James 014 – Faith Without Works is Dead? Pt 3James 2:20-24 • Dr. Andy Woods • January 27, 2021 • James
James 14 — Faith Without Works is Dead? Part 3 — James 2:20-24
Dr. Andy Woods
January 27, 2021
James 2:20: We picked up our study the last few weeks as we resumed after Christmas break. We find ourselves today in James 2:20. James, as you know, is a book written by James, the half-brother of Christ, concerning how to live righteously for God. James is writing from Jerusalem, and he was the pastor of the church at Jerusalem. He is really writing to his scattered flock in what the Jews began to experience called the Diaspora, or the dispersion. These were believing Hebrew Christians who had been evicted from their own homes, and were pushed into these far- flung places, which is why James is addressing them.
The first part of the book is not about how to believe in Christ to be saved, the gospel of John really deals with that. James is about how to take your faith as a Christian and keep trusting God through the circumstances of life. That’s how you begin to manifest a practical righteousness that is pleasing to God, which is James’ point. The first thing that we need to trust God for as Christians is to adopt God’s perspective on trials, and this audience was in the midst of major trials. You can imagine what it is like to be kicked out of your own home and country. They are trying to live for God in those circumstances, and James says in James 1:2-18 that the first thing they need to do is to adopt God’s mindset on trials, which involves rejoicing in the midst of trials, and then not charging God foolishly in the midst of trials, not saying to God that He is trying to destroy your life. The trials are there not to make us bitter but to make us better.
The second thing to do to manifest a practical righteousness that is pleasing to God is to keep trusting God as you move into obedience. James 1:19-27 is basically about obedience to God, which means being slow to speak and slow to anger, taking in God’s Word, hearing God’s Word, but not being a hearer only but a doer, and then being a doer of God’s Word involves practical piety, or religion, such as helping widows and orphans in their distress and keeping oneself unstained by the world.
A third way to manifest a practical righteousness that is pleasing to God is to not show favoritism in the assembly. So, there was a situation going on there in the early church, in fact, these Christians weren’t even meeting in what we call churches. It looked like they were meeting in synagogues, and they were showing preference to wealthy people. So, James basically explains here after giving a command not to do that by explaining that showing favoritism is contrary to God’s purposes and calling and character. So, when we show favoritism on the basis of wealth, giving some people preferential treatment on the basis of wealth or socioeconomic status, then we really aren’t acting the way God Acts is James’ point there.
That is what we covered in the prior quarter and then when we resumed in January, we started moving into James 2:14-26, which is one of the most disputed parts of the entire Bible, and it is this idea that faith, unless it is accompanied by good works, is dead: “faith without works is dead.” So, one of the things that we have tried to articulate as we started moving into this particular paragraph, is that this whole section is not about justification, how to become a Christian; it is about your progressive sanctification. It is about how you grow as a Christian. You can see that from the context. The end of James 1 is practicing true religion; the beginning of James 2 is about not showing favoritism. See here that these are all practical type things, and the very end of the prior paragraph in James 2 is the fact that we all as Christians, are going to stand before the Lord at what is called the Bema Seat Judgment of Christ.
So, my point in all of this is that he isn’t dealing with issues facing unbelievers, he is dealing with practical righteousness facing Christians. That flows very nicely into this whole discussion of “faith without works is dead.”
Right after he finishes talking about that, he is going to talk about the tongue, gossip and things like that in the Church. I am glad that doesn’t happen in our church, Amen? That is just other churches who do that, not us. No, the tongue is a universal problem and its misuse. Again, the context immediately before and immediately following, these are all practical righteousness things. So, when he is dealing with “faith without works is dead,” he isn’t second guessing whether or not these people are Christians. He isn’t saying, ‘Well, maybe if you don’t have enough works, you aren’t a Christian or a believer,’ because to interpret it that way is to interpret that paragraph different than everything else in the context that comes before and after. So, this is all progressive sanctification stuff, and his thesis is that ‘faith unless it is accompanied by good works,’ and you see his thesis statement in James 2:14, which I think we have covered, ‘Faith, unless it is accompanied by good works, is useless.’
