Are You an Example of True Faith?
The test of righteous works–James 2:14-26, part 2 Verses 21-26–True Faith
It’s a big family event, everyone is there, and you are all having fun. In the midst of gabbing after a meal, a cousin states a strong opinion and the first thing that pops into your mind is, “I wonder if they’re a genuine Christian?” You are on the patio and you meet a new couple–and as they talk about what they want from a church, they begin to share some things which cause you to think, “Maybe they don’t really know Christ!”
You’re raising your kids, now students–they understand sound theology, but you’re wondering about their heart. “Do they really want to follow Christ? Is Christ genuinely their first love? Do they want to obey Him, even when you parents are not around?” When this type of encounter occurs, many believers remain silent. But they shouldn’t. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 13:5, “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?”
James taught last week that faith without works is dead, useless–it cannot save, meaning there is a phony faith, a false faith, a faith that doesn’t bring salvation. The half-brother of our Lord is writing primarily Jewish Christians, scattered around the Roman Empire. And he is testing his readers as to their faith. For when faith is saving, it responds differently to trials, temptations, living the Word, loving others–and now in 2:14 to 26, true faith will produce righteous works. Because today, the Word is not taught as written. Because many churches want attenders over maturity. Because discipleship is missing today, there is a lot of false faith.
Have you come across feelie faith–people whose entire belief system is based upon their emotions? Doctrine faith–people who hold sound doctrine or follow a church creed, but not Christ? Superstar faith–people whose focus is a school, a man, a book, but are not born again? Slogan faith–people whose understanding of Christ comes only from Christian slogans? Family faith–children and students who think they are saved cause mom and dad are? Experiential faith–people who’ve had a religious experience, but don’t follow Christ? Church faith–people who think they are saved because they go to a Bible-teaching church? False faith–people who accept Christ, say they love Christ, but don’t live for Christ?
Then there is biblical faith, true faith–the genuine faith that saves. True faith is what James will describe for us today in James 2, verses 21 to 26. Last week, verses 14 to 20 was false faith, and today verses 21 to 26 is true faith. True faith is the means of salvation. True faith involves the intellect–it is always based upon the truth of God’s Word. James already taught that all true believers receive their spiritual rebirth through God’s Word in James 1:18. And Romans 10:17 agrees, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.”
When faith is true, the intellect embraces the truth of God’s Word and the mind embraces the person and work of Christ on their behalf. You’re not saved by a decision or experience or feeling, but upon the truth of God’s Word. True faith involves the will–there is a volitional element to genuine faith. It is more than mere belief in the truth–it is the surrender of your will, the submission of your life, the commitment of your soul.
I can believe this bench will hold me intellectually. But in faith, my will is engaged and I will sit on the bench–I surrender my life to the bench. With my intellect, I believe it’ll hold me and with my will I depend on it and sit. Last week, we learned that demon faith involves the intellect and the emotions, but not the will. True faith surrenders and submits to Christ as a way of life. True faith will result in emotions. You will experience the peace of God, the blessedness of the Lord, the love of Christ, and the settled-ness of purpose. The whole person plays a part in true saving faith. The mind understands the truth, the heart desires the truth, and the will acts upon the truth. And James wants to describe true saving faith using three examples in verses 21 to 26.
As you read these verses aloud with me, look for the controversial statements. James 2:21 to 26, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? 22You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; 23and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,’ and he was called the friend of God.
24You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.”
Before you freak out like Martin Luther did over these words, James is not undermining justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone–we know this for three reasons. 1) James already taught in 1:18 that salvation is a gracious gift. James 1:18, “In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth.” Brought us forth means God caused us to be born again–it is a gift God gives. 2) In the middle of the passage today in verse 23, James quotes Genesis 15:6, which teaches that God credited righteousness to Abraham solely on the basis of his faith, not his works. And 3) The very work James says justifies Abraham was his offering up of Isaac, from Genesis 22:9 to 12. This is an event, a work, which occurred many years after Abraham first exercised faith and was declared righteous before God.
So what you have here in James 2:21 to 26 is the continuation of what James described in verses 14 to 20–that faith, when genuine, manifests itself with works. James teaches exactly the same as Paul and the entire New Testament–that salvation is through faith alone, and true faith is always demonstrated by ongoing good works. You’ve read it before in Ephesians 2:8 to 10, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. [And what happens when it is saving faith/true faith?] 10For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” Last week, James taught us that faith without works is dead–a false faith.
