True, Living Faith Justified by Works

An Exposition of James 2:14-26 (a sermon preached at Christ Our Hope PCA)

We’re going to do something unusual this morning.  We’re going to parachute into James chapter 2, for just one sermon.  (We usually preach through books of the Bible.  Next week, God willing, we’ll start a new series through the Gospel of Luke.)  So, why are we doing this one sermon in James chapter 2?  We’ve spent some time recently in the book of Galatians.  The major theme of Galatians is summed up in chapter 2, verse 16, where Paul writes, …a man is not justified by works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, …  Or, as Paul puts in Romans 3:28, Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.  This is part of the backdrop for the Reformation slogan, Sola fide!  By faith alone!

But then we have James chapter 2, verse 24, where James writes: You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.  Our Roman Catholic friends love to quote this verse, and say, “Well?  What are you going to do with THAT verse?  You have to take Paul and James, put them together, and conclude that justification before God is by faith AND works.  We need God’s grace to HELP us, but we cooperate with that grace, by our works, in order to be justified in the end.”  Is that true?  Luther, Calvin, the Protestant Reformation – much ado about nothing?  On the other hand, critical bible scholars will say, “Hey, what’s the big deal?  It’s just one more contradiction in the Bible – among many others.  Clearly, James and Paul represent rival schools of thought in early Christianity.  James is obviously going after Paul with this statement.”  Finally, some well-meaning evangelicals will say, “Well, James may not be opposing Paul, but maybe he’s trying to balance Paul a little bit.  So people don’t get carried away by that faith alone thing.”  I think all of these alternatives are false.  If the Bible is the Word of God (which it is); if the Holy Spirit is the ULTIMATE author of Scripture (which He is); then there is no contradiction.  Not even a need for “balance.”  And as we read the context of James 2, I think it will become evident that Paul and James are dealing with different situations.  And James is even using the verb “justified” in a different way than Paul does, and for a different reason.

Most importantly, of course, this is the Word of Christ to YOU – and me.  To be frank, it is mainly a Word of LAW.  A call to examine yourself.  You claim that you are justified by faith alone in Christ.  That’s good, because that’s the Gospel.  But if your so-called faith REMAINS alone, with no evident works of love as its fruit, then you may want to take a closer look at what you call “faith.”  A true, living faith in Christ alone is justified by works.  Not YOU, but your claim to faith.

v So, who is James anyway?  James is the half-brother of Jesus.  He is the son of Joseph and Mary, and grew up in the same family as Jesus.  (Imagine that!)  How do we know this?  In Mark 6, Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth is offended at Him, at His high-falutin’ teaching & miracles.  “Where did this Man get these things?  And what wisdom is this which is given to Him, that such mighty works are performed by His hands!  Is this not the carpenter, the Son of Mary, and brother of JAMES, Joses, Judas, and Simon?…”  So they were offended at Him.  And in Galatians 1, verse 19, Paul directly identifies James as “the Lord’s brother.”

  • James is not one of Jesus’ followers in the Gospels.  But according to 1 Corinthians 15, after Jesus is raised from the dead, He makes a special appearance to James.  James then becomes a pillar in the church in Jerusalem.  He becomes a pastor.  And this letter of James is clearly the words of a pastor to his beloved congregation.  In fact, some believe it is basically a sermon that James preaches – and then reformats into an epistle, to share with other Jewish congregations in and around Jerusalem.
  • The Church in Jerusalem is a persecuted church, a suffering church.  It is persecuted not only by Rome, but by its fellow Jews who do not believe that Jesus is the Messiah.  It is also a poor Church.  It has lost many of the social supports of the Jewish community.  So when persecution or famine comes, it is devastating to this church.  In fact, we see in several of Paul’s letters his efforts to take up a collection among the Gentile churches for the suffering saints in Jerusalem.  Some of these trials, some of the tensions between rich and poor, are evident in this letter.  And some of this will serve as a backdrop for what we read in James 2.
  • As we read James, some will scratch their heads a bit.  Some have said, there isn’t much evangelical, Gospel character to this letter.  In fact that’s the context for what Luther said about James, as an “epistle of straw.”  But that’s not all Luther said about James.  In fact, he took this supposed contradiction between James and Paul head on.  And he says there is none.  For brevity, I’ll just give you Luther’s conclusion:  “Therefore, justification does not require works of the Law [as Paul says]; but does require a living faith, which performs its works [as both James and Paul agree]” (WLS 2250).
  • Finally, I would say that repentance and faith in the Gospel are CLEARLY taught in James 1, verse 21:  Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness [repent!], and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls [believe!]That implanted Word is the Gospel.  And like Paul, James here places the priority on passive faith – the faith which RECEIVES the saving grace of God in the Gospel.  Then James focuses almost exclusively on ACTIVE faith – what Paul calls the faith which works through love in Galatians 5, verse 6.  Both James and Paul agree with Hebrews 11:6, which says:  Without faith (that is, faith in the one true God, whose promises are Yes and Amen in Christ!), it is impossible to please God (that is, with our works).  So let’s dig into our text.