So, when you are reading 2:14-26, the question you should be asking is this: Is my faith useful on this earth to my fellow man? Is it useful in the sense that God can use me to expand His purposes on earth? So, it is really dealing with the usefulness of faith. If you are coming to 2:14-26, as so many people do who say, ‘Does my faith exist at all?’ — that is asking a question that James is not dealing with here. James is not dealing with the existence of faith; he is dealing with the usefulness of faith, or the productivity of faith, and we have spent three or four lessons explaining why we think that is a correct interpretation even before we moved into this.
His thesis is that if you have faith, but you don’t have works, what you have is a saving faith. You have a faith that is sufficient to get you to heaven. We used to call it having your fire insurance paid up; you aren’t going to hell, but other than that, which is a wonderful thing, by the way, not to go to hell, amen, can God use you to extend His purposes on the earth? No. Can God use you to glorify His name on the earth? No. Can God use you, can He bless you so you can be a blessing to someone else? No. You haven’t graduated into useful faith. You have saving faith, existing faith, but not serving faith. That is what he is saying: In order to have a faith that isn’t just a saving faith, but a serving faith, it must be accompanied by good works. That is his point.
James, in 2:15-26, backs up his point with five illustrations. The first two we have covered:
- Needy brother — James 2:15-17; this is where James deals with the subject of the purpose of prosperity. Why does God put resources in our hands above and beyond that what we need? That is basically what ‘rich’ is; it is that you have more than you need. By that standard, most of us, by world standards, anyway, would probably be categorized as rich, at least here in North America. So, you have resources in your hands above what you need, your typical North American Christian says, ‘Well, that is great; I’m going to go on a cruise down the Riviera and go through mid-life crisis and get myself a hot pink BMW or something like that.’ So, we take the resources God has given us and become inward or narcissistic. By the way, not that it is wrong to enjoy life, but that really isn’t the primary purpose of prosperity; its primary purpose is so that God can use you as a channel of blessing to someone else. So, He is actually giving through you to someone else, a missionary, etc. So, James says that if that isn’t happening in your life as a Christian, then basically what you have is a saving faith but not a serving faith. You have an existing faith but not a growing faith. His second illustration is the…
- Demonic monotheist where he makes this point that the demons believe and tremble. You will notice that the demons do believe; now they’re not going to heaven because the plan of salvation isn’t open to them as we’ve talked about, but they definitely believe in God. When Christ was on the earth, they knew exactly who He was, and they would say things like, ‘If You have come to torment us before the appointed time, Son of God,…” So, they have a better theology than most pastors do, quite frankly. They believe in the deity of Christ; they believe in a future judgment, in the power of Jesus, and their faith causes them to tremble. So, the point that James is making here is that he is arguing from the lesser to the greater. If the demons’ faith becomes practical in some sense, it causes emotion at least, then how much more should God’s people be zealous for good works since we are God’s blood-bought people on the way to heaven? Dennis Rokser puts it this way: “James does not call the belief of the demons a mere ‘recognition,’ but he states they actually ‘believe’”… [It is there in the text, you’ll see it there in 2:18,19]… “In fact, their faith does cause them to ‘tremble.’ James’ point is that even the faith of demons results in some practical manifestation in their lives, so should not the genuine faith of these believers result in some profitable and demonstrable works toward other believers in need?” That would be his second illustration. Now we pick it up with James’ third illustration…
- A man named Abraham, and these last three illustrations, we haven’t covered yet. I don’t know if we will get past illustration #3 tonight, but let’s see. He goes to Abraham because Abraham is the beginning of the Hebrew nation. You’ll notice that Paul and James both build their case from Abraham to convince a Jewish audience of truth because if they can build their case from Abraham, who is the foundation of the Hebrew race and nation, Judaism, then they will have won their argument. This is why Abraham is such a big deal in the writings of Paul and James. Notice what he says here in 2:20, “But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?” So, he is basically asking a question, ‘Do you think your faith, if it doesn’t have any works, is actually a productive faith?’ The answer would be no, so he illustrates it through this man, Abraham. You will notice that James calls his audience or the person who would challenge this, a ‘foolish fellow,’ see that there in 2:20, “But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow,” and you say, ‘That’s not very nice, you shouldn’t use that kind of language with people.’
