Taken and adapted from, The Works of John Owen, Edited by William H Goold, Volume 5, “The Doctrine of Justification by Faith Through the Imputation of the Righteousness of Christ; Explained, Confirmed, and Vindicated”
Written by John Owen, 1677
Modernized by, William H. Gross, May 2003,
James Concerning Faith and Works
Many take advantage of the seeming difference that exists between the apostles Paul and James concerning faith, works, and justification.
This requires our consideration of it.
Some of the words and expressions used by James seem to directly oppose the doctrine fully and plainly declared by Paul. But whatever appears to do so, has already been so satisfactorily answered and removed by others, that there is no great need to repeat them. Although I suppose there will be no end of contending and writing about these things, the doctrine has not been in the least impeached, nor has any new difficulty arisen in any recent discourses to that purpose. While we “know in part, and prophesy in part,” I must say that, in my judgment, there is no problem in securing the doctrine of justification by faith, through the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, from any concern or contradiction in the discourse of James, chap. 2:14, to the end.
To this purpose it may be observed that,
1 It is taken for granted, on all hands, that there is no real inconsistency or contradiction between what is delivered by these two apostles. If there were, the writings of one of them must be pseudepistolae, or falsely ascribed to those whose names they bear, and uncanonical. Some have highly but rashly questioned the authority of the Epistle of James historically and of late. Therefore, their words are certainly capable of a just reconciliation. The only reasons why any of us might not agree to this, is because of the darkness of our own minds, the weakness of our understandings, and with too many, the power of prejudices.
2 It is also taken for granted, when there is an appearance of contradiction in any passages of Scripture, that if any of them treat the contradicted matter directly, designedly, and extensively, while others speak of the same things only occasionally, transiently, or for other purposes, then the truth is to be determined from the former. The interpretation of those passages where any truth is mentioned only occasionally, with reference to other things or purposes, is to be taken from and accommodated to those other passages whose design and purpose is directed to that truth. It guides the faith of the church in that truth. There is no more rational and natural rule of the interpretation of Scripture agreed upon by common consent.
3 According to this rule, it is unquestionable that the doctrine of justification before God is to be learned from the writings of the apostle Paul. Light is to be taken from them to all the other places of Scripture where it is occasionally mentioned. This is especially true considering how exactly this doctrine represents the whole scope of the Scripture. It is affirmed numerous times by particular testimonies speaking to the same truth. It must be acknowledged that Paul wrote about our justification before God on purpose, to declare it for its own sake, and for its use in the church. He does that fully, extensively, and frequently, in a constant harmony of expressions. And he acknowledges the reasons that pressed him to fullness and accuracy in this:
(1.) The importance of the doctrine itself. He declares that our salvation immediately depends on it, and that it is the hinge on which the whole doctrine of the gospel turns, Galatians 2:16-21; 5:4, 5.
(2.) The plausible and dangerous arguments made against it. They were presented with such specious pretenses, that very many were turned from the truth by it (as were the Galatians). Many others were detained from the faith of the gospel by their dislike for it, Romans 10:3, 4. Anyone who declares truth knows the care and diligence it requires. The zeal, care, and circumspection it stirred up in the apostle is obvious in all his writings.
(3.) The abuse that the corrupt nature of man is apt to heap on this doctrine of grace. He takes notice of this, and thoroughly vindicates the doctrine from giving the least countenance to such distortions and unfair demands. Certainly, there was never a greater necessity incumbent on anyone to fully and plainly teach and declare a doctrine of truth, than was on Paul at that time, considering the place and duty that he was called to. There is no imaginable reason why we should not learn the truth of it principally from his declaration and vindication of it, especially if we believe that he was divinely inspired and guided to reveal its truth to the church.
As for what was delivered by the apostle James regarding our justification, things are quite different. He does not undertake a declaration of the doctrine of our justification before God.
He had another purpose in mind, as we will see immediately. He vindicates the doctrine from the abuse that some had put it to in those days, as they did with other doctrines of the grace of God. They turned it into licentiousness. We primarily learn the truth in this matter from the writings of the apostle Paul. And he plainly declares how the interpretation of other passages is to be accommodated.