#1 The deadliness of false faith Verses 14 to 20
In verses 14 to 20, James taught false faith claims to have salvation–it says, “I’m saved,” but lives out no evidence Verse 14
False faith does not display any righteous or compassionate deeds–it does nothing Verses 15 to 17
False faith embraces sound doctrine, but is not repentant–it does not submit Verses 18 to 20
That’s the deadliness of false faith. Now today, in verses 21 to 26, James teaches . . .
#2 The DESCRIPTIONS of TRUE Faith Verses 21 to 26
In these verses, James illustrates true faith with three examples. He uses the lives of two well-known biblical characters, Abraham and Rahab, and then draws an example from the body and spirit—all of it to prove to you that real faith results in works. Both Abraham and Rahab are listed in Hebrews 11:17 and 31 as testimonies of true faith that works.
But why choose Abraham and Rahab as examples? Abraham is the father of the Hebrews, a man of power and respect, and the recipient of God’s promises. Rahab is a Gentile prostitute–a woman of ill-repute and a breaker of God’s moral laws. But in selecting these two polar opposites, James is casting a broad net that captures every one of you. Every one of you here finds yourself somewhere between Abraham and Rahab, meaning true faith is available to the best of you here and the worst of you here. But what is true faith?
First ABRAHAM is an example of TRUE FAITH Verses 21 to 24
James 2:21 to 24, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? 22You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; 23and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,’ and he was called the friend of God. 24You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
James is now contrasting the false faith of verses 14 to 20 with true faith in verses 21 to 26. So what does true faith look like? James says look at Abraham.
1 The ILLUSTRATION of True FAITH—Abraham
Verse 21a begins with this phrase, “Was not Abraham our father.” Even though James is writing to primarily a Jewish audience, the context indicates that calling Abraham father is not in a racial sense, but in a spiritual sense–like the way Paul referred to Abraham in Romans 4:11, “the Father of all who believe.” Or in Galatians 3:7, “Those who are of faith…are sons of Abraham.” In James, Abraham here is an illustration of saving faith for both Jew and Gentile.
You already know the high points of Abraham’s life. Abraham was anxious to have a son, and God promised Abraham he’d have one–an heir. Abraham believed God’s promise and in Genesis 15 and Romans 4, his faith gave Abraham the righteousness for salvation. Genesis 15:6, “Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” So Abraham was saved by true faith. Then later that faith was proven by works–which is why James describes . . .
2 The EXPRESSION of True FAITH—Works
Verse 21b, “justified by works”—“was not Abraham our father justified by works.” If you have any sense of sound doctrine, that phrase will make you squirm or scream heresy. Paul teaches we’re justified by faith–James says we are justified by works. What? Is James denying the heart of the Gospel of grace? Is James disagreeing with Paul? No.
HISTORICALLY–in Acts 15, James fully supported Paul’s preaching of salvation by grace through faith at the Jerusalem council. And in Acts 21, James defended Paul’s reputation among the Jewish believers in Jerusalem. Nowhere in the New Testament do you see Paul and James wrangling over the core essentials of the Gospel. On the contrary, historically they are always in support of each other.
BIBLICALLY–there are two different nuances of the word to justify. The Greek verb can either mean to declare righteous, as in a legal proceeding. Or, the word justify can mean to demonstrate righteous. Paul uses justify most often as to declare righteous. And James here is using justify as to demonstrate or prove as righteous. You are declared righteous when you are saved by grace through faith. And when you genuinely have true faith, you will demonstrate righteous works. When James says in verse 21 that Abraham was justified by works, James is telling us Abraham demonstrated his righteousness, proving he was saved by grace through true faith.
THEOLOGICALLY–when Paul says you are justified by faith, he is looking at the root of salvation. At the moment of salvation, you are saved through faith plus nothing. On the other side of the coin, James is looking at the fruit of salvation. After salvation, after the root of faith is planted in you, our lives will bear the fruit of good works. Paul looks at justified as a part of the doctrine of salvation, and James uses justified as part of the doctrine of sanctification.
PERSPECTIVELY–James and Paul are looking at the Gospel from different viewpoints. Paul looks at life from a divine perspective–you’re justified by faith before a holy God. James looks at life from a human perspective–you are justified by works before men. James is addressing believers who have already experienced the free gift of salvation, so he uses the word justified to mean to demonstrate myself to be righteous in the sight of people to prove I’ve received God’s free gift of righteousness–that I was given saving faith.