You will find the apostle Paul saying things like that to the Galatians who basically thought that they could live for God through their own power, and Paul says to them in Galatians 3:1, “You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? Then in Galatians 3:3, he says, “Are you so foolish?” [The same kind of language that James is using.] … “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”
So, sometimes, we must be called strong names to bring us to our senses. Paul uses that language with the Galatians because they thought that they, as Christians, could live for God through their own power and not by the power of the Holy Spirit. James uses that language because he is apparently dealing with a bunch of people who thought that they had useful faith even though there were no works according to that faith.
The trick with James is understanding that he uses the same words that Paul uses, but he brings in a different meaning to each of those words, and that is why I will refer and have referred to this chart (see slide on Harmony Between Paul and James), and will continue referring to this chart as we go through each of these verses because it helps you to keep Paul’s meaning of these words and James’ meaning of these words, distinct. If you think that Paul and James mean the exact same thing by the same words, you will be totally confused as to what the book of James is about. It says in here that we are justified by our works, which according to Paul, is heretical. Martin Luther, who was big on salvation by faith alone, for that reason, hated the book of James. When he came out with the Luther German Translation of the Bible, he took the book of James and put it in the appendix; he didn’t want anyone to read it; that’s how much he hated it. You don’t have to move to that extreme if you understand that James, yes, uses the same words that Paul uses, but he attaches a completely different meaning to those words. So, this chart helps you with all these things.
When Paul uses the word, faith, he is talking about saving faith, primarily. Not exclusively, but primarily. In other words, what does a person that is lost have to do to be made right with God? They have to believe in Jesus.
When James uses the word, faith, and I’m bringing up faith because you see faith right there in 2:20. When James uses the word faith, he isn’t talking about saving faith but serving faith.
Lewis Sperry Chafer distinguished between saving faith and serving faith (see slides on Lewis Sperry Chafer). He said, “…The justified one, having become what he is by faith, must go ahead living on the same principle of utter dependence upon God.” That is serving faith.
James is saying that if you don’t have works accompanying your faith, then you have saving faith but not serving faith. And we have brought up Romans 12:3,6 (see slide on Romans 12:3-8), where faith is needed to exercise your spiritual gifts and step out and serve. There is the word, faith underlined in a context dealing with use of spiritual gifts. There, it isn’t dealing with saving faith but with serving faith. So this is a very valid distinction in the New Testament, saving faith versus serving faith. James is moving his audience from saving faith into serving faith.
Then James, here, mentioned the word, works, and when Paul uses the word, works, he is condemning people who think that they’re right with God because they’re religious; they think that they’re saved by their good works — Paul condemns that.
James uses the word, works, but he doesn’t mean the same thing when he uses the identical word, works. He is talking about the believer’s moral deeds, which are necessary to demonstrate that we have not saving faith but serving faith. You see here (See slide on James 2:17,20,26) in James 2:20, the word, useless. “But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow that faith without works is useless [the Greek word, argos]? And I tossed that in here because in 2:17, he said, “…faith without works is dead.” In 2:26, he says, “faith without works is dead,” so when people read that they think it means, ‘Oh, well, if I don’t have enough good works, that means I never had faith to begin with.’ We have gone through the word, ‘dead” that ‘death’ never means that. Death never means non-existence. It might mean that in 20th and 21st centuries vernacular, but it didn’t mean that in the biblical world because when someone dies, saved or unsaved, they don’t stop existing; they’re alive somewhere in heaven or hell. So that is the confusion about the word, dead in 2:17,26, and what rescues you from that bad definition is 2:20, which uses the synonym, useless. So, when he says “faith without works is dead,” you have to interpret the word, dead, in 2:17,26 according to 2:20 which actually means useless; this is what James is getting at. He isn’t second guessing whether or not his audience has faith. The word, dead, first of all, does not convey that, and secondly, why would James use the synonym, different word, same meaning, useless, if he was really talking about non-existence? The fact of the matter is that James is not talking about non-existence, he is talking about useless faith. What is useless faith? Useless faith is basically a faith whereby you trust Christ, and your name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, and you are going to heaven, but that is as far as your Christianity ever went. You did it when you were 16 at the campfire, but God has put a call on your life to serve Him or to live for Him in a special way, and you just decided not to do that. Well, what do you have? You have a faith that exists, if it didn’t exist, you would never have trusted in Christ for salvation. But you just have a saving faith; it has never matured into a useful faith; it is still on argos faith, a useless faith.
