POST OVERVIEW. The third in a series of articles on James 2:14-26. The purpose of these articles is to give the believer a correct understanding of this passage by providing a number of different approaches to this text. The goal is that, through these studies, the believer will see that James’ teaching here does not conflict with the New Testament’s doctrine of justification by faith. (See also Post #652, 5/24,2023 and Post #653, 5/25/2023.) This fairly long article focuses on the concept of “works.”
This is the third article in a series of studies of James 2:14-26. Let’s take a moment to review where we have been so far, where we are going in this article, and where we hope to go with the rest of the series.
In my first post (#652), I had explained the main interpretive difficulty in the passage; namely, that it can seem that, in James 2:14-26, and particularly in 2:21-15, James is contradicting the core teaching of the New Testament about justification by faith. The apostle Paul teaches throughout his epistles that a sinner is “justified” (meaning “declared righteous”) solely on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ. In fact, in Galatians, Paul states that a variation in the gospel on this point is anathema (Gal. 1:8, 9) and that those who preach this “other” gospel are cursed. Because of the New Testament’s teaching on “justified” and on “justification,” “justification by faith alone” became one of the five “Solas” of the Reformation. So, this is not a minor point. In my first post, I had proposed a plan of study that would allow us to examine James 2:14-26 using several different approaches to demonstrate that James is not contradicting any of the Bible’s teaching on what it means to be “justified.”
The second post of the series (#653) had begun to work through the points of the plan of study. Our first piece of information was that the verb “justify” has at least two meanings. Understanding how James uses this verb (and its related terms) in James 2:21-25 helps immensely in defusing the difficulties of the passage.
In this third article, we will focus most of our efforts on understanding the word and the concept of “works.”
THE CONCEPT OF “WORKS”
Broadly speaking, the concept of “works” relates to human effort or accomplishment. “Works” are things which the human does that affect the human’s relationship with the living God, either positively or negatively. The primary factor that determines whether “works” are pleasing to God or are perceived as “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6) is whether or not the one doing the “works” has believed in God and has been reconciled with God. In our day, the question would be, “Are you a follower of the Lord Jesus?” If the answer is yes, then your works are generally pleasing to God and, if not, then your works are an offense to Him and a stench in His nostrils.
Let me explain this a bit further and then clarify “works” by giving some examples. I said that the primary factor for evaluating “works” is whether or not the person working is a follower of Jesus. Why is that? It is because, when a person comes to faith in Jesus, their motivation for the “works” dramatically changes.
“WORKS” OF THE UNBELIEVER
When a person is not a believer in Jesus, he may still desire to benefit from religious activity or religious works. (In fact, a good working definition of a religion is a system of man-made human efforts intended to achieve some spiritual benefit.) Thus the unbeliever will do things prescribed by their particular religion to try to relieve themselves of guilt or to impress others or to make themselves good enough to be acceptable to their god(s) or to God. The point is that the one who “works” in this way is using their human effort to earn favor with the gods or with God.
The problem with these “works” is that they are as offensive to the living God as perhaps anything can be. These “works” offer man’s sinful efforts and his religious rituals as the means of making him acceptable to God, when God has sent His only Son Jesus into the world to be crucified on Calvary’s cross as the only acceptable sacrifice for sin and as the only means of reconciling God and man. In Acts 4:12, Peter declares,
“And there is salvation in no one else. For there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.”
The only way to be justified before our holy God is to bow the knee to Jesus and confess Him as Lord and Savior. But, instead of repenting of sin and submitting to Jesus, man wants to continue in his wicked ways and to continue in his sin, so he offers to God a token performance of “works.” Jesus has willingly come from heaven to earth to die on the cross as the only means of rescue from the wrath of God, but by means of his “works,” man rejects the Son of God and offers instead his sin-stained man-made efforts. This is why Paul and the other New Testament writers and solid Christian churches today vigorously oppose any teaching that claims that we can be declared righteous by our “works.” Justification is by faith alone in Christ alone.
Consider these biblical examples. Cain offered to God his “works” of the fruit of the ground (Genesis 4) and he was rejected by God and perished. It was his religious “works” that Saul of Tarsus offered to God (Phil. 3:5-6), but for the apostle Paul those works were all “rubbish” (3:8). Nadab and Abihu offered religious “works” of strange fire before the LORD and were consumed in the flame (Leviticus 10). In the gospels, the Pharisees had all their religious rules, but Jesus repeatedly called them hypocrites. “Works” can never bring an unbeliever closer to God or forgive the unbeliever of one single sin. Any “work” that is using human effort or human performance to achieve favor with God is cursed.
“WORKS” OF THE BELIEVER
We have just described the “works” of the unbeliever and have seen that they are offensive to God, since they offer human effort as a replacement for the death of Christ. So, if this is the only kind of “works” known in the New Testament and if James is suggesting that the unbeliever is justified (“declared righteous”) by his own “works,” we have a major contradiction and a major problem.
But what we find as we examine Scripture is, first, that there are “works” which are entirely appropriate to the believer and which are, indeed, expected for every believer, and second, that James is certainly not suggesting that an unbeliever is justified (“declared righteous”) by his own “works.” Let’s take these two points one at a time.
In our previous post (#653), we have already demonstrated that, in James 2:21-25, “justified” is used in the sense of the believer giving outward, visible evidence of their inward, invisible faith. Their claim of faith is “justified” when they give sufficient evidence of their faith. But not only does James use “justified” in a non-salvific way in our study passage, but we also see that his examples, Abraham and Rahab, are people who are already believers and who already possess saving faith. (We will address this further when we look at Hebrews 11 in parallel with this passage in James in a later post.) Abraham and Rahab are presented not as examples of those who earned saving faith by their works, but rather as examples of those who demonstrated their saving faith by radical acts of faithfulness.
Finally, then, this passage cannot be about how the unbeliever achieves his own salvation by his “works,” because there is not even an unbeliever anywhere in the passage.
What we see instead is that it is incumbent upon the genuine believer to live a life marked by “good works” which give evidence to his claim of salvation. Calls for “good works” or “good deeds” which attest to an already-possessed salvation are common in the New Testament, and this is certainly the type of “works” that James has in mind here.
The following are places where this type of “works” appears in the New Testament:
Matthew 5:16 “Let men see your good works.”
Ephesians 2:10. It is instructive to read Ephesians 2:9 and 2:10 together. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, not as a result of works. For we are created in Christ Jesus for good works.” “Works” do not save, but “good works” should follow salvation.
Philippians 2:12. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”
Colossians 1:10. Paul prays they would “bear fruit in every good work.”
2 Thessalonians 2:17. “Strengthen your hearts in every good work.”
1 Timothy 2:10; 5:10; 6:18. Good works are a mark of a faithful believer.
2 Timothy 2:21; 3:17. “prepared/equipped for every good work.”
Titus 2:7, 14; 3:8, 14. Believers are to be “zealous for good deeds.”
Hebrews 10:24. “Stimulate one another to love and good deeds.”
1 Peter 2:12. The Gentiles glorify God because of your good deeds.
We have seen that “works,” which are presented by the unbeliever as an attempt to merit or earn from God a declaration of righteousness (to be “justified”), are offensive to God and are condemned because these “works” are offered instead of faith in the crucified Christ.
We have also seen that “good works,” which are produced in and by the believer as a visible manifestation (a “justification”) of their invisible faith in Jesus, are expected and are approved by God because these “good works” are wrought through the power of the Holy Spirit.
It is this latter category of “works” that James has in view in James 2:14-26.
Soli Deo gloria rmb 5/30/2023 #654