James 2:14-26 – Part Two

We’re currently studying the letter of James, which is all about the temptation to be double-minded: trying to be friends with God and friends with the world. This is part two of a three-day look at James 2:14-26.

This passage is a difficult one, not just because of the sobering challenge it gives us (see yesterday’s post if you missed it). It’s also difficult because it appears to stand in contrast to the teaching of Paul about salvation by grace. For this reason Martin Luther thought it probably shouldn’t be in the NT; in his German translation he puts it as the last book and refers to it as ‘an epistle of straw’. And it is a difficult question: how do we resolve the gospel that says we are made right with God by faith – with James’ argument that faith without works is dead?

We’re pointed towards the answer in the next part of the passage, where James refers to the story of Abraham. He looks at how Abraham was made right with God.

Abraham – declared right with God through faith

This is interesting, as Paul also uses the story of Abraham to make a very different point. Let’s take a quick look at what Paul has to say about Abraham being right with God in Romans chapter 4.

Paul refers to the story of how Abraham was met by God in a vision – you can read the whole thing in Gen 15 – and God promised him that he would have a son. Through this son he would become the father of many nations; and through these descendents all the peoples of the earth would be blessed. There was just one tiny little problem. For years he and his wife had been unable to have children. And by this stage Abraham was almost 100 yrs old, and his wife was about 90. Humanly speaking, it ain’t gonna happen. But, against all hope, Abraham had faith in God that had the power to do the impossible. And Paul quotes Gen 15 saying:

Rom 4:3b Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.

That is, Abraham himself was a sinner, just like you and I. But because he trusted in God – that he could deliver on his promises – righteousness was credited to him. He was reckoned to be right with God – even though he was not – because he had faith in God. ‘The righteousness that comes by faith’ (4:13).

There you have it. Paul says that Abraham was made right with God through faith! What do you say to that, then, James?

Abraham – declared right with God through his actions

But James approaches the story of Abraham from a different angle. He talks not about believing God’s promise before the birth of his son Isaac. He takes us forward in time to Gen 22, when Isaac is a young boy. And God again appears to Abraham and tells him to take Isaac up to the top of a mountain and sacrifice him.

Can you imagine that? You want me to do what? I mean, apart from the massive trauma of being told to kill your own child (let’s put that aside for a second), there’s also God’s whole promise at risk here. This is the same God who said he’d give Abraham many descendents through Isaac. Now he’s saying kill the kid – before he’s had the chance to produce any descendents. What’s going on? Is God crazy?

But Abraham again trusts that God knows what he’s doing. He takes Isaac to the top of the mountain. Ties him up. Raises the knife.

And at that moment God tells him to stop. He says to him:

Gen 22:12b Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.

The faith in God that Abraham expressed before Isaac was born was at that moment tested – would it be put into action? Would Abraham be prepared to trust God not just by saying ‘I believe that you will keep your promise’ – but by doing something about it?

2:21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?

There you have it. Abraham was considered right with God not by faith alone, but by his actions. James vs Paul – the grudge match of the first century – it’s on!

Abraham – declared right with God through faith and actions working together

Except James doesn’t stop there. Pay careful attention to the next few verses:

2:22-23 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.

James quotes the same verse Paul does. And it’s not taken from Gen 22, about the sacrifice of Isaac; but back from Gen 15, where Abraham believed God’s promise that he would have a son. The expression of faith – and the act that confirms it – are taken by James to be part of the same story. That’s why he can go on and say:

2:24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone. 

These verses are the clue as to how we’re to hold all this together. And not just as some abstract piece of theology, but as part of a story. The story of Abraham.

You see, Abraham had faith – he trusted that God could give him a son even in his old age. And that was the basis on which he was declared to be right with God. He was given right standing with God as a gift he didn’t earn by doing anything. All he did was trust God.

Yet that trust had to be real for it to be effective. And the evidence of that trust was in his actions. His faith was ‘made complete’ – it was tested and not found to be lacking. He was prepared – in a most extraordinary way – to put his money where his mouth was. So in that sense, he was declared righteous also on the basis of what he did – since what he did showed that he had faith.

If we’re still a bit uncomfortable about this, we should also note that Jesus said something very similar:

John 5:28b-29 for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice 29 and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.

What was that? We get eternal life because we have done good? Did Jesus really say that? Yes, he did. But a few verses earlier, he’d also said:

John 5:24 Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.

So even in the teaching of Jesus we have this idea that our faith and actions somehow work together to determine our standing with God. We are declared right with God on the basis of our faith in Jesus; yet whether our faith in Jesus is genuine is judged on the basis of our actions. The two, as James says, work together.

So in this, Paul and James are in agreement. There is a difference in emphasis, as they both wrote to different audiences. Many of the churches Paul wrote to were in danger of being persuaded that they had to observe the rituals and works of the OT law to be right with God. Paul is passionate in saying ‘no’ to this perversion of the Christian message, and this warning against relying on works is a major theme of his.

James, by contrast, writes to a different audience with pretty much the opposite tendency. His audience was in danger of having the kind of faith that is merely intellectual; there was no real repentance – no commitment to allowing their faith to impact their lifestyle. Hence our passage today.

But despite their different emphases, both James and Paul would agree that we can’t earn our right standing with God on the basis of what we do. And both would also say that saving, real faith must bear fruit: as Paul famously says in Rom 6:

Rom 6:15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!

John Calvin tried to encapsulate the tension in this way:

It is faith alone which justifies, and yet faith which justifies is never alone.

It’s that fine line we walk between two equally bad errors: on the one hand, the error of striving for acceptance by God based on what we do; and on the other hand, the error of thinking that we can be saved by praying a prayer at an outreach event which doesn’t result in any demonstrable change in our behaviour.

To think about

Do you have faith which justifies?

More tomorrow…

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