Notice 2:21, as we now get into the illustration of Abraham, the first Hebrew, and James says, “Was not Abraham, our father,” [Look at this now, you will read verse 2:21, and will say, ‘Well, praise the Lord I came to this Bible study, because if I hadn’t come to this Bible study, I would never make any sense out of 2:21’], “Was not Abraham, our father, justified by works?” Wait a minute, ‘I thought that we teach at this church that we are justified by faith;’ we do teach that. ‘I thought that Paul taught that we are justified by faith;’ he did teach that. ‘Well, then the Bible contradicts itself, doesn’t it, because it says right there that Abraham was justified by works.’ And you can start to see why Martin Luther didn’t like the book of James since his whole crusade was salvation by faith alone. If that was my crusade, I would not like the book of James either. The whole issue is resolved when you understand that James and Paul are both using the words, justified and faith, but with totally different meanings. Then the problem disappears.
I have used this example before. It is like three blindfolded men feeling an elephant. One person is touching the elephant’s foot and toes and saying that what he feels is like five lumps, and then one person, also blindfolded, is touching the elephant’s side, and says that it feels like a giant wall, and the other person is touching the elephant’s trunk and says that it feels like a long tube. You take each of their testimonies, and at first glance, it looks like they are all contradicting each other until you take the blindfolds off and realize that they’re all touching different sides of the same animal. Then the contradiction disappears.
There is this wonderful doctrine in the Bible of salvation: We are saved by faith, and then we grow in the faith to the point where God starts to use us. What is Paul dealing with primarily? This side of the equation over here, the front side. And James? The back side of the same doctrine of salvation. So, what James and Paul are doing are just touching different sides of the same animal. That is why Luther didn’t have to get upset with James.
What does James say here? “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac, his son, on the altar?” This is speaking of something that happened in Genesis 22, where Abraham and Sarah waited for the child of promise — what was that child’s name? Isaac. They had to wait on God for a long time for that child to be born, and then God, very quizzically, says, ‘Okay, now kill the child.’ Think about that; what if you were in that situation? ‘Offer the child to me as a sacrifice,’’ as a test of Abraham’s faith. And Abraham was basically willing to do what God said until God called it off.
It was at that point that Abraham’s faith had already been in existence in him for 20-30 years was now at a point where it was a useful faith; a living faith; a productive faith. It was at that point that Abraham was justified in the eyes of man, Genesis 22. What does justified mean? It means to be declared righteous. He was declared righteous in the eyes of man because his faith had become useful, and this is all in spite of the fact that Abraham had already been justified before God 20-30 years earlier in Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God and it was credited him for righteousness.” So, that’s when Abraham was made right with God in a vertical sense. But then he began to grow in the faith; he began to develop in the faith to the point where he was willing to obey God’s command to sacrifice Isaac 20-30 years later, and now Abraham was justified a second time; not in the eyes of God but in the eyes of man. So, the faith that was already in existence in him, in Genesis 15:6, now in Genesis 22, becomes useful faith. So that is the point that James is getting at.
“Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?” You will notice here that James calls Abraham our father, and that fits because James has written to the twelve tribes [James 1:1], Jewish, so Abraham is their father genealogically. It is a Jewish audience that he is dealing with. By the way, even if you aren’t Jewish, Abraham is your faither, too, in a spiritual sense. Galatians 3:29 says, “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.” So, we are Abraham’s children spiritually as Gentiles also; we aren’t Hebrews, we aren’t Jewish, but Paul says that Abraham is our father because Abraham was justified by faith just like we are. Calling Abraham our father has an application to us even as Gentiles, but you can see how Abraham, our father, would have immediate relevance to the Hebrew Christian audience that James is speaking to.
