“So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” –James 2:17
I was reading a book this week by Jerry Bridges when the following lines were the catalytic cause of contemplation. Bridges wrote: “[Faith] is the gift of God (See Ephesians 2:8-9 and Acts 16:14). But though this faith is given to us, we must still exercise it.” As Christians we are saved by faith and live the Christian life by faith (Gal. 2:20). In our study of Ephesians we have seen that living the Christian life by faith will require effort on our part. One way Paul emphasizes this is by using the word “walk” (Eph. 2:10, 4:1, 5:8). When I read the words above by Bridges I began to reflect on James’ exposition of faith and works. Often this passage is a challenge for Christians to understand. Over a year ago I read the best concise explanation of this passage I have yet to encounter. It comes from David Wells’ book, God in the Whirlwind. I hope it serves you as it did me; Wells wrote:
In the New Testament, this language of justification is used in two ways. One is primary and the other is secondary. The primary use is that of being declared righteous and thus innocent before the law. The secondary use is that of this righteousness, this right standing, being exhibited. This distinction will help us understand the unusual passage in James 2:18-26. There, James uses “justified” in this secondary sense…
Wells then proceeded to offer some biblical examples of this distinction. I’ll provide one. He explained:
…in a hymn to Christ that is embedded in the New Testament text, Paul said that Christ was “manifested in the flesh, vindicated [Paul’s Greek is justified] by the Spirit…” (1 Tim. 3:16). Christ clearly did not need to be declared to be righteous! Rather, this expression comes amid this hymn of adoration in which the realms where Christ was revealed are contrasted. In the earthly sphere, he was incarnated (“in the flesh”), then “proclaimed among the nations,” and then “believed on in the world.” In the heavenly sphere, he was revealed to be who he was. He was, as it were, exhibited (or vindicated/justified) “by the Spirit,” then was “seen by angels” and then “taken up in glory.”
He then brings his point home:
This is the way in which justify was used in James’s most enigmatic statement, in which he asked, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?” (James 2:21). This statement so troubled Luther that he said that he had been tempted to stoke his furnace with James because of it! James was, he declared, and epistle of straw. And again he said that if anyone could reconcile Paul and James on this subject he would be glad to give that person his doctorate. That would have been an easy doctorate to obtain!
What James did was relate Abraham’s justification to an event that happened many years after the moment of his original acceptance by God, when “he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). The offering of Isaac (Gen. 22:1-19) happened after Abraham was already justified. James, then, must have been using this language in its secondary sense. That Abraham had been declared righteous was exhibited, or demonstrated, or made known, or revealed in his later obedience. (pgs. 140-142)
In other words, James is emphasizing that works is the fruit of true faith being exercised.