Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
Abraham's Faith Shown in Works
by David Silversides
Text: James 2:21-23
"Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God" -James 2:21-23).
Our theme is: Abraham's faith shown in works.
This Epistle of James is addressing deficiencies in practice rather than in doctrine. There were deficiencies in practice among the apparently Jewish believers to whom he wrote. Not so much in the sense of openly scandalous practices such as the Gentiles were prone to in idolatry, immorality and so forth; but the sins of a more formal, more orthodox kind of Christianity, such as proud in-fighting and aloofness from the needs of others. These are the kind of sins that are being addressed in James' letter. This letter is very relevant to the kind of shallow evangelical profession of faith that exists so much for example over in Northern Ireland where I come from, and no doubt elsewhere. Where there are considerable numbers of people who profess to be Christians, who would talk like evangelicals about being saved and about justification by faith alone, and yet who define holiness purely in terms of certain superficial prohibitions that are none too difficult to fulfil. Whole areas of their lives are left untouched and never seem to have been brought low in their own eyes nor seen Christ in His beauty and glory: people who are still full of pride and self-importance whilst at the same time, professing to be saved by the Lord Jesus Christ. Those of you who are familiar with evangelicalism in Northern Ireland will know that is not an uncommon thing although I'm sure it's not unique to Northern Ireland.
The sins then, in view, are not the blatant, scandalous sins but these deficiencies, these expressions of indifference and pride that are to be found whilst professing orthodox doctrine. Now there isn't a great deal in this Epistle of James of what we might call the doctrine of Christ's redeeming work. There is very little reference to the death of Christ and His great deliverance of His people. This should not put us off the Epistle of James any more than it should put us off the Sermon on the Mount, with which James was evidently very familiar. I want to spend a little of bit of time just showing you that, in order that you would understand the purpose of the Book of James. That will help us to understand the meaning of the verse we are to consider.
If you keep a finger in James and then another in Matthew 5, 6 or 7, you will see that there are many, many connections between the two passages: "My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations" (James 1, 2), "Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake." (Matthew 5:10); "But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing" (James 1:4), "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48); "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him" (James 1:5), "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened" (Matthew 7:7-8); "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning" (James 1:17), "If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?" (Matthew 7:11); "For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God" (James 1:20), "But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgement: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire" (Matthew 5:22). There are a whole lot more but perhaps that will do for the moment.
There are many, many point of varying degrees of clarity of connection between James' letter and what we call the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5). The purpose of the Book of James, like the Sermon on the Mount, is to describe the life and godliness of a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the beatitudes when the Lord Jesus says, "Blessed are the meek...Blessed are they that mourn...Blessed are the peacemakers..." and so forth, he is not describing the grounds of their acceptance with God, but he is describing the characteristics of the man whose sins are forgiven for Christ's sake. The same is true with the Book of James; it is describing the character of the true believer. Just to give you some useful headings perhaps, to get an outline of the whole book: you have faith tested (1:2-18); you have faith leading to right practice (1, 19-27); you have faith and works (2); faith and our speech (3); faith and our thoughts (4, 1 - 5, 6); you have faith and perseverance through difficulty and delay (5, 7 - 12); and you have faith and prayer (5, 13 - 20). There are these various aspects of faith and the fruits of faith given in the Book of James that make up a composite picture of the life and character of the true believer in our Lord Jesus Christ.
1. THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PROFESSION AND REALITY
Our text is in chapter 2 dealing with faith and works. First of all consider: the difference between profession and reality.
"What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone" (James 2:14-17). Here we can distinguish between professed faith in Christ and true saving faith. You see it says, "What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith": the emphasis is on professing to have faith in Christ. But though that profession may be a profession of saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, it is no real saving faith because there is no change of life. James calls it a dead faith. Whereas saving faith in Christ shows itself in works. If there is real faith in Christ, it must show itself in works. Though a man's faith, if it is saving faith, is in Christ alone, yet his faith is never alone: it shows itself in works. The faith that doesn't show itself in works is not saving faith; it is a dead faith that may acknowledge the truthfulness of the truth but there is no reliance personally upon Christ to take away sin. It is a mere acknowledgement that the truth is true.
2. SAVING FAITH IS MORE THAN ACKNOWLEDGING THAT THE TRUTH IS TRUE
That brings us secondly to: saving faith is more than acknowledging that the truth is true.