What does it say here in James 2:21? “Was not Abraham our father justified by works…”. When Paul uses the word, works, he is talking about people trying to gain favor with God through their own righteous deeds.
When James uses the word, works, what is he talking about according to our chart (see slide on Harmony Between Paul and James)? The believer’s moral deeds.
Here is where it gets tricky: look at the word, justified. When Paul uses the word, justified, what does the word, justified, mean? It is a declaration of innocence before God. A declaration of righteousness is what justified means. When Paul uses the word, justified, he is taking about justified in a vertical sense. Notice Galatians 2:16, “…nevertheless, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.” So, when Paul uses the word, justified, what is he talking about—the declaration of righteousness that we receive from God at the point of faith alone in Christ alone. Paul uses the word, justified, in the exact same way in Romans 3:20, “…because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.” So that is how Paul typically uses the word, justified; he uses it in a vertical sense.
When James uses the word, justified, he isn’t using it in a vertical sense but in a horizontal sense. He isn’t talking about being justified before God but being justified before man.
Is the word, justified, used in the Bible in the latter sense? Look at Matthew 12:33-37, Jesus says and is talking about the distinction between false frophets and non-valse prophets, ie, how can you tell if someone you are listening to is a false prophet? They will manifest bad fruit. If they are a good prophet, they’ll manifest good fruit. In other words, their status will be justified in the eyes of man, see that? So, Matthew 12:33-37 says, “Either make the tree God and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil.” [That is how you can know if someone is a true prophet or a false prophet; they’re bringing forth evil things through doctrine and lifestyle, or they’re bringing forth good things. So, you can look at someone and they can be justified as a true prophet simply by their actions. Then go down to Matthew 12:37 and it says, “For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Notice that it is the exact same word, justified; the verb didkaioō, which is the same verb that Paul uses to describe our justification before God, however, here, you will notice that it is the same word, used not in a vertical sense but in a horizontal sense, and it is talking about actions justifying whether someone is good in the presence of man. See that?
So, when James uses this word, justified, he is using it in the Matthew 12:37 sense. So, what James is saying here is that Abraham’s faith, which had been in existence since Genesis 15:6, [most people believe that this is when Abraham was justified before God; justified vertically before God in Genesis 15:6]. It says, “Then he [Abraham] believed in the LORD; and He [the LORD] reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
That is the story where God told Abraham that from his body would come a lineage of innumerable descendants that would be so great that they’d be innumerable like the stars of heaven are innumerable. And the promise particularly when he is in his 80’s or something like that at this time, a bit past childbearing age, he and his wife, the promise probably seemed ridiculous. But when God took him outside and made him that promise and showed him the stars of heaven, Abraham put aside human logic and simply believed what God said. The moment that Abraham did that, he was justified vertically before God; he was made right with God.
God took the righteousness of His Son, who wouldn’t die for another 2,000 years and He transferred it to Abraham on credit. That is why many of the Bible versions say that Abraham believed God and it was ‘credited to him for righteousness’. We all know what credit is, right? We love credit, don’t we? Because you get goodies with no payment. That is what Abraham got — goodies, the transferred righteousness of God, but the payment wouldn’t come for 2,000 years. So, Genesis 15:6 is when Abraham was justified before God.
Genesis 22, when he waited for his son to be born, Isaac, and if you don’t have Isaac, you don’t have any of these other promises that God has made concerning the stars of heaven, because these descendants are supposed to come from his own body. So, his and Sarah’s bodies, they waited and waited and waited on God, and God began to fulfill His promises to Abraham: Isaac, the miracle child is born, and then in Genesis 22, says, ‘Okay, I want you to take Isaac and I want you to kill him.’ And Abraham was willing to do that, and at that point, Abraham experienced a second justification. He was not justified before God, that had already happened in Genesis 15:6, but now his faith became productive to the point where it was visible to his fellow man, and he was now justified, not in a vertical sense, but in a horizontal sense. See what is going on here. That is how Matthew 12:37 is using the word, justified. He isn’t using it the way Paul does; not in a vertical sense but in a horizontal sense, and that’s how James is using it here of Abraham’s second justification in Genesis 22. Paul is camping on Genesis 15:6; James is camping on Genesis 22.
