Justification by Faith and James 2
”You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24.)
We are justified by faith, but our faith is justified by our works.
If we read through the second chapter of James, we see that it’s in a context of grace, and it’s in a context that obedience has to be absolutely perfect. And if our obedience is not absolutely perfect, it’s not enough.
Notice verse 10. And this is perhaps the most critical verse in the entire second chapter of James to keep us from reading it in a misunderstanding . . . and having a misunderstanding about what he is teaching. “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10). That’s an important verse because if we understand what James is saying here then we understand that James cannot be teaching us that we are right with God by keeping the law. Why? He says, “Whoever keeps the whole law but breaks one point is guilty of breaking the whole.” A chain is no stronger than its weakest link.
Listen to what he says more explicitly as he spells it out. Verse 11: “For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a law-breaker” (James 2:11).
That takes us back to Jesus’ basic teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Why does he say to men, “Whoever looks on a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her in his heart?” (Matthew 5:28) Why does he say to people: “Whoever says to his brother ‘you fool’ is in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:22)? Why does he say those things? Because Jesus knows human nature and knows that there’s no man walking around the planet earth—from the time of puberty on—who hasn’t committed adultery in his heart, at some point fantasizing about this or fantasizing about that.
What’s Jesus’ point? His point is not that he’s going to get us into this place in life where we are never bothered by an unclean thought ever again. His point is to nail our hide to the wall and convict us of sin. And the same thing is true about, “Whoever says to his brother, ‘you fool” (Matthew 5:22). You know, a lot of people will call people a nut, a knit-wit, a crazy man, a twit, but never say “fool” because they’re afraid. You know, “Well, if I say ‘fool,’ why I’m in danger of the fire of Hell.” “Stupid knit-wit. You nincompoop. You twit. You ignoramus.”
The point is, “fool,” is the English translation of a Greek word, raka. So if we want to get real literalistic about it I guess we don’t have to worry about it unless we say “raka.” The point is not about being literal with certain sounds of words, certain phonemes; it’s about the attitude of the heart.
Is there anybody beyond the age of three who hasn’t called somebody, “A dumbo, you stupid person, you knit-wit.” The point is we’ve all verbally abused others.
Why does Jesus raise the issue? He’s raising the issue to a group of self-righteous Pharisees to show them what? They come short. That’s why he said to his listeners, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you’re going to perish” (Matthew 5:20). You’re going to perish. You’re not going to enter into the kingdom of God. You can’t enter into the kingdom of God unless your righteousness is superior to that of the scribes and the Pharisees.
The point is: The scribes and the Pharisees were good people. They were religious people. They read their Bibles. They memorized Scripture verses and they prayed and they gave money. But they weren’t perfect. The trouble with the people is that they thought they were good enough. And Jesus’ point is to tell them, “You’re not good enough.”
That is what James is saying here. James isn’t teaching salvation by works because he’s teaching us so plainly that if we break one commandment, if we come short in just one area, we’re guilty of breaking all of it: “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10).
Then he says in verse 12: “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!” (James 2:12-13)
What’s he talking about there? The only people I’ve ever known who were really merciful people are people who have drunk deeply of God’s grace.
“Oh to grace how great a debtor, Daily I’m constrained to be” (Robert Robinson, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”).
Jesus says, “He who has been forgiven much loves much” (Luke 7:47).
Merciful people are those who, in a deep and keen way, understand: “God’s been merciful to me. God has been kind to me.”
The people who are not merciful to others are those who feel good about themselves, who feel that they can commend themselves to God. The Pharisees of this world are harsh in dealing with other people.
“You messed up. I’m not going to give you another chance.”
But the person who has drunk deeply of God’s forgiveness and grace in Jesus Christ is willing to give other people another chance; he is willing to forgive: “Well, you know, I don’t like what you did. It certainly hurt me deeply. But, you know, how can I refuse to forgive you since God has forgiven me so much?”
And the point, again, as we read through the second chapter of James—it’s in a context of grace and it’s in a context that obedience has to be absolutely perfect. And if it’s not absolutely perfect it’s not enough: “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10).
Reading on in James 2, we get to the meat of the coconut, verse 14: “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” (James 2:14)
And there’s the key thought. And it’s a little bit paraphrastic by their adding the word “such” but it brings out the flavor of what James is actually saying.
