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Author:Rev. David Stares
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Congregation:Reformed Church of Masterton
 New Zealand
Title:Saints Justified by Works
Text:James 2:21-26 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. David Stares, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

James 2:21-26 Manuscript

Certainly, I can’t imagine that everyone was sitting in their seats comfortably as we rea the line ‘a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.’ This is no doubt especially the case that as we are so adamant on the doctrine of justification by faith apart from the works of the law, which we get in Philippians 3, Ephesians 2, Galatians 3, Romans 1-5. I could go on! Does the Bible contradict itself on the relationship of faith and works in salvation?

It doesn’t, and as we dig into the passage before us we will see this.

Because we are shown to be righteous by our works, we will not have an isolated faith.

1) Like Abraham

2) Like Rahab

1) Like Abraham

No doubt you can sense that there is an inherent connection between the last section of James what we have in front of us this morning. James has just commanded that we need to be willing to help one another, and that someone who is not willing to make that most basic effort for a brother or sister in Christ, then we have a dead faith. A person who thinks they are a Christian but doesn’t bear any fruit or have any love doesn’t have a living faith. Now, that is not designed to strike the heart of believers earnestly desiring to serve the Lord, but not succeeding in the way they want. It is to warn those who are refusing to do what God has clearly commanded. And if this describes them, then they run the risk of having a demonic faith. One which intellectually acknowledges truths, but which is not produced by God because it doesn’t produce love. This is how the demons are, yet of course such a faith is not saving. He warns them about refusing to do as God commands.

Now, as we come to verse 21 we begin this phrase v.21. And this is perhaps a phrase that causes the most consternation in the book of James. Why is that? Because it seems to run in direct opposition to what we find elsewhere in the New Testament. In fact, of all the people that you would think this would be said about, Abraham would be the last. Why? Because he is used, seemingly, elsewhere to demonstrate the exact opposite point! In Galatians 3 we read that everyone who is under the law, who tries to be justified by the law, such a person is cursed because they can’t actually do it. But then we read “Even so Abraham BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS. Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham.” But perhaps even more pointedly we find this in Romans 4, “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.”

And now, we have James asking a question in v.21. And he expects the answer yes. That when Abraham offered his son, he was justified by works.

Now, what becomes clear here is that this illustration wasn’t pulled from nowhere. Abraham is used, no doubt, because of how prominently he features in the writing and preaching of Paul. From the previous section it is clear that, there are people who want to emphasize faith over works. No doubt this is inspired by a misunderstanding of Paul’s teachings. And they may be appealing to this very text, saying, “Abraham needed only to believe. What works did he need to accomplish to be right with God?”

And this is where James jumps in. And he does so by referencing one of the most well known events in the history of Israel, where God commanded that the child of promise be sacrificed. Many of you remember the story. God told Abraham to offer Isaac on a distant mountain. And Abraham rose early and went to do so. And as he had his hand raised to slay his son, he was stopped by God through the mouth of an angel. And a substitute was given. A ram caught in a thicket. And the ram was slain instead. Giving, right at the beginning of the covenant people a picture of the gospel. This was the beginning of a nation that would be redeemed by the sacrifice of another.

You see, the emphasis of the opponents of James fell on what we read in Genesis 15:6 and which is quoted elsewhere, and they were thinking that Abraham was a man who had mere faith, however what is clear is that Abraham is a man whose faith provoked him to action.

This is not to say that faith is not a factor. As James explains v.22. Abraham’s actions were the product of a heart of true faith that understood that it was necessary to obey. That understood that when God gave a command, that he could not simply just ignore it. Faith works together with works.

When there is this unity, James says, faith is perfected. Now, this is a word that we have seen before in James. If we look at 1:4, we see that the goal of trial is that we would be perfect. When we looked at this at the time we saw that this is describing a person whose faith and actions are in alignment, who are not tossed here and there, but are stable and secure in their faith and life, a person who is whole. And James uses this word here once again. Faith is made whole by works. So that what was said about Abraham was fulfilled. As James mentions in the next verse, the actions of Abraham were a fulfillment of the faith of Abraham. Yes, we are told in Genesis 15 that Abraham believes, but this is proven in his actions in Genesis 22.