Saving faith is more than acknowledging that the truth is true: "Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: show me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble" (James 2:18-19). We have already seen that the devil can acknowledge the truth to be true. Devils or demons can acknowledge the truth to be the truth whilst still hating it. They don't like to do so, but they can be constrained to do so. We look at the legion of devils in Mark and how they acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God (Mark 5:7). Another case is, "And it came to pass, as we went to prayer, a certain damsel possessed with a spirit of divination met us, which brought her masters much gain by soothsaying: The same followed Paul and us, and cried, saying, These men are the servants of the most high God, which shew unto us the way of salvation" (Acts 16:16-17).
And so demons can acknowledge God's truth to be true. They don't love the truth; they hate that truth, but they can recognise it as true. When the circumstances require it they can acknowledge its truthfulness. That is true of unregenerate men: they can acknowledge the truth to be the truth. In John 2, after the miracle of changing the water into wine: "Now when he [the Lord Jesus] was in Jerusalem at the Passover, in the feast day, many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did. But Jesus did not commit himself unto them, because he knew all men, And needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man" (John 2:23-25). So there is the Lord Jesus - when people saw the miracles, they said, "Yes! this is the Christ of God!" But it says, "But Jesus did not commit himself unto them, because he knew all men". He knew that their belief in Him was an acknowledgement, and a temporary acknowledgement at that, of the truth of His claims that it was not repentance towards God and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ.
In Acts 8 when Philip preached the Gospel in Samaria we read: "Then Simon himself believed also: and when he was baptized, he continued with Philip, and wondered, beholding the miracles and signs which were done" (Acts 8:13). But in verse 20 "Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money. Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee. For I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity" (Acts 8:20-23). We are told that Simon believed, that is, he professed to be a convert, and yet a little while later the apostle Peter tells him he has neither 'part nor lot' in the matter. He tells him that his heart is not right with God and that he is in 'gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity'. Simon acknowledged that the Lord Jesus was the Son of God. He professed that the Gospel was true and evidently professed that he trusted in Christ. But in actual fact, though he did recognise the truth of the Gospel, in his heart he did not trust the Lord Jesus Christ.
His profession of being a true convert to Christ was false. "But he that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it; Yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended" (Matthew 13:20-21). Here is someone who professes to be a Christian and he would seem not to be deliberately making a false profession. He receives the Word with joy. But it isn't a genuine profession and the difference is there beneath the surface from the beginning. Under the surface it is not apparent to men or to the elders of the church, but it is known to God of course. Beneath the surface there is something wrong, there is no real root. So in time their profession fades away when difficulties arise for the Word's sake.
So men can be convinced of the truthfulness of the Gospel; they can be enlightened without being renewed. The mind can be enlightened to the extent of recognising the truth as the truth, but the heart, the will, is not renewed. They do not love and trust the Lord Jesus Christ with that true and saving faith of which we have been hearing in the earlier sessions.
3. ONLY IF OUR FAITH SHOWS IN WORKS ARE WE JUSTIFIED IN REGARDING OURSELVES AS TRUE BELIEVERS
Thirdly, only if our faith shows in works are we justified in regarding ourselves as true believers.
Here we come to verse 20: "But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only" (James 2:20-24).
The first thing we have got to look at here is an apparent contradiction.
On the surface this seems to contradict what we looked at in Romans 4: "For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness" (Romans 4:2). Indeed in the previous chapter we read: "Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law" (Romans 3:28). "Without the deeds of the law"! In Galatians: "Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified" (Galatians 2:16). So there is an apparent contradiction because James speaks of being justified by works as well as by faith.
We might just remark here that God has not seen fit to give us a problem-free Bible. He has given us an error-free Bible, but not a problem-free Bible. Perhaps you have reflected on that before now. I'm sure you have. God could have given us a Bible with no problems, but He hasn't. He has given us an infallibly and completely true Bible but not a Bible that is free of all problems for our feeble minds to grapple with. The Bible is so given by God in the form that it is, that it yields its truth to the meek but the proud stumble at the Word of God. Speaking of Paul's epistles, Paul's writing, Peter says: "As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction" (2 Peter 3:16). Peter is saying that in Paul's letters there are things hard to be understood. That's why the idea you can have a Bible translation that makes everything a piece-of-cake, is nonsense. Peter is writing in Greek to Greek speakers, who had read Paul's letters in Greek, and they were still, in places, hard to be understood. There are hard things for a Greek speaker to understand in the Greek New Testament. Inevitably the translation, if it's a faithful translation, for English speakers, will still in those places be hard to understand.