So how long of a duration was there between Genesis 15:6 and Genesis 22? Thomas Constable said there were 20 years; Thomas Constable, in his online notes, says, “’Abraham was declared righteous more than once. That is what justified means; declared righteous. Most interpreters understand the first scriptural statement of justification as describing his ‘new birth,’ to use the New Testament term (Genesis 15:6). This is when God declared Abraham righteous. James explained that about 20 years after Abraham was declared righteous, he was ‘justified’ again. How can you be justified again? Does that mean I lost my salvation, and I need to be justified a second time? No, once saved, always saved. If you trust Christ for salvation, then you are made right with God, and that is a forever deal. But now God wants to take our faith and make it productive and useful, and that requires a second justification where the usefulness of our faith is now evidenced in the eyes of our fellow man who are now being blessed by our lives. So, Constable says, “Scripture consistently teaches that believers whom God declares righteous never lose their righteous standing before God. They do not need to be saved again.”
“Abraham’s subsequent, second ‘justification’; evidently refers to a second declaration of righteousness. James said this second time Abraham’s works declared him righteous. They gave testimony (bore witness) to his faith. Watch this: Works do not always evidence faith. Abraham could have just stayed a Genesis 15 believer all his life; he could have never matured, but God worked in Abraham’s life for he wasn’t just a Genesis 15 believer, he graduated into being a Genesis 22 believer.
What is James’ point to his audience? Stop being a Genesis 15 believer and move into useful faith and become a Genesis 22 believer. “Works do not always evidence faith, but sometimes they do.” If it was guaranteed that all of us would become Genesis 22 believers, then why would James have to write this book? There is a teaching in Christianity where people think, ‘Well, if you’re a Christian, you are going to just keep on growing and maturing, and you will automatically become useful before God.’ Well, if that’s automatic, and if that is inevitable, James could have just avoided writing this book entirely. See that? But he is stirring his audience on into not just saving faith but serving faith.
In Genesis 15, Abraham had saving faith; in Genesis 22, he had serving faith. So, Constable says here, “Abraham’s second justification evidently refers to a second declaration of his righteousness. James said this second time Abraham’s works declared him righteous. They gave testimony (bore witness to his faith. Works do not always evidence faith, but sometimes they do. They do so, whenever a person who has become a believer by faith, continues to live by faith. When God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, he had to keep exercising faith in God. The faith that got him justified now had to be exercised continually, and that is how Abraham’s faith graduated into being a productive faith. “They do so whenever a person who has become a believer by faith, continues to live by faith. Abraham is a good example of a believer whose good works (obedience to God) bore witness to his righteousness. He continued to live by faith, just as he had been declared righteous by faith.”
So, you notice that Tom Constable puts 20 years between Genesis 15:6 and Genesis 22. It took Abraham two decades to mature. Are you saying, ‘Pastor, that for 20 years, Abraham was not going to heaven?’ That isn’t what I am saying: he was going to heaven because he had faith that justified him before God. What I am saying is that it took 20 years for God to get Abraham to a point where he actually became useful for God on the earth. That is what I’m saying.
So, usefulness to God, just because you are a Christian, is not guaranteed. It isn’t automatic. God has to keep putting you into circumstances where you keep trusting Him. Now, you don’t just have a saving faith, but a serving faith, which is where James is pushing his readers towards.
John Calvin himself says this, “They who seek to prove from this passage of James that the works of Abraham were imputed for righteousness, must necessarily confess that Scripture is perverted by him; for however they may turn and twist, they can never make the effect to be its own cause. The passage is quoted from Moses (Genesis 15:6). The imputation of righteousness which Moses mentions, preceded more than thirty years the work by which they would have about Abraham to have been justified.”
