If we are saved by faith in Christ alone, why does James insist that our faith must be matched with works? How can you balance the grace of God with the works of man? You can’t!
In Part 1 of this study we looked at how James appears to contradict much of what Paul teaches about faith. If you hold James 2 alongside Romans 4 you will see that both chapters use the same Old Testament examples to support apparently different conclusions. Both James and Paul refer to Abraham and they both quote Genesis 15:6. See for yourself:
Paul: “If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’” (Rms 4:2-3,9)
James: “Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called God’s friend.” (Jas 2:21-23)
It is clear that both Paul and James are impressed by Abraham’s faith. But they seem to draw very different lessons from his example:
Paul: “Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace…” (Rms 4:16)
James: “You see then that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (Jas 2:24)
Don’t you find it curious that both James and Paul chose Abraham as their role model and that both of them referred to Genesis 15:6? One could be forgiven for thinking that James was writing in response to something that Paul had said or that Paul was writing in response to something that James had said. But I think they were both writing in response to something that Jesus had said:
“If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham.” (Jn 8:39)
Whenever we are confused by an apparent inconsistency in the Bible, we will come to the right conclusion by filtering the “problem” text through life and work of Jesus. So if we want to reconcile Romans 4 with James 2, it will help if we read what Jesus said in John 8.
Who’s your Daddy?
In John 8, Jesus goes to the temple and confronts the Jews on the question of Fathership. Jesus came to reveal His Father, but the Jews refused to believe that Jesus was who He said He was.
“Then they asked him, ‘Where is your father?’ ‘You do not know me or my Father,’ Jesus replied. ‘If you knew me, you would know my Father also.’” (Jn 8:19)
When the Pharisees scorned Jesus for testifying on His own behalf, He replied:
“I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me… my other witness is the Father… I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me.” (Jn 8:16,18,28)
Still the Jews refused to listen. So Jesus warned them that they would die on account of their unbelief (v.24). At this point some of the Jews changed their minds and put their faith in Jesus (v.30), but the others started making plans to kill Him (v.37). Knowing their murderous thoughts, Jesus said they were just like their father the devil, “a murderer from the beginning” (v.55). Clearly they were slaves to sin who needed to be set free. The Jews replied that they were Abraham’s children and they had never been slaves of anyone. To this Jesus responded,
“If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham. As it is, you are determined to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things.” (Jn 8:39-40)
The Jews thought they were special because they were Abraham’s descendents. But Jesus said if they really were children of Abraham, then they would act like Abraham. So what did Abraham do that the Jews refused to do? The short answer is that Abraham believed God. The Jews, in contrast, rejected the Living Word of God even as He stood right there in front of them. Truth had come to set them free but they refused to listen. Their actions testified that they did not belong to God but to their father the devil, “a liar and the father of lies” (Jn 8:44).
When was Abraham born again?
Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. Here’s a question that will help us with James 2:24: when was Abraham credited with righteousness? Was it after he tried to sacrifice Isaac in Genesis 22? Was it after he was circumcised in Genesis 17? No, it was back in Genesis 15.
“We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before!” (Rms 4:9-10)
The word of the Lord came to Abraham in Genesis 15, in verses 1, 4 and 5. Abraham “believed the Lord” in verse 6 and was immediately credited with righteousness. On this point James and Paul are in complete agreement. (Actually they are in complete agreement on all points, as I will show you.) So what works had Abraham done when righteousness was credited to him in Genesis 15? Only one – he believed God. What work did Jesus say Abraham had done that the Jews had not done? He believed God.
What exactly did Abraham believe? He believed that God was his shield and his exceedingly great reward. Although Abraham received many promises from God, Genesis 15:1 might be considered The Promise as it foreshadowed the two-fold work that God’s Son would accomplish on the cross – protection (from judgment) and provision (new life in Christ). The shield speaks of God’s mercy (complete forgiveness!) while the reward speaks of the riches of His grace (God Himself – He is the gift!). In other words, Abraham believed in, and eagerly looked forward to Jesus! We know this because Jesus told the Jews:
“Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” (Jn 8:56)
What are the works of Abraham?
