shallow Christianity and so lacking in zeal for holiness? That's the context.
Verse 14 – "What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that (hJ) faith save him?" The NKJV has mistranslated that. He is not saying, "Can faith save him," but can that kind of a faith save him." If you look in the Greek interlinear you will see that there is an extra Greek word in there to distinguish a certain kind of faith from another.
In verses 15-16 he is basically saying that words are empty without action. So faith without works is empty and words without works are empty words.
In verse 17 he gets to the nub of the issue and says that such faith by itself is a dead faith. I have underlined the "by itself" because this was a key phrase for the reformers. They said that we are justified by faith alone at conversion, but not by a faith that is alone. If you have a faith that is by itself or that is alone, it is a sterile, dead faith, and is not a saving faith. Our works don't save us in God's court room. All they can do is condemn us. But any faith that is sterile will also be a faith that cannot lay claim to God's righteousness. It is a counterfeit faith. James is saying that if you have a faith that is by itself, and is not zealous for good works, you need to get saved. You are dead in your sins. God has never regenerated you and given you His faith. Every supposed grace you have is a counterfeit grace. So it is a dead faith.
Verse 18 quickly corrects an error on the other side, and that is whether there can be good works apart from faith. So he is dealing with both sides of the equation just as Paul does. James doesn't major on the problem of dead works like Paul does. He majors on dead faith. But both Paul and James are concerned about dead works. But someone will say, "You have faith, and I have works." [And James says, "It doesn't work that way.] Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. Any faith that can be shown without works is a different faith than James has, and any works that can be produced without faith is a different works than James has. The two have to go hand in hand.
Verse 19 says that mere doctrinal belief is not saving faith, since demons have good doctrine but no salvation. In fact, they probably know more doctrine about God than you do. They've been around for six thousand years. The Bible says that Satan knows the Scripture. But he hates it and disobeys it. The amount of doctrine you believe is not sufficient. Biblical faith involves the mind, the will, and the affections. You assent to the truth, embrace the truth, and love the truth.
In verse 20 he says again that faith without works is a dead faith.
Verses 21-23 – Proof of what has been said can be seen in that Abraham demonstrated the saving faith that he started his Christian life with 40 years earlier. His faith simply grew as it expressed itself in works. Let's draw that out a bit more.
Verse 21 – Justification by works is by works alone, so James picks an example of works that flowed from his saving faith that are recorded in Scripture. In real life there were many other examples, but in the Scripture you read about such works in Genesis 22 – 40 years later. Abraham was living out the experience of what had already been his position of justification. Let me repeat that. Abraham was living out the experience of what had already been his position of justification.
Verse 22 – Notice that he says that faith was working… Abraham already had faith, but it was working. Secondly, notice that he says, by works faith was made perfect. The only way to mature in faith is to challenge faith with good works. And good works are works that no pagan can do. Faith is tested not only when we are called to cross the Jordan River, but when we are called to love the unlovable, to have joy when we are persecuted, to conquer besetting sins, etc. According to Hebrews, Abraham so trusted God that God would raise a seed through Isaac, that he knew that God would be obligated to raise Isaac from the dead if he had to go through with the sacrifice. That is faith. It banks on the word of God and acts even when all the evidence seems to go against it. Every example of faith in Hebrews 11 is a faith that acts; a faith that works. Works is simply the perfection or natural outgrowth of faith.
Verse 23 describes justification by faith alone when Abraham was 85 years old. But the later event was said to be a fulfillment of this earlier event. And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, "Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness." And he was called the friend of God. Evidential justification was the fulfillment of forensic justification. The first one was immediate, declarative, legal and once and forever. The second one was lived out and ongoing. Forensic justification brought Abraham from the state of being an enemy to being a friend of God. Evidential justification proved that Abraham was a friend of God. He acted like a friend.
Verse 24 – "You see then…" He is appealing to the two justifications he has just discussed in Abraham's life. Now he is saying to his readers: "Do you see now that there are two kinds of justification that you need to be concerned about. You've all experienced the justification of verse 23, but what about the other one?" There is a justification by faith alone (and you are good church members and you know about that), but there is also a justification by working alone. Nothing but faith is appropriate in the court room. IN the court room only Christ's works will justify. But outside the court room (and you are believers, so you should be outside the court room), no one can know that you have faith without the works that flow from faith.. As Christ said, by their fruits you will know them. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.
He has just finished distinguishing between forensic (imputed or accounted) justification and shown justification. And Abraham is a beautiful example of how the two justifications can be distinguished. But in verse 25 James uses Rahab to illustrate the truth that faith and works cannot be separated because all four aspects of justification took place on the same day in her life. You can distinguish between a forensic justification and a shown justification, but you can't separate them. God saved her with the first three justifications, and she immediately showed that she was a justified person by taking dangerous action that required true faith. "Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?" Those spies could immediate see her faith. They knew she was justified because she showed it. No person who is justified by faith can ever escape being justified by works. You cannot have one without the other. So distinguish, yes, but verse 25 says don't separate.
