The Main Thing – James 2:20-26
James 2:20 “Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and 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. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And 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? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.”
Okay, so now we are getting to the crux of his argument. These verses happen to be one of the most controversial passages in the New Testament. It’s because of this passage that many people reject James as a book of the Bible. They claim the Bible contradicts itself. I mean look at it, he just said that you are, “justified by works and not by faith alone”. What? How can James say that? We know the Bible. We know that in Romans, Paul says that we are justified by faith (Romans 3:30). That’s it. Paul even tells us that Abraham was justified by faith (Romans 4:9). So what are we supposed to do with James saying that faith needs works in order to save?
It’s great that we are coming across this in our study because we want to make sure that we understand the text, nothing more and nothing less. In context, James has been talking about the nature of “pure religion.” He’s reminded us that if we are truly Christians, then our words and actions will change. If you asked James to look at your life and tell you if you are a Christian or not, he would probably ask questions like: “Are you taking care of orphans and widows? Is your life unspotted from the world? Are you judging people based on their appearance? Do you say one thing but act differently?” In light of all of this, it shouldn’t surprise us that he talks about the relationship between faith and works.
You see, even for James, faith is the most important thing. He tells us that in the example of Abraham his faith was shown by his works. Look at verse 22, his faith was “active” along with his works, and his faith “was completed” by his works. He’s not saying that it is “works” that saves, he is explaining to us what genuine faith looks like. Actions will always accompany true faith (like last week’s chair example). Real faith will be backed up with actions. If you believe, if you really are a Christian then your life will show it. He’s telling us that faith without works is an incomplete faith. This is not because you need faith plus works, but because faith isn’t real faith if it doesn’t have works. Does that make sense?
Let’s look at the last two examples that James uses. First, Rahab. Y’all remember her from when the people of Israel sent in spies to check out the Promised Land. While there the spies met up with her and she hid them from the soldiers in Jericho. Then she sent them away and set the soldiers on a false trail. Now here’s what is interesting. She believed in God. Listen to what she tells the spies: “I know that the LORD has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us…for the LORD your God, He is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath (Josh 2:9-11).” Whoa, what an amazing confession from a pagan prostitute! And we know that she believed it by her actions. You see? Did she have faith? Yes. How do you know? She took care of God’s people. Her actions validated her faith because it is genuine faith.
Lastly, he says, “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” If a body is going to live it needs life-giving breath. Without oxygen it is dead and useless. It is the same thing when we say that we have faith in God. If it isn’t a living, active faith, then it is dead and useless. This is what saving faith looks like. Saving faith results in action.
So in application, we are retelling the same thing that we’ve been talking about in the last couple of paragraphs. What is your life telling the world about your relationship with God? Are you living out the faith that you say that you have? If you are not, you need to seriously consider these words and evaluate whether you truly believe. But, if the Spirit of God uses this to push you to live out your faith better, then submit to that. Take the conviction of the Spirit as the loving discipline of a father. Conviction helps you weed out the things in your life that don’t belong in the life of a Christ-follower. Pursue the Lord and live out your faith.