There are, after all, two kinds of faith, if you want to use the word “faith.” I would rather use the word “mere belief,” “intellectual assent to truth” rather than “faith.” Listen to what he’s saying, again, verse 14: “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” (James 2:14)
He uses an illustration. And the illustration is not only an illustration to illustrate the need to help hungry people; it’s an illustration that fits right in the context. And what’s the context? It has to do with showing favoritism. It has to do with discrimination against the poor in favor of the rich man. And, once again, here we come back to the issue of the works that are in view here in James, the works that demonstrate faith have to do with our attitude towards people who can’t help us. It’s our quid for the no pro quos. A test of your faith? Your quid for the no pro quos. The test of your faith is not your quid for the pro quos, “this for that,” Do you see? The test of your faith is . . . the evidence of real faith . . . Is, what do you do for people who can’t do something for you in return? That’s what this is all about.
Look at what he says in his illustration of an empty faith that is mere assent to a proposition; verse 15: “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15-16).
Isn’t that stupid to think? “Hey, God bless you. Sorry you’re naked. Sorry you don’t have a house, a roof over your head. Sorry your stomach’s empty. But I wish you well. God bless you, Man. Be filled and warm.”
He said, “That’s just stupid, idiotic, empty talk.” It’s just foolish empty talk. He says, “If one of you . . . “ He says, but . . . he says, “What good is that? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:15-16). “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:16).
What’s he saying? He’s saying that real faith will always evidence itself in acts of faith.
Let’s see more fully what he means here. Verse 18: “Someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Okay, Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do” (James 2:18). Isn’t that an absolute truth? Don’t we show people what we really believe by how we act on it? What do we really believe? If we don’t act on that faith, do we really believe it?
You see, real faith involves taking some risks based on that real faith.
Let’s read further. Verse 19 is another critical verse. If we really want to understand James rightly, there are some very key verses that we need to keep in mind. What’s James talking about here? He’s not talking about Pauline faith. What’s Pauline faith? Pauline faith is a hearty trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, a commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ, a surrender and a casting of myself on God’s mercy in Christ. That’s the faith that Paul talks about.
What is James talking about when he talks about a faith that is an empty faith? Do we want to know? Here’s the key verse to understand what he means. Verse 19: “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder” (James 2:19).
What is he talking about? Do you believe that two plus two equals four? Sure. That’s what I was taught as a child—two plus two equals four. Now is that what “faith” is in Scripture? Is that faith in Christ?
It is vital that we hold to sound doctrine. But we need to remember something. There’s not a devil in Hell that believes false doctrine. I mean, is the devil orthodox? He doesn’t want you to believe he’s orthodox, but he is. He believes the Bible from cover to cover, okay? He knows the truth. The devils believe, he says, “the demons believe and they tremble” (James 2:19). I mean, they take it seriously.
Think about those power encounters between Jesus and the forces of darkness that are recorded in the gospels. Over and over again, when Jesus begins to command demons to come out of people, what is their response: “Have you come to torment us before the time?” What does that tell us about demons? They believe in Hell. They believe in a future judgment. They believe in a Lake of Fire. “Have you come to torment us before the time? Hey, we’re having our last hurrah here. Can’t you leave us alone a little while longer? It’s not time for us to quit yet.”
Are they orthodox? Do they believe sound doctrine? Absolutely. The devil knows the Bible. When Jesus is tempted in the Judean wilderness, what does Satan begin to do to him? Jesus quotes Scripture to the devil, the devil starts quoting it back. “I’ve read that book, too. I know some of that stuff. Here. Try this.”
The devil knows the Bible. The devil believes the Bible. Here’s a basic truth of orthodoxy: One God. You believe in one God as over against all the pagans around you. He’s speaking to Jewish Christian believers. If you think you’re superior because you don’t believe in Zeus and all these other gods and goddesses of the pagan world around you and you think that makes you good, makes you superior . . . you believe in one God? Did you know the demons believe and they shudder? They’re just shaking. They are terrified. It bothers them. “Have you come to torment us before the time?”
So they know there’s judgment coming. But saving faith is more than that. If it’s not more than that it’s not real saving faith. Saving faith does involve acceptance of propositions as true. I believe Jesus died and rose again. I believe he’s coming again. I do believe that. That’s a proposition. That is a set of truths. I accept those truths as true. But real faith is more than that. Real faith demands a response. And if there’s no response, it’s not real faith.
