James 2:21-26 is the second half of the “problem” passage where it appears that the Apostles James and Paul disagree about how we are justified. The key to resolving the apparent contradiction is context. James and Paul are addressing two different questions.
In Galatians, Paul addressed the question raised by the theology of the Judaizers: Must I keep the law in order to be saved? Paul strongly asserts that our “works” have no value in bringing us into a right relationship with God. Our outward acts of obedience can not earn us salvation.
James is answering a different question: Once that right relationship with God is established, will “works” will necessarily follow? He answers yes, because genuine saving faith changes us. To answer that question, James gives 4 illustrations:
James gives 4 illustrations of genuine saving faith, both positive (what saving faith is) and negative (what saving faith is not), concluding each with a summary statement. In each pair, one shows how faith acts horizontally (toward others) and one shows how faith acts vertically (toward God).
|James 2:14-17||poorly dressed, hungry Christian||negative||others||James 2:17|
|James 2:18-20||demons with correct theology||negative||God||James 2:20|
|James 2:21-24||Abraham||positive||God||James 2:24|
|James 2:25-26||Rahab||positive||others||James 2:26|
- The first example is invisible faith — where I fail to respond to a reasonable request and obvious need from a fellow believer who is perhaps even my friend, my actions deny what I claim to believe. That is an invisible faith. I don’t really believe something if I live as if it were not true. That is no faith at all.
- The second example is a barren orthodoxy. I have the right beliefs, but I fail to respond to them. Faith is more than knowing the right answers on theology quiz. Faith submits to those beliefs as true.
- Justification is the forgiveness of our debt to justice which qualifies us to receive Life and God’s blessings. To be justified is to be in a position where God’s justice is satisfied.
- If we summarize Paul’s question as “how do become justified”, we could summarize James’ question as “how do I know that I have been justified”.
21Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”–and he was called a friend of God. 24You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. – James 2:21-24
- When God promises to make Abraham a great nation through his descendants (Genesis 12:1-7), Abraham and his wife Sarah are childless.
- God promises Abraham that he will have a son from his own body (Genesis 15:1-6).
- Paul references this part of the story: God has made a promise to Abraham that requires a biological descendant. Abraham has no such child. It is physically impossible for him to have a biological child. But God tells him it will be so and Abraham believes Him.
- Abraham has a son by his wife’s slave, Hagar (Genesis 16:15-17:21). God tells Abraham the son he will have by Sarah is the one who will inherit the promises.
- God is very specific about the child of promise. He tells Abraham the child’s mother (Sarah), the child’s name (Isaac) and the year in which the child will be born. The promise will not be fulfilled through any physical descendant of Abraham. It will be fulfilled through one particular descendant of Abraham. Ishmael is not “a spare.”
- After Isaac is born, God asks Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice (Genesis 22:1-3).
- The question now confronting Abraham is: do I still believe the promises of God when it looks impossible?
- Hebrews 11:17-19 tells us Abraham believed God would raise Isaac from the dead.
- James says, we know that Abraham had genuine saving faith because his actions prove it. The actions he took in being willing to offer up Isaac prove that he believed the promises of God.
25And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. – James 2:25-26
- Rahab was a prostitute in Jericho when Joshua is leading the conquest of the promised land (Joshua 2:1-11)
- Joshua sends two spies to assess the situation in Jericho. When strangers enter the city where else would they stay but with the local harlot? The king finds out the spies are in town, and questions Rahab about their whereabouts. She lies to save them.
- Rahab makes a deal with the Israelites that they will spare her household when they take the city. Her house is on the city wall. She lets the men climb out the window on a rope. In a scene symbolically reminiscent of the Passover, Rahab ties a scarlet thread in her window and the Israelites spare her and her household when they take the city.
- See Hebrews 11:31.
- In Joshua 2:11 Rahab says: for the LORD your God, He is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath.” Her actions demonstrated that she believed that the LORD was God.
- A claim to faith without letting it change your life is like the dead body. The live body is shown to be alive through its actions and movements. Similarly saving faith is shown to be genuine by its actions and movements.