Online Bible Commentary
Works Perfect Faith
James 2:21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22 Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? 23 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. 24 You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. 25 Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? 26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. (NKJV)
In this passage, James is writing to first century Jewish Christians. His writing does not meet the qualifications for a letter, so we might call this a tract, a summary from his sermons at the Jerusalem church. He is writing of the connection between works and faith. Here he gives two real life examples, Abraham and Rahab, of how our works perfect our faith.
Abraham was “justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar” (v. 21). Abraham had already been justified by God for his faith, as recorded in Scripture, “And he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). Abraham was already a believer before he offered Isaac as a sacrifice, at God’s direction. God caused a trial, a test, to come upon Abraham. He was testing his faith. Through his work of offering his son out of obedience to God, Abraham proved his faith. If he had not offered his son, Abraham’s faith would have been based merely on words. But through a trial from God, Abraham’s “faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect” (v. 22). When works and faith work together, faith is made perfect.
So Genesis 15:6 “was fulfilled” (v. 23a). The faith for which Abraham was justified was perfected by his works. “He was called the friend of God” (v. 23b). He had proven his faith in God, and God called him His “friend” (2 Chr. 20:7, Is. 41:8).
So, “a man is justified by works, and not by faith only” (v. 24). Faith should produce works for God. If not, if only faith in God is shown, one’s faith is in question. Is his faith merely an acknowledgement that he believes in God? Even the demons believe in God (Ja. 2:19). Faith in God is more than believing He exists. It is trusting in Him enough to turn your life over to Him.
Now James turns to the example of Rahab (Josh. 2). Rahab was a prostitute, living in Jericho. Two Israelite spies gained access to the city and Rahab hid them. The king of Jericho commanded her to hand over the spies. She lied and told the king that the men had already left the city. Later she helped the two spies escape. In return, when the Israelites invaded Jericho, only Rahab’s family was spared.
Rahab had not been a Godly person. But she became a believer. She told the spies “The Lord your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath” (Josh. 2:11). Then, she proved her faith was a trusting faith by her works, hiding the spies at the risk of her own life and that of her family. She was “justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way” (v. 25). Like Abraham, Rahab proved her faith by her works.
In conclusion, James writes “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (v. 26). Just as the body is dead, useless, when the spirit departs, faith is dead, useless, without works. Faith is only faith when it passes the test. God is always testing our faith. We call them trials. In the midst of our trials, God is seeing how we respond. Do we respond by digging in even more with our faith and trusting Him, or do we respond by turning away from Him?
Some claim that the book of James teaches that we can get to Heaven by doing good works. All we need to do is attend church, give to the church or charities, be a volunteer, or just be a good person. If we are a good person we will go to Heaven. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Abraham and Rahab did not do good works, in the eyes of man. Abraham attempted to murder his son, and Rahab lied and committed treason against her country. These were not good works as the world sees good works. But they were good works in the eyes of God.
Granted these were extreme cases, and God would never ask us to do something that is contrary to His word. But the point is that Abraham and Rahab proved that they trusted God. In the midst of their trials, they turned over their lives to God. Their faith was perfected by their works.