In this episode, we investigate an objection that is raised in Chapter 2 of James regarding the dynamic between faith and works. James makes a powerful distinction between believing that God exists as a point of information and entrusting one’s life to him. One is an act of knowledge and the other an act of faith. To help with the delineation, we take a closer look at some of the giants of Christian Scripture.
Now, again, confusion. Because what are we justified by? According to evangelical Christianity? Faith alone. Through grace alone.
But, suddenly we have this idea that faith saves us only if we feed people who are naked and destitute, and we’re justified by works, and everything’s topsy turvy. That’s what happens to people.
Well, we have to remember, this is not a theological book that was written with our current theologian’s definitions of stuff. Saved is just a word. And you have to know who’s being saved from what. It means something’s being delivered from something.
This word sozo is often translated heal because somebody that was sick got delivered from sickness. It’s somebody’s delivered from something.
And we already saw this. And in this case, it’s a believer whose Lord is Jesus Christ being delivered from their own selfishness, their own sin that dwells in them. Being delivered from living a useless, unprofitable life into a profitable and useful life. They are being delivered from living a life that doesn’t love God with the rewards of the world and delivered to living a life that does love God, with all heirs of the kingdom, the crown of righteousness. That’s what we’re saved from. It’s not hell. That’s not what we’re saved from. These are believers already.
Distinguishing in believing God exists and trusting him
And here we talk about Abraham, our father, being justified by works. But in whose eyes was he justified?
So, here’s what I would say James would say, if he lived in our world at this time, and he’s talking to the objector: “Okay, objector, you say, fine. You have faith. You can’t prove that that faith is real by not doing anything. I have works. Just because I have works doesn’t prove what my faith is. And demons and you do two different things with your belief.”
Here’s the way I would answer that. I would answer that and say, “Well, Mr. Objector, you’re mixing up what you have belief in existence—like, I believe there’s one God—You’re mixing that up with believing what that God says is in my best interests is truth.”
See, what we’re really talking about is—is this true? Do I believe the promises of God such that I’m going to obey those promises? That’s what we’re really talking about. It’s the object of the faith that’s the key thing. That’s the way our apologists today answer this. But we’re not in today. We’re a Jewish elder talking to a bunch of Jews.
And here’s the point: James is saying that. But he’s going to say it in a Jewish way.
Now, James to the Jews. Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?
If you’re a Jew, you know this story cold. And here’s some things you know. You know that when God said, “I consider you righteous because of what you believed,” in Genesis 15, you know that that happens 20-plus years before Isaac was sacrificed. You would know that. We can pull up the verses and show it.
When Abraham comes out of Haran, he’s about 75. Not that long after, God says, “Go out and look at the stars. This is how many children you’re going to have, childless 75-year-old man.”
And Abraham says, “Okay, I believe you.”
And God says, “Because you believe me, you’re righteous in my sight.”
Now, to the objector’s point, that happened at a time when Abraham couldn’t really prove that to anybody, right? God knew. Nobody else knew.
Fast forward 25 years, and God says, “Go sacrifice your son.”
And Abraham says, “Well, he already promised me that this son, Isaac—this particular son—is going to be the progenitor of the Messiah. All the nations of the earth are going to be blessed through this person. That means that if I sacrifice him, God’s going to raise him from the dead.”
It’s clear in the passage that that’s what Abraham says because he says, “Wait here. We’re going to do this sacrifice and then we will return.” He says that to the servants when he walks off with Isaac.
And in Hebrews it tells us directly: Abraham believed that Isaac was going to be resurrected, and that’s a picture.
And if you’re a Jew, you know this cold. And why do you revere Abraham? Why do you say Abraham is the friend of God, which is said in the Chronicles? It’s because he obeyed God to this extent. And why did he obey God to this extent?
Well, he’s going to tell us. See, verse 22. Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?
Complete. Teleios. Fulfilled. He took what he believed, and God said, “Okay, I count you as righteous.” That happened between him and God. But when he took it and actually applied it in a way where we could all see, then we could see his faith.