Finally, in verse 26 he says, For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. Just as body and spirit need each other, so faith and works need each other. It's because of the nature of faith that the two justifications cannot be separated. Saving faith leads to demonstrating faith. Faith that justifies before God leads to works that justify before men.
Paul and James are in harmony
So to sum up this teaching sermon, we can say that Paul and James are in perfect harmony – they are just emphasizing different things.
Whereas Paul calls for "repentance from dead works" (Heb. 6:1; Gal. 3:1-9; etc) (and they are called dead because they are devoid of Spirit-given faith), James calls for repentance from "dead" faith which is devoid of Spirit engendered works (2:17,26). Both agree that what God has joined together, we must not separate.
Both agree that the Christian life begins with a legal crediting of righteousness to our account
James 2:23 says, "Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness." Note that nothing additional was needed to have righteousness legally credited. Faith received it. He had it. He didn't just have part of it. He didn't have to wait for 40 years to have it. Verse 23 says that he had it the moment he believed.
Paul says the same thing. Galatians 3:6 says, "Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness." Romans 4:5 says, "But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness."
They are both speaking the same language.
Both agree that saving faith produces works
James says in 2:22, "faith was working"
Paul says in Galatians 5:6, "faith working through love." He says in Titus 3:8, "those who have believed in God [There's the faith. "Those who have believed in God"] should be careful to maintain good works" (Tit. 3:8); 2 Thessalonians 1:11 says, "the work of faith with power"; "your work of faith" (1 Thess. 1:3); Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11 quote the Old Testament saying, "the just shall live by faith" So Paul and James are saying the same thing about saving faith producing works.
Both affirm that justification by faith is for the sinner (not the saint) and that justification by works is for the saint who is already saved (not the sinner)
Let's see it in James – Abraham in verse 23 was an uncircumcised pagan, and all that was required for God to credit to him righteousness was that he "believed." Abraham in verse 21 had been a saint for 40 years, and his justified state was shown by his works. So for him, the first legal justication was for a sinner; the second evidential justification was for a saint.
Paul is no different – "But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly [notice that phrase, "who justifies the ungodly"], his faith is accounted for righteousness" (Rom. 4:5). OK? For Paul, it is the ungodly who is justified in the court room.
Conclusion: Our justification before God rests in Christ's righteousness alone and is received by faith alone. Our justification before others is demonstrated by a faith working in the power of the Holy Spirit and showing forth sanctification. You cannot claim to be saved if you have no faith in Christ's righteousness. But neither can you claim to be saved if you have no works, since works is always the fruit of true saving faith.
The bottom line is that professing believers need to zealously pursue good works. It is what Christ died to produce, and if it is not being produced in your life, it is an evidence that you have never been justified in God's courtroom. And we don't need to quote James to prove it. Paul says it over and over himself. In 2 Corinthians 13:5 he says, Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you – unless indeed you are disqualified. And how were they to examine themselves? By their repentance and works, Paul said. They had ignored Paul twice, and Paul was questioning whether they were true believers. He is doing exactly the same thing that James is. In Titus 2:16 Paul said, They profess to know God, but in works they deny Him, being abominable, disobedient, and disqualified for every good work. "They profess to know God, but in works they deny Him." Do your works deny your profession? Paul is in essence saying that if you don't have evidential justification, you are denying that you ever knew Him in forensic justification. Claiming to be a Christian is not enough. In the same book, Paul said that the whole purpose of Christ's coming was to make us righteous not just legally, but really. The legal is connected to the real, even though they are distinguished. That's why Hebrews says, Pursue …holiness without which no man will see the Lord. Another way of saying it is that you can't separate justification from sanctification, and it is our sanctification that justifies us before men. Titus 2:11-15 says, For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who [get this: "who] gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.
We have been definitively declared righteous in the courtroom; we are progressively being shown righteous and one day in heaven all will see that we are perfectly righteous - stative justification. To use the language of James, He died to justify us in court once and for all, and to show us justified out of court to any who would look. May we be a people who testify by our lifestyle what God has already testified about us in court – that we are saints – a righteous people. And may He receive all the glory. Amen.
Sanctification has at least the following meanings: a) Christ setting us aside by the ransom of His death (Heb. 10:10), b) being outwardly set apart (1 Cor. 7:14; 1 Tim. 4:5), c) being once and for all set apart at conversion as saints – definitive sanctification (1 Cor. 1:2; 6:11), d) ongoing growth in holiness – progressive sanctification (Heb. 2:11). ↩
For other Scriptural examples, see John Murray, "Justification," in The Epistle to the Romans, vol. I, pp. 336-362. Murray shows how the Hebrew verb for justified has "a variety of significations" including, "Stative… Causative… Demonstrative… [and] Forensic." ↩
The Greek for "accounted" is logizomai which is a legal or forensic term related to justification by faith in Paul's writings. ↩