UNDERSTANDING JAMES 2:14-26 (Pt. 2)
Removing the Theological Tension Between
Faith & Good Works
by Ron Merryman
2:18-19 James Introduces Words of a Supporter (answering the person of v.16)
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. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. (James 2:18-19)
The speaker in verses 18 & 19 is arguing against faith without works. His reasoning is as follows.
"YOU are having faith w/o works." "manifest your faith w/o your works" IMPOSSIBLE: FAITH IS NOT PERCEIVABLE
"I am having works that manifest my faith" "and I will show you my faith by my works." WORKS (PERCEIVABLE) CAN MANIFEST FAITH
v. 19 "You are believing in one God (monotheism). That is good."
"Demons also are believing. They tremble."
THE POINT: monotheism can be believed by men and demons WITHOUT BENEFIT! But faith fulfilling the Divine design produces works that bring profit/benefit both to the producer and the receiver.
2:20 James Joins His Ally (of v. 18 & 19) Rebuking the Speaker of v.16
But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? (James 2:20)
v. 20 lit. "Are you (the believer of v.16 and/or v.14) willing to know that the faith (of which I have been speaking) without works is dead*?"
* "dead" = KJV: (nekra / nekra), dead in the sense of being separated from Godís intent. The word in the NASV is "useless" (argh / arge), without profit, barren (the contextual argument).
Verse 20 reaffirms Jamesí conclusion in v.17: faith without works is useless. Peter affirms this truth:
For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins. (2 Peter 1:8-9)
2:21-23 James Cites Abrahamís Works to Support His Argument
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)
v. 21 "Was not Abraham justified by works WHEN he offered Isaac?"
Answer: NO, if you are thinking of justification in the forensic sense, i. e., righteousness in the eyes of God that saves one from eternal hell.6
Answer: YES, if you are thinking of being justified in the eyes of men.
THIS VERSE MAKES IT CLEAR THAT JAMES IS SPEAKING OF JUSTIFICATION AS SEEN BY MEN OR AS MADE APPARENT TO MEN. WORKS CAN BE SEEN: FAITH CANNOT BE SEEN. The Scriptures make it clear that Abraham was justified forensically some forty years before he offered Isaac! Figure #2 illustrates the issue.
Figure #2 Abrahamís Justification: First before God, Then before Men. (Only available in hardcopy)
v. 22" Do you (singular: the "you" of v. 20 and v. 16) see that the faith worked together with his works and out from the works, the faith was perfected*; that is, brought to its goal forty years later?"
*"made perfect" (KJV)
= teleiow / teleioo in the Aorist Passive Indicative.
= "brought to completion," "brought to its goal"
IN VIEW IS THE GOD-DESIGNED RECIPROCITY BETWEEN FAITH (Stage #2) & WORKS! Faith in Christ and his finished work at Calvary has a divine goal ó GROWTH! Faith-life-produced works move the believer toward Godís goal óMATURATION, so that "faith is perfected" or "brought to its goal."
The believer is not to ignore or be ignorant of the function that works play in this outworking of Godís plan.
v. 23 " And the scripture was fulfilledÖ"
WHICH SCRIPTURE? James quotes Gen. 15:6, the scripture, which speaks of Abrahamís FORENSIC JUSTIFICATION.
The offering of Isaac fulfilled the Scripture in that it demonstrated to men the unseen faith of Abraham, first mentioned some 30-40 years previous, when he was declared justified by God WITHOUT OR APART FROM GOOD WORKS as Paul tells in Romans 4:1-5:
What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found? 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. Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. (Romans 4:1-5)
Abraham was justified in the forensic sense solely by faith and not by works. James never says that works justify us before God: Paul does say that by faith without works, God does justify us.
Paul and James are in complete agreement. There is no theological tension in their understanding of justification. James simply points out that Abrahamís justification in the forensic sense recorded in Gen. 15:6 manifested itself fully some forty years later when he offered Isaac.
2:24-26 Jamesí Application to his Readers
Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. (James 2:24-26)
v. 24 "Ye (plural: the Brethren of v.14 and us, his readers) see how that a man (a believer, like Abraham) is justified (vindicated before men) by works and not only* (justified) by faith."
* "only" modifies the verb "justified" (understood). James is saying that a by-faith-justification is not the only kind there is. There is also a by-works-justification. The former is before God: the latter is before men. Roman Catholic theologians totally misapply this adverb! Those who promote Lordship salvation come very close to doing the same.
v. 25 Rahabís treatment of the Israelite spies further illustrates the point. Her works in saving the Hebrew spies manifested before men her complete trust in Jehovah, the saving God of the Hebrew people.
v. 26 James ends the discussion with an analogy that illustrates his point: as the body without the spirit is dead (separated from spirit-life), so faith without works is dead (separated from Godís goal), hence without benefit to mankind.
THE ISSUE WITH JAMES IS NOT WHETHER FAITH EXISTS, BUT HOW IT BENEFITS BOTH THE POSSESSOR AND OTHER BELIEVERS.
Conclusions And Applications
Readers who fail to see that James has in mind two kinds of justification will forever have problems with this passage. His primary concern is what men see: works. Works exhibit a faith which cannot be seen. As with Abraham, men could see that he was a just or justified man by his works, but these works had nothing to do with his justification before God in its forensic sense. Forensically, Abraham was declared justified by God on the basis of faith alone without one iota of good works. James knew that. So should the reader of James 2:14-26. Ę
6Justification is used in the forensic sense when one is dealing with deliverance from the penalty of sin (Stage #1 of salvation: see Part 1 of this article). It is the opposite of condemnation, just as used in a court of law, hence forensic.