Yesterday we examined James’ instruction that effectual faith always demonstrates itself in works (2:14). Saving faith is always a living faith, producing good works. If a person claims to have faith and his “faith” does not issue forth in service toward others, then the professed faith is actually dead (v. 17).
It is very important to understand that James is in no way saying that our good works earn salvation for us. Too many people in church history have misinterpreted James 2, claiming that our right standing with God is based upon both faith and works. The Roman Catholic Church to this day bases much of its soteriology (doctrine of salvation) on a misreading of this passage, especially 2:24.
We will discuss verse 24 tomorrow. Today’s passage again emphasizes the importance of works but makes clear that when James discusses works he teaches that they demonstrate the presence of faith, not that they add to faith or can earn merit for us. This is plain from verse 18 where he asserts that he can demonstrate his faith by his works. We see here that merely assenting to the truth of God is not enough for salvation because even the demons do this (v. 19). Saving faith also trusts God for redemption and this trust is made manifest to other people as we obey the Lord by doing good things.
In verses 20–21, James introduces Abraham as an example to prove that faith apart from works is no faith at all. In verse 21, James claims that Abraham was justified by his works when he offered up Isaac. We will discuss justification further tomorrow, but now we must note that James uses justify in a different manner than Paul, who uses justify to mean “a legal declaration of righteousness.” James, on the other hand, uses it to mean “demonstrate,” just as Jesus did when He said that “wisdom is justified by her deeds” (Matt. 11:19).
Thus, when James says Abraham was justified by his offering of Isaac, he is simply saying that the saving quality of Abraham’s faith was demonstrated when he obeyed God on Mount Moriah. Abraham’s work of obedience did not give him a right standing before God, but it does make his right standing evident to us.
John Calvin notes that while true faith always produces good works, good works are not always the result of true faith. Indeed “the unbelieving sometimes excel in specious virtues … hence works apparently excellent may exist apart from faith.” We can know our works flow from true faith if we perform them not to earn our salvation but in gratitude for a redemption already accomplished. Ask the Lord to help you to live with thankfulness for His perfect work.