No wonder it evoked a reaction from Luther in the early days of his awakening to justification by faith. Even today, no matter how many times you read it, for the gospel-minded it can come across like the sound of fingernails being dragged down a chalkboard.
You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
(James 2:24 ESV)
Not by faith alone. You’re not gonna find that cross-stitched into some pillow for the sofa. Not gonna be embossed on some t-shirt with a cool graphic by some trendy Christian apparel company. Nope, just not gonna be a big seller.
But is it true?
Finally, brothers [and sisters], whatever is true . . . think about these things.
(Philippians 4:8 ESV)
Of course it’s true. It’s the word of God. Of course, however, it’s also all about context.
James’ point is that “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (2:17). That saving faith is works producing faith. That where works are absent there’s reason to wonder if whatever faith is professed is, in fact, a living faith.
James (2:21-23) knows that Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” — that he was saved by faith alone. But he’s also quick to point out that in offering up Isaac on the altar “faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works.” Thus, argues James, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works?”
“Well, yeah, sorta, if you put it that way,” I want to answer.
But is there any “sorta” about it? Or is the fact of the matter that those who really believe will really behave? That those who truly confess will be known by their conduct? That those who actually acknowledge Jesus as Lord will act in accordance with that acknowledgment ? I’