James 2:14-26 is a controversial passage within evangelical circles. In it, James teaches that believers are “justified by works and not by faith alone” (v24). This seems to go directly against the evangelical conviction that justification (being declared righteous by God) is on the basis of faith alone and not because of a person’s good works.
Fidelity to God
The first question we need to ask in relation to this passage is: what does James mean by “works”? His introductory statement in verses 14-16 speaks of giving food and clothing to the poor. However, this is not intended as a description of “works” but rather serves to draw an analogy which introduces his main point, namely, that just as kind words not backed up by action are no good for the person in need, so too is faith without works of no use (v17).
There are two examples of “works” which James gives us in verses 21-25. The first is that of Abraham, in being willing to offer up his son Isaac on the altar. The second is that of Rahab, in receiving the Israelite spies into her house. What’s intriguing about these two examples given to us by James is that on the face of it, they don’t look very virtuous. Abraham appears to be engaging in child sacrifice, a practice condemned in the Law. Rahab is committing treason against her own people by hiding foreign spies from an invading army.
And this is precisely the point. James is not interested in “works” in the outward sense of appearing virtuous. James is interested in works which demonstrate our fidelity to God and his kingdom above all things. Despite appearances, Abraham’s action in being willing to sacrifice Isaac was a sign that he trusted God more than he loved his only son. Rahab’s action in protecting the spies was a sign that she trusted in the God of Israel over and above the gods of her own people. Both examples of “works” were deeply subversive and counter-cultural.
For James, then, “works” aren’t supposed to be a badge of merit by which we show how virtuous we are before the world. They’re a demonstration of true faith, that we are willing to put God and his kingdom priorities above all else, even before our reputation in the world.
Vindicated under Trial
The next question which we need to ask is this: what does James mean by “justified”? In verse 23 we are reminded of an incident in Genesis 15 – Abraham believes God’s promise and his faith is regarded as the sign that he is righteous – a faithful covenant member. James argues that this declaration of Abraham’s righteousness is “fulfilled” in Genesis 22, when Abraham offers Isaac on the altar.
The initial declaration that Abraham is righteous is given solely on the basis of his faith. However, this declaration points forward to the incident later on in Genesis when Abraham offers up Isaac. In other words, God’s declaration of Abraham’s righteousness is not merely an empty, ‘legal’ statement. It’s a promissory statement; with God working in Abraham’s life in such a way that his faith proves to be authentic under testing.
This, incidentally, is what James means by “justified”. He means “vindicated under trial”. Like Abraham forced to choose between keeping his son or honouring his God; like Rahab forced to choose between her people and the God of Israel, there are times in a believer’s life when their faith is placed on trial. True faith, when subjected to such testing, always perseveres.
And this isn’t the first time in James’s letter that he raises the theme of faithfulness under trial. He teaches on it extensively in 1:2-12. And yet it resurfaces here in response to the objection that a mere confession of faith is sufficient to save a person. For James, such a confession is worthless precisely because it cannot stand up to testing; such a confession is as good as dead (v26).
Justification as Promise
Of course, none of this goes against the evangelical view that a person is initially declared right with God by faith alone. But it does force us to re-evaluate how this declaration works. All too often, God’s declaration of righteousness is viewed as a kind of legal fiction in which a person is righteous ‘in theory’ even if they never are ‘in practice’. And yet the way that James reads Genesis 15, God’s declaration of Abraham’s righteousness is not a bare legal fiction, but a promise of something which will actually come to pass in the future.
That doesn’t mean that a person has to be righteous in order to be saved. But it does mean that salvation has implications for a believer’s future life. God doesn’t just declare a person to be righteous and then move on. Rather, God continues to work in the believer’s life, transforming them into the likeness of Christ, until the day that they will be raised free from the corruption of sin’s grasp forever.
“For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”