James 2:20-24 (NKJV)20 But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22 Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? 23 And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. 24 You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.
The passage before us today has been the center of much controversy since the time of the Protestant Reformation. How can we possibly reconcile Paul’s statement that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law with this assertion by James that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone? Roman Catholics have consistently pointed to this text to prove Luther wrong. See, Luther, this text proves that our salvation is dependent upon our works. Indeed, Luther was himself so perturbed by this text that he called the epistle of James an “epistle of straw” and at times even recommended that it be excluded from the canon. Let us be thankful that cooler heads prevailed.
We know, of course, that there can never be any ultimate contradiction between different portions of the word of God. All works in harmony. So how do we reconcile Paul and James? Must we, with Rome, assert that our works are part of the basis for our standing with God – that God will save us because we live in a certain way? To answer with a Paulism, “May it never be!”
Whenever we are confronted with an apparent disagreement between two positions it is always good to make sure that the two are defining their terms in the same way. If George claims, “½ of all high school graduates are illiterate,” and Fred insists, “No, only 1/3 are illiterate,” then we have the makings of a great debate. However, once we discover that George defines illiterate as unable to read above a 3rd grade level and Fred defines it as unable to read at all, the debate is over – because the two statements are easy to harmonize.
Likewise with Paul and James – we appear to have the makings of a nasty argument until we realize that they use the term “justification” differently. Paul defines justification as “set right with God” and insists that a man is not set right with God on the basis of his works but solely on the basis of Christ’s righteousness – which is grasped by faith. We do not, we cannot, we dare not try to earn our salvation. Any such attempts are doomed to failure – those who attempt to do so prove themselves ignorant of God’s righteousness, seeking in vain to establish a righteousness of their own.
James defines justification differently. James defines it as “vindicated in the eyes of men” and insists that a man’s profession of faith is only shown to be genuine if his claim manifests itself in a change of behavior. The claim to believe in God means nothing if one continues to conduct himself as though God didn’t exist. Faith must show itself in works.
And so both Paul and James would put the questions to us – do you trust in the Lord? Have you been set right with Him by faith? Have you believed Him like Abraham did, such that he was declared righteous only through Christ? And, if so, have you begun demonstrating in your life that this trust is real? That you really do trust Him even as Abraham offered up his son Isaac in full reliance on the trustworthiness of God?
Reminded that we frequently mishandle the word of God and that we stand in desperate need of the righteousness of Christ, let us kneel and confess our sin to our Heavenly Father.