James 2:21-26


Bible Study Notes
Faith which Justifies is not Alone
James 2:21-26


The following text is taken from a sermon preached by Gil Rugh, Senior Pastor at Indian Hills Community Church in Lincoln, NE. The text has been edited and condensed by IHCC staff for use as a Bible Study aid.

Intro. - This section began with verse 14 and has been driving home the point that saving faith produces works in the life. James has just made the point that if all you have is faith in a good doctrinal statement, you have the same kind of faith that the demons have.

This makes clear that faith which does not result in works is useless as far as producing salvation is concerned (v. 20).

This leads him to two diverse but clear examples of faith producing works in the life: Abraham and Rahab.

Abraham is the individual selected as the representative man of faith in the New Testament.

2:21 -
The question assumes that the readers will agree that Abraham was justified by works.

Abraham our father - The Jewish audience would especially appreciate this identification. However, the New Testament identifies Abraham as "the father of all who believe" (Rom. 4:11).

justified by works - The emphasis is on "by works" (ek ergon) which stresses the source or reason, not the means, of Abraham's salvation.

justified - The basic idea of this word is "to declare righteous" and that seems to be its meaning in this context (cf. vv. 23,24).

The incident referred to is the offering of Isaac on the altar, which is recorded in Genesis 22:1-18. This event is recorded one other time in the New Testament - Hebrews 11:17-19.

To put this event in its proper perspective, we need to look at some of the critical events in the life of Abraham.

  1. The call of Abraham--Genesis 11:31-12:3
    1. Acts 7:2-4

    2. Hebrews 11:8

    It is important to note that the salvation of Abraham probably occurred at the time of his call, if not before. He responded in faith to the Word of God on that occasion.

    This fits with the fact that when Abraham did enter Canaan he began building altars and calling on the name of the Lord (cf. Gen. 12:7,8).

  2. The promise of descendants - Genesis 15:1-6.
    Abraham was 75 when he came into Canaan (12:4), and probably was around 85 at the time of this promise. What is important to note is that Abraham was already a saved man when this occurred. Many put the conversion of Abraham at Genesis 15:6.

    The clear statement of Abraham's faith and justification on this occasion make this an important verse in the New Testament (cf. Rom, 4:3; Gal. 3:6). However, what occurs here relates to the pattern of Abraham's life and not just to his initial salvation. He was a man who believed God and was justified because he believed.

  3. The promise of a son - Genesis 17 (cf, esp, vv. 15,17,21)
    Abraham is now 99 and Sarah 89. Yet the response of Abraham to this promise is faith (cf. Rom. 4:18-22). Sarah too manifested faith in this extraordinary promise of God (cf. Heb 11:11).

  4. The offering of Isaac - Genesis 22
    This brings us to the incident that James is using as an illustration. Hebrews 11:17 says that Abraham offered up Isaac by faith.

2:22 -
There was a close connection between the faith of Abraham and his works. His works evidenced a living (saving) faith.

faith was perfected - It accomplished its intended purpose or arrived at the intended goal. "As the tree is perfected by its fruits, so faith by its works" (Mayor). Genuine faith will issue forth in good works.

2:23 -
The truth of Genesis 15:6 is fulfilled or made full; it was seen to be true. Here was a man who believed God in the most difficult circumstances. Genesis 22 is a much more demanding situation than Genesis 15.

the friend of God (cf, 2 Chron. 20:7; Isa, 41:8) - James may have had the events of Genesis 18:17,18 in view also. The emphasis is on the closeness of relationship that Abraham enjoyed with God. Jesus calls His followers "friends" in John 15:14,15.

"A friend of God is not one who talks about God, but one who walks with God" (Zodhiates).

2:24 -
This verse is really an answer to the question in verse 14. The issue is salvation: "Can that faith save him?" The answer is no, because "a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone."

The last part of this verse is crucial to a proper understanding. The issue is not:

justification by faith
justification by works

justification by faith alone
justification by faith which produces works

"By faith Abraham . . . offered up Isaac" (Heb 11:17).

2:25 -
James offers a second illustration which is totally different from that of Abraham. This person was a Gentile, a woman, and a prostitute.

in the same way (homois) - Emphasizes that this is a second example with the same meaning as the first.

Rahab the harlot stresses her immoral background (cf. Josh. 2:1; 6:17,22,25; the full account is contained in Josh. 2).

The person and actions of Rahab were different from those of Abraham, yet the point in both is the same. They believed God and acted accordingly.

Hebrews 11:31 lists Rahab among the Old Testament giants in faith, saying, "By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish." James and Hebrews taken together show that saving faith always results in action.

2:26 -
The conclusion completes the section which began in verse 14. The body without the spirit is dead, it can accomplish nothing. So also faith without works is dead. It can accomplish nothing, especially the salvation that James is talking about (cf. 2:14,17,20,24,26).

Sound doctrine is the basis of saving faith. But truly believing the facts of the gospel will result in a changed life. So works are an essential result of saving faith. If there are no works, then the faith is merely intellectual assent. This even the demons do.

"Faith alone justifies, but the faith which justifies is not alone" (John Calvin).

Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © Lockman Foundation 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977. All quotations used by permission.

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Permission was received from Indian Hills Community Church for the posting of this file on Bible Bulletin Board. Our gratitude to the Holy Spirit for leading Pastor Gil Rugh to preach/teach messages that are bold, and doctrinally sound—they are so needful to this generation.

Tony Capoccia
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