If you imagine there will ever be a faithful English translation without difficulties to grapple with, forget it, because it never will exist. There are hard things, things hard to be understood, in the Word of God. God could have given us a problem-free Bible but He didn't. In fact He's given us a Bible such that if men want to believe that the Bible contradicts itself, they will find a way of convincing themselves. If you want an excuse for ignoring the Word of God, and so you want to believe that the Bible has contradictions in it and therefore you need take no notice of it, you'll get what you want because there are contradictions. There are hard things which perverse minds will take hold of and claim contradictions to justify their unbelief and love of sin and of darkness. Some people go to outer darkness having long convinced themselves in this world that they had disproved the Bible and that they had no need to take any notice of it. There are people in hell who convinced themselves on earth that they could safely ignore the Bible because it wasn't consistent.
God has given us the Bible with its difficulties but what is the real meaning? What if the real meaning here? In terms of the words, if the words all mean the same thing in each place, obviously there is contradiction: Romans - justified by faith; James - justified by faith and works. For those who believe the Bible is the Word of God, it is self-evident that the Word 'justifies' is not used in the same way in James as it is in Romans and Galatians. We've seen from Romans and elsewhere that God justifies sinners on the basis of the merits of Jesus Christ, which are imputed - reckoned to the account of - all who trust in Him alone. Faith is the alone instrument of justification. The thief on the cross who trusted Christ received the Assurance of Christ, "Verily, I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). That thief had very little opportunity at all to manifest his faith in Christ in a changed life. Nevertheless, he went to be with Christ in paradise. The offering of Isaac referred to in our text in verse 21, is recorded in Genesis 22. It took place some thirty years after the declaration in Genesis 15:6 - "That Abraham believed God and it was imputed unto him for righteousness. So the actual offering up of Isaac came long after the testimony of God that Abraham was justified. It is self-evident then that his offering up of Isaac was not a meritorious contribution to his acceptance with God. He was already accepted as righteous before God, having rejoiced in the coming Saviour and trusted in Him long before he offered up Isaac. But his offering up of Isaac did show the kind of faith that he had had all along before that. James probably wrote this letter earlier than Paul's letters and therefore was not knowingly using the word 'justified' in a difference sense to that in which Paul would use it at a later stage. But God was in control of what James wrote and what Paul wrote.
The word 'justify' is here used in the sense of the grounds upon which man regards man as forgiven in the sight of God. The word 'justify' here is used in the sense of the basis on which men declare a man to be a true believer, or regard a man as a true believer, and forgiven by God. In particular, it's about the grounds on which we declare to ourselves that our sins are forgiven before God. Look at the context: "What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?(v.14); "Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works" (v.18); "Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect [or complete]? (v.22). True faith finds its expression in works.
What is being spoken of here is the grounds on which we declare ourselves to be accepted in the sight of God. It's our declaration of our own state of forgiveness before God. The grounds on which we do so is that our faith is in Christ alone for acceptance with God, and it is a true faith because it shows itself in desiring holiness and godliness. It's this kind of faith, the kind of faith that was manifest in Abraham's offering up of Isaac, the kind of faith that manifests itself in a desire after holy obedience to the Word of God; that is the kind of faith in Christ that is true and saving faith. So the grounds on which we conclude that someone else or we ourselves are forgiven and accepted before God is that we have faith in Christ, a genuine faith in Christ, and that the genuineness of it is evident in a desire to glorify God. So justification is used here in the sense of the declaration we make concerning ourselves, that we are accepted with God, and the grounds of it is we trust Christ and the fact that we trust Christ is evident in a desire to pursue holiness: "Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord" (Hebrews 12:14). There the apostle is telling us, not that the pursuit of holiness earns acceptance with God, but that all those who are accepted with God through Christ will be pursuers of holiness: "If ye know that he is righteous, ye now that every one that doeth righteousness is born of him" (1 John 2:29). Those who are forgiven through Christ, they can conclude that they are the children of God because they trust Christ and the genuineness of their faith in Christ is evident in a desire to glorify God.
God willing we look tomorrow at why it is that saving faith is always a faith that shows itself in works. But for the moment we must understand that James is using 'justify' in the sense of the grounds on which we declare ourselves accepted in the sight of God; the grounds on which we conclude that we are forgiven through Jesus Christ and it is because we trust in Him with a true faith that is evident in the pursuit of godliness.
Before we finish, a couple of additional points.
Christ has purchased the blessings of deliverance from sin and all its consequences for His people: "But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption" (1 Corinthians 1:30). Now those four things - we can't look at them in detail now - wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption, they are summing up the saving blessings which Christ has purchased for His people and will invariably bestow upon them. He will deliver them from the guilt of sin, from the bondage and corruption of sin, and from the bodily effects of sin. The Lord Jesus Christ delivers His people from sin and all its consequences and effects. In the Shorter Catechism we are told that the Fall brought mankind into an estate of sin and misery:
Q 18. Wherein consists the sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell?
