Abraham’s Living Faith: James 2:20-23

James continues his discussion on faith by again pointing out that “Faith without works is useless” (vs. 20). In verse 18 James demanded that these people, who claimed that a profession without any works was enough to be saved, demonstrate their faith in some way. The problem was that they did not have genuine faith, and by demanding that they demonstrate their faith James proved that they did not really have faith. James pushes on in verse 20 and asks “since you were not able to demonstrate your faith can you at least recognize now that your faith is useless.” It is important to note that both pistij and evrgwn have the article making them the faith and works already mentioned. So, faith that is only a shallow conviction in the broad knowledge of God without a godly life is useless. avgh carries with it the idea of fruitlessness, or lack of production. In other words, “faith without works doesn’t work.” Matthew has some serious words for someone like this in Mt. 7:19. Unfortunately it is clear that these people with dead faith were not willing to admit that James was correct. This is why, through the use of a hypothetical man, he refers to them as foolish. Their inability to understand the truth was not due to an ambiguity to the truth, but rather a reluctance to accept the truth. They were not willing to be taught. What we will see in the verses to come is that the faith of James’ opponents grows even dimmer when compared to the living faith of Abraham, and Rahab.James begins with one of the greatest example of faith recorded in the Scriptures, the faith of Abraham. What James shows his readers is that Abraham believed that God is one, and his works proved it. James also provides his readers with a question to ponder: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?” In response to this question someone might say that James is teaching justification by works, however to hold this interpretation is to misunderstand James. Let me give you several reasons why I would say this. First, the word justify (dikaiow) in the NT can have several different meanings. It can mean to be declared righteous which is most commonly used by the apostle Paul. It can also mean to vindicate, prove right, or demonstrate. The second of these two meanings is less common in the NT, however there are examples of it.

Luke 7:35 (NASB95): “Yet wisdom is vindicated by all her children.”

1 Timothy 3:16 (NASB95): By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness: He who was revealed in the flesh Was vindicated in the Spirit, Seen by angels, Proclaimed among the nations, Believed on in the world, Taken up in glory.It is best to view this second meaning as the meaning intended by James. To paraphrase James we could say “was not Abraham’s faith vindicated/demonstrated/proven when he offered Isaac his son on the alter?” This meaning fits best into the overall teaching of James; particularly within the context of this passage. Remember, just three verses back James demanded that these people demonstrate (or vindicate/prove) their faith and they were unable to do so. These people had abused the beliefs of Abraham to the point where they thought their empty confession of the shema could save them. It is only natural for James to show that Abraham’s faith was not just a mere profession but an extremely active principle. Abraham trusted God so much that he was willing to kill his own son to obey God (Genesis 22:1-22). Another reason to translate dikaiow as vindicate/demonstrate/prove is the chronology of events recorded in Genesis. If we were to take the view that Abraham was pronounced righteous by God on the basis of his works when he offered Isaac then we would have a pretty serious problem trying to harmonize this passage with Genesis. James states that Abraham was justified by what he did in offering up Isaac. Compare that with Romans 4:10-11 in which Paul states that Abraham was justified before he was circumcised. If we go back to Genesis we will actually see that Abraham was circumcised before he offered up Isaac (Genesis 17). The point is that the outward works demonstrated what James opponents were not able to demonstrate that Abraham had saving faith. Look back at Romans 4:10-11. The outward works in Abraham’s life were not the foundation of his justification they were a “sign” and a “seal” of his justification. As James puts it “his faith was working with his works.” Abraham’s faith was not just a saying-only faith, but a saying and doing faith. He heard God’s word and humbly received it (1:21). “As a result of the works, faith was perfected” in the life of Abraham. It was not as if Abraham had a defective faith that needed to be completed by works, but rather his works brought his faith to a point of maturity. This word translated “perfected” (evteleiwqh) is another tough word to translate because it can have several different meanings. When you have a word that can mean many different things it is always good to look at how the author uses them. Here is a list of the different ways that James uses this word:

James 1:4 (NASB95): And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

James 1:17 (NASB95): Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.
James 1:25 (NASB95): But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but 1an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.

James 2:8 (NASB95): If, however, you are fulfilling the 1royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.

James 3:2 (NASB95): For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.

There are a couple of different translations for this word including perfect, complete, and mature. If fact in John 19:30 this is word he used when He cried out “It is Finished.” So in the case of Abraham his faith was not only demonstrated by his works, but also brought to maturity by his works. Joseph Mayor put it this way, “as the tree is perfected by its fruits, so faith [is] by its works.” Further proof that works are the “seal” and “sign” of faith is found in vs. 23. By his good works Abraham fulfilled what the Scriptures said about him in Genesis 15:6. Going back to vs. 21 this is further proof that “justified” should be translated as vindicated/demonstrated/proven. In Genesis 15 Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness; in Genesis 22 Abraham was willing to offer Isaac on the alter and it proved that Abraham believed God. Therefore Genesis 22 proves what Genesis 15:6 said about Abraham to be true. The emphasis of James is on the amazing faith of Abraham, and what it enabled him to do. God made some amazing promises to Abraham about his descendants and in Genesis 15:6 Abraham believed in God and His promises. It was almost thirty years later, in Genesis 22, when Abraham’s faith was demonstrated when he was willing to offer up the fulfillment of God’s promise, Isaac, because God had commanded him to do so. Hebrews 11:17-19 gives us a glimpse into the thinking of Abraham. Here the writer of Hebrews tells us that “by faith Abraham…offered up Isaac” because “…he considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead…” Abraham had so much faith in God that he knew God would not take back his promise by taking away Isaac. As a result of Abraham’s faith cooperating with his works he was declared righteous by God, and he was called the friend of God. He endured through the trial and demonstrated his salvation (1:12). In John 15:14 Jesus said “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” Is there anyone, except for Christ himself, who better demonstrated his friendship with God? Abraham’s faith was the foundation of his justification, and his works were the vindication/demonstration/proof.” Through this cooperation of faith and works Abraham had peace with God. This is something that we all need, because if we don’t get right with God we will be at enmity with Him. If there is going to be peace then there has to be justification by faith alone. This is the way that God chosen to make salvation available, and it is the only way to open salvation up to very people group in the whole world. Anyone can have faith. As we will see in the next example of living faith it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do you can have faith. The only hindrance to faith is, pride. We must come to God on his terms.

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