But will you know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?…
The meaning of this notable passage has been much contested, because its teaching seems to many minds to contradict the doctrine of justification by faith. It was this apparent antagonism which led Martin Luther for a time to denounce the whole Epistle of James as a mere handful of "straw." Since his day, however, good men have been coming more and. more to see that Paul and James, so far from opposing one another, are in reality presenting different sides of the same great truth. Paul, in Romans and Galatians, fights against self-righteousness; James, in this Epistle, contends against formalism and licentiousness. James's "faith without works" is not the justifying faith of Romans 3:28 - "working through love;" it is rather the useless faith without love of which Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 13. The two apostles, as we understand the matter, both treat of the same justification, but they do not contemplate it from the same point of view. Paul looks at justification metaphysically, in its essence as meaning acceptance with God on the ground of the righteousness of Christ; while James views it practically, in its vital connection with sanctification, and its efflorescence in a holy life. The "works" of James are just the "faith" of Paul developed in action. In the verses before us, James continues his illustration of the operative fruit-bearing nature of justifying faith. He adduces two examples from the Old Testament Scriptures.
I. THE EXAMPLE OF ABRAHAM. (Vers. 21-23.) It is remarkable that Paul employs the same illustration in setting forth the doctrine of justification by faith alone; and that he appeals also to the identical Old Testament statement (Genesis 15:6) here quoted respecting Abraham's acceptance (Romans 4.; Galatians 3:6, 7). Paul says that Abraham was justified by faith before Isaac was born; while James says that he was "justified by works, in that he offered up Isaac his son upon the altar" (ver. 21). But James is careful to add, that in this crowning manifestation of his piety the patriarch's faith co-operated with his works. The confidence which Abraham had reposed in God for so many years was the very life of his obedience to the dreadful command to kill his only son; and. the reflex influence of his victorious passage through such an awful ordeal was that his strong trust in God was still further strengthened and "made perfect" (ver. 22). Abraham's faith alone had been "reckoned unto him for righteousness" ever since the day when he first "went out, not knowing whither he went;" but the longer that he persevered in believing, and kept adding practical virtues to his faith, his original justification was the more confirmed. So, as good works are vitally connected with saving faith - being, in fact, wrapped up within it in germ from the beginning - Abraham may be said to have been "justified by works." The faith which saved him was a works-producing faith. And he was so greatly distinguished for the fruitfulness of his faith that he became known in Hebrew history as "the friend of God."
II. THE EXAMPLE OF RAHAB. (Ver. 25.) Her case seems to have been selected because it was so unlike the preceding. Abraham was a Jew, and the father of the chosen nation; Rahab was a heathen woman. Abraham had for many years received a special training in the school of faith; Rahab had enjoyed no training at all. Abraham was a good and pure man; Rahab had lived a loose and sensual life. Yet this degraded Canaanite obtained "like precious faith" with the illustrious patriarch. The same two Old Testament examples are cited also in Hebrews 11.; and certainly they take rank as the two extreme cases selected for special mention in that chapter. The contrast is useful as showing that, invariably, good works are found flowing from a living faith. The object of Rahab's belief is expressed in her own words in Joshua 2:9-11; and her strenuous exertions for the safety of the two spies, made at the risk of her life, bring her faith into prominence, as "working with her works."
CONCLUSION. In ver. 20 the apostle begins the paragraph with a restatement of his thesis; and in vers. 24 and 26, after presenting the scriptural examples respectively, he introduces a triumphant "Q.E.D" He has shown that the faith which lies only in the cold assent of the intellect to a system of divinity is more like a lifeless corpse than a living man (ver. 26). Truly saving faith consists in such a warm personal trust of the heart as will manifest itself in a life of holy obedience. So the ethical in religion ought never to be divorced from the evangelical. Every Christian minister should preach many sermons on distinctively moral subjects, taking care, however, that such discourses are informed with gospel motives. And every member of the Church should practice in the market-place and the workshop the morality of the Sermon on the Mount - not simply because a holy life is the appropriate evidence of faith, but rather because it is the great end in order to which the believer's faith is reckoned fur righteousness. - C.J.
Parallel VersesKJV: But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?