And what is the result? Abraham is blessed. As God says “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.” The promise that God made to Abraham in Genesis 15, which he believed then, is now restated because his faith has been proven by his works.

And so this helps us, as we look at verse 24, and as we consider that the word ‘justify’ can have different meanings. When Paul uses it, he means a legal declaration based on the merit of Christ. When James uses it he means it in contrast to a demonic faith, which has no works, and so ‘justify’ means that a person is shown to be righteous. That the genuine character of his faith was put on display as he made this sacrifice. And this aligns perfectly with the question presented in v.18. He is shown to be righteous by works, James says, and not by faith alone.

And for those still worried about contradictions, consider what Hebrews 11 says about Abraham “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son; it was he to whom it was said, “IN ISAAC YOUR DESCENDANTS SHALL BE CALLED.” He considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead, from which he also received him back as a type.” There is no contradiction between pointing to Abraham’s faith and his works. The unified message of the Bible is that Abraham was a man a faith which produced works.

2) Like Rahab

And as a second example, one which is perhaps jarring as a choice is Rahab. V.25 And what is interesting is that there is not so much discussion of her situation, and this is probably because her story was not as much of a hot topic as Abrahams in the church. And yet, this also proves the point that James is making.

Because what is largely assumed in this passage is that she, too is a woman of faith. And if we look back at the account of rahab in Joshua 2 we find there a clear account of her faith, as she says to the spies, “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. When 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.”

Now, here is what is interesting about Rahab’s faith. According to her own profession, she doesn’t have an elaborate theology. She has only basic data that she has gleaned from hearsay. But even though her knowledge may be lacking in our estimation, her faith is proven. As James recounts v.25b.

Once again, a well-known Old Testament story. When the spies of Israel came to her home she received them, she brought them up to the roof and hid them between the flax. Then, she sent the pursuers off in the wrong direction, while she let them down on a rope through the window. What distinguishes Rahab from the rest of the nation of Jericho? Her knowledge of the mighty acts of god led her to faith, and this faith motivated her to act in love toward the people of God and against her own countrymen. As we read in Hebrews 11, “By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish along with those who were disobedient, after she had welcomed the spies in peace.” In doing so she left her own people and joined herself to God and his people. Bringing her into the nation of Israel and ultimately, we find, into the genealogy of David, and Jesus Christ himself.

And yet the question still remains: why Rahab? And I think James gives us a clue here when he describes her as ‘the harlot.’

First of all, is this not a testimony to the grace of God? Here is a woman whose life could not have been more in opposition to the law of God. Whatever her conscience might have been telling her was right, she was doing the opposite. And yet, she was called to faith. It shows that there are no barriers to being loved by God. There is nothing in your past that can keep you from his love. There is nothing you have done that can’t be forgiven. And this fact is shown over and over in scripture. God’s grace is boundless and amazing. There is nothing, nothing at all to prevent you today from turning to God in faith like Rahab.

But there is perhaps an even more amazing truth here. You have this woman, raised in a gentile land, living a godless lifestyle, who has her heart changed. And when she has someone knock on the door, two brothers in need, what does she say? Does she say, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled’? Like the Christians that James criticizes in the previous section? No. She acts, she helps, she protects, she loves. The people might object that Abraham walked many years with the Lord before he was called to sacrifice Isaac, years to learn obedience. But James says, look at Rahab. This gentile prostitute naturally figured out what the (mainly) Jewish Christians are missing.

And this, too should produce hope in us. No one is beyond the work of the Holy Spirit. No matter what your past is. No matter how selfish, how sinful, how rebellious you have been against God and against your neighbour, if even Rahab can obey, if even she can have a faith that produces the fruits of love, then believe that God can do that in you as well. But there is a challenge there as well. You don’t get to say, ‘well, this is just who I am.’ You don’t get to say, “this is how I was brought up.” You don’t get to say ‘I’m not wired for loving my neighbour.’ Because none of us are naturally wired to love our neighbour, but it is God who powerfully changes that in us and causes us to be directed in care towards others!

So, v.26. Let us show that we have faith that is living, that is not demonic, that is not faith-by-itself. As the saints of old did, let us show our faith by our works, and when we do, we can be confident that we are friends of God.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. David Stares, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright, Rev. David Stares

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