Faith that Justifies Never Stands Alone
One of the main teachings of the Great Reformation of the sixteenth century was the doctrine of justification by faith alone. By the grace of God Martin Luther rediscovered this glorious truth when studying the book of Romans and coming across the phrase, “The just shall live by faith” (1:17). Luther’s emphasis on the doctrine of justification by faith alone made it difficult for him to accept the letter of James as the inspired word of God. He had trouble deciphering what James meant when he wrote, “You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone” (2:24). Luther’s reaction was an overreaction. The fact that we are justified by faith alone does not take away the necessity of works. James does not overthrow the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Those who are justified are also sanctified.
Faith alone justifies, but the faith that justifies is never alone.John Calvin
Faith is Not Separated from Works
The relationship between justification, faith and works is introduced by James in chapter 2:14. He writes, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has not deeds?” We may say repeatedly that we believe in the Lord, in the saving merit and grace of Jesus Christ, in the forgiveness of sins and in the power of the Holy Spirit. But what is the benefit of such a claim if there are no fruits of faith? When righteous deeds are not the pattern of our life, all our pious talk goes out the window. It is an empty confession of faith because Christ’s disciples are known by their fruits (John 15:8).
Faith in God is more than being able to speak eloquently about the doctrines of Scripture. Doctrine must always be applied. When we publicly profess our faith we declare that we believe the doctrines of the Old and New Testament. At the same time we promise to commit our whole life to the Lord’s service as a living member of his church. Faith that stands alone, that is not followed through with righteous works, is dead. What is dead is useless. As believers we are to rid ourselves of the notion that a person can say he believes in God but in the meantime lives a very worldly life.
To make a point, James uses language that is far from complimentary. He rebukes his readers bluntly, “You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?” (2:20).To think you can be a Christian without showing any evidence of it in your daily task and calling exposes spiritual superficiality.
Abraham as an Illustration
Abraham, the father of all believers, is a clear example of the relationship between faith and works. James says, “Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar” (2:21).When James refers to Abraham as “our ancestor” he speaks of him as the father of all believers. It’s the same matter Paul discusses in Galatians 3:6-9 where he writes:
Consider Abraham: He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: All nations will be blessed through you. So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
All believers are connected to Abraham by faith. The life of Abraham is a classic illustration of one who is justified by faith alone. At the same time his life exhibits very persuasively that the faith which justifies never stands alone.
Does James 2 Negate Romans 4?
Reformed believers have become confused by what James writes in 2:24, “You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” What does James mean when he argues that Abraham was justified by works? Does this not contradict what the apostle writes in Romans 4? Paul says,
What then shall we say about Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’
Whereas James says Abraham was justified by works, Paul argues that if Abraham was justified by works, he would have something to boast about but not before God. How can we make sense of this? Although we know Martin Luther was wrong, we can understand why he had trouble accepting what James writes. These two passages underline how important it is to read the Bible with precision. For there is a noteworthy distinction being made.
Romans 4:2 speaks about our justification before God. A person may pat himself on the back for all the good and wonderful works he does but his boasting will never hold up before the Lord. No one can be placed in the right relationship with God through works. Righteousness is imputed through faith. Every child of God is justified before Him by faith. The Lord transfers Christ’s righteousness to your account through the vehicle and instrument of faith.
All mankind is spiritually bankrupt before the Lord. Our gracious God, without any doing of our own, transfers and deposits into our account the righteousness and holiness of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is our justification before God. It is also the justification Abraham received. Romans 4 goes back to Genesis 15 where the Scripture says very definitely that Abraham “believed the Lord, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Abraham heard the covenant promises of the Lord and responded in faith. The LORD, as it were, deposited righteousness into his account.
Righteousness and justification are never earned through our works but are always received as gifts of grace. Praise God for the marvel of salvation by grace through faith! We stand before the Lord with nothing! We are mere beggars with nothing to give. Yet God in his sovereign grace imputes to us the righteousness we need. He enables us to stand right with Him through Christ. Abraham experienced this when he believed the promises of the Lord. That is how the Lord works justification, whether that be with Abraham or with you and me.
What Paul writes in Romans 4 isn’t contradicted by James. In fact James also quotes Genesis 15:6 when he writes in 2:23, “and the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’” James knew exactly what that passage meant. But the point he makes is different from that of the apostle Paul. His main concern is: how was it evident before men that Abraham was justified? Abraham’s justification was seen in his obedience to the Lord. This is what James means when he says, “Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?” Note the distinction: Abraham was justified by faith before God but he was justified by what he did (by works) before men. Abraham’s faith in God, his justification and righteousness, were demonstrated by his works. The way in which someone can see that you and I are justified before God is through faith in action. Whereas Paul emphasizes our justification before God, James takes it one step further and shows how our claim to salvation is verified before others.
The word “righteous” as used in James 2:21 has two general meanings. It means “to acquit or to treat as righteous” but it also means “to show or to demonstrate as righteous.” In Romans 4 the first meaning is in the foreground – Abraham was acquitted, treated and described as righteous before God. In our text the second meaning is highlighted – Abraham was shown and demonstrated to be righteous by his willingness to sacrifice his son. At Mount Moriah we are given a beautiful example of how true it is that faith alone justifies, but the faith that justifies is never alone.
Going Back to Genesis 22
The story is told to us in Genesis 22. The Lord tests Abraham to display the genuineness of his faith. He tells Abraham to take his son, his only son, whom he loves and to go offer him for a burnt offering on one of the mountains. Such a request puzzles us! How can the Lord do this? Had God not promised that He would make Abraham’s children as numerous as the stars of heaven? And was Abraham considered righteous because he believed it?
Abraham waited many years before this promise was fulfilled. After enjoying the child for approximately fifteen years the Lord says to him, “Take your only son, whom you love and offer him to me.” Yet we are not told of the remotest hesitation on Abraham’s part. His justification before God was clearly seen in his obedience. He did not argue with the Lord. Instead he makes a remarkable statement of faith. As they come to the edge of the mountain he says to his servants. “Stay here with the donkey; I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.” The Lord said, “Offer up your son,” but Abraham says, “I will be back and Isaac will be too!”
We read in Hebrews 11:19 that Abraham considered God was able to raise men even from the dead. He went all the way, put Isaac on the altar, tied him up and was completely prepared to sacrifice him because he believed in the God who could raise the dead. Abraham believed in something which to that point in time had never happened! And yet his faith was so strong he believed that Isaac would go home with him even if it took a miracle – a resurrection from the dead. Having faith in the Lord he had the spiritual energy and fortitude to obey. Abraham believed God would keep his covenant and under no circumstance could ever violate his promise. In being willing to sacrifice his son, Abraham was willing to sacrifice himself in obedience.
James 2:22 summarizes what happened in Genesis 22, “You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.” Those who receive righteousness will display that righteousness because Christ dwells within their hearts. By our works faith is brought to its purpose and goal. Justification before God is manifest in justification before men. May the Spirit of Christ bring forth an abundance of fruit of his own work in our lives.
By our works faith is brought to its purpose and goal.