I’ve adjusted Swindoll’s chart comparing Paul and James
|Romans 3:28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.||James 2:24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.|
|Uses justified to mean declared righteous for God’s glory||Uses justified to mean demonstrate righteousness for men’s assurance|
|Shows how an unbeliever comes to Christ –||Shows how a believer is assured he is in Christ –|
|Emphasizes the ROOT of salvation||Emphasizes the FRUIT of salvation|
|Demonstrates God’s action in saving||Demonstrates God’s evidence of salvation|
Each one of you here is in desperate need–you’ve lied, lusted, been angry, selfish, proud, defiant, disobedient. And not only violated most of God’s perfect law, but all have fallen short of His perfect character. And our sin has defiled us so deeply, there is nothing we can possibly do in ourselves or by our own power to make ourselves right or acceptable before the Lord. We cannot in any way save ourselves–we must be saved, we must be justified. And justification comes through faith.
Wiersbe says, “Justification is the act of God whereby He declares the believing sinner righteous on the basis of Christ’s finished work on the cross. It is not a process; it is an act. It is not something the sinner does; it is something God does for the sinner when he trusts Christ; when he has saving faith.” Make no mistake, salvation has always been and always will be by grace alone, through faith alone and in Christ alone.
In the New Testament, we look back to Christ. In the Old Testament, they looked ahead to Christ. But salvation was always by God’s grace though faith. But how can you tell if a person is justified by faith, if this transaction takes place between the sinner and God privately? James shows us from Abraham’s example.
3 The ACTION of True FAITH—Sacrifice
Verse 21c, “when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?” Abraham’s example answers the important question–the question of how we know it is true justification, true salvation, by true faith? The justified person has a changed life and obeys God’s Word, wanting God’s will. His faith is demonstrated by works. His faith is proven by works. This is what Abraham did when he obeyed God’s Word to sacrifice his son, Isaac.
Fifteen years after Abraham was given righteousness by faith, God tested his faith fifteen years after Abraham was converted–after he became a believer by faith God tested Abraham. Abraham already had faith in God, therefore, he was not afraid to obey the Lord in a very difficult test, found in Genesis 22. Abraham sacrificing Isaac threatened to break God’s promise to Abraham to birth a great nation to reach the nations through Isaac. Plus, this command contradicts God’s law against murder/human sacrifice. In spite of that, Abraham fully trusted God.
In Genesis 22:3, without question or wavering, “Abraham rose early in the morning … and went to the place of which God had told him.” We do not know what went through Abraham’s mind or Isaacs, but he told the young men who were with them, verse 5, “Stay here … and I and the lad will go over there; and we will worship and return to you.” Abraham believed, no matter what happened on Mount Moriah, that both he and Isaac would return alive.
Imagine your faith being tested like this. God took Abraham to the point where the blade was about to be plunged into the heart of his “only begotten son,” his son who was his delight, the one who was his only link to God’s promises to him. Hebrews 11:17 to 19, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son; 18it was he to whom it was said, ‘In Isaac your descendants shall be called.’ 19He considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead.”
Although no one yet had sacrificed a person for God, to then raise him from the dead–Abraham knew God could resurrect Isaac. Abraham believed in the character of God, that God would never violate either His divine promise to him, or His holy law on murder. As a result, true faith was put on display. True faith was proven.
4 The VERIFICATION of True FAITH—Completed
In verse 22, James continues to explain the nature of true faith, “You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected.” It is not that salvation requires faith plus works, but that works are the outgrowth and completion of genuine faith. Verse 22, perfected refers to bringing something to its end, or to its fullness. Just as a fruit tree has not arrived at its goal until it bears fruit, those with true faith have not reached their intended goal until they live a life of good works.
Jesus said in Matthew 7:20, “You will know them by their fruits.” Bearing fruit is not a function added to a plant, but is an integral part of its design and purpose. MacArthur states, “Even before it is planted, a seed contains all the genetic structure for producing its own kind of fruit. When a person is born again through saving faith and is given a new nature by God, you have the genetic structure, as it were, for producing moral and spiritual good works. In that sense, your faith verse 22 is perfected.”
In that sense, Abraham was justified by works. His willingness to sacrifice Isaac, his son of promise, was the work by which his justification by faith was verified and made obvious to all. That is true faith, the faith God teaches in Scripture.
5 The AUTHENTICATION of True FAITH—Scripture
James 2:23 quotes Genesis 15–what’s going on in Genesis 15? Abraham had just won a resounding victory over the kings of the East. He rescued Lot from slavery, met with Melchizedek, learned a new name for God, and refused all dealings with the king of Sodom. Then Lot and his family left. Once the chatter of Lot’s children was no longer ringing in his ears, Abraham felt his own childlessness more keenly than ever.
That was when God enlarged His promise. He pointed Abraham to the stars and said, “Count them! So shall your descendants be.” At this point, Moses tells us what James quotes in verse 23a, and the Scripture was fulfilled, which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” That is the crucial truth of imputed righteousness. James says the Bible teaches a salvation by faith alone. Abraham believed God and he was made righteous.