So, Constable says that between Genesis 15:6 and Genesis 22, there are 20 years; John Calvin himself says that there are 30 years between those two passages. Why bring this up? Because here are how people think: ‘Oh, so and so professed Christ in last Wednesday’s prayer meeting, or in last Sunday’s decision time. Well, we better see works in their life, pronto! They better clean up their profanity, quit abusing alcohol, stop sleeping with their boyfriend or girlfriend, get their haircut, take a shower, get a job, get a nicer car, get a good Bible and start carrying it around, and to start talking like we talk as Christians. If that doesn’t happen within a week or a month or a year, what do we do in the evangelical world? We say, ‘Oh, they aren’t a Christian; they have a spurious faith that wasn’t real.’ Why? ‘Because I want to see in my eyes the evidence of God in their life. So, if they told me that they believed in Jesus for salvation, then I won’t believe them, because I don’t see enough works.’ Isn’t that how we are?
When we totally forget the biblical reality that it took Abraham, depending on which commentator you go with — Constable or Calvin — it took him 20-30 years to clean up his act. So, I just think that sometimes we need to give people a little breathing room rather than placing a bunch of demands on them. Because God is at work in people’s lives in a lot of ways we can’t even see. It is an interesting discussion that if someone believes in Christ for salvation and doesn’t show good works, is the person really saved? I’m here to tell you that this isn’t what James is dealing with. James is assuming that their faith is real, and he is talking about a process that’s necessary to move them from saving faith to serving faith.
Notice James 2:22: “You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected;…” So, let’s go back to our chart here (see slide on Harmony Between Paul and James). When Paul uses the word, faith, he’s talking about saving faith; when James uses the word, faith, he is talking about serving faith. Let’s look at the chart again: when Paul uses the word, works, he is talking about gaining favor with God religiously, which is wrong; when James uses the word, works, he’s talking about the believer’s moral deeds.
So, what happened to Abraham? His works caught up with his faith. Meaning that he no longer, in Genesis 22, had just a saving faith but a serving faith. His faith, what does it say here in James 2:22, was perfected. Perfected is the Greek word, teleioō, which means brought to maturity. That’s the way the word is used in Hebrews 5:14, “But solid food is for the mature [teleios—noun form, teleioō, verb form]. So, when it says, “You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, his faith was perfected,” it’s not saying that all of a sudden, Abraham had faith that he didn’t have before. That’s nonsense! He had it for 20-30 years. He was heaven-bound for 20-30 years. ‘Well, then what happened in Genesis 22’? His faith matured. Teleioō — perfected; brought to maturity to the point where God could actually use Abraham to extend His purposes on the earth, as Abraham then became a blessing to his fellow man.
James 2:23, ‘and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “AND ABRAHAM BELIEVED God, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS,” and [is the word, ‘and’ in your Bible after righteousness? I see it in mine, so ‘and’ is a conjunction; in other words, this is a compound sentence because most people stop reading after the Scriptural citation, and they ignore the ‘and’] … “ABRAHAM BELIEVED God, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS” [by the way, when did that happen? In which chapter of the Bible? In Genesis 15:6] … “AND, the sentence continues, “and he was called the friend of God.’” Oh. So, Abraham was justified by God in Genesis 15:6, but when did he become God’s friend? He didn’t become God’s friend until Genesis 18:17 when ‘The Lord said [concerning Sodom and Gomorrah], “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do.”
Friendship entitles to knowledge or insight; simple faith entitles you to a ticket into heaven. But you can have a ticket into heaven by grace alone through faith alone and not be the friend of God. Did you know that? Did you know this? That all friends of God are believers, but not all believers are friends of God. Did you know that you could sit in Christianity with saving faith for decades and not be God’s friend? You say, ‘Well, where are you getting this?’ I am getting it from the words of Christ in John 15:14-15 where Jesus is talking to eleven saved men who had been saved for three years. This is the final week of Christ’s life, and he says this after the end of that three-year period, “You are My friends [speaking to eleven saved people in the upper room] … “You are My friends if [what? John 15:14,15] “You are My friends if you do” … [what?] … “what I command you. No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you.”
