In James 2, it is written, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works”
This is the cause of great confusion, especially in the light of Romans 3:28, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” For this dilemma I offer 4 observations.
1. Salvific Justification and Commentating Justification
The word Justify is often haphazardly equated with the word “save”. Though justification is a primary and crucial part of salvation it should be noted that the word itself does not equate to salvation exactly. However Justification is a component in salvation. The word Justify means literally “To declare to be righteous.” And in order to be saved (or experience salvation) one must first be declared righteous (ie justified). Note the difference. So justification is not the same as salvation, if occuring for the first time it necessarily leads to it, but it is not it. I mention this because I believe you can call or declare someone a righteous person many times, though you cannot save someone multiple times. How can this be? I believe there is salvific justification that occurs right after faith hits the heart and then there is commentating justification that can occur after salvific justification whenever you want to comment on the existing righteousness of a person (as seen in the passage in question). Both mean to declare righteous.
2. Justification is by Faith alone
We are salvifically justified (ie declared righteous) by faith alone. This is what Paul teaches in Romans 3. That apart from works of the law, and solely by faith in the credited righteousness of Christ, we are declared righteous in Christ. Or to illustrate it by example, we trust that Jesus’ righteousness is sufficient to make us righteous before God, and that very trust in and of itself brings Christ’s righteousness down upon us like a robe making us righteous before God. No works attached or required. Just a sweet and savoring faith.
3. There is a living faith and there is a dead faith
In James 2, the apostle James questions the legitimacy of certain church member’s faith. He questions their faith because though they confess that they trust in Christ’s righteousness (and so make themselves out to be saved individuals) they do nothing to show that Christ has impacted their hearts. The poor in their congregation are ignored, the wealthy are preferred, and these so-called “Christians” live without mercy. And James asks incredulously “how can this be?!” For true faith is alive! And as a living thing it must rise and work and act and do! But the faith that does nothing is dead. Like a corpse, it lies there, useless and …stinky.
4. Justification is by living faith.
Now we come full circle. The big point James is trying to make. He pulls two examples of this living faith. The primary example is Abraham. Abraham was a man without an heir. At 80 something years old he and his wife were still unable to produce a child even though God promised that from him he would create a nation. In the face of his wife’s barrenness he believed God’s promise that Sarah would still bear a son by his very own loins. This faith, alone, justified him. (Romans 4 is an entire chapter devoted to the “Faith alone” aspect of Abraham’s justification.) 30 years later God tested him and Abraham offered Isaac on the altar as an act of faith. James looks at this act and says, Abraham was declared righteous (commentating justification) by this very act. How so? James writes:
“You see that faith was active along with his (Abraham’s) 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”
James is making three key observation here.
- Abraham’s existing faith actively worked
- If Abraham’s faith didn’t work it would not be complete (the greek term implies imperfect/flawed)
- The truth of Abraham’s justification by faith was fulfilled (i.e. demonstrated, brought to reality, realized) by his later works. Just like when we say “wow that movie was awesome, it really fulfilled my expectations”, it means you expected the movie to be good, but it was already good before you watched it. James is saying the same thing about Abraham. Abraham’s justifying faith really fulfilled expectations, because he ended up offering up his son!
So finally, what does James mean when he says “Abraham was declared righteous by this act”? I would write it this way, Abraham was declared righteous again (commentating justification) because his actions proved he had the type of faith that allowed God to declare him righteous in the first place.
If you don’t get it yet, we can illustrate it this way. Solomon once had to decide between two women who was the true mother of a child (One of the women had accidentally killed her own child during her sleep and now wanted to replace her child with the other woman’s). Solomon finally decided to cut the child in half so that both women would have a piece of the child. One of the women said “No, let the other woman have the child” and the other woman said “Hey, that’s fair, let’s do it.” Solomon then gave the child to the woman who wanted to spare the child. Why? Because that woman’s actions proved she had the type of love that made her the real mother.
Abraham’s actions proved he had the type of faith that made him righteous, so James says that Abraham was declared righteous by his works. Likewise, the woman’s actions proved she had the type of love that made her to be the mother. so Solomon said the woman was declared to be the mother because of her works. Yet in both cases, it was the observance of actions that rendered the verdict. Both love and faith blossomed into action and were thus seen to be real and legitimate.