2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. (Rom. 4:2-3)
Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? (Jas 2:21)
If someone isolates these verses outside of their context they could understandably say, ‘It looks like the Bible is saying in one place that Abraham was not justified by works and in another place that Abraham was justified by works.’ As is the case with many of these alleged discrepancies the issue concerns isolating Bible verses and setting them against each other as opposed to realizing that sentences fit within paragraphs, paragraphs fit within chapters, chapters fit within books, and when contexts are examined verses like the ones above are seen to be complementary not contradictory.
With that being said, Romans 4 is a chapter entirely devoted to Paul’s case of justification by faith. At the front-and-center of the argument is the example of Abraham. Three verses into the chapter Paul quoted Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” He would quote that very verse again later in the chapter (Rom. 4:22). Although Abraham is the primary OT reference of the chapter, he is not the only one. After stating that it is not to the one who works but to the one who believes that their faith is accounted for righteousness (vs.5), Paul referenced how David “describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works” (vs.6) in the opening two verses of Psalm thirty-two (vs.7-8). Here’s an important fact that must not go overlooked – the means of justification in the Old Testament was the same as the New: by grace through faith.
Likewise, verse nine says, “faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness” (vs.9) and then, in verses twenty-three and twenty-four, Paul showed how that imputation of righteousness was not for Abraham’s sake alone but was an example of the imputation of righteousness that comes to all “who believe in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead” (vs.24). The two issues are related, both Abraham’s righteousness and ours share the same instrumentation of faith. But as far as Abraham is concerned, the case is clear in Romans 4 – Abraham was justified before he was circumcised, without having received the Law from Mount Sinai, simply through believing the word of God.
Now, what about James? Before addressing the verse cited above and the context surrounding it, there are aspects of James’ soteriology that are often easily overlooked. For example, the opening chapter of James’ epistle teaches salvation by sovereign grace: “Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures” (Jas. 1:18). Regeneration did not come as a result of work-doing or some initiative of the human will; rather, it was “of His [God’s] own will” (vs.18a; see also Jn. 1:12-13). But there’s another important variable that is often overlooked: James heard and affirmed the words of Peter spoken at the Jerusalem Council. After a period of dispute, Peter rose up and made the case of how God saved Gentiles through his ministry apart from circumcision and keeping the Mosaic Law in the same way that He saved them: “[God] made not distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith” (Acts. 15:19). He went on to say, “But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they” (vs.11). James was present for that statement, voiced no dissent, but rather – he built upon and reinforced Peter’s argument (vs.14-15). And, lest we forget, James, along with Peter and John, extended the right hand of fellowship to Paul (Gal. 2:9), an act that was inextricably connected to the fact that Paul preached the same Gospel that Peter did (vs.7-8). That’s who James was – a leader in the early church who believed in and affirmed salvation by grace through faith.
With that bit of backdrop established, let us get to the textual crux of the matter in the second chapter of James. James was arguing against the person who said that he or she could have saving faith without works coming as a result of that faith (Jas. 2:14-17). That idea is connoted rather clearly in verse 14: “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?” (NASB emphasis added). The implied answer is ‘no, that kind of faith cannot.’ It’s a pseudo faith; a dead faith (vs. 17). True faith is of such a nature that works come as a bi-product of its presence. To that point, James wrote, “But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works. Show me your faith without works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (vs.18). Notice what James said – he said that his works would show his faith. That’s important. At the risk of being redundant James is arguing that works show something; namely, faith. And if there aren’t works to substantiate the presence of faith, James would probably say what he has already said, “But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?” (vs.20). And it’s after he asked that question that James went on to provide two Old Testament examples of believing saints whose works proved the presence of their faith: Abraham and Rahab. For the purpose of this teaching we will hone in on the former.
When James used the example of Abraham and said, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?” (vs.21), he was by no means contradicting the litany of Scriptural texts that teach justification/ salvation by faith (Jn. 1:12; 6:47; Acts 10:43; 13:38-39, 48; 15:8-9; Rom. 4:1-25; 5:1; 10:9-10; Eph. 2:8-9; 1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 2:15-16; 3:6,11; etc.). For starters, leaving aside all the background information already set forth, the reference of Abraham offering his son came many, many years after he believed God and was accounted righteous (Gen. 15:6). Abraham was righteous before he offered up Isaac. But, as James went on to write, when Abraham offered his son on the altar, his faith and works were working together (22a), and that faith was made complete (22b), or, if you will, per the Greek word translated “complete” (Gr. teleioó) – ‘was brought to its expected end.’ Principally, you could put it like this: faith comes first; works come subsequently; and when works come faith reaches its expected end. To put it another way, James is still building upon the argument he made a few verses earlier but was now using the example of Abraham: visible works justify invisible faith.
Therefore, when James came to verse twenty-four and wrote, “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only,” the kind of justification he is speaking of is not the initial declaration of righteousness that Paul wrote of in, say, Romans 4; but rather, it is a vindication – or a justification – of that initial declaration of righteousness. Works, then, for Abraham and us are the visible justification that true, spiritual, soul-saving justification has happened. A point which Paul would wholeheartedly agree with (Eph. 2:8-10).