Wait, I Thought We Were Justified by Faith Alone

Dr. Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor

James 2:14-26 | March 28 - Sunday Evening,

Sunday Evening,
March 28
Wait, I Thought We Were Justified by Faith Alone | James 2:14-26
Dr. Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor

Father in heaven, we pause now to pray, not because that’s how we think sermons must begin, but because we need Your help. We don’t want to be hearers only of the Word, with this text in particular, with all texts. We want to be doers, we want to be changed, we don’t want to give mere assent. Most of us have listened to a lot of sermons, some of us have preached a lot of sermons. It’s easy to have things go in one ear, out the other. Help us now to listen, to be changed, to be stirred. We pray that Jesus would be glorified as his life is formed in us. We pray in His name. Amen.

As I said this morning, it is quite a providence of God that the preaching schedule lined up with Genesis 15 this morning and James 2 this evening. Both which have to do quite explicitly with justification. We saw this morning the great theme which becomes one of the great Pauline themes in the New Testament that we are justified, we are counted, reckoned, credited, to be righteous by faith, and by faith alone.

Now we have James, who as you probably know, seems to be saying something, well, just the opposite. Follow along as I read from James, chapter 2, beginning at verse 14:

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

“But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 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.”

Without a doubt, this is the most famous, most talked about, most controversial, maybe the most important passage in the book of James. On the one hand, the point of the passage is very simple, very straightforward, I’m sure you can all see it. James says in verse 17, he says it again in verse 26, faith without works is dead. That is the banner waving over these 13 verses.

True saving faith shows itself in works. So-called faith, devoid of good works, is no real faith at all.

To quote a song by Rich Mullins which has always stuck with me lo these many years, “Faith without works, it’s like a screen door on a submarine.” Hmm, think about it.

In other words, what’s the point? It’s useless. That is the big idea of the passage, and I don’t want us to miss it. We need to hear this message, and we are going to come back to land on this big idea: Faith without works is dead. It’s useless. And we may need to be rebuked, alarmed even, by this message.

As we were praying beforehand, I said surely someone in this room tonight, watching on livestream or who will sometime in the future listen to this sermon, will be the sort of foolish person that James is addressing. The sort of person who is right now thinking of themselves quite self-assured because they have checked off the box marked “faith.” But it is a dead, useless faith. And we need to hear that message.

Before we get to that big idea, however, we do need to deal with this theological conundrum. We need to deal with the apparent theological difficulty. Here it is in a nutshell. Romans 3:28 says “for we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Romans 3:28.

James 2:24: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

That is the problem. How can Romans 3:28, and other passages like it, square with what James says in 2:24? And if you want to say, well, maybe in the Greek, it really…. No, it’s the same Greek words, same Greek word for justify, same Greek word for faith. As we’ll see, it’s a little different phrase for works, and that may be significant, but on the face of it, it does seem like a plain contradiction.

Paul says we are justified by faith alone, James says we’re justified by faith and works. Is that what’s going on here? Was Paul a Protestant? And James a Roman Catholic?

As you know, it is because of this passage that Luther put the book of James at the end of the canon and called it a “straw epistle.”

So how do we make sense of this apparent contradiction? Which I’m going to argue is not really a contradiction. Let me make five points.

Number one. James and Paul are addressing different concerns. James is not trying to correct Paul. Some people have gone so far as to say, you see verse 20, “you foolish person,” they’ve suggested that Paul is the foolish person that James is trying to correct. Well, I don’t think that James is even trying to correct a misreading of Paul, though if that were the case, it wouldn’t undermine anything in our faith. We won’t get into the all the reasons why, but almost everyone agrees that James is one of the very first books written, written before Paul’s letter to Romans. So they’re dealing with different issues. There wasn’t the letter to Romans that somehow James was looking through and said, a-ha, hmm, that’s a problem, let me respond to that.

No, Paul in his letter to Romans and Galatians is asking the question, how are we right with God? That’s the question. How are we right with God?

James is asking a different question. What does genuine faith look like?

So the controversies that they are speaking into are very different. For Paul, the issue is how do Gentiles get into the Church. You have the Jewish question, and Jews having a certain understanding of what must be done according to the law and thinking that Gentiles must do those same things in order to have a right standing with God, Paul says no, no, no, it is by faith alone. The question is how do Gentiles get into the Church.

For James, the issue is why are people not caring for their brothers and sisters in the Church.

We saw in the previous week’s sermon about partiality, that James is addressing this problem, dishonoring the poor, favoring the rich, so he has uppermost in his mind this concern that they’re not actually loving people as they should. So Paul and James are addressing different concerns.

