In James 2:14–26, James uses two examples from the Old Testament to prove his point that a true, saving faith always results in good works. First, Abraham did many works by faith, and one in particular that stood out was willingly offer his son Isaac to God on the altar (James 2:21–23; cf. Genesis 22:1–19). Second, Rahab the prostitute lodged Israel’s spies and sent them safely away when they spied on Jericho (James 2:25; cf. Joshua 2:1–24). For both of these examples, James stated that they were “justified by works” (James 2:21, 25).
But, if Paul states “that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28), how can James say “that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24)?
The answer lies in how to understand justified as it relates to faith and works. In other words, justification has one sense when it involves faith and another sense when it involves works. When one believes (exercises faith), God declares the believer righteous. In fact, James points that “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (James 2:23; cf. Genesis 15:6). For God to count someone as righteous and treat him accordingly is for God to justify that person. And God does that when someone believes.
The other sense of justification involves works. This person has faith, but it is works—the inevitable result of faith—that take center-stage when James speaks about justification in James 2:20–26. The believer is already counted righteous by God but then demonstrates his faith to God and others through his works. In this situation, justification means that his faith was vindicated or shown to be true by works. So, for Abraham, when his faith showed itself by offering Isaac on the altar, God said, “Now I know that you fear God” (Genesis 22:12). And for anyone watching the good works of another believer, we might likewise say, “Now I know that person has faith—he showed it by his works.”
An eternally fatal error that many make is to think that justification in James 2:20–26 teaches that we are counted righteous by our works. We are only counted righteous by God on account of our faith and never by our works (cf. Ephesians 2:8–10; Titus 3:5). However, if we believe and are counted righteous by God, we will always show our faith by our works.
We are justified by faith—God gives us the righteousness of Son when we believe (Romans 5:18). And, inevitably, we are then justified by works—our faith is vindicated and shown to be true when do works in keeping with our faith (James 2:20–26). These two justifications are like two sides of a coin because they always go together, but they should never be confused.
All quotes ESV. Articles by Pastor Huffstutler are at davidhuffstutler.com.