In this study on James chapter 2, we have been comparing works done under law with works done under grace. Understanding this distinction is essential if we are to reconcile Paul, the preacher of grace, with James, who said this…
You see then that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (Jas 2:24)
In Part 1 of this study we saw how a preacher of works could misuse this verse to drive people back under law. In Part 2 we learned that James and Paul (in Romans 4) were probably both writing in response to something that Jesus had said about the “works of Abraham.” What were these works? Abraham believed and was fully persuaded that God would deliver on His promises, even when reality said otherwise.
A few points to clarify before we press on:
- James quotes Genesis 15:6 when he says that “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him with righteousness” (2:23). What works are listed in connection with Genesis 15:6? Only one: Abraham believed God.
- James, like Paul in Romans 4:3, says that Abraham was counted righteous when he believed and before he was circumcised and before he had tried to sacrifice Isaac.
21. Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?
22. You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.
23. 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.
24. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.”
The key verse in this sequence is verse 23. Remove this verse and you have a text to support a grace-killing theology of works. (And if you preach works, you’d better put human sacrifice on your to-do list – see verse 21.) But verse 23 cannot be removed! Verse 23 says that Abraham was counted righteous when he believed and before he offered Isaac on the altar. Verse 23 is where James says, “I’m with Paul on this matter of righteousness.”
So why does James confuse us by mentioning the thing Abraham did later at the altar? Why not just say, “Abraham was credited righteous when he believed?” The reason has to do with his audience. Which was who?
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings. (Jas 1:1)
James was writing to Jews. Why is this significant? Because being Jews, they already knew that Abraham was credited righteous when he believed – they were Jewish! They knew the Torah inside and out. So why did they need to be reminded? It’s my conviction that James was writing to address an epidemic of unbelief.
The dynamic duo: Paul and James?!
The traditional view is that Paul wrote about faith and James wrote about works. It’s up to us to balance their teachings and to find a middle ground. Only you can’t put faith in both grace and works. What man calls balance, God calls mixture. There is no middle ground – you’re either resting in faith or you’re engaged in dead works. Anything not done in faith is sin (Rms 14:23). No, the issue is not faith versus works, but faith versus unbelief.
In the beginning of his letter James talks about the testing and proving of your faith. He’s asking, how’s your faith? or are you expressing your God-given faith? God gives us faith for a reason – that we might reveal Him and His will on our planet. When believers step out in faith, heaven comes down. When they don’t, nothing changes. Faith that takes no risks is dead.
What are we supposed to do with our faith? Well, for starters, James says we can ask for things:
1:6 Let him ask in faith…
4:2 You do not have because you do not ask.
The number one reason why prayers aren’t answered is because prayers aren’t asked. God loves us and wants to reveal Himself to us, but He waits to be asked. When should we ask?
5:13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray.
You would think that is obvious, but it’s not. Many suffer in silence. Many just sit there and take it thinking that it is God’s will for them to suffer. James is saying, have a little faith in God! Here’s my paraphrase of James 2:14:
What does it profit, my brothers, if someone says he is fully persuaded regarding God’s promises but then does nothing about them, never steps out, never takes a risk? Can such ‘faith’ make any difference in his life? Can it sozo (save, heal or deliver) him?
James makes it clear in this verse that he is talking about more than who’s saved and who’s not. Throughout his letter he lists things we can ask God for, including healing, deliverance, wisdom, indeed, every good and perfect gift which comes from the Father. Why ask? So that we might be His firstfruits, His trophies of grace, His living testimonies of transforming power (Jas 1:18).
Whose glasses are you wearing?
A performance-oriented believer will come away from James with a list of things to do for God. But one who is standing firm on grace will come away inspired to pursue God and to prove His will through prayer:
5:16-17 The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain… (NIV)
I live in one of the rainiest cities on earth. It seems every Sunday during winter it’s pouring with rain when it’s time to go to church. Yet we never get wet. Why not? Because my 5 year old daughter knows how to rise up in her God-given authority and rebuke the rain. She doesn’t ask God to take the rain away; she just commands the rain to stop and it does. She is fully persuaded that Christ in her has authority over the rain and that it’s not His will for us to get soaked right before church.