Jesus said the Jews were nothing like their father Abraham because they did not do what Abraham did, and what they did Abraham did not do. The Jews rejected Jesus, but Abraham embraced Jesus with joy and gladness, albeit from a distance (Heb 11:13). The works of Abraham are thus identical to the works that God requires of all men:
“Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one He has sent.’” (Jn 6:29)
James said that Abraham was considered righteous for what he did. What did he do? Jesus has already given us the short answer (he believed); Paul gives us a longer answer:
“Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. This is why ‘it was credited to him as righteousness.’” (Rms 4:18-22 NIV)
What are the “works of Abraham”? They are believing and being fully persuaded that God will deliver on His promises even when reality says otherwise. When was Abraham fully persuaded? It was in Genesis 15, when God credited him with righteousness. When did we see evidence that Abraham was fully persuaded? In Genesis 22, when he tried to sacrifice Isaac. That’s why James writes “You see his faith and actions were working together.” But God saw Abraham’s faith seven chapters earlier.
What if Abraham had failed the test?
Would Abraham still have been counted righteous if he had not bound Isaac on the altar? Many have asked this, but it’s the wrong question. The right question is, does God ask us to do things that He knows we can’t or won’t do? Does God set us up for failures of faith?
Understand that we are not talking about the ordinary works of the flesh. Sometimes we do find ourselves in situations that are more than we can bear. We try with all our might and struggle with all our energy, yet we fail badly. This happens so that might learn to trust in God who raises the dead and not rely on our own strength or understanding (2 Cor 1:9). But if we are resting in Christ, if we are fully persuaded that God will do what He promised, then you cannot fail. It’s impossible.
People have written entire books about what Abraham must’ve been thinking the morning after God asked him to sacrifice Isaac. The motivation behind these books is the thought that, gulp, what if God asked me to sacrifice my son? Well don’t panic, He won’t. God sacrificed His Son so you don’t have to sacrifice yours. Because of Jesus we get all the blessings of Abraham without going through what Abraham went through. Yes, you will face trials and tests, suffering and hardship. But if you keep your eyes fixed on Jesus there’s no test you can’t pass, no battle you can’t win! Why not? Because Christ is our victory (1 Cor 15:57), and Jesus never loses, never fails!
If God says “we’re going to the other side of the lake” (Mk 4:35), and you are fully persuaded God will do what He says, then no matter what bad stuff happens along the way, you can rest assured that you are indeed going to the other side of the lake. God said so! Likewise Abraham was fully persuaded that his offspring would come through Isaac. “If Isaac dies without children,” he reasoned, “then God must raise the dead” (Heb 11:19). It absolutely, positively has to happen. People speculate whether Abraham dragged his feet in obeying the Lord, but the Bible says he got up “early the next morning” and went (Gen 22:3). Why would you wait when there’s a miracle on the way? Hesitation can be fatal to faith. Sometimes it’s just better to obey quickly, while faith is strong.
Faith never initiates; faith responds
To summarize Part 1 and Part 2 of this study, we now see that there are two very different ways to work in the Bible. We can work under law or under grace. We put ourselves under law when we look for things we should be doing for Jesus. We remain under grace when we rest in Him and then do what comes naturally. Under law, we initiate. Under grace, we respond in faith to what God is saying or doing. We see Him or hear Him and then we join Him (Jn 5:19). Under law, we work alone. Under grace, we co-labor with Him (2 Cor 6:1). This is how Jesus and Abraham and all the heroes of faith operated. What is the work that God wants from us? He wants us to trust Him, to be fully persuaded that He will do what He said, even when our present reality says otherwise.
And with that firm foundation, we are finally ready to unpackage James 2:24. Stay tuned for Part 3…