So here’s another way to say that. “Okay, Mr. Objector, you say faith and works are separate. Do you revere Abraham?”
“Well, of course.” This is a Jewish argument, right?
“Do you really think that the reason Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac was just because he had a whim that that was disconnected from his belief in the promises of God? Seriously? Is that a credible argument, that there’s no connection between those two things? Or would you say that our father Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, is not particularly persuasive? Is that what you want to say? Really? That’s not very credible, is it?”
See? Your argument is foolish! Our hero took his faith, and 25 years later, he put it into action. And you know what we say about that? “Wow! That’s unbelievable!” We see that happen, and we say Abraham is the friend of God. Let’s be like Abraham.
And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”
That’s in Genesis 15 when he’s 75ish. And then 25 years later, he has Isaac, and then some 15, 20 years later, he sacrifices Isaac. So, years later! He’s in his hundreds! And he’s actually putting into practice something he was promised decades in the past, and now it’s coming into life. It’s coming into the world.
And who’s blessed? Everybody that sees it!
Paul’s take on Abraham’s faith
Now one of the reasons this is so confusing to people is because Romans chapter 4. Let’s look at Romans 4:1.
What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh?
For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.
For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”
Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace, or favor, but as debt.
But to him who does not work—does not do anything—but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness,
Was Abraham justified by works, or not? Paul says no. James says yes. So are they contradicting one another?
It’s highly likely that the book of James was written well before the letter to the Romans and that Paul had that letter and had read it. It’s not that hard once you see it.
Again, who’s being justified before whom?
Do your children try to justify themselves when they steal cookies? Okay, would you ever say to your child who is justifying themselves [by saying] “Well, it was just laying there. I thought it was for me.”
“Didn’t I tell you not to eat that?”
“Well, yes, but, but, there’s new circumstances involved. You know, my friend told me I could have one. Uncle So-and-so told me I could have one.”
“Yeah, but I told you not to, right?”
So, they’re justifying themselves. Would you ever say, “Since you’re trying to justify yourself, you’re going to hell”?
Is all justification heaven and hell?
You go into the courtroom, and the judge says, “How do you justify this action?”
And you say, “Well, I have an alibi.”
“Oh, well, you’re trying to justify yourself. You’re going to hell.”
See, it depends on who’s being justified, for what, before whom.
And here’s Paul’s point: If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about. Was Abraham justified by works before people? He was. That’s what James is saying. Does he have something to brag about because he did the Isaac thing? He does!
If we have a big banquet in the new earth and we’re all together, and somebody says, “Hey, Abe, tell us about the time that you went and sacrificed Isaac.” Do you think he’ll stand up and say, “Aw, it was nothing”? I don’t think so.
I think he’ll stand up and say, “Well, there I was,” and everybody will be, you know, rapt in. You know, “There I was. And God told me to—”
“Man! That’s amazing!”
And he’ll have something to brag about! He’ll have the best story at the banquet. After he gets through telling that story, nobody else is going to want to tell any stories, right? Because he’s got something to brag about.
Unless God shows up. And then he’ll probably say, “Let me tell you later.” Because he’s not going to tell that story in front of God. Because God didn’t say, “You’re righteous before me,” when he did the Isaac-thing 25-plus years later. He said, “You’re righteous,” when Abraham looked at the stars and said, “I believe you.”
See that’s the difference. Abraham was justified before God just by believing. But if you want to make an impact on other people in life, you actually have to do something. That’s the difference. That’s the two things.
Who’s being justified, before whom, by what? That’s what we have to answer.
So, it can be confusing, but only if you think these words are technical words that always mean the same thing: save, justify, save your life, save your soul.
If they would have said save your life or deliver your life—how about if they would have translated deliver your life? What would your brain have said? “Deliver my life from what?” Then you wouldn’t be confused. But they say, save your soul, and you’re always, “Oh my gosh! Well, who do I need to give money to?”
See, the translators and the institutions are all together in this deal. And how much money have they raised off of this over the thousands of years? Tons of money.