Here’s an illustration for evangelism to illustrate the difference between faith and mere belief. Your house is on fire. You’re in the second story of the house. The fire has engulfed the stairwell. The window is open. Your father is Arnold Schwarzenegger, massive biceps and triceps, a giant of a man. He stands below that second story window. You are five years old. You weigh 60 pounds. Arnold Schwarzenegger is there and weighs 280 pounds, not an ounce of fat, total muscle. You can look at the situation. You can say, “If I stay in this house, I’m going to burn up.” You can say, “The fire is coming up the stairwell. It’s getting hotter.” You can look at Arnold Schwarzenegger, your daddy, and you can know that he is able—if you jump out of that window—to grab you and keep you from hitting the ground. You can know that he’s your daddy and he loves you. You know that he loves you so much that he is willing to take your place, dying in the flames of that fire rather than to let you die in that house. You can have an absolute belief in the truth that Arnold Schwarzenegger is your daddy and he loves you and that he’s strong enough, if you jump, to catch you and you can still burn up.
You’ve got to jump out of the window. And biblical faith is jumping out of the window . . . if I may put it that way. There is nothing meritorious about your jumping out of the window. You’re not saving yourself. I mean, if Arnold is not there to catch you, you just go splat. But you cast yourself on God’s mercy in Jesus Christ. There is a response of faith that is real faith. In the devils we see what? They are in the burning house. They’re not going to come and jump. Of course, there’s no provision for their salvation. God didn’t send his Son to die for angels. “He took on himself the seed of Abraham” (Hebrews 2:16). He died for human beings, not for fallen angels.
The point is that the demons are in the house. They know the consequences. They shudder. But hey have only intellectual assent. Mere intellectual assent is an element of faith, to be sure, but it is not all there is. Real faith means I come and I cast myself on God’s mercy in Christ.
You know, I think in the Presbyterian Church when we ask a person . . . when they join the church, we ask them to assent to five questions. “Do you acknowledge yourselves to be sinners in the sight of God justly deserving his displeasure without hope, except for his sovereign mercy? Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of sinners and do you receive and rest upon him alone for salvation as he is offered in the gospel?”
You see, it’s receiving Christ. It’s resting on Christ. It’s coming to Christ. That’s what faith is.
And so what we need to understand is that James is talking about something a little different when he talks about faith. And he’s also using the word, justification, a little bit differently than Paul is using it.
What James is speaking about, in using the word “faith,” is actually two different kinds of faith; a faith that is mere belief versus biblical faith. Biblical faith, real faith, saving faith, a faith that rests in Christ, can always be visible by how it acts. And if there’s no response, if there’s no changed life, then obviously it’s nothing more than intellectual agreement with truth, the same intellectual agreement that demons have.
So we go on further, and James asks: “You foolish man [verse 20] do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see [verse 22] that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. (James 2:20-22).
Here’s the whole point. Is there merit in Abraham being willing to sacrifice Isaac? Or is his being willing to sacrifice Isaac simply confirmation that he has real faith?
Here’s a catchy way of putting it. “We are justified by faith alone, but we justify our faith by works.”
What does it mean, then, to justify? You remember the story of the Good Samaritan. This is an interesting example to illustrate the root meaning of justification. Luke 10:25, ‘On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” [Verse 29] But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”’ (Luke 10:25-29)
Jesus immediately nails this guy to the wall: “You want to inherit eternal life? What do you read in Scripture?”
“You’ve got to love God with all your heart, soul and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus said, “Well, that’s the right answer. Do that and you’ll live.”
Of course, the man immediately realizes that he doesn’t do that. So he asked, “Who is my neighbor?”
Why does he ask that question? He wants to justify himself. Now, what does it mean to justify yourself?
Here’s the question: Did this man ask this question because he wanted to change how he lived or because he wanted to feel good about himself and silence his guilty conscience? The answer is: He wanted to feel good about himself. He asked the question, “Who is my neighbor?” so he could get himself off the hook. He didn’t ask the question so he could then go about changing his whole life. This guy doesn’t want to change his whole life. This guy is like the rich young ruler in a certain sense. He’s a good moral man in one sense of the word. He pays his tithes. He reads his Bible. He prays. But he doesn’t want to sacrifice how he lives. He’s self-sufficient and quite happy with himself, and he wants to continue feeling that way. So he asked the question, “Who is my neighbor,” so as to justify himself.