Second point. James’ argument presupposes the importance of faith. Let us not miss this. Faith is presumed in verse 17, is presumed in verse 20, and again in the example of Abram, which we’ll come back to shortly, in verses 22 and 24, faith is presumed there. As we’ll see later, James does not want faith to be supplanted by works, nor does he even want faith to be supplemented by works. He wants faith to be demonstrated by works.

Isn’t that his point in verse 18? Show me your faith apart from your works, I will show you my faith by my works.

So if we think of salvation as a math equation, something that most of you don’t want to do, and you write it out F = J + W. So faith yields, equals, justification and then the plus W, works. So the works follow rightly being justified by faith. So if that’s the equation, F = J + W, what Paul says is don’t you dare put the W on the other side of the equation. That’s the teaching of the devil. Let that be anathema. Don’t you dare say F + W = J. Faith plus works yields justification. That’s Paul’s concern. He says you do that and you lose the Gospel. Let him be anathema if anyone comes to you and he puts the works on that side of the justification equation. That’s Paul’s concern.

Now you go back to that equation, F = J + W, James says, okay, but don’t you dare leave out W on that other side of the equation. So the works are not the ground, not the means by which one is declared righteous, but if you just say faith equals J, go about your life, well, that’s not right. James is concerned to see that there is a life that produces works. So James’ argument presupposed the importance of faith. His concern is different than Paul’s. Those are the first two points.

Here’s the third, as we try to understand this apparent contradiction. James and Paul use works in two different ways. If you heard and listen carefully to Romans 3:28, you notice that Paul there speaks of works of the law, where James speaks of works. Paul is talking about works of the law, especially Jewish rights, like circumcision, holy days, food observance; these were the typical ways for a Jewish audience that one would be tempted to place their confidence in something other than Christ.

Now they aren’t the only ways and that isn’t all that Paul has in mind, but works of the law, thinking in particular, these means of law observance whereby you think you merit your forensic status before God.

James is talking about works of faith. Acts of charity. It’s clear from the context he’s thinking about what do you do to someone who has insufficient food and clothing. What sort of faith produces what sort of work given that situation?

Here’s a fourth difference. They use the word “justify” in two different ways. Same Greek word, but we all understand that you can use words, words have a semantic range of meaning, you can use them in different ways. Paul is dealing with people who trust in the works of the law for their standing with God. James is dealing with people who think that mere intellectual assent is real Christianity. And so into each situation, they speak of what justifies you.

Paul uses the word thinking of a forensic, that means legal, a forensic declaration of righteousness. What does the judge say about you? Justified. You’re acquitted. You’re innocent. More than that, it’s counted to you as righteous. He uses justification as a forensic declaration.

James is talking about practical evidence that faith is real. You might think of it justification not as a forensic declaration, but as proof, as evidence, not as declaration, but as demonstration.

And here’s the fifth point to try to understand the apparent contradiction that isn’t. We must remember that in a number of places, Paul says the very same sort of things that James is saying here.

It’s not like this is the only place in the Bible where we see the importance of a real living faith.

Galatians 5:6: Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything but faith working through love.

Romans 1:5. Paul speaks of the obedience of faith, which I take to mean that obedience which originates and comes out of and grows forth from faith.

1 Corinthians 6. He talks about those who are habitually mired in sin and wickedness will not inherit the kingdom of heaven.

Galatians 5 contrasts the fruit of the Spirit, the works of the flesh.

You have Jesus Himself in Matthew chapter 7: You will recognize them by their fruits.

In other words, this is not a teaching that is unique to James, that there must be Gospel fruit bearing forth from Gospel root in our lives.

So there is really no conflict between Paul and James. It is right to say we are justified by faith alone provided we understand what James means when he says we are not justified by faith alone. He means we are not justified by an idle faith. We are not justified by a mere intellectual assent.

So there is a perfectly good explanation for how Paul and James are saying truths that are complementary of one another.

And incidentally, doesn’t this show for us the importance for us as Christians in having very careful thinking, precise definitions, nuanced distinctions. Can you imagine if Paul and James were writing this out and hashing this out on Twitter? Now Paul and James would have done it just fine, we imagine, but can you imagine the followers of James? They would have canceled Paul in a heartbeat. You don’t care about people, you don’t care about the least of these, you don’t care about image-bearers, you don’t care about ethics, you’re all about faith alone. Look at what’s going to happen to your churches.

And can you imagine the followers of Paul would have canceled James in a heartbeat. Well, look at this. This is absolute rank heresy.

Hopefully, Paul and James would have said, “Now, slow down a second.” And it’s a good lesson for us.