But that’s not actually what the Bible’s saying. What the Bible’s saying is, Abraham believed God and then God counted it to righteousness before him. But if you want that to impact other people—which is what God tells us to do—if you want to be loving God by fulfilling the royal law and doing unto others, then you actually have to put it into action. Otherwise, your faith is dead. It’s not helping anything. It’s useless. It’s useless to you to win at life. It’s useless to God to make an impact on the word through us, which is why he put us here.
That’s example number one. So he’s deconstructing it using an example that all the Jews would have understood.
Well, if I hold the objector’s point that faith and works are separate, then I’ve got to diminish Abraham and what he did. I can’t say Abraham’s great because I have to maintain that those two—that sacrificing Isaac wasn’t a big deal, and it was separated from his believing God’s promise. That’s not going to work for me very well as an objector.
Now, got crushing point number two—Jewish point.
Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?
Now Rahab, she’s a harlot. She’s in Jericho. The two spies come in from Israel. Everybody else in Jericho has watched all the miracles and heard about the sea parting, and they see all these people show up, and they’re all quaking in their boots. Their knees are all knocking. They’re scared to death.
But none of them are going out to say, “Can we join you? Can we have your God as our God?” None of them are doing that except one: Rahab.
She sees these two spies and she says, “Look, I’ll hide you and let you get out; but you let me join your team. I want on your side. I see your God. That’s way better than anything we’ve got here. I want on your team. I’ll do this for you. Will you save me?”
And they say, “Look, put the scarlet thread outside your door, and then we’ll know, and we won’t come in and kill you.”
“Done! I’ll do that.”
So here’s the point: If Rahab hadn’t delivered the spies, if she hadn’t risked her life to save them, if she hadn’t shown them to go out the other way, would Rahab have become the grandmother of Jesus the Messiah? Would that have happened?
She could have said, “You know, I believe in you guys. Now I lay me down to sleep. Bless us for this food. God, I want to be a Christian. Amen.”
So, she could go to heaven if she does that. But would that have made her Boaz’s mom? Obed’s grandmom? David’s great grandmom? And Jesus’ lineage? Would that have done that?
Would she have been delivered if she hadn’t taken that faith and actually done something?
We all understand here the Lord Jesus Christ. These are our Lord Jesus Christ. Only Jesus takes care of sins. And which sins does Jesus die for? Past, present, future. And did those change over time? Tomorrow’s sins become yesterday’s sins two days from now, right? He paid for all of them. We don’t have to justify ourselves in the presence of God. And we can’t!
But before men, if you want the blessing, you have to do the action. If you want fulfillment, then you gotta put your shoes on and do it. If you want to win, you have to play! You got to get on the field! You can’t sit in the stands. You have to suit up, if you want to win.
And then he ends with—
For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
If you want the blessing, you have to show up. If you want to show up, you have to do something. And what makes faith come alive is actually putting it into action.
Having devotions is not enough
In our world, how do we apply that? Well, it’s typical for people to judge whether you’re spiritual or not—in evangelism—it’s typical to say, “How is your devotional life?”
I once interviewed for a situation, and there was a religious leader there. Good guy. I liked the guy. And his question to me was, “Tell us about your devotional life.”
Of course, you know me. I said, “You’re probably talking about that get-up-at-5:00 in the morning thing.” You know, I’m a night owl. I don’t do that. I’m a haphazard person. So I basically don’t do anything that’s routine except hang my keys up by the backdoor; because otherwise, I’ll never find them, right? So I’ve got a few habits like that, but I just don’t do scheduled life. I avoid appointments.
And so, what I try to do is pray without ceasing. You know, my goal is to have a devotional all day long, and just kind of live life.
And they’re all like, “I never heard that before.”
We joined a church long, long ago, and they said, “Well, tell us about your salvation.”
And I said, “I have no idea when I came to Christ. Probably when I was a little kid sometime. But here’s what I believe. You know, Jesus died for my sins. Right now! I believe that right now. And that’s something I can believe every day. Isn’t that awesome?”