What does he want? He wants a declaration about himself to his own conscience that says, “Hey, man, you’re okay. You don’t have to . . . you don’t, you know, you don’t have to love those Samaritans over there. You don’t have to love those Gentiles that have invaded your land. You don’t have to love these Romans like Pontius Pilate. You just love the people who are like you. And he’s asking that question because he wants to say, “I’m okay. I don’t need to change. I don’t need to get radical and get real with God and get down on my face before God and cry out and say, “Help me. Change me, Jesus. I need changing. I’ve got a bad heart.”
This guy is not asking that question because he wants to change from the inside. He’s asking the question so he can be declared righteous to himself. There are really two different stances in this world: We either are justifying ourselves in any situation or we’re ‘fessing up and being honest with God and saying, “I messed up.”
Got a conflict with somebody? Sooner or later we all do, don’t we? When we’re really going to get release is when we get honest and get real with God and say, “Lord, I messed up. My heart wasn’t right when I said those words. You know my heart. I was wrong. Help me.”
He asked the question because he wants to be justified. He wants to be declared righteous. He wants somebody to put a seal of approval and say, “You’re okay.” He’s looking for a way out other than radical surrender and a plea for radical change.
Now, here’s the point. We are declared righteous by means of faith alone. But our faith is declared to be genuine faith by our works. If there are no works, obviously there is no real faith. If we don’t leap out of the window into the arms of Arnold Schwarzenegger, our daddy, we obviously don’t really believe—in a biblical sense. Our faith is evident; our faith is justified; it is declared righteous . . . by how we act, in that sense.
Going back to James chapter two . . . What is he saying? He’s saying in James chapter two. Abraham believed God’s promise that “in you all the nations will be blessed.” Abraham was given a promise that his child Isaac would succeed him and that Isaac, too, would be the seed in whom the nations of the world would be blessed. He believed that. Hebrews 11 makes it plain that Abraham believed that even if Isaac had died, God would raise him up. That’s his faith. Did he really believe it? How do we know he really believed it? How do we know that his faith was genuine? What is the seal of approval that tells you that he really believed that? He was willing to offer Isaac up as a burnt sacrifice. If he had not been willing to do that, his faith would not have been justified by his works.
What I’m saying sounds tricky. We are justified by faith, but our faith is justified by our works. Justification is what? Justification is a declaration. God declares us righteous when we put our trust in Christ. But when we act on our faith, our faith is justified by what we do: it is declared to be good, right faith, true faith. That’s what James is saying.
So in that sense—and in that sense alone—we can say that Abraham is justified by his works, as he says there in verse 22. “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.”
Now, this is a very difficult verse, verse 26, but if we’ve understood Paul correctly that we’re justified by grace alone, through faith alone—but by faith that is never alone, it is always accompanied by a changed life—then we understand what James is saying in verse 24: “You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).
Now, what does James mean? At this point we come to a fundamental principle about how we approach Scripture. If we have something that’s unclear, we go to what is clear. What is clear in the book of James? What’s clear is:
(1) He can’t be teaching that we’re right with God by our works because he tells us, very plainly, that if we have one flaw in our obedience, we’re guilty of breaking the whole.
(2) Secondly, he makes it very plain that he means something a little different by faith than what Paul means. He’s talking about two kinds of faith: on the one hand, a real faith that’s just like what Paul writes about, and, on the other, mere acceptance of facts because of what he says about demons. “The demons believe and they shudder.”
That is why everyone who honestly wrestles with what James wrote in chapter 2, comes to the same conclusion, as, for example, Roman Catholic, Jesuit priest Thomas W. Leahy: “As is clear from context, this does not mean that genuine faith is insufficient for justification, but that faith unaccompanied by works is not genuine” [Thomas W. Leahy, S.J. in Raymond Edward Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmeyer and Roland Edmund Murphy, The Jerome Biblical Commentary, (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968), in loc.].
