Lesson 20. The Demonstration of Saving Faith (2:21-26) PART 1
by John Lowe
Text: James 2:21-26 (NKJ)
21Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? 23And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. 24You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. 25Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? 26For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
This section began with verse 14 and drove home the point that saving faith produces works in life. In a remarkable doctrinal statement, James has just made the point that if all you have is faith, you have the same kind of faith that the demons have.
This clarifies that faith that does not result in works is useless as far as producing salvation is concerned (v. 20). This leads him to two diverse but clear examples of faith-producing works in Abraham and Rahab's life. Abraham is the individual selected as the representative man of faith in the New Testament.
21Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?
“Was not Abraham our father justified by works.”
Works were not the cause of his justification, that is denied in Romans 4:21, but is one of the effects of it, showing the truth of his faith, and the reality of his justification: he had both faith and works; and even the faith which he had expressed years ago was manifested, demonstrated, and confirmed to be accurate, by this instance of his obedience to God; by which he appeared to be a true believer, a justified person, approved by God, and loved by Him. Now if this is true of Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, the father of the faithful, of all that believe, he is, and must be a vain man, that talks about faith without works, and his faith must be a dead one, and he is very unlike the father of them that believe. Abraham's good work in this is the offering up of Isaac, which was proof of his devotion to God. When God told him to take his son, his only and beloved son, Isaac, and offer him up on one of the mountains that would be shown him, he made haste to do it; he provided everything for it; he split the wood, and carried it with him, and fire in his hand; he built an altar, laid the wood on it, bound his son, laid the wood on the altar, and his son on the wood, and stretched out his hand, with his knife in it, to slay him; so that it was all one, with respect to his intention and will, as if he had actually offered him, and was a full trial and proof of his obedience to God. When he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar: This was not the only act of obedience, or good work, which he performed; but this is a very well-known one and is very considerable evidence of his faith in God and love for Him; and which showed him to be a justified person, as he was long before he performed this action, even before Isaac was born; see Genesis 15:6, and therefore it can never be the apostle's meaning, that he was justified before God by this, or any other good work or works, as cause or causes of it; but only that he was declared to be so; or, in other words, that his faith was joined with good works, and evidenced by them.
The question asked at the beginning of verse 21 (“Was not Abraham our father justified by works?”), assumes that the readers will agree that works justified Abraham's actions.
1) Abraham, our father - The Jewish audience would especially appreciate this identification. However, the New Testament identifies Abraham as "the father of all who believes" (Rom. 4:11).
2) Justified by works - The emphasis is on "by works," which stresses the source or reason, not the means, of Abraham's salvation.
3) Justified - The basic idea is "to declare righteously," which seems to be its meaning in this context (cf. vv. 23,24). The incident referred to is Abraham’s offering of Isaac on the altar, recorded in Genesis 22:1-18. This event is recorded one other time in the New Testament - Hebrews 11:17-19. To put this event in its proper perspective, we need to look at some of the critical events in Abraham's life.
A. The call of Abraham--Genesis 11:31-12:3
B. Acts 7:2 - and he said, “Brethren and fathers, listen: The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia before he dwelt in Haran,
C. Hebrews 11:8 - By faith, Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.
D. Abraham’s salvation.
It is important to note that Abraham's salvation probably occurred before his call or at the time of his call. He responded in faith to the Word of God on that occasion. This fits well with the fact that when Abraham did enter Canaan, he began building altars and calling on the name of the Lord ( Gen. 12:7,8).
E. The promise of descendants - Genesis 15:1-6.
Abraham was 75 when he came into Canaan (12:4) and probably was around 85 at the time of this promise. What is important to note is that Abraham was already a saved man when this occurred. Many put the conversion of Abraham at Genesis 15:6. The clear statement of Abraham's faith and justification on this occasion make this an essential verse in the New Testament (cf. Rom, 4:3; Gal. 3:6). However, what occurs here relates to Abraham's life pattern and not just to his initial salvation. He was a man who believed in God and was justified because he believed.
F. The promise of a son - Genesis 17 (cf, esp, vv. 15,17,21)
Abraham is now 99 and Sarah 89. Yet Abraham's response to this promise is faith (cf. Rom. 4:18-22). Sarah, too manifested faith in this extraordinary promise of God (cf. Heb 11:11).
G. The offering of Isaac - Genesis 22
This brings us to the incident that James is using as an illustration. Hebrews 11:17 says that Abraham offered up Isaac by faith.
22Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?
Not to justify him before God; for neither faith nor works are ever said in Scripture to justify any man; but Abraham’s faith was the right kind, a faith which works by love, it motivated him to do this work, and many others; for this was done in faith (Hebrews 11:17), as all good results are, and where there is true faith, it will influence and involve a man in good works, as it did Abraham.
And faith was made perfect by works, but not with absolute perfection; for though Abraham's faith was very great, yet things were lacking in it, and he had his outbursts and times of unbelief; and had he lived till now, his faith, in this sense, would not have been perfect; and he would have had reason to have used the apostle's petition – “And the apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith” (Luke 17:5); it would not have been made perfect by works; but the sense is, that his faith was declared to be sincere, unfeigned, true, and genuine; just as love is said to be perfected. There was a close connection between the faith of Abraham and his works. His works evidenced a living (saving) faith. Though Abraham’s faith was not perfect - It accomplished its intended purpose or arrived at the intended goal. "As the tree is perfected by its fruits, so faith by its works. Genuine faith will issue forth in good works (results).