In the great argument of the book of Romans, Paul uses Abraham as an illustration to prove that salvation has always been through faith, even in the Old Testament. Romans 4:2 to 5, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’” His faith is credited as righteousness.
Abraham had no Bible to read, but he dependently responded to all God revealed, and it was then that his trusting faith was reckoned to him as righteousness. His faith expressed dependence upon God supplying a savior for sin. You and I today look back at Christ. Abraham looked ahead. His faith changed him so much, he experienced . . .
6 The AFFECTION of True FAITH–Intimacy with God
Verse 23b describes Abraham’s sweet relationship, “and he was called the friend of God.” This title, found in 2 Chronicles 20 and Isaiah 41, describes personal relationship. Abraham was God’s friend, and God drops by to visit and talk to him from time to time. But don’t miss the connection of the phrase, “friend of God”, to its context in James. Abraham was made righteous by faith. Abraham proved his faith through obedient works. So because his faith was genuine and proven by works, verse 23 says Abraham entered into intimate fellowship with the Lord–a genuine friendship.
The Greek verb called a friend is what God called Abraham, not what Abe called God. And the basis of their divine friendship was Abraham’s obedience–his justification by works. You cannot be friends if you don’t agree, don’t head the same direction, don’t defer to the other, don’t remain faithful and obedient. Jesus made this clear in John 15:14, “You are My friends if you do what I command you.” It was his obedience, the expression of true faith, which cultivated an intimate friendship.
Those who feel far from God are the disobedient. You were meant to be intimate. You were saved so that you may personally know Christ–so be obedient. As a Christian, you are designed to be able to say, “Jesus Christ–personal friend of mine.” John 17:3, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” Regeneration creates faith, and true faith always produces intimacy with Christ for the obedient. This leads to . . .
7 The SUMMATION of True FAITH–Evidenced by Works
Verse 24 is the summary, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Remember, James uses the term justified to mean to demonstrate righteous–not declare righteous. It was Abraham’s works which proved his faith was true. Do you profess Christ with your lips, but deny Christ with your life? Paul said it this way in Titus 1:16, “They profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him.”
In Titus, Paul also said true faith will show itself by being an example of good deeds–engaging in good deeds, even being zealous for good deeds. When faith is married to works, you know new life has been conceived. James does not allow works as a means of salvation, but insists works be a proof of salvation. Be encouraged my friends–Abraham was not a perfect man. We know he was a liar–his faith was not perfect, nor were his works perfect. But the overall pattern of his life as filled with good works, even the willingness to sacrifice his own son, Abraham faithfully validated his saving faith.
MacArthur says, “When a man is justified before God, he will always prove that justification before other men. A man who has been declared and made righteous will live righteously. Imputed righteousness will manifest practical righteousness. In the words of John Calvin, ‘Faith alone justifies; but the faith that justifies is never alone.’”
Second RAHAB is an example of TRUE FAITH Verse 25
Why does James choose to use Rahab as an example? John Calvin adds, “In order to show more clearly that no one, whatever…his…condition, nation or class in society, has ever been counted righteous without good works.” Rahab was a Gentile and a prostitute. Abraham was a moral man, she was an immoral woman. He was a noble Chaldean, she was a degraded Canaanite. He was a great leader, she was a common citizen. He was at the top of the social-economic order, she was at the bottom.
What does James say in Verse 25? “In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?” Rahab was a pagan prostitute, living in a big, wealthy, influential, but doomed City, Jericho. Rahab was without God, without Christ, and without hope. Rahab was under the sentence of death with no prospect of escape. Then came the two Hebrew spies. Even under the threat of torture and death, Rahab seized her one chance of salvation (the worst punishments are always reserved for traitors). Rahab believed in the one true God, then showed her faith by protecting Joshua’s men.
Joshua 2 tells us Rahab was an innkeeper in Jericho. When Joshua sent two men into Jericho to spy it out, her inn was a logical place to go, because it was on the city wall and did not require venturing far into the city. When the king of Jericho heard of their presence, he sent the military police to Rahab’s house to arrest them. But Rahab falsely reported that the spies had left the city just before dark and suggested that the soldiers go after them. She demonstrated her faith by hiding the two men on her roof. And after the officials left, she expressed her faith that was demonstrated toward these two men.
Now she lied. Lying is sin–don’t debate it, it happened. James doesn’t comment. One commentator weakly said, “Wartime ethics are different.” Mmmm? Another said, “Her lying was sinful. She had been raised in a debauched, pagan society that the Lord was about to destroy, where lying and all sorts of gross sin were the norm. But when she had an opportunity to demonstrate her trust in the Lord, she placed her life on the line.”