A true, living faith in Christ alone is justified by works – as you love and care for your brother or sister in need (verses 14-17).  What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?  Can “faith” [or THAT faith] save him?  If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?  Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 

v These are rhetorical questions, intended to make some very clear points.  There IS no profit – no spiritual, eternal profit – for someone who says they have faith, but does not have works.  Such faith CANNOT save him.  Such a person is NOT a Christian.  Because the faith they think they have is no faith at all.

  • The example James gives is not far-fetched for the suffering saints in Jerusalem.  A brother or sister is naked – not literally.  But they have insufficient clothing for the cold Jerusalem nights.  They are in real danger of exposure, hypothermia, even freezing to death.  They do not have enough food to get by each day.  They are starving.  Imagine someone in our congregation.  No job.  Unemployment has run out.  He’s been evicted.  He has no money, no food, no place to sleep.  And it’s the middle of January.  “Well, God bless ya, brother.  Here’s hopin’ God provides for all your needs!”  Is that a living faith?  A faith which works through love?
  • The example James provides here has a parallel in 1 John 3:16-18:  By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us.  And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethrenBut whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?  My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth
  • You profess faith in Jesus Christ, who made Himself poor, to enrich us with the forgiveness of our sins.  You profess faith in the love of Jesus, who loved you and laid down His life for your salvation.  To deliver you from eternal peril.  Can that faith save you, when it apparently thinks so little of the love and mercy God has shown you?  When it refuses to love a needy brother in deed and in truth?  To deliver a brother or sister from their physical peril?  The faith which receives the love and mercy of God in Christ is shown to be true and living faith – as it extends love and mercy to your brother or sister in need.  Otherwise the faith you claim to have is dead.  It is no faith at all.  And you need to repent of your dead faith – to embrace the living Christ, who died even to save you from your dead faith.

A true, living faith in Christ alone is justified by works – because a living faith cannot be separated from its fruit, verses 18-19.  But someone will say, “You have faith, I have works.”  Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.  You believe that there is one God.  You do well.  Even the demons believe – and tremble! 

v James takes on an imaginary opponent.  “You have faith.  I have works.  Each has his own gift, no?”  That’s not how it works.  You are saved by faith and only by faith.  You are saved by faith alone, but not by faith that REMAINS alone (as the Reformers said, in full agreement with James).  If you have a “lonely faith” – unaccompanied by works of love – you don’t have faith at all.

  • Notice what James says:  SHOW me.  And I will SHOW you.  This will be important when we get to that most controversial verse, which says a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.  James is talking about EVIDENCE.  EVIDENCE for a particular claim.  A claim to believe the Gospel.  A claim that one has repented of their overflow of self-centered wickedness and received with self-denying meekness the implanted Word of the Gospel.  “Try to show me your claim to have faith with no works, no fruit, no love.”  James says, “I will show you that I believe in the Jesus who loved me and gave Himself for me – as I DO works of love.  I will show you that I have received with meekness His self-giving, self-sacrificing love – as I evidence at least some measure of a self-giving, self-sacrificing love.  Now, my works are nothing like His.  My works are not perfect.  My works are not without sin.  His works are perfect and sinless.  My works do not save me.  His works save me.  But my works are the inseparable fruit of my faith.  My works are really His works in me.  My works are evidence that He has made me a new creation, a new man who walks by faith, which works through love.”
  • And folks, the apostle Paul does not disagree.  Ephesians 2:8-10:  For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.  For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in themGalatians 5:6:  For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through loveOr Galatians 6:15, what matters is a new creationDoes Paul sound like he would have an issue with James, or vice versa?
  • Your so-called faith may CONFESS the truth.  As true faith MUST.  You say you believe and confess that God is One.  That’s the good old confession of faith from Deuteronomy 6:4.  Every faithful Jew, every faithful Christian confesses likewise.  You even confess Jesus Christ, the only Begotten Son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, who suffered under Pontius Pilate and died for our sins.  You confess that He rose from the dead the third day, ascended to heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God.  You confess that He will come from there in glory, to judge the living and the dead.  You confess the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.
  • All well and good!  Guess what?  The demons know the Creed – and likewise “believe” it.  Their doctrine is orthodox, too.  In fact, they know that the Truth they believe will condemn them in the end.  That’s why they tremble.  And on that count, their so-called “faith” is more honest than yours – if your so-called “faith” is fruitless, lifeless, dead.  Such faith is self-deceptive folly. Worse, it is fatal, forever.
  • The Truth must be believed and confessed.  God is One, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, came into the world to save sinners.  He lived for us, died for us, and rose again for us.  But the TRUTH of this GOSPEL is a living truth.  Faith in this truth transforms us.  It unites us to Jesus in His death to sin.  It unites us to His resurrection to new life.  Gospel Truth is both objective AND personal.  It is TRUTH which produces LIFE.  True faith in Christ will produce good works in your life.  Jesus redeems you and renews you.

