Lesson Six: Justified by Works
"For by grace are ye saved through faith … it is the gift of God, not of works." "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us." "But to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness." With statements such as these, the Bible makes it clear that eternal salvation is by faith without works. Then what was James talking about when he wrote, "faith without works is dead."
Typical responses to that question go something like this: "One is not saved by works, but one who is saved will work!" "True saving faith leads to action." "Deeds are the natural consequence of true faith." The consensus of these writers is that works cannot save, but they are necessary to prove that you are saved! Or, to put it negatively, if you don’t have works, then it proves that you have never really been saved. You had a "head" belief and not a "heart" belief.
Of course, this raises some tough questions. Suppose I work for a little while, and then stop? How much work do I have to do to be sure that I am really saved? Is it works that follow soon after I express faith in Christ that matter most, or is it more important to "endure to the end?"
Fortunately, we don’t have to attempt to answer those questions because they miss by a country mile the point James was making. James does not teach that true faith results in works. That misinterpretation stems from the assumption that James was writing about being saved from hell, and he was not. He was writing about saving our lives from the judgment of God.
Notice how James has developed this thought. In verse one he writes, "My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ … with respect of persons." In verses 9-11, he states that believers who play favorites are sinning. In verse 12, he informs them that they would be judged for their words AND their works. In verse 13, he warns them that if their lives lack mercy, they will be judged without mercy. James point is clear. Obedience is necessary to obtain the blessings of God and to avoid the chastisement of God.
In the remainder of the chapter, James shows why works must be considered an important addition to saving faith. He gives two reasons.
- Faith that is not exercised in works is unproductive (like a muscle that atrophies from lack of use).
- Faith alone results in justification before God, but works justify us in the eyes of men.
I. Stating the Proposition – Verses 14-17
- A question
In verse 12, James stated the importance of supporting our words (so speak) with appropriate works (and so do), realizing that both will be judged according to the Word of God. Now James asks a question. What profit is there if a man claims to have faith in Christ, but he doesn’t have the kind of good works of which James has been writing: can faith save him?
- It is obvious from the context that James expects a negative answer. According to James, faith by itself cannot save.
- But in what sense is James using the word "saved." Throughout his letter, James uses the word save in the sense of being spared from the present consequences of sin.
- In 5:13-15, James writes that the prayer of faith will save the sick when the sickness is the result of sin.
- In 5:19 –20, James writes that when a sinning believer is turned from the error of his way, a soul is saved from death. (The end result of sin is always death. See James 1:15)
- An illustration
Suppose a suffering believer comes to you for help. You pronounce a blessing on them, but do nothing to help them. James then asks the question, "What doth it profit?" What good can come from words that are not supported by works? The answer is "none!"
- The answer
- In the same way, James states that works are necessary to make our faith fruitful.
- We do not have to guess what James meant by a "dead" faith. He links the word "dead" in verse 17 with the word "profit" in verse 16.
- Thus, a "dead" faith is one that is unprofitable, ineffective, or fruitless.
- COMPARE TO TITUS 3:8
- A Christian may believe all the right things, but apart from works, his faith will be fruitless and unproductive.
II. Anticipating Objections – Verses 18-23
To further illustrate his point, James introduces an imaginary objector. James has declared that faith apart from works is dead. The supposed objector asks, "How can that be? There are clearly instances where an unbeliever may appear to have faith because of his good life, and also where a person can have faith, but do no good at all." How then can James insist that faith and works must go together?
- Objection: works and faith are unrelated
- The first example – one who appears to have faith, but doesn’t. Verse 18
- The distinction between the two men in verse 18 is that one man has faith, but no works; the other has works, but no faith. Thou hast faith and I have works
- The objector then challenges, "Show me your faith (which is genuine) without works, and I will show you my "faith" (tongue-in-cheek) by my works.
- His point is that faith and works must be considered two separate things.
- The second example – those who appear to have no faith, but do! Verse 19
- The objector’s second argument is that men and demons share a common faith in one God, but with two totally different results.
- It causes men to do well.
- It only causes the demons to tremble.
- The point is that just as works do not prove that faith exists (verse 18), neither does the absence of work prove that it does not exist.
- Answer: faith without works is unproductive
- Works justify us before others. (Verse 21)
In considering the illustration from the life of Abraham, we have to ask two questions: WHEN did works justify Abraham and before WHOM was he justified?
- The justification of which James speaks occurred when Abraham offered Isaac upon the altar.
- This is important, because Abraham was justified before God many years earlier when he believed God concerning his promise to give him a son. SEE GENESIS 15:4-6
- At that point, he was counted righteous and received eternal salvation. Paul comments on this, explaining that righteousness was imputed to Abraham’s account without works. READ ROMANS 4:1-8
- When Abraham offered Isaac upon the altar, he was justified before other men.
- Abraham was justified before God by faith.
- He was justified before men by works. (Notice the repeated emphasis in this section on others: a MAN may say … wilt THOU know, O vain MAN … Seest THOU.")
God wants us to live obedient lives, but He doesn’t need our good works to show Him that we have faith. He sees the heart. He knows the exact moment when we trusted Christ as Savior. Men don’t have that ability. They can only judge our faith by what they see. Had Abraham disobeyed God in the matter of Isaac, he still would have been justified before God by the faith he had placed in God’s promise years earlier. However, he would have forfeited a great opportunity to demonstrate to others the reality and reliability of God.
- Works perfect (nourish and strengthen) faith. (Verse 22)
- James is stating a principle that occurs repeatedly throughout Scripture – that as faith is exercised in works, faith increases.
- The more we exercise our faith in works, the more our faith will grow. As our faith grows, we are able to accomplish greater works.
- Thus, faith and works operate together to build up one another!
III. The Conclusion – Verses 24-26
- Two kinds of justification
- James is saying that a man is justified by faith, and he is justified by works.
- James is speaking of two distinct acts of justification, one by faith, and one by works. (As opposed to a single act of justification conditioned on faith plus works)
- Faith justifies us before God; works justify us before men.
- James offers the example of Rahab as further proof that works justify.
Rahab’s faith began at some point before the spies appeared at her door. She had heard of all that God had done for Israel, and she was convinced that "He is God in heaven above, and in earth beneath." (Joshua 2:11) Later, she demonstrated her faith by receiving the spies and sending them out another way. That the spies doubted her faith is evident in the story. Three times they warn her that she would not be "saved" (spared from the judgment God was going to inflict on the city) if she double-crossed them in any way. (2:14, 17, 20) Thus, their successful escape "justified" her in their eyes and they kept their promise.
- A final illustration – Verse 26
- Faith without works is "dead" faith.
- If you discover a dead body, you know that it was once alive. The fact that it is dead doesn’t mean it was never alive.
- When James speaks of a "dead" faith, he does not mean a false faith, but an inoperative faith, one that lacks vitality
- As the Spirit gives life to the body, so works energize our faith and keep it dynamic and fruitful.
- Christians must maintain works to keep their faith "alive" and productive.
James challenges us to put our faith to work – to make it fruitful and productive. When we do:
- We will be saved from the chastisement of God
- We will be justified before others
- Our faith will be strengthened and increased
We are not to find assurance of our eternal salvation in works. That was not James’ intention at all. Works have nothing at all to do with salvation from sin. Nor is "goodness" proof that a person is a child of God. One can be a moral person without saving faith. James is speaking of works of faith – works that show others the reality and reliability of God. Those are the kinds of works by which we are justified in the sight of others.