And they’re like, “We’re a little concerned about that, if you don’t know the day, the hour, the minute—”
Because, see, belief is not in Jesus. It’s in that time. It’s in that magic thing. Did you do the magic thing the right way? And then you look later and say, “Well, how am I living my life? Oh, I must not have done the magic thing the right way. Maybe I should do the magic thing again. Because, what do I have faith in? Me doing the magic thing! That’s what I grew up with. It’s crazy!
And, no wonder I couldn’t understand James, if I have that mentality. That makes sense, doesn’t it? All the stuff—it kind of fits together.
The quotation marks
So now, the quotation marks. In most translations they put quotation marks of what the objector’s saying after “You have faith, and I have works,” like that’s the entire objection.
Now, follow me here. See how crazy this is.
But someone will say, here comes the objector. “You, James, you have faith, and I have works.” Now the objection stops.
And James says in retort, “Well, Mr. Objector, Show me your faith without your works—
Did I say I had faith? I said ‘I had works.’ Right? Does that make any sense at all?
My whole objection is you have faith, I have works. Oh, got me! Oh shoot! What a great—
No! It’s just a statement. You have faith; I have works. And then I reply, “Well, show me your faith,” which you didn’t say you had. It doesn’t even make any sense. But that’s where most translations put the quotation marks, if they have quotation marks.
A few of them—I checked, like, 57 translations. Not one put the quotation marks at the end of the whole diatribe. Not one. Some of them didn’t put quotation marks, which is better. A few put it after the second part, after verse 19. But none of them put it after—none of them do—which is where it belongs.
Look, this was written—this letter was written—it was probably written in Hebrew. But when it’s translated to Greek, it’s all capital letters with no spaces in between and no punctuation. That was Greek. The punctuation’s all added.
So, if you’re going to have a diatribe, an objection, you’ve got to tell me when the objection stops! And you do!
—But do you want to know, O foolish man—
I’ll end with this. But do you not know, oh foolish man?
Look at 1 Corinthians 15:35. And we’re talking here about the resurrection. This is Paul; and he says,
But someone will say—Not James now. This is Paul. But someone will say, “How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?”
Foolish one, what you sow is not made alive unless it dies.
This is a poetic structure, and nobody puts the quotation mark after “How are the dead” and then say that the objector is answering with “raised up? And with what body do they come?”
Look. They put the quotation mark in the whole thing between “but someone will say” and “foolish one, what you sow.” Why? Because it starts with “But someone will say,” and it ends with “But foolish one.” It’s a poetic structure. It makes no sense to put quotation marks in the middle.
Why did they put the quotation marks there?
So why did they do that? Because they want this passage to be saying that you have to follow my rules or you’re going to hell, whatever those rules are. You have to come and buy the candles. You have to buy an indulgence. I just described the Middle Age church. Vast fundraising scheme, all off of this idea.
Fast forward: You have to come and give me your money to get healed. You have to send me a dollar, and I’ll send you a blessed handkerchief, and you’ll wipe it on yourself, and you’ll become rich. The prosperity gospel, right? Give me your money, and I’ll give you what in return?
And every version of this you can think of. You have to do the thing, and you’ll get the stuff. And why does that benefit man? Because it puts me in control, and I’m an intermediary, and the money flows through me, and I’ll just clip off a little until I can clip off a lot. Right? It’s human nature.
But that’s not what the Bible’s about. It’s about freedom. It’s about liberty, the perfect law of liberty. What that does is it sets us free from sin, which indwells us, allows us to set it aside, so we can be free of that and win by walking in faith in the wisdom of God instead of the wisdom of the world which brings us slavery and death; and, instead, we get life. Cool, huh?
So next episode, I’m going to unpack the rest of chapter two that I kind of breezed over. There’s a great unity in this fantastic book. It’s all about winning. It’s about loving God, being a joint heir, getting crowns of righteousness, fulfillment in this life; and, unfortunately, we have to learn to keep our mouths shut as part of that. And that will be what we focus on in chapters 3 and 4.