I know that we looked at this passage yesterday, but it’s so pivotal that I felt we needed to spend another day on it. Now that we’ve (hopefully) gotten the controversy out of the way and get the gist of what James is talking about here, let’s spend some time on the details.
I heard a long time ago that Paul and James aren’t fighting each other; instead, they’ve standing back-to-back against foes coming from opposite sides. Paul was fighting legalism, while James was fighting antinomianism. There’s a lot of truth in that, but I’ve come to the conclusion in my recent studies in Romans that that illustration can be overstated. Read Romans 6 if you’d like, or see what I’ve written about it (like here): Paul spent plenty of time countering the charge that the message he was preaching was antinomian in nature. The very thought that someone would take his teaching and use it to promote unrighteousness was horrifying to him. And let’s not get the idea that James neglects salvation by grace through faith: That's not his emphasis, but he says that the new birth that we get from God is a gift that he just chose to give us, not based on anything we’ve done.
There’s something, however, that really caught my eye a few years ago. This is the famous “Faith Without Works is Dead” passage, right? Well, what type of works is he talking about? Does he mention going to church? Praying? Reading your Bible? In the context of this passage, when he’s talking about “works,” he’s referring to helping a brother who’s in physical need. In fact, he seems to deemphasize stuff like prayer in a situation like that. The hypothetical scenario is that of a sibling in Christ coming to your door who doesn’t have food and clothing. In that situation, the main need for that sibling is not prayer. It’s not a Bible verse. The need is practical, and it must be met in a practical way. Of course, we need to meet physical needs using the entirety of the Bible, not just this one verse. In this day in America, often when someone’s in physical need, there’s a spiritual need that needs addressing as well. But the point is that when someone is in physical deprivation and Lord brings them to your door, it’s not enough to pray for them.
We mentioned the demons’ “faith” yesterday, so we won’t get into that today, except to say that James is emphasizing that intellectual assent is not enough. True saving faith submits to Christ’s authority. Part of the “package deal” is that you commit yourself—with God’s help, using his means—to doing things his way instead of your way. Yes, you’ll fall and fail frequently. But the general direction of your life has to do a 180. It’s not an option.
James finishes the passage with two examples for his point. Both are counter-intuitive, especially for Christians familiar with Paul’s writings. Romans has almost an entire chapter based on the premise that Abraham is the prototype of salvation by grace through faith. He’s the “father of all who believe.” “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” This is the pattern set for us: We believe what God has said about Jesus, and he credits the righteousness of Christ to our “account.”
But according to James, Abraham’s example for us doesn’t stop there. In Gen.15:6 Abraham believed God’s promises, and was accounted as righteous because of that. But a few years later, after the promised child was born, the Lord told him to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice. Abraham had chosen to put his trust in the Lord several years ago, and now he had an opportunity to demonstrate that faith. And he did, passing the test in spades.
That brings us to verse 24: “You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.” Or as the NASB puts it, “[A] man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” How does this not contradict Paul, who said over and over and over that we are “justified by faith”?
Because Paul and James are talking about different types of “justification.” Just like in English, the word in Greek can mean “declared righteous,” which is what Paul is usually talking about. Or it can be used--and this is the norm outside of Paul's letters--in the sense of “vindicated,” or “proven right,” which I’m convinced is the sense that James is using here. Using the same Greek word, Luke the Gospel writer quotes Jesus as saying that “Wisdom is proven right by her children.” In other words, wisdom is vindicated by its results.
If you claim to have faith, the only way you can prove it before other people is through your actions. I don’t know your heart, and you don’t know mine. The only way that I can “prove” that I have faith in front of others is by my deeds. There’s no such thing as a “faith” Christian versus a “works” Christian.
And finally we come to a really counter-intuitive example of works-producing faith. Abraham is one of the “Top Three” heroes of the entire O.T. (along with Moses and David). He’s considered by the Jews to be the most righteous man who ever lived. We as Christians believe that he’s “the Father of all who believe.” So who else does James list as an example for us to follow?
Now, granted, I’d assume that she was a reformed prostitute either before or right after she met the spies. But James’s description of her lifestyle is clear. So under the inspiration of the Spirit, he picked someone "on top" as far as righteousness is concerned, and someone near the bottom.
But she’d heard about what the Israelites had done, or rather what the Lord had been doing for and through them. She didn’t know a lot about God, probably a lot less than Abraham, much less a modern-day believer. But she took what she knew and ran with it. She acted on her faith. She knew that the Canaanites were doomed, she believed in the God of the Hebrews, and she did something about it. She might've stayed in her little home dug out of the wall of Jericho, “believing” all day long, and she would’ve perished with the rest of the city. She didn’t merely intellectually assent to the truth. She placed her life on the line by hiding the spies, and then she further demonstrated her faith by following their instructions.
And God forgave her whatever sins she’d committed, saved her and her family from destruction, incorporated her completely into his redeemed people, and arranged her to be a direct ancestor of our Lord Jesus Christ. I for one am looking forward to meeting her someday.
What does this say to you and me? I know I don’t demonstrate my faith as much as I should. I definitely could use an overhaul in the compassion department, for one thing. But slowly, ever so slowly, he’s changing me. He’s remaking me. He’s conforming me to the exact likeness of his Son Jesus. And I can look at even the small progress I’ve made, and it shows a family resemblance.
If you're seeing some progress, take heart. He’s not finished with you yet.
Father God, I do love you. Help me to love you more, and help me to show more love. When someone in need comes to me, they’re you in a clever disguise. Please help me to remember that.