A. The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, consists in the guilt of Adam's first sin, the want of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature, - which is commonly called ORIGINAL SIN; together will all actual transgressions which proceed from it.
Q 19. What is the misery of that estate whereinto man fell?
A. All mankind by their fall LOST COMMUNION WITH GOD, are under His wrath and curse, and so made liable to all miseries in this life, - to death itself, - and to the pains of hell for ever.
Now, Christ delivers His people from all the sin and misery of that estate whereinto man's fall brought him. He delivers from all and that is what we were endeavouring to bring out in Romans 8 earlier on in the discussion that goes back to deliverance from guilt: "There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit" (Romans 8:1). Christ's bearing the guilt of sin is the key to His delivering His people from all that is involved in the estate of sin and misery into which the Fall brought them: "For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh...". The law itself cannot make us holy; it defines holiness required but it doesn't make us holy. "...God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit" (Romans 8:2-4). What that is telling us is this: because Christ bore the guilt of sin then there is deliverance for His people from all the consequences of sin, including the corruption of his whole nature. So that Christ's bearing the guilt of sin, not only purchases the blessing of justification, but also the blessing of sanctification. What is more, it even procures the resurrection of the body to glory. That is why we read: "But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you" (Romans 8:11).
Our sin brought upon us guilt, corruption, death itself, the pain of hell forever. Christ ultimately delivers His people from all of these things. He bore the guilt of sin: when we are brought to faith in Him that guilt is removed. In bearing the guilt of sin, He purchased the reversal of the corruption of our whole nature, beginning at the new birth which is the cause of our faith. The new birth is the beginning of the work of sanctification. It goes on from the new birth until death as we "are changed unto the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord" (2 Corinthians 3:18), and then is completed at death when we join "the spirits of just men made perfect" (Hebrews 12:23).
The physical death came on a cloud of sin also, and so the redeeming work of Christ will ultimately be applied even to the effects of sin upon the body when "he shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself" (Philippians 3:21). But there is more even than that: because the fall of man brought the curse of God upon the ground for mans' sake. So the creation is cursed on account of man's sin, but the redemption of God's people will bring with it as the accompaniment of the redemption of the children of God, the deliverance of the creation from the curse of God: "For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope, Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body" (Romans 8:20-23). He is speaking of the Creation, he is personifying the Creation, as if the Creation were waiting for the resurrection glory of the sons of God because then the Creation itself will be delivered from that curse which is upon it on account of man's sin. There will be a "new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness" (2 Peter 3:13) as the full inheritance in Christ of the people of God. So God's salvation is a complete salvation. He delivers His people from all the effects of sin: the estate of sin and misery in its entirety. We don't have all the blessings of redemption applied yet, but if we are in Christ the guilt of sin is already totally gone, the corruption of sin is going - and will go when we get to glory, finally and completely; and this mortal body shall put on incorruption at the last day. And we shall have a renewed heavens and earth as our inheritance in the presence of God and of the Lamb.
We get an indication of the completeness of God's salvation in Christ from that very ordinance of circumcision that was given to Abraham. We saw in Romans 4:11 that it was given to Abraham as a seal of the righteousness of faith which he had, yet being uncircumcised. The sign of circumcision was a sign of union with the Lord and cleansing from sin. The apostle there speaks of it as a sign of cleansing from the guilt of sin, but that wasn't the whole meaning of circumcision because in Deuteronomy 30:6 we find that circumcision is also a sign of deliverance from the pollution of sin: "And the Lord thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live" (Deuteronomy 30:6). It was a sign of cleansing from the practise of sin.
In Jeremiah 4:4 there were people who had the sign but not the reality. It tells us what the sign meant: "Circumcise yourselves, to the Lord and take away the foreskins of your heart, ye men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem: lest my fury come forth like fire, and burn that none can quench it, because of the evil of your doings" (Jeremiah 4:4). They needed the reality behind the sign. But the sign itself was a sign of the completeness of God's salvation: deliverance from the power, the presence and the guilt of sin. That tells us that the salvation - that Abraham had, and Isaac had, and Jacob had, and Moses, and David, and the apostles, and us if we are in Christ Jesus - is a salvation that ultimately entails deliverance from all that sin has brought upon us. Therefore it must ultimately include not only justification - deliverance from the guilt of sin - but also deliverance from the corruption of sin. So the justified man, the forgiven sinner, is also a man who has been, is being, and will be, sanctified in Christ Jesus as his union with Christ divine develops and flourishes until perfection in glory in the world to come. "For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13); "Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:6). The forgiven man has been changed, is being changed, and will be changed, and will be glorified with Christ for ever and ever.