Now sometimes there are voices that are saying things wrong and mutually exclusive, but we have to give pause as Christians to think at times, all right, is there a way that these two things might actually be not contradictory, but complementary? So that Paul, he’s dealing with one danger, and that’s why he sounds a certain way; James is dealing with a different danger, and he sounds a certain way. He’s trying to solve one kind of problem, he’s trying to solve a different kind of problem, and so maybe we shouldn’t just tweet out our differences, or just hashtag people out, but maybe we should actually try to think carefully and ruminate and have the best distinctions and definitions we can.

Back, then, to the big idea that this passage wants to convey. We need to establish all of that so that you can feel the weight of what James wants to say without you fearing that your pastor, let alone James, are somehow contradicting core elements of the faith. So here’s what James makes very clear: Faith without works is dead. We must not reduce faith to mere intellectual assent.

Remember as I said this morning that the classic definition of the acts of faith are three: Knowledge, assent, and trust. So we must not reduce faith to just knowledge, or even knowledge and assent, mental assent without this element of trust.

Here’s what Calvin says on this passage: “We do not attain salvation by a frigid and bare knowledge of God.” Not by a frigid and bare knowledge of God. That’s the point.

And to support this conclusion, James puts forward two arguments and he offers three illustrations.

Look at argument number one, verses 14 through 17. He says this sort of faith is good for nothing. You see, the person in verse 14 does not actually have faith. That’s really important. The contrast is not between, well, this faith, which does works and this faith which doesn’t do works, the actual contrast is between this saving faith with works and this dead faith without works, which is no faith at all.

So notice, “What good is it, my brothers,” verse 14, “if someone says,” okay, we’re dealing with what someone says about himself. So how you self-identify may not be accurate. But he says he has faith. He says he believes. Well, James says that’s what he says, but it’s not accurate. “But does not have works,” and then this is a good translation the ESV has, “can that faith save him?” Some older translations just said “can faith save him,” but it’s right to say “can that faith,” so that’s what he’s talking about. Not does faith save, yes, it does, but that kind of so-called faith without works, does that save? And the answer is no.

The contrast is not between a living faith that works and a living faith that doesn’t, it’s between a living faith and a dead faith.

Remember, earlier in chapter 2 we were dealing with partiality in the body of Christ. Neglect in caring for the poor. Well, here in James’ scenario, in verse 15, a brother or sister, so we’re not talking about James expects us to right every wrong that’s in the world, he’s talking about there’s somebody in your fellowship, a brother or sister in Christ, and they come in, they’re inadequately dressed, they’re consistently underfed, and can’t we all too easily see the scenario of verse 16 playing out?

Maybe the person says it with a pious sort of tone, or maybe they’ve really convinced themselves that they’re helping, but they say, “Oh, that’s so terrible. Oh, you look so hungry. Oh, you’ve gone through so much. You know what? Let me just, let me pray for you.” That’s what he’s talking about. “Can I just, can we just get a few people? Can we just lay hands on this brother or sister? Can we just pray for you? You know what? Oh, boy, as you really struggle, I just want you to know I’m going to be thinking of you this week. I’m going to be praying for you. Go in peace.”

James says what has that person done? Pious words without concrete action is useless.

It’s the same point that Jesus makes in Matthew 25 about the sheep and the goats. Whatever you did for the least of these, and it’s the least of these brothers of mine, whatever you did for these fellow believers in the Church and caring for their needs, you did for Me.

So this sort of faith, which just intones pious cliches, is good for nothing. It’s worth considering for each of us. Is there someone God is calling you to help this week? A phone call you need to make? A visit? A check you need to write? A meal you need to bring? People you need to have come over?

That’s the first argument. This faith is good for nothing.

Here’s the second argument, verses 18 through 20. He says this so-called faith without works is no better than the “faith” of the demons. Notice this person believes that God is one. That’s a reference to the Shema, in Deuteronomy. Shema is the Hebrew word for hear, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” The most fundamental, foundational aspect of the Jewish faith, saying you believe the Shema.

Now he doesn’t discount that. James doesn’t say, “Well, you’re too concerned about your doctrine and you theological people.” No, he says, “Well done. Good. That’s good. I like doctrine, I like theology, I like you believing the right things. You do well. You believe the Shema.”

If James were writing today, he might say to a church like ours, “You believe the Bible is inspired. Good. You believe Jesus is the Son of God. You believe Jesus rose again from the dead. Way to go. That’s right.”

But then of course he goes on: Even the demons believe that, and at least the demons have something to show for their faith.