Two preachers, one message
I’ve said that Paul and James were on the same page regarding grace. How do I know? Because James says things like “we’re righteous” and “Elijah was a man just like us.” To the Jews, this would’ve been scandalous! How could James compare us to Elijah? Maybe if we dedicated our lives to serving God, maybe one day, if we were really good, we could become like Elijah. But no, James says the great prophet Elijah is like us. We are the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus. If you thought the prayers of Elijah were powerful, how powerful do you think our prayers will be seeing we are clothed with Christ’s righteousness? Be encouraged – your prayers avail much!
So why aren’t we seeing more miracles? Because we’re not praying for things! We’re not asking! Our faith is locked up inside, reduced to a mere set of beliefs about what God can do, not what He wants to do right now. We dither over questions like “does God allow sickness?” or “is it God’s timing to heal this person?” It’s funny, but Jesus never seemed to be uncertain about these things.
By the way, is James saying that the more we pray, the more likely our prayers will be heard? Does God reward our praying effort? He does not. Jesus told us not to pray like those who think they will be heard “because of their many words” (Mt 6:7). No, James is saying we should pray as a people who are fully persuaded regarding God’s will. When you are fully persuaded your prayers will be bold and effective.
I know you will find this hard to believe, but I have heard of Christians who claim to have faith, but they don’t heal the sick. “Now listen,” as James would say, if you are fully persuaded that God heals the sick, then act on that persuasion and start healing the sick!
5:14: Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray…
What so special about the elders? Well hopefully they will be fully persuaded that God wants to heal you! Elders lead by example. I led a church in Hong Kong for 10 years. When sick people walked in I would offer to pray for them like this: “I’m not praying because I’m supposed to pray. I’m praying because I fully expect you’re going to get healed right now.” The person I was praying for might not have been fully persuaded that God heals, but I was, and people got healed – not all of them, but certainly more than would’ve been healed if no one had prayed. That reminds me of something Bill Johnson often says:
I learned a long time ago that more people are healed when you pray for more people!
Some people are not entirely sure that God still heals the sick. They’re in two minds about this healing business. They are not fully persuaded. When they pray people don’t get healed and their doubt becomes self-fulfilling. James writes about this:
Let him ask in faith, with no doubting for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. (Jas 1:6-8)
What limits our faith? Unbelief, or to use James’ words, doubt and uncertainty. To the degree that you are uncertain about God’s will, to that degree you are handicapped by unbelief. The devil wants you uncertain, but God wants you to be sure about His good will (Rms 12:2). If you’re not sure, then James says, “Pray, ask God for wisdom – and ask confidently! – receive what God gives you, then act on it.”
Finally, James 2:24…
The essence of James 2:24 is this: a believer isn’t one who merely believes God in his heart, he reveals God through his actions. The difference between you and your unsaved neighbor is not just a set of beliefs, it is the life of Christ in you and revealed through you. You not only think differently, you act differently and what you do flows from what you believe. If you don’t believe God heals the sick, you won’t pray for the sick and they won’t get healed. You are no different from your unbelieving neighbor in this regard. But if you do believe that Jesus provided for our healing 2000 years ago (1 Pet 2:24), then you will pray for the sick and you will heal them.
To the church James is saying, don’t just believe God, reveal Him! Speak to your mountain, heal the sick, drive out demons, raise the dead! If you are fully persuaded, that God can heal the sick, but you don’t pray for the sick – something is wrong. Your faith is not being expressed. It’s lifeless, powerless and incomplete. It’s like a fig tree that never bears fruit. If you are fully persuaded that God will do what He promised, then act on it and receive your miracle. Why wait? Abraham didn’t linger. He got up early the next morning and marched off fully persuaded that God would raise the dead.
We haven’t been called to do works for God, but to do the works of God. The work of God is to believe in Jesus (Jn 6:29). He who believes Jesus saves will be saved and will save others. He who believes Jesus heals will be healed and will heal others. If you are fully persuaded that Jesus is our wisdom from God – that He is our righteousness, our holiness, our redemption, and our victory – it will be evident in how you live.
Faith resides in the heart, but the fruit of faith can be seen. Abraham was credited righteous when he believed in Genesis 15, but his faith was seen when he offered Isaac on the altar in Genesis 22. His faith was made complete or consummated by what he did. Again, this is not a challenge to get busy for Jesus, but to abide in Him. You can bear no fruit by yourself. Only God can do the work of God. Our role is to rest in Him, trust Him, and reveal Him. When we do that His kingdom comes, the blind see, the lame leap, and the dead rise. Sometimes it even stops raining.
So far in this study we have been looking at the faith of righteous Abraham. In Part 4 we will look at the faith of unrighteous Rahab.