Look at Joshua 2:9 to 12 where Rahab speaks, “’I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that the terror of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land have melted away before you. 10For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed.
11When we heard it, our hearts melted and no courage remained in any man any longer because of you; for the Lord your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath. 12Now therefore, please swear to me by the Lord, since I have dealt kindly with you, that you also will deal kindly with my father’s household, and give me a pledge of truth.’”
Rahab says the exploits of Israel’s God shattering the power of Egypt are well-known–the miracles that followed you Israelites as you traveled from place to place in the wilderness over the past forty years were not done in secret. The recent destruction of the Canaanite kings brought the fear of Israel’s God upon all the people of Jericho. But only Rahab did anything about it. Listen to her faith for the Lord your God. He is God in Heaven above and on Earth beneath. But she not only had faith, she also acted. Her faith worked. She pleaded that salvation might be extended to her and her family.
Then she helped the spies escape over the wall on a scarlet rope. That rope, in turn, became the token of her promised salvation. She was to bind it in the window of her house, which stood on the city wall. She and her family were to shelter inside that house–the single house protected by the scarlet rope. And she was to hold her tongue. Rahab did all of that. Jericho fell, but Rahab’s house remained standing.
Rahab and her family were spared. Her faith was manifested, she was justified by faith that was demonstrated by works. As with Abraham and every other true believer, imputed righteousness based on faith resulted in practical righteousness reflected in good works. James now finalizes his proof that true faith works, with an everyday example.
Third THE BODY and SPIRIT is an example of TRUE FAITH Verse 26
James does a reversal to summarize the entire paragraph on false faith and true faith. James ends the paragraph with verse 26, which clarifies that false faith also reveals itself. Verse 26, “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” James likens dead faith to a dead body. James says here, if you have a professed faith without works, or you are a phony who says with your lips you have faith but show with your life you have none–James likens that false faith to a body without the Spirit. Both are useless and devoid of any genuine life.
My brother had me check out the dead bodies he worked on in medical school. He forced me to touch one. When I did, it spoke to me and said, “Stop poking me.” No, there was no reaction. All that was left was organized clay. I could dress it up, take it out to dinner, talk to it–but there would be no response at all. The immaterial spirit had left. My friends, your faith (the Christian life)–if it isn’t lived out in ongoing works, is just as dead. The Spirit of God doesn’t indwell that kind of fake believer–they’re still dead spiritually. All real belief behaves. All true faith works. All genuine Christians do good deeds. And those who don’t are as spiritually dead as someone whose spirit has left their body.
A The general direction of a true Christian’s life will demonstrate good WORKS
No professing Christian’s faith is true unless their genuine faith moves them to action. Each person who has been made righteous by Christ will live righteously. Every person with imputed righteousness will manifest practical righteousness. John Calvin said, “Faith alone justifies; but the faith that justifies is never alone.” Is your Christian faith true faith saving faith? Where are the works to prove it?
B True Christians will choose Christ over their deepest IDOLS
What is your idol? It could be entertainment, your phone, your kids, your money, your health, your friends, your ministry, your work, your pleasure, your escape and more. Abraham’s would have been Isaac. Rahab, possibly her own life. When your faith is true, you will be pressed with trials, and tested with temptation, and ultimately your idols will be exposed. But if you have true faith, you will seek to follow Christ even over your idol–that which is most dear to you/that which competes with Christ.
You won’t sacrifice your children, but you will surrender them in your heart. You won’t burn your clothes, but you may stop spending so much money on them. You may not give up all sports, but you will stop watching them 24/7. You will not throw away your phone, you will stop looking at it between every discussion. You will not quit your job, but you will stop making it your identity. When you have genuine faith, Abraham and Rahab show us they will give up anything in order to obey their God, especially when your biggest idol is exposed. Will you?
C Be ENCOURAGED by imperfect examples of faith
Rahab had been a prostitute and lied about the spies. Abraham tried to fulfill God’s promise his way, committed adultery and birthed a child who would oppose the nation of Israel for centuries. Abraham also lied–not once, but twice, about his super beautiful wife being his sister. There is no excuse for their sin. But are you not encouraged by the fact that though sinful and imperfect, both Rahab and Abraham are examples of faith to us.
God does not expect perfection, but proof of faith. God does not expect greatness, but good works from true faith.
D No one can be saved apart from true faith in CHRIST
Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” This is a sobering reality; all who profess faith in the Lord Jesus Christ will not be saved. But God loves you so much, He tells you to, 2 Corinthians 13:5, “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves.” Do that now. Let’s pray.