4 Some recently are not of this mind. They earnestly contend that Paul is to be interpreted by James, and not the contrary. To this end, they tell us that the writings of Paul are obscure. They tell us that various ancients agree, and that many find errors in them, or things of a similar nature that are scandalous to Christian religion. Because James is writing after Paul, they say he is presumed to give an interpretation to Paul’s sayings. Therefore, Paul is to be understood by that interpretation.
In Answer to this:
First, there is no need to vindicate the writings of St. Paul, which are beginning to be criticized. This is one effect of the secret prevalence of Atheism today. That will be left for a more proper place. I do not know how anyone, who pretends to have the least acquaintance with antiquity, can take a passage out of Irenaeus, in which he was obviously mistaken, or a rash word from Origen or the like, to derogate the perspicuity of the writings of this apostle. They must know how easy it is to overwhelm their charges with testimonies to the contrary from all the famous writers of the church in several ages. For example, there are forty places in which Chrysostom explains why some men did not understand Paul’s writings, which were so gloriously evident and perspicuous. So for their satisfaction, I refer them only to the preface to his exposition of Paul’s epistles, and to similar evidence in due season. But Paul does not need the testimony of men, nor of the combined church, whose safety and security is built on the doctrine which he taught. In the meantime, it would not be unpleasant to consider how those who have the same purpose agree in their conception of his writings. Most of his epistles were written against the Gnostics, to refute their error. Others point out that the Gnostics were mistaken in their understanding of his writings. Men are so bold to use divine things to satisfy their present interest.
Secondly, this criticism was not the judgment of the ancient church for three or four hundred years. Because the epistles of Paul were always esteemed the principal treasure of the church, the great guide and rule of the Christian faith, this epistle of James was scarcely accepted as canonical by many, and doubted by most, as both Eusebius and Jerome testify.
Thirdly, the purpose of the apostle James was not at all to explain the meaning of Paul in his epistles, as some pretend. It was only to vindicate the doctrine of the gospel from its abuse by those who used their liberty to cloak maliciousness, and who turned the grace of God into lasciviousness. They continued in their sin under a pretence that grace had abounded to that end.
Fourthly, the apostle Paul vindicates his own doctrine from the exceptions and abuses that men turned it into. There is no other doctrine in his epistles than what he preached the world over, and by which he laid the foundation of Christian religion, especially among the Gentiles. These things being said, I will briefly show there is not the least inconsistency or contradiction between what is declared by these two apostles as to our justification or its causes. And this I will do,
1. By some general considerations of the nature and purpose of both their discourses.
2. By a particular explication of the context of James.
Under the first I will show,
(1.) That they do not have the same scope, design, or purpose in their discourses. They do not
consider the same question, state the same case, or determine the same inquiry. Thus, they are
not speaking “ad idem,” to the same thing, and do not contradict one another.
(2.) That because faith has various meanings in the Scripture, and denotes various kinds of
things, they are not speaking of the same kind of faith. Therefore, there can be no contradiction in what the one ascribes to it and the other takes from it.
(3.) That they do not speak of justification in the same sense, or to the same ends.
(4.) That by works, they both mean works done in obedience to the moral law.
As to the scope and design of the apostle Paul: the question which he answers, and the case which he presents, are manifest in all his writings, especially in his Epistles to the Romans and Galatians. His whole purpose is to declare how a guilty, convinced sinner comes to be accepted by God. He says it is through faith in the blood of Christ. Hereby he has all his sins pardoned, and he obtains a right to the heavenly inheritance; that is, he is acquitted and justified in the sight of God. This doctrine belonged eminently to the gospel. Its revelation and declaration to the Gentiles was uniquely committed to Paul. As we have newly observed, he had a special reason to insist on it because of the opposition that was made to it by the Jews and Judaizing Christians. They ascribed this privilege to the law, and to our own works of obedience done in compliance with the law. This is the case that he states. This is the question that he determines in all his discourses about justification. And in its explication, he declares the nature and causes of our justification, and vindicates it from all exceptions.