So what is James saying? In reality, what he is saying goes on further. “In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction?” (James 2:25). A similar example. Why did Rahab receive the spies in peace, hide them out and send them out in a different way? Why did she do that? She did that because of what she believed. Hebrews 11 makes that plain. Here is the basic question. And, again, we have to understand that James uses certain words a little differently than Paul does. Remember, the whole of the Bible is God’s Word, but he uses different human authors who sometimes use words a little differently from each other.
If Rahab really believed the truth about God, and she had turned those spies over to the king of Jericho, would her faith have been genuine? No, indeed, of course not. Her turning them over to the king of Jericho would be proof positive that she didn’t actually believe. But Rahab’s faith was justified by her works—it was declared to be the genuine thing. How is Rahab right with God? By her works? No. She’s justified by her faith. But her faith is justified by her works. That is, her faith is declared to be a genuine faith by how she acted in protecting the spies. And at the time of her first exercise of faith, she still owns a house of prostitution, and like all prostitutes, she is still a liar. Amazingly, her initial act of faith actually involved the sin of lying. But she is accepted by God in spite of the imperfection of her faith and how she carried it out by means of sin.
In view of controversies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, we might wish that James had gone further and used language that no one could ever take out of context. Just as we might like for other New Testament writers to have written with the controversies that led to Council of Chalcedon specifically in mind as over against first century conflicts with which they dealt—but God gave us a book to spend our lives studying and not an outline of theological propositions. If we probe the depths of Scripture, we will come up with a uniform outline of theological propositions, but we will have come up with such with far greater profit to our souls. That being said, if we analyze James honestly, we have to come down to the basic truth: he is not talking about our being right with God by our deeds because our deeds have to be completely perfect. It’s obvious he’s talking about two kinds of faith: a faith that is mere intellectual assent to truth like the demons have, versus a hearty trust that exhibits, by how it acts, that it genuinely trusts.
Abraham believed the promise of God and that’s why he’s willing to offer up Isaac. And the genuineness of his faith is demonstrated by his works. To say that his faith is demonstrated as genuine is to say, “His faith is justified by his works.” It’s declared to be the real McCoy.
The same with Rahab the harlot . . . She’s right with God by putting her trust in God and his promises. But the genuineness of that faith is exhibited by the fact that she accepts the spies, hides them out, protects them and sends them a different way. She exhibits her faith by her deeds. She’s justified by faith, but her faith is justified by her works, declared to be the genuine article.
And the conclusion of the matter is in verse 26: “As the body without the spirit is dead, so [the] faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26). A faith that has no deeds is an empty, vain, faith just as a human body without a spirit is obviously a corpse. If we go down to one of our local funeral homes and listen, everybody is complementing the work of the undertakers. They all lie and say, “Oh, there, she looks like she’s asleep.” “Oh, doesn’t he look so good?” They’re all lying. They are. I’ve never seen a good looking corpse yet, have you? What do you see? The minute you open the box and look, you say, “There’s something missing here.” What’s missing? The person’s missing. His spirit’s gone. Her soul is gone. The real person is gone. You’re looking at a shell.
He says, “In the same way the faith that has no works to demonstrate that it is genuine is as lifeless and sterile and meaningless as a corpse.”
Many places in Scripture are difficult, but James is not attacking Paul. They are in fundamental agreement, but they are writing to different audiences. They are expressing the same biblical faith dealing with different errors.
If I were dealing with people who did not believe in the true deity of Christ, I would preach on verses that teach that Jesus is God. And someone might go away, having heard that one sermon thinking I didn’t believe Jesus is a human. On the other hand, if I’m speaking to an audience that believes in the deity of Christ . . . believes that his manhood is just an illusion, that he wasn’t a real human being, that he didn’t come in the flesh . . . I might stress over and over again, the humanity of Jesus. He was a real human being. He had body and bones and blood just like we do. He had a human soul, human spirit, human heart, human will, human emotions. But somebody could listen to that and go out and think, “That guy doesn’t believe that Jesus is God.”
The point is the different controversies call forth, sometimes, a different polemic or a different argument. James is dealing with a phony faith that doesn’t act, that doesn’t have any evidence of a changed life. And the fundamental issue that James is concerned about is: how we deal with poor people, with people who can’t do us any favors. That’s the fundamental thing. Do we put ourselves out to serve those who cannot serve us in return? That is the kind of life that expresses gratitude to God for his free gift of salvation in Jesus Christ
Source Justification in James