A true and living faith is justified – vindicated! – by works, as shown by believing patriarchs and prostitutes!  Verses 20-26:  But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?  Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?  Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect (or complete)?  And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”  And he was called the friend of God.  You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.  Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?  For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

v So we remember what James is trying to do here.  He is opposing what we might call today “decisionism.”  I made a decision for Jesus.  I prayed the sinner’s prayer.  I asked Jesus to come into my heart.  I went forward at a Billy Graham Crusade.  The counselors there told me that I was born again.  That I would go to heaven when I die.  Hey, I love reading books about the end times – VERY entertaining.  Or how to have my Best Life Now – VERY fulfilling.  God thinks I’m great – and I agree!  My life is barely different than any other self-centered consumer of stuff – whether material or spiritual stuff.  Sure, I’m a believer – and I believe it’s all about me!

  • Self-centered sinners are saved by faith alone.  But not by a faith which remains alone – and leaves us undisturbed and unrepentant in our self-centered sin.  Those who say they are justified by faith – their claim to faith will be justified by their works – self-denying, self-giving works of love.  If you have no such works, you have no such faith.  Jesus redeems AND renews self-centered sinners.

v If you think you can separate faith from its fruit, consider Abraham.  Was not Abraham our Father JUSTIFIED BY WORKS when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?  Well, this sure sounds like it contradicts Paul.  Paul cites Abraham as the paradigm of faith, the patriarch who was justified by faith ALONE.  Justified before whom?  Justified in what sense?  Justified before God, by the God-given gift of righteousnessAbraham was reckoned by God as righteous – graciously.  Romans 4, where Paul cites Genesis 15, verse 6 – which James also quotes in verse 23 of our passage.  Hmmm.

  • James says Abraham was justified by works – in Genesis 22.  Let’s ask the same questions.  Justified before whom?  Justified in what sense?  Remember what James is addressing.  SHOW ME your faith BY your works.  Vindicate to ME your claim to HAVE faith with some tangible, observable evidence, namely, your works.  Abraham believed God – and we see that his faith was evidenced by works – in Genesis 22, when he offers Isaac, the son of promise, on the altar.  Don’t you see?  Abraham was justified, vindicated, shown to be a believing man before our eyes in Genesis 22 by his works.  That’s what James is saying.  SHOW ME your faith BY your works.  Like ABRAHAM did.  Abraham the BELIEVER from Genesis 15, is Abraham the believing DOER in Genesis 22.
  • The word “justify” is used by Paul in the theological sense of what we call forensic justification.  That is, God declares believing sinners righteous on account of the righteousness He gives us – the righteousness of His own Son.  We receive that righteousness by faith alone.  But the same word “justify” is also used in the sense of “to DEMONSTRATE,” “to VINDICATE.”  Here’s an example.  In Matthew 11, verse 19, Jesus is answering those who call Him a “friend of tax collectors and sinners.”  (Thank God, it’s true!  Jesus is a friend of sinners like us!)  But Jesus, as He often does, gives a somewhat cryptic answer:  “…wisdom is JUSTIFIED by her children.”  Wisdom is vindicated, is shown to be TRUE wisdom by its children, its offspring, its fruit.  Jesus is saying, “You think My association with tax collectors and sinners is FOOLISH, SINFUL.  Wait and see.  It will result in the salvation of sinners.  Wisdom is justified, vindicated, show to be wisdom, by her children.”
  • It is in this sense that James is using the word “justify.”  He is not using it in the vertical “before God” sense.  He is using it in the horizontal “before man” sense.  Abraham is justified before our eyes in Genesis 22, that he is indeed a believing man.  A man who believes the Gospel promise of God.  How?  He offers his son Isaac by a living, working faith.  As a man who is indeed already justified by the free grace of God, as we see in Genesis 15.  His faith is a true and a living faith.  As Hebrews 11:17-19 says, By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, “In Isaac your seed shall be called,” concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense. 
  • And in that sense, Abraham’s work completed his faith.  It showed that his faith was not dead, but livingNot false, but true.
  • So now the meaning of verse 24 is clear:  You see then that a man is justified by works – a man who claims to believe, is vindicated, is shown to be a believer by works! – and not by faith only – not by a mere claim to believe, as Abraham himself demonstrates.

