Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
Justified by Works
by Doyle D. Dewberry
"What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. -James 2:14-26"
Some who look into this epistle feel there is a dispute between James and Paul because Paul emphasizes in Romans that no flesh is justified by the deeds of the law, or by works (Rom 3:20), and James here contends in a sense a justification by works as both Abraham and Rahab the harlot demonstrated. James does not deny, but also holds to justification through faith when he speaks of such by Abraham:
And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only" (v.2:23).
James is not saying a man is justified savingly by works. What he is saying is a man who has saving faith has works. It is faith made perfect. Nor do we say that a man is saved and justified by works only. The point James makes has to do with that kind of faith which is no more than profession without possession - mere assent, and thus, dead faith, and not from the gift of faith which follows regeneration. In Ephesians 2, Paul first speaks of being quickened (made alive) which is spiritual quickening (v.2:1), as we are dead in trespassses and sins. He does this before he tells us that faith is the gift of God (2:8-9). While Paul emphasizes we are justified before God through faith; James tells us that our good works is evidence of true saving faith - it is faith made perfect.
One way we can know of true saving faith is when God perfects our faith, and tests us to show us we have such. In other words God tests our faith, not to see if we have such, as He certainly knows that being the bestower of it, but to show us we have it, as He does not test faith until He has perfected it. The perfecting of Abraham's faith is a classic example of faith being the gift of God. And such was the case of Abraham. Paul tells us Abraham staggered not at the promises of God through unbelief (Rom 4:20). But you have to remember Abraham did stumble somewhat with an inperfect faith until Sarah, who was barren, and could not bear him an heir, was enabled ultimately to bear a son according as God had promised him. It was not until then that we read of Abraham being tested, and it is also verified in Hebrews:
And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt (test) Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of (Gen 22:1-2).
By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son (Heb 11:17).
It is at this point that Paul makes reference of Abraham staggering not at the promise of God. What James is saying concerning the faith of Abraham is that it was perfected, and we can see such as well in Abraham when he saw the mighty power of God to do the humanly impossible, for Abraham was certainly obedient to the command of God when he, without hesitating, took Isaac to the mount to offer him up. You could hardly say Abraham believed God if he disobeyed Him at this point. He learned that what God said He would do, He could do, and did so for Abraham when He enabled Sarah to bring forth his only begotten son. While Abraham's faith was imputed unto him for righteousness, his obedience of works was proof that he had true saving faith. The same is similar to Rahab when she aided the messengers to escape from Jericho.
Faith is like a fruit tree - if it does not bear any fruit it is a dead tree. Faith is the root; works is the fruit! Faith is the ground; works is the evidence! The real lesson of this text is that bare profession of faith is not a sign of possession of salvation. If we merely believe and our lives are not a witness of that faith, then our faith is dead and we are not saved. While we are not saved by works, James tells us that true saving faith is followed by good works. While Paul maintains in Romans of our justification before God - James does so of our justification before men. If we are justified through Jesus Christ before God, which is not through works, then our lives will give evidence of it before men by good works. James speaks of the good works which follow faith. John Owen, the puritan of old, said this as his judgment of the design of James in writing this passage:
There were then among professed Christians, such as the world now swarms withal, who suppose that their faith, or the religion which they profess, be it what it will, shall save them, although they live in flagitious wickedness, and are utterly barren as unto any good works or duties of obedience. Nor is there any other occasion of what he writes intimated in the epistle; for he makes no mention of seducers, as John doth expressly and frequently, some while after. Against this sort of persons, or for their conviction, he designs two things,- First, In general, to prove the necessity of works unto all that profess the gospel or faith in Christ thereby. Second, to evidence the vanity and folly of their pretence unto justification, or that they were justified and should be saved by that faith that was indeed so far from being fruitful in good works, as that it was pretended by them only to countenance themselves in sin. Unto these ends are all his arguments designed, and no other (Justification By Faith, p.389).
We seek to show in this message the import of this passage by setting forth five examples given by James which show that good works follow true saving Faith:
I. IF A MAN HAS SAVING FAITH HE WILL CARE FOR THE DESTITUTE BROTHER OR SISTER, OR HE OTHERWISE HAS DEAD FAITH:
If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone" (vs.14-17).
James selects a common practice of unregenerate man. While the true Christian helps a brother or sister in need, mere profession of faith just ignores such. They following the saying of the world: "Me and my wife, and my son John, his four, and no more!" He may help his immediate family, but no other. God's people are a family, and the true believer, being a part of that family, helps one of his own when there is the need. It corresponds to that table of the law which emphasizes Love thy neighbor (near one) as thyself. It does not mean he takes on the worlds troubles, but he does bear the burdens of a fellow believer. The neighbor is a near one in the community of God's people:
Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law (Rom 13:8-10).
While it is so that works follow true faith, there is a sense in which some works without saving faith are wrought by some in order to be saved. It is no more than self-righteousness, which is just as much condemned as dead faith - being dead works.
II. IF MERE BELIEVING WERE EFFECTUAL THEN THE DEMONS THEMSELVES WOULD BE SAVED:
Thou hast faith, and I have works: show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils (demons) also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? (vs.18-20).