Notice the disciples who were saved and were already believers did not become the friends of Christ until the upper room at the very end of His earthly ministry. Why? Because it was at that point that they were willing to obey Him. Now that they were willing to obey Him, He could trust them with further revelation. That’s why it references here, James 2:23, not just Genesis 15:6 but Genesis 18:17, which is later in the life of Abraham where God says, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do.” So why is it that in Genesis 18, God starts giving Abraham prophetic insight concerning what He is planning to do with the wicked city of Sodom and Gomorrah? Because in Genesis 15, Abraham was a believer, but was not yet a friend of God. In Genesis 18, he was an obedient believer; now he was a friend of God according to Christ’s own definition of a friend of God, and he was now entitled to further insight.
So, there is a big difference between being a believer and being a friend of God. A friend of God is a believer who obeys God. Obviously, not perfectly, but is willing under the divine resources to surrender volition to God moment by moment; that is the person who God entrusts with greater insight and greater responsibilities. He isn’t going to entrust these insights to someone who is saved by grace alone through faith alone, but is disobedient, because the Bible says that if you are disobedient with a little thing, then you will be disobedient with a big thing. So why should God trust a mere believer who isn’t a friend of God, with insights? See that? But Abraham moved away from being just a believer to being an obedient believer to the point where in Genesis 18:17, he was trusted with prophetic insights concerning the wicked city of Sodom and Gomorrah. That is why James 2:23 doesn’t just quote Genesis 15:6, but also quotes information that most people believe is gathered from Genesis 18:17.
Abraham, at that point, became God’s friend, which is a wonderful honor. He is called, ‘Abraham, my friend’ in Isaiah 41:8, ‘Abraham, God’s friend forever,’ in 2 Chronicles 20:7, but he didn’t start off that way. In Genesis 15:6, he was a believer but not a friend. In Genesis 18, he is already a believer, but add to that friendship, which includes further insights. And then in Genesis 22, God says to sacrifice his son, and he was willing to do that, and at that point, he was not just a believer, nor just a friend of God, but his faith actually graduated from existing faith to serving faith. And he was justified, not in a vertical sense, but in a horizontal sense, in the eyes of his fellow man as a righteous man. See that? That is why this issue with Abraham is such a big deal.
Let me just do James 2:24 as that will finish our illustration with Abraham. Here is his conclusion, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” See that word, justified? “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” How is James using the word, justified? In the Matthew 12:37 sense, not in the vertical sense, but in the horizontal sense. How is James using the word, works? As the believer’s moral deeds? How is James using the word, faith? Not as saving faith but as serving faith.
So, what is the point in the illustration with Abraham? Abraham matured into serving faith in the eyes of his fellow man, he was justified; declared righteous, not vertically, that happened 20-30 years earlier, but horizontally. Horizontally, not in the eyes of God, that happened 20-30 years earlier, but now in the eyes of man, Abraham matured into serving faith; he was justified in the eyes of his fellow man the moment he was willing to obey God’s command to sacrifice Isaac. That is when his faith, which already existed, became useful, argos, faith. Not dead faith, dead doesn’t mean non-existence; it is there, but it isn’t productive. It is there to get you to heaven, but God can’t use it for anything. So, Abraham is on this trajectory where he keeps trusting God, keeps trusting God, keeps trusting God, graduates eventually into friendship with God, graduates eventually into useful, productive faith, and why is James bringing up all of this? Because he is trying to kick his readers in the backside, which we all need, Amen? Trying to get them to move in the same path, and he is saying, ‘If you don’t think you need works to accompany faith for it to be useful, then you don’t even know your own Bible, you Hebrew Christians. You don’t even understand the story of the fountainhead of Judaism, Abraham; the fountainhead of the Hebrew nation, Abraham.’ So that is why Abraham becomes such an important illustration to him [James].
So, he has illustrated his point to the needy brother, the demonic monotheist, through Abraham himself, and the next time we are together, he will illustrate it through Rahab and through the lifeless corpse.
Let’s stop here.