God’s Word for You
James 2:20-22 Faith and works
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, July 27, 2020
20 But do you need to be shown, you empty man, that such faith without works is barren? 21 Take Abraham our father: Wasn’t he shown to be righteous as a result of works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22 You see that his faith was working together with his works, and by his works his faith was shown to be complete.
We don’t use the archaic rhetorical terms a priori and a posteriori very much anymore. They mean literally “from what comes first” and “from what comes after,” or put another way, “from cause to effect” and “from effect to cause.” James has already shown, in verse 18, that he is using the words “works” and “faith” a posteriori, with the effect (works) showing the cause (faith). Here in verse 22, faith (the cause) is “shown to be complete” by its works (the effect).
To illustrate this, James recalls the story of Abraham offering Isaac. This was in obedience to God’s command that he should take Isaac to Mount Moriah and sacrifice him there as a burnt offering (Genesis 22:2). This was to test Abraham’s faith (Hebrews 11:17). He had already been blessed by God because of his faith; Isaac himself was a testimony to this because he was the child of God’s promise (Genesis 21:1-2). By willingly taking Isaac to the mountain, building an altar there, tying his son up and laying him on the altar, Abraham showed his faith. By taking up his flint knife and getting ready to strike, he showed his faith all the more. That he also spoke aloud his faith in the resurrection is evident from the way he spoke to the servants (Genesis 22:5), but God was giving him the opportunity to show his faith (the cause) by his work (the effect). God also stopped him in time to spare Isaac’s life, saying that Abraham had shown his faith, “that [he] feared God” by not withholding his son from him (Genesis 22:12). This explains James’ words in their context.
However, there will be some readers who may turn back to this passage at a future time to judge whether or not James and Paul contradict one another, in a sort of contest as to whose theology is correct: James with his preference for works, or Paul with his preference for faith? After all, Paul said, “We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law” (Romans 3:28), and, “Israel pursued a law of righteousness (but) has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works” (Romans 9:31-32). Against this someone could easily lift James’ words out of context and maintain that “Faith without works is barren.” Those who pursue this to its minutest detail will need to ask themselves: Am I investigating or havering over this because I want to be obedient to God no matter what, or because I want to find a loophole so that I can keep self-justifying myself and what I think is right?
First of all, the historical record of the Bible shows us that James and Paul did not have any disagreement over doctrine. This is evident from James’ attitude toward Paul, sending him back to Asia Minor for a second missionary trip to the Gentiles (Acts 15:22), and Paul’s testimony about James: “James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews” (Galatians 2:9).
Second, what we have already seen is that James is using works a posteriori, from the effect to the cause, to show that while faith saves apart from works, works are never absent from true faith. Permit me to turn again to our great 19th century Lutheran theologian, Adolf Hoenecke:
“James says that he wants to examine the fact that Abraham was justified through faith (James 2:22). He does that by stressing that his faith was true and as such not to be separated from works (James 2:18,19). Faith shows itself to be real and true by its works (James 2:22). And then when James uses the strong works, ‘You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone’ (James 2:24), he is simply stating the doctrine which the dogmaticians formulate in this way: A person is justified by faith alone, but this faith is never alone or without works” (Evangelical Lutheran Dogmatics Vol. III p. 383).
I know my faith is founded
On Jesus Christ, my God and Lord;
And this my faith confessing,
Unmoved I stand upon his Word.
Man’s reason cannot fathom
The truth of God profound;
Who trusts in worldly wisdom
Relies on shifting ground.
God’s Word is all-sufficient,
It makes divinely sure,
And, trusting in its wisdom,
My faith shall rest secure.
In faith, Lord, let me serve you;
Though persecution, grief, and pain
Should seek to overwhelm me,
Let me a steadfast trust retain.
And then at my departure,
Lord, take me home to you,
And let me there inherit
All you have promised me.
In life and death, Lord, keep me
Until your heav’n I gain,
Where I by your great mercy
The end of faith obtain. (Christian Worship 403:1,3)
Pastor Timothy Smith