You see the irony? You and the demons are believing the same thing. Now the devil’s not omniscient. The demons don’t have faith in a true sense, of course, because they don’t have the fiduciary element. They don’t have trust. They don’t, as the confession we read, they don’t rest and receive Christ. But they have a kind of knowledge.

You remember in the Gospels? You see this most clearly in Mark’s Gospel that for chapter after chapter the only ones who really know how Jesus is are the demons, the unclean spirits. They’re the ones who cry out. Or the demons with Legion, “Oh, have mercy, throw us into the pigs.” The demons know who Jesus is before the disciples do.

So, yes, demons have some kind of right doctrine, some kind of knowledge, some sort of assent. They have no question about who Jesus is. They know now that He rose again from the dead. They understand that God is one, but James says at least they have something to show for their faith.

This foolish person, you just say it and you go about your life. It doesn’t make a single bit of difference. At least when the demons believe it, they tremble. They shudder in fear.

Of everything in this passage tonight, this may hit home closest to us, or at least to people like us. Okay, you can sign, I can sign, a good orthodox evangelical statement of faith. And you’re sitting here tonight and you’re not a Darwinist. You’re not an atheist. You’re not a deist. You’re not a theological liberal. Good. Neither are the demons. They know how Jesus was. They know what the Bible is. They know what happened on Good Friday and Easter. They have some sense of what’s coming.

And again, theology matters. You will never, ever, ever, hear me denigrate the importance of good theology or studying your Bibles or knowing the doctrine of the faith. Would that we had more Christians and more churches who were concerned with these things.

And yet, there is more than one way to fall off the horse. And this is one of them. You have the crisp, best, most orthodox statement of faith and it is a dead faith. You got the theological quiz right, even met with the elders and knew how to answer the questions. Jesus died on the cross for sinners; good. What do you have to show for this faith? That’s the question James is addressing.

There’s a play on words, if you look at verse 20. Faith without “ergon,” works, is “arge,” useless. You can hear it in the Greek, you can’t see it in the English. “Pistis choris,” faith without, “ton ergon arge estin,” faith without works is useless.

Faith and works are inseparable. They are not like different gifts of the Holy Spirit.

You remember Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians? And some people have gifts of service or administration or gifts of speaking or gifts of helps or gifts of mercy, and some people are a nose or an eye or an ear, and you shouldn’t say to the hand what use have I or to the foot what good are you. We all have different gifts.

Well, Paul says no, we’re not talking about different gifts of the Spirit. Well, you’re a faith Christian; you’re a works Christian. I believe things; I do things. No, Paul says Christians have both. There is no such thing as a Christian that does not have faith and works. So he makes two arguments. And then he offers three illustrations for his point.

First he says consider Abraham. The Jewish historian of the first century and philosopher Philo said “the offering of Isaac was Abraham’s greatest work.” And James here seems to agree with that, but he also explains that this work was the offspring of faith.

Look at verse 21: “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 works, and faith was completed by his works.”

Now this is tricky because Paul makes the point from Genesis 15:16 that it was credited to him as righteousness before circumcision, before the sacrifice of Isaac, therefore he’s justified by faith alone.

James will also quote from Genesis 15:6, not to draw the opposite conclusion, but notice the important words he says in verse 22 and verse 23, the word “completed” in verse 22 and the word “fulfilled” in verse 23.

Paul’s technical use of the word “justified,” it’s the Greek word “edikaiou,” is not the only way the word can be used. Same word, James uses it to a different effect here. Other places in the Bible use “justified” not in the more technical Pauline forensic sense, but more in a general demonstrative sense.

For example, Matthew 11:19: “Wisdom is justified by her deeds.” Same word, the “edikaiou” word.

Or Matthew 12:37: “For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” That’s the sense in which James is using this language of justify, or justification.

One scholar suggests James uses “edikaiou” to mean “to be revealed as justified.” That’s what he’s saying. The works are proof. That’s why I had you underline “completed” in verse 22 and “fulfilled” in verse 23.

Abraham’s offering of Isaac, the sacrifice of his only son, his willingness to do so, that was not the way that Abraham became right with God. No, we say in chapter 15 it was credited to him as righteousness long before he even had a child. Rather, that act of sacrificing Isaac was the subsequent vindication.

So you could put it like this: Abraham’s works, namely the work of sacrificing Isaac, was not the cause of justification, not the manner of justification, but it was the proof of justification, so that his faith was completed. That means it reached its end, it yielded its result, it bore its fruit.

Verse 23: “Scripture was fulfilled.” Faith yields works, works completes faith. The sacrifice of Isaac revealed the character of Abraham’s faith, a faith that was earlier counted to him as righteousness. That’s the point.