James testifies of his faith! and he shows that he has saving faith by his works. Some examples of the faith of demons is shown in the Gospels. They know Jesus is the Son of God, and they certainly believe there is one God - but it is not that faith which comes through regeneration - which is the gift of God. Demons do not seek the best for man, but only his doom in their on-going effort of fighting God, as their head insists, the devil himself, whom they follow. Our Lord warns us of false prophets and their works, By their fruits ye shall know them (Matt 7:17-20).
We should well remember the words of demons as to their assent to faith as given in the Gospels as it is recorded they said: Jesus, thou Son of God, art thou come to torment us before our time? (Matt 8:29). And in Luke, one acknowledges, I know thee who thou art; the Holy One of God. (4:34). Does it not show that mere assent, a form of profession only, is not true saving faith! The true believer is likened to a good tree which bringeth forth good fruit. The false prophet is as a corrupt tree which bringeth forth fruit of its kind. And thus those having true saving faith, as James tells us, show their faith by their works.
III. IF ABRAHAM BELIEVED ONLY AND HAD NOT WORKS THEN HE WOULD NOT BE TESTIFYING TO A SAVING FAITH UNTO JUSTIFICATION:
But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only (vs.20-24).
James explains that Abraham's faith wrought with his works. He is not saying that Abraham was justified by works alone, but that faith includes works. By his works was "faith made perfect." He acknowledges his faith was imputed unto him for righteousness, and he was called the friend of God, but the fact is his faith was tested by his works as we have already set forth, and it all goes to show that man is not saved by mere assent to the Gospel, but by a means which stands the test of obedience in good works. Paul proves we are not saved by works alone, but the gift of faith will produce good works. In Ephesians, where we are told that faith is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast, we are also told:
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus UNTO GOOD WORKS, which God hath before ordained that WE SHOULD WALK IN THEM" (Eph 2:10).
It is a great honour done to Abraham, that he is called and counted the friend of God. You see then, (v.24) how that by works a man is justified, (comes into such a state of favour and friendship with God,) and not by faith alone; not by a bare opinion or profession, or believing without obeying, but by having such a faith as is productive of good works (Matthew Henry).
IV. IF RAHAB THE HARLOT HAD BELIEVED ONLY AND HAD NOT WORKS SHE WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN SAVED WHEN JERICHO FELL:
Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? (v.25).
This passage does suggest that Rahab was justified in the sight of God. Alas, she is still referred to as the harlot, but could just as well be called Rahab the saint! the justified one! She not only believed, but she also put action to her faith by sending the messengers out another way. It not only saved their lives at the time, but hers as well, for when Jericho fell, as they remembered Rahab, and she was spared when the city fell! Rahab the harlot was listed in that grand declaration of faith right along with the patriarchs of old, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, as the stalwarts of saving faith:
By faith the walls of Jericho fell down, after they were compassed about seven days. By faith the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not, when she had received the spies with peace (Heb 11:30-31).
It all seems like such an insignficant thing for one so lowly, but to God it was the height of true saving faith, and it signified more in greatness than the fall of Jericho. It was the highlight of the entire event. It was a great demonstration of God's almighty power when the great walls surrounding Jericho fell, and an entire city perished, but it is far more for one soul to be spared out from the many which perished in unbelief. In this manner, God is more glorified in the salvation of His people by faith and obedience. She was in the midst of an unbelieving people - but she believed and proved it. Rahab went on to become the mother of kinsman redeemer, Boaz, who was in the line to David the king.
V. IF WE HAVE FAITH WITHOUT GOOD WORKS WE ARE AS A BODY WITHOUT A SPIRIT - DEAD:
For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also (v.26).
Two great truths emerge here: 1. The life of our fleshly body is dependent upon our possession of soul and spirit, the invisible part of man. Yet, more so is this fact: 2. The spiritual life of one is the possession of the indwelling Spirit, for without Him we are spiritual dead. And what does this teach? As a body without the spirit is dead, so is faith deat without works! So are works dead apart from the fruit of the Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit is the good works produced in us as fruit is produced on a fruit tree. Love is the fulfilling of the law! (Gal 5:14), and how is the child of God enabled to love as such?
But the FRUIT OF THE SPIRIT IS LOVE, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law (Gal 5:22-23).
In conclusion, we quote from Lange's commentary:
There are three things that make the integrity of Christian faith: Believing in the word of God, confidence in His goodness, and keeping His commandments. Believing is the least thing in a justifying faith; for faith is a conjugation of many ingredients, and faith is a covenant, and faith is a law, and faith is obedience, and faith is a work, and indeed it is a sincere cleaving to and closing with the terms of the Gospel in every instance, in every particular. (vol.12, p.91).
We are admonished to make our calling and election sure, and there is no better way than to take stock of our faith. Dear Reader, does your faith lead to good works, or is it a dead faith leading to dead works? or no works at all? Permit us to remind you like Paul, whose word here shows his agreement with James:
Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; that being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This is a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men. (Titus 3:5-8). Amen!
Minister Doyle D. Dewberry, formerly of Alameda, California, is an outstanding student of the Bible, and the beloved retired Pastor and author of Sovereign Grace Baptist Proclaimer, Setting Forth The Doctrines of Grace In Salvation. He can be reached by email at sovereigngrace at 5star-living dot com.