All men naturally desire what God has made eternally inconsistent. They want to live in sin here, and come to blessedness hereafter. Men of corrupt minds, who are willing to indulge their lusts, might conclude that if we are justified freely, through the grace of God, by the imputation of a righteousness that originally and inherently is not our own, then no more is required of us. There is no need to relinquish sin, no need to attend to the duties of righteousness and holiness. Paul obviates such impious suggestions, and shows they are not a necessary consequence of the doctrine that he taught. But he does not do this by intimating or granting that our own works of obedience or righteousness are necessary to our justification before God, nor that they cause it. If such were true, it would be inconsistent with the whole of his doctrine, and destructive of it. He would not have omitted such an assertion, as we have shown. It is foolish and impious to suppose that it was necessary for anyone else, like James, to explain Paul’s doctrine, or to defend it against the same exceptions that Paul identifies, using a plea that he would not make himself, a plea which indeed he rejects.
The apostle James, on the other hand, had no such scope or design, nor did he have any such occasion for what he wrote in this matter. He does not inquire about it, or intimate any such
inquiry. He does not state the case for how a guilty, convinced sinner, whose mouth is stopped as to any plea or excuse for himself, may come to be justified in the sight of God. He does not address how he may receive the pardon of sins and the gift of righteousness to life. To resolve this question through our own works, is to overthrow the whole gospel. Instead, he had in mind a business of quite another nature. As we have said, there were many in those days who professed faith in the gospel, presuming that because they were already justified, there was nothing more needed to be saved. They thought they had attained a desirable estate, suited to all the interests of the flesh. They thought they might live in sin, neglecting all their duties of obedience, and yet be eternally saved. Some believe they imbibed this pernicious conceit from the poisonous opinions that some then espoused. The apostle Paul foretold that this would come to pass in 2 Timothy 4:1-4. It is generally agreed that, by this time, Simon Magus and his followers had infected the minds of many with their abominations. Among them was that faith meant a liberty from the law and a freedom to sin. It took away all difference between good and evil.
Or it may be that it was only the corruption of men’s hearts and lives that prompted them to seek after such a countenance to sin. I judge that this was their motivation. Among professed Christians then, were those who assumed that their faith, or whatever religion they professed, would save them. And it would do so even though they lived in flagrant wickedness, utterly devoid of good works or duties of obedience. There is no other occasion intimated in the epistle. Paul makes no mention of seducers, as John expressly and frequently does some time later. Against these sorts of people, to convict them, James designs two things:
First, to prove the necessity of works for all those who profess the gospel and thereby faith in Christ.
Second, to evidence the vanity and folly of their pretenses to being justified, and that they should be saved by a faith that was so far from being fruitful in good works, as to countenance their sin. These are the purposes of all his arguments, and no other. He effectively proves that faith which is completely barren and fruitless as to obedience, and which men pretend can countenance their sins, is not that faith by which we are justified, and by which we may be saved. It is a dead carcass, of no use or benefit, as James declares by the conclusion of his whole dispute in the last verse of chapter 2. “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.”
He does not tell anyone how to be justified before God, but convinces some that they are not justified by trusting to such a dead faith. He declares how anyone may evidence and display that he is justified indeed. His design is so plain that nothing can be more evident. Therefore, the principal design of these two apostles being so distant from each other, there is no inconsistency in their assertions, despite the appearance of their words. They do not speak of the same things in the same respect. James does not once inquire how a guilty, convinced sinner, condemned by the law, may come to be justified before God; and Paul speaks of nothing else. Therefore, we must apply each of their declarations to their proper design and scope, or we will depart from sober rules of interpretation, and render it impossible to correctly understand either of them. There is no disagreement, or appearance of it, between them.
(2.) They do not speak of the same faith. Therefore, there can be no discrepancy in what one ascribes to faith and the other denies concerning it. If one person says he is talking about a real fire, and another says he is talking about a painting of a fire, there is no contradiction between them if the first says that his fire will burn and the other denies that his own will. We proved before that there are two sorts of faith, one by which men are said to believe the gospel, and another by which they make a profession of it. What belongs to one does not belong to the other. I do not believe that anyone will deny that the kind of “faith” necessary to our justification is what St. Paul properly calls “kurios.” The only kind he means is the “faith of God’s elect,” “precious faith,” “more precious than gold,” “the faith that purifies the heart, and works by love,” “the faith by which Christ dwells in us, and we abide in him, by which we live to God,” “a living faith.” He ascribes all these things and more to the faith that he insists is the only means on our part to obtain our justification before God. But the faith meant by the apostle James has none of this assigned to it. What he means is what he calls it: a dead faith, a carcass without breath, the faith of devils, a wordy faith. It is no more truly faith than sending away naked and hungry people without relief would be truly charity. He may well deny that any justification results from this kind of faith, whatever the boasting; and yet justification may properly be ascribed to the kind of faith that Paul speaks of.
Bellarmine uses several arguments to prove that the faith meant by James here is justifying faith when considered in itself. But these arguments are contemptibly weak, being built on the assumption that true justifying faith is nothing but an assent to catholic doctrine, or divine revelation: De Justificat. lib. 1 cap. 15.
His first argument is that, “James calls it ‘faith’ absolutely, by which the Scripture always means true faith.”
1. James calls it a dead faith, the faith of devils; and he casts all manner of reproach on it. He would not have done that if he meant any duty or grace that was truly evangelical.
2. Not every faith that is true, as to the reality of the assent it gives to the truth, is living, justifying, or saving faith, as has been proved.
3. There are those who are said to have faith absolutely, or who absolutely believe, who never had true and saving faith; John 2:23 (they believed in his name, but Jesus did not commit himself to them); Acts 8:13, 21 (Simon Magus believed, but had neither part nor portion in the kingdom).
Secondly, Bellarmine urges that, “in the same place and chapter that he addresses the faith of Abraham, James affirms that it was wrought with his works, James 2:22, 23; a vain shadow of faith does not do this. Therefore, it was true faith that the apostle meant, and it is most properly called so.”
This presence is ridiculous. The apostle does not give the faith of Abraham as an instance of the kind of faith that he treated so severely, but what is directly contrary to it. By this faith he planned to prove that the other faith was of no use or advantage to those who had it; for this faith of Abraham produced good works, which the other faith did not.
Thirdly, he urges verse 24, “‘You see then how a man is justified by works, and not by faith only;’ for the faith that James speaks of justifies with works, but a false faith, the shadow of a faith, does not. Therefore, it is true, saving faith of which the apostle speaks.”
Bellarmine is utterly mistaken. The apostle does not ascribe justification partly to works, and partly to faith. In the sense he meant it, he ascribes justification entirely to works, in opposition to the faith he speaks of. There is a plain antithesis between works and faith as they relate to justification, in the sense he meant. A dead faith, a faith without works, the faith of devils, is excluded from having any influence on justification.
Fourthly, Bellarmine adds that, “the apostle compares this faith without works to a rich man that gives nothing to the poor, verse 16; and a body without a spirit, verse 26. Therefore, just as a rich man’s knowledge of the wants of the poor is true and real, and a dead body is still a true body; so faith without works is still true faith, and is considered as such by St. James.”
These things clearly destroy what they are produced to confirm, except that the cardinal helps them out with a little sophistry. Because the apostle compares this faith to the charity of a man that gives nothing to the poor, he suggests that this man has knowledge of their poverty. And his knowledge may be true. But more true and certain it is, the false and feigned is his pretended charity expressed in these words, “Go, and be fed and clothed.” Such is the faith that the apostle speaks of. And although a dead body is a true body in being a carcass, it is not the essence of a living man. A carcass does not have the same nature as the body of a living man in being prepared and fitted for all vital acts. And we assert no other difference between the faith spoken of by the apostle and justifying faith, then the difference that exists between a dead, breathless carcass, and a living animated body.
Therefore, it is evident beyond all contradiction, unless we want to be contentious, that the faith which the apostle James refers to here is only a dead, barren, lifeless faith. It is the kind usually pretended by ungodly men to countenance their sins. And this is not the kind of faith asserted by Paul.
(3.) They do not speak of justification in the same sense or for the same purpose. The apostle Paul addresses our absolute justification before God, including our acceptance with God, and the grant of a right to the heavenly inheritance, and that alone. He declares all the causes of that justification, all that is involved on the part of God, and on our part. He does not address the evidence, knowledge, sense, fruit, or manifestation of it in our own consciences, in the church, or to others that profess the faith. He speaks of those things separately on other occasions. There is only one justification he speaks of, that is at once accomplished before God, changing the relative state of the person who is justified. It is capable of being evidenced various ways, to the glory of God and the consolation of those who truly believe.
The apostle James does not address this at all. His whole inquiry is about the nature of that faith by which we are justified, and the only way by which it may be evidenced as the right kind, or one that a man may safely trust to. Therefore, he addresses justification only as to its evidence and manifestation. He had no reason to do otherwise, and this is apparent from both instances he uses to confirm his purpose. The first is that of Abraham, verse 21-23. He says that, by Abraham’s being justified by works, in the way James asserts, “the Scripture was fulfilled which says, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed to him for righteousness.” If his intention was to prove that we are justified before God by works, and not by faith, because Abraham was justified that way, then the testimony he uses directly contradicts what it should prove.
Accordingly, it is left to Paul to prove that Abraham was justified by faith without works, as the words plainly signify. No one can declare how the proposition that, “Abraham was justified by works,” (meaning absolute justification before God,) could fulfill this Scripture, “Abraham believed God, and it was imputed to him for righteousness.” This is especially true considering the opposition that is made both here and elsewhere between faith and works in this matter of justification.
Besides, Bellarmine asserts that Abraham was justified by works when he offered his son on the altar (Genesis 22:12). We believe the same thing, but we ask in what sense he was justified by that. For the testimony of Scripture is that this was thirty years or so after “he believed God, and it was imputed to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). And when righteousness was imputed to him, he was justified. He was not justified twice in the same sense, in the same way, and with the same kind of justification. How, then, was he justified by works when he offered his son on the altar? It was only that, by his work in offering his son, he evidenced and declared in the sight of God and man that he was already justified long before. This is unquestionable and confessed by all. He was justified in the sight of God as declared in Genesis 22:12, and he gave a signal testimony to the sincerity of his faith and trust in God, which manifested the truth of the Scripture that, “He believed God, and it was imputed to him for righteousness.” In quoting this testimony, the apostle James openly acknowledges that he was truly accounted righteous, had righteousness imputed to him, and was justified before God, long before the justification that he ascribes to his works. Therefore, his works can only be the evidencing, proving, and manifesting his justification. Hence, it also becomes apparent what the nature of faith is that justifies us, the declaration of which is the principal design of the apostle. In brief, Bellarmine alleges that the Scripture, “Abraham believed, and it was imputed to him for righteousness,” was fulfilled when he was justified by works as he offered his son on the altar. This was done either by imputing righteousness to him, or by a real efficacious righteousness inherent in him, or by manifesting and evidencing his former justification, or by some other way that must be found out.
First, it is plain in the text that it was not by imputation, because it was imputed to him long before, and in a way by which James proves that righteousness is imputed without works.
Secondly, it is also plain that he was not justified by inherent righteousness, because he was righteous in that sense long before his justification; he abounded in works of righteousness to the praise of God. It remains, therefore, that he was justified to evidence and manifest his prior faith and justification.
James’ other instance is Rahab. He asserts she was “justified by works, when she received the messengers, and sent them away.” But she received the spies “by faith,” as the holy Ghost witnesses in Hebrews 11:31. And therefore she had true faith before they came. If so, she was really justified then, for no one can be a true believer and not be justified; that would destroy the foundation of the gospel. In this condition, she received the messengers and made a full declaration of her faith to them, Joshua 2:9-11. After believing, and being justified based on that, and after the confession she made of her faith, she endangered her life by concealing and sending them away. Hereby she justified the sincerity of her faith and confession. In that sense alone, she is said to be “justified by works.” In no other sense does the apostle James mention justification in this passage.
(4.) As to the “works” that are mentioned by both apostles, they mean the same works. There is no disagreement in the least about them. The apostle James means works of obedience to God according to the law. This is evident from the whole first part of the chapter which discusses faith and works. The same is meant by the apostle Paul, as we proved before. And as to their necessity in all believers as evidence of their faith and justification, it is no less pressed by one than the other; as has been declared.
These things being premised; we may observe some things in particular from the discourse of the apostle James. They sufficiently evidence that there is no contradiction in what is delivered by the apostle Paul concerning our justification by faith, the imputation of righteousness without works, and the doctrine we have learned from him and declared.
- He makes no compromise or mixture between faith and works in our justification, but
opposes one to the other, affirming the one and rejecting the other as to our justification.
- He makes no distinction between a first and second justification, or the beginning and continuation of justification. He speaks of only one justification, which is our first personal justification before God. Nor are we concerned with any other justification.
- He ascribes this justification entirely to works, in contradistinction to faith in that sense of justification which he meant, and the faith which he discussed. Therefore,
- He does not inquire or determine how a sinner is justified before God at all. Instead, he is concerned with how those who profess the gospel can prove or demonstrate that they are believers, so that they do not deceive themselves by trusting in a lifeless and barren faith. All these things will be further evidenced in a brief consideration of the context itself, by which I will close this discourse.
From the beginning of chapter 2 to verse 14, he reproves those to whom he wrote for their many sins against the law, the rule of their sins and obedience, or at least he warns them of them. Having shown them the danger they were in, he reveals the root and principal cause of it in verse 14. This was none other than a vain and deceptive presumption that the faith required in the gospel was nothing but a bare assent to its doctrine. They presumed that they were delivered from all obligation to moral obedience or good works, and that they might, without any danger to their eternal state, live in whatever sins their lusts inclined them to, chap. 4:1-4; 5:1-6. The whole topic he addresses is the state of such people, and it defines and measures the interpretation of all his future arguments: “What does it profit, my brethren, though a man say he has faith, and have not works? Can faith save him?” (2:14).
Suppose someone is guilty of the sins charged in the foregoing verses, and yet he boasts that he has faith. He makes a profession of the gospel. He has left either Judaism or Paganism, and committed himself to the faith of the gospel. Therefore, although he is destitute of good works and lives in sin, he believes he is accepted with God, and will be saved. Will this faith indeed save him? This is the question. The gospel says plainly that, “he who believes shall be saved.”
The issue is whether faith that indulges sin, and neglects duties of obedience, is that faith to which the promise of life and salvation is annexed? How may any man, who says he has faith, prove and evidence that he has that faith which will secure his salvation? The apostle denies that this faith can exist without works, or that any man can evidence himself to have true faith without works of obedience. His whole ensuing discourse consists of the proof of this. Not once does he consider the means and causes of the justification of a convinced sinner before God, nor had he any reason to do so. His words are openly twisted when applied to any such intention. The faith that he means and describes is altogether useless to attain salvation. He proves this by comparing it with love or charity of a like nature in verses 15 and 16. “If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be you warmed and filled,’ despite you not giving them those things which are needful to the body; what does it profit?” This love or charity is not that gospel grace which is required of us; for the love of God does not dwells in him he who behaves thus towards the poor, 1 John 3:17. Whatever name it may have, whatever it may pretend to be, whatever it may be professed for, it is not love, nor does it have any of the effects of love. It is neither useful nor profitable. Hence, the apostle infers in verse 17, “Even so faith, if it has not works, is dead, being alone.” He did not undertake to prove that we are justified before God by faith alone, without works. He undertook to prove that faith which is alone, without works, is dead, useless, and unprofitable.
Having given this first evidence to prove his thesis, he resumes the question and states it as a hypothesis in verse 18, “Yea, a man may say, ‘You have faith, and I have works: show me your faith which is without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
It is undeniably plain, that the apostle here again proposes his main question, but on an assumption that there is a dead, useless faith, which he proved before. For now, the only inquiry remaining is how true faith, of the right gospel kind, may be shown, evidenced, or demonstrated, so that it exposes the folly of trusting any other faith. “Deixon moi ten pistin sou,” meaning “Evidence or demonstrate your faith to be true by its only means, which is works.” He says, “You have faith, and I have works” or, “You profess and boast that you have that faith by which you may be saved, and I have works.” What he does not say is, “Show me your faith by your works, and I will show you my works by my faith,” which would be the antithesis. Instead he says, “I will show you my faith by my works.” The whole question concerns evidencing faith, not works.
He further proves that this alleged faith is not the faith that will justify or save us. Faith cannot be evidenced by works which it does not produce.
It consists only in a bare assent to the truth of divine revelation. This is no different than what the devils themselves have. No man can think or hope to be saved by what he has in common with devils, and in which he exceeds them. Verse 19, “You believe there is one God; you do well: the devils also believe, and tremble.” The belief in one God is not the whole of what the devils believe, but it is singled out as the principal, fundamental truth. Once conceded, an assent to all divine revelation necessarily ensues. And this is the second argument by which he proves an empty, barren faith is dead and useless.
The second confirmation being given to his principal assertion, he restates it again in a way that will lead to his final confirmation: “But will you know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?” verse 20.
Consider the words. First, he calls the person with whom he deals a vain man. This is not in general, because every man living is vain. He is someone who especially puffed up in his own vanity and fleshly mind. He is someone who has entertained vain dreams of being saved by an empty profession of the gospel, without any fruit of obedience.
Secondly, what he plans to do is convict this vain man. It is a conviction of that foolish and pernicious error that he imbibed: “Will you know, O vain man?” Thirdly, what he planned to convince him of alone is that “faith without works is dead;” that is, faith without works is barren and unfruitful; it is dead and useless. This is all that he undertakes to prove by his following examples and arguments. To twist his words for any other purpose, when they are all proper and suited to what he expresses as his only design, is to do violence to them.
He proves this thesis by considering the faith of Abraham, verse 21, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?” Some things must be observed to clarify the mind of the apostle in this:
- It is certain that Abraham was justified many years before the work referred to was performed. And long before, this testimony was given concerning him, “He believed in the LORD, and he counted it to him for righteousness.” The imputation of righteousness upon believing is all the justification we inquire or contend about.
- It is certain that, in relating the story repeated here by the apostle, not one word is spoken of Abraham being justified before God by that or any other work.
- It is plain and evident that, in the place referred to, Abraham was declared to be justified by a sincere and open attestation to his faith and fear of God, and that he evidenced these in the sight of God himself. God condescends to assume human affections in Genesis 22:12, “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” It cannot be denied that this is the justification which the apostle means; and this was the manifestation and declaration of the truth and sincerity of his faith by which he was justified before God. Hereby the apostle directly and undeniably proves what he produces this example for: that “faith without works is dead.”
- It is just as evident that the apostle had not said anything before as to our justification and its means. It is therefore absurd to introduce this passage as the proof of what he had asserted before, that we are justified by works, which it does not prove at all.
- The only safe rule of interpreting the apostle’s meaning, next to the scope and design of his present discourse, is the scope and circumstances of the passages which he takes his proof from. They were plainly these, and no other: Abraham had long been a justified believer, for there were thirty years or so between the testimony given to this in Genesis 15, and the story of sacrificing his son in Genesis 22. All the time he walked with God, he was upright in holy and fruitful obedience. Yet after many others, it pleased God to put his faith to his greatest and last trial. It is God’s way, in the covenant of grace, to try the faith of those who believe by such ways as seem appropriate to him. Hereby he manifests how precious the trial of our faith is, making it “more precious than gold,” 1 Peter 1:7. It raises up glory to himself; which it is the nature of faith to give him, Romans 4:20.
This is the case proposed by the apostle: how to determine whether the faith which men profess is genuine, precious, and of the same nature as that to which the gospel promise of salvation is annexed.
Secondly, this trial was based on works, by one signal duty of obedience that was prescribed to him for that very purpose. For Abraham was to be a pattern to all who would afterwards believe.
And God provided a signal way for the trial of his faith, which was by an act of obedience. This was so far from being commanded by the moral law, that it seemed contrary to it. If he is a pattern for us of justification by works, then these must be works that God has not required in the moral law, because they seem to be contrary to it.
Nor can anyone be encouraged to expect justification by works, by telling him that Abraham was justified by works when he offered up his only son to God. For it will be easy for him to say, that because no such work was ever performed by him, none was ever required of him.
But, Thirdly, upon Abraham’s compliance with the command of God, given to him as a trial, God himself ajnqrwpopaqw~v “anthropopathoos” [as if a man] declares the sincerity of Abraham’s faith, and graciously accepts and justifies him based on that. This is the whole design of the passage which the apostle fits to his purpose. It contains the whole of what he was to prove, and no more. Plainly, it grants that we are not justified by our works before God, because he only gives one instance of a work that was performed by a justified believer many years after he was absolutely justified before God. But this manifestly proves that “faith without works is dead.”
This is because justifying faith alone produces works of obedience, as is evident in the case of Abraham. On such a faith alone, a man is evidenced, declared, and pronounced to be justified or accepted with God. Abraham was not first justified at this point. He was declared to be previously justified by this work. This is the whole of what the apostle meant to prove. There is, therefore, no appearance of the least contradiction between Paul and this apostle.
Paul asserts that Abraham was not justified by works. James only declares that the works which he performed after he was justified manifested and declared him to be justified. In the next verse 22, he indicates that this was his whole design, “See how faith was wrought with his works, and by works his faith was made perfect?” He reinforces two things concerning the conviction of Abraham:
- That true faith operates by works; it is effective in obedience.
- That faith is made perfect by works; that is, it is evidenced as faith –nowhere in the Scripture does the word “teleios, teleioumai,” signify the internal, formal perfecting of anything. It only indicates its external complement or perfection, its manifestation. It was complete when he was first justified; and that was now manifested. See Matthew 5:48; Colossians 4:12; 2 Corinthians 12:9. The apostle says, “This I have proved in the instance of Abraham, namely, that it is works of obedience alone that can prove a man is justified, or to have that faith by which he may be so.” To confirm this affirmation, he adds, “And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was imputed to him for righteousness, and he was called The friend of God.’” (James. 2:23). The apostle affirms two things in this:
1 The Scripture mentioned was fulfilled. It was fulfilled in the justification by works which he ascribes to Abraham. But the only way to explain how this Scripture was fulfilled in this, either as to its timing or as to the justification itself, is that it was evidenced and declared. What the Scripture affirmed about Abraham so long before, was then evidenced to be true by the works which his faith produced; thus this Scripture was accomplished. Otherwise, taking into account the distinction he made between faith and works, and adding the sense of this passage given by the apostle Paul, nothing can be more contradictory to his design than quoting this Scripture if he meant to prove our justification is by works. Therefore, this quoted Scripture was not, and cannot be, fulfilled by Abraham’s justification by works. It is only that, by his works, Abraham was manifested to be justified.
2 He adds that, because of this, Abraham was called the friend of God, see also Isaiah 41:8; 2 Chronicles 20:7. This has the same importance as his being justified by works. For he was not called God’s friend merely as a justified person, but as one who received unique privileges from God, and responded to them walking holy before him. Therefore, his being called “The friend of God,” was God’s approval of his faith and obedience. This is the justification by works that the apostle asserts. Based on this, he makes a double conclusion (Rahab’s example is the same kind, so I will not repeat it here):
His first conclusion is, “That by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” Essentially, he is saying, “You, whom I intend to convince of the vanity of your imagination, dream that you are justified by a dead faith, a breathless carcass of faith, a mere assent to the truth of the gospel, and profession of it, while you continue in all kinds of impiety, wholly destitute of good fruits. Let me show you what kind of faith is required for justification and salvation. For Abraham was declared to be righteous, to be justified, on that faith which is wrought by works, and not at all by the kind of faith you pretend to have.” A man is justified by works, as Abraham was justified when he offered up his son to God. That is, what he really was by faith long before, as the Scripture testifies, was then and thereby evidenced and declared. And, therefore, let no one suppose that he can be justified by the faith which these people boasted of, seeing that the faith by which Abraham was declared to be justified, evidenced itself by its fruits.
He lays down that great conclusion which he planned to confirm, and proved, by his whole argument, “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (2:26). A breathless carcass and an unworking faith are alike, as to all the outcomes of natural or
This was what the apostle designed from the beginning to convict vain and barren professors of faith. Accordingly, this is what he gave sufficient reason and testimony for.