Many of you will be familiar with the Evangelism Explosion questions. If you’re not, this was a popular evangelism program from a generation ago, and famously they instructed people to ask these two initial questions when sharing the Gospel: “Do you know for sure that you will go to heaven when you die?” The thought is the person either says no, and then you share the Gospel, or the person likely says uh, yeah, I think I’ll go to heaven. Then the second question, “If God says why should I let you into my heaven, what would you say?” It’s a good question, and I’ve asked it to professing Christians before and it’s shocking how many times people will say, people who’ve been in the Church a long time, “Friend, if God says why should I let you into My heaven? What will you say?” “Well, uh, I’ve tried to be a good Christian, I went to church, I went to Sunday school, I put money in the offering, I’ve tried to be a good person.” They offer works, and the whole point of that question is to say, no, you are justified by faith alone.

So that’s the point of Paul’s letter to Romans and Galatians.

But if James were devising the curriculum, he might ask a third question. It might be something like this: And how, notice not why, why speaks of ground, why should I let you into my heaven? What is the reason that I should get into heaven? Not why. How has this faith made a difference in your life?

Paul looks at Abraham and rightly says there’s the answer to the question why should God let someone into heaven. Faith.

James looks at Abraham and he also rightly says, well, there’s an answer to the question, how does faith make a difference in your life?

That’s the first illustration. The second is Rahab, in verse 25. That may seem like a curious choice. Abraham’s Father Abraham, very famous, of all the people you could choose, why choose Rahab? Some people think, well, because they were both proselytes from another faith. But more than that, I think it’s clear James chooses Abraham and Rahab because both were models of faith that worked itself out in what?

Well, one of the chief ways it worked itself out was in hospitality, in caring for strangers. So we see it with Abraham when the three, he doesn’t know they’re angels, come to visit them. And we see it here with Rahab when the spies came, that she took them in and she let them go out another way. That both of them, in other words, demonstrated their faith in precisely the same way that James feels his audience is failing. They’re showing partiality to the rich, someone’s coming in malnourished, they’re to taking care of them.

He says, well, what about Abraham? What about Rahab? They showed the sort of care for others that James’ audience was not. The sort of faith that worked itself out in love.

And then the third illustration is in verse 26. Consider Abraham,” that’s the first, “Consider Rahab,” that’s the second, then he says, “Consider the human person.”

When the soul is gone, the body is dead. Many of us have seen this take place in person. You have been there when a loved one breathed his or her last breath. And though the body was there, the person as we knew them and loved them was gone and their soul had gone to be with the Lord, away from the body, at home with the Lord. Present in heaven.

And so James makes this very simple point. When the soul is gone, the body is dead, and in the same way, just as you cannot separate spirit from body without the body being dead, so also if you separate works from faith, then you really have a dead faith.

This final word in chapter 2 is the conclusion to the presentation that James has been giving since chapter 1 of what true religion looks like. He began in verse 22, be doers of the Word, not hearers only, and defined for us that religion acceptable to God is to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep one’s self unstained from the world, its morality, its piety.

And so for two chapters, he’s been wanting us to see what real Christianity looks like, and here is the point: True Christianity is never invisible.

So think about this. Does your life adorn the Gospel? Does your speech, and does your conduct, make it harder or easier for people to reject the Gospel? If someone’s going to reject the Gospel, do they look at your life and that makes it hard, “Boy, they’re a different person. I can’t deny that.” Or do they conclude, “Well, I don’t believe this Jesus thing anyway, and it sure hasn’t made a difference in their life.”

How about this? If you could not speak for a week, would people have any reason to guess that you’re a Christian? How is your life different for being a Christian? Or maybe this is even the harder question: How is someone else’s life different because you are a Christian to them?

Faith without works is dead. And even though Luther famously had his suspicions about the letter to James, Luther had no problem coming down with the same basic theology as James, and so I’ll give to Luther the last word from his preface to Romans: “O, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing some good things incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done this, and it is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such works, however, is an unbeliever. He gropes and looks around for faith and good works but knows neither what faith is nor what good works are, yet he talks and talks with many words about faith and good works.”

Let us pray. Father in heaven, may this word be a necessary alarm to the unconverted, and may the objective truth of the Gospel of Jesus be the necessary balm to our soul. Oh, how we need both this morning’s message and this message to know that we can trust You, to know that it is by faith alone that we are counted as righteous in Your sight, and to know that this faith is no frigid and bare mental assent to truth, but it is the lively apprehension and it is the deep, robust trust, it is the resting and receiving upon Christ, that then cannot help but bear forth fruit. So help us now, this week, to walk in the good works which You have prepared in advance for us. In Jesus we pray. Amen.