v “Well, wait a second.  Abraham was a PATRIARCH.  God appeared directly to him, and made promises to him.  As you yourself said, James, in the Jewish tradition, we call Abraham the ‘friend of God.’  No wonder Abraham believed and did such great things.”

  • “Well, what is true of believing patriarchs is also true of repentant, believing prostitutes!  Rahab the harlot.  Same thing.  She was a pagan.  She heard that the God of Israel was fighting FOR Israel.  He delivered them from Egypt, through the Red Sea.  And now He was overthrowing the pagan nations in the land of Canaan.  She knew she was on the wrong side, and believed in the One True God – the God who saves His people and defeats all their enemies.  And then she was vindicated as a believer, she was justified by her works, when she received the messengers and sent them out another way.  Again, Hebrews 11 commends her living, active faith with these words:  By faith the harlot Rahab did not perish with those who did not believe, when she had received the spies with peace. 


v And so James concludes:  For as the body without works is dead, so faith without works is dead also.  To which the apostle Paul would say, “AMEN, brother James!”  So Paul and James are not opposed.  The Holy Spirit who inspired the words of both men does not speak with a forked tongue.  James speaks of a faith that works.  Paul likewise speaks of a faith which works through love.  They do accent different things, for different reasons.  Paul opposes the legalists, who would add works to justification by faith alone.  He places the accent on the priority of passive faith, which only receives Christ and Him crucified for the forgiveness of sins, for the verdict of “no condemnation.”  James places the accent on the fruit of this passive faith – active, living, working faith.  He opposes the “decisionists” – whose claim to believe cannot be justified, because they have no works of love.


  • Do your works justify your claim to believe in Jesus as your only hope of salvation?  Now, you don’t need to put your child on an altar as an offering to God.  You don’t even need to risk your very life by siding with the one true God, and hiding the spies.  Jesus loves you.  He gave Himself for you.  He died for you.  To deliver you from your sin, from death, from the evil one.  Believe and receive His love, which forgives you all of your sins and gives you life in His name.  And that receiving faith then works through a giving love.  That passive faith will become an active and fruitful faith.
  • You don’t need to put your child on the altar.  But you can love and serve your children, as you feed them.  Provide for them.  Teach them about this Gospel.  Tell them what’s right and what’s wrong.  Instruct them in the Ten Commandments and the Apostles Creed.  Teach them the Lord’s Prayer.  Read to them the Word of God.  These are all humble works of love, the fruit of a living faith.
  • You don’t need to risk your life.  But you can still side with the one true God.   You can come to His house, to receive His Gospel gifts each Sunday.  Let the pagans play soccer, watch football, make an extra buck, and blow off worship.  And Monday to Friday, or Saturday, you can do your job well, even when no one is looking.  You can do the right thing for your boss, your subordinate, your customer.  You can help your brother or sister in need.  All of this may not be spectacular stuff.  But it is faith working through love.  Hidden, perhaps, to the eyes of this world – just as the glorious love of Jesus was veiled behind the weakness of flesh, dying for you on the Cross.
  • I think the best man to summarize what James says here is none other than Martin Luther.  This is from his preface to the book of Romans:

Faith … is a divine work in us which changes us and makes us to be born anew of God, … It kills the old Adam and makes us altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers; and it brings with it the Holy Spirit. O it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such works, however, is an unbeliever. He gropes and looks around for faith and good works, but knows neither what faith is nor what good works are. Yet he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works.[1]

Enough talking.  Believe Christ.  Love your neighbor.  Christ alone gives us this gift of faith – and it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing.

[1] Luther, M. (1999). Vol. 35: Luther’s works, vol. 35 : Word and Sacrament I (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (370). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Published by pastor tony phelps

Pastor of Christ Our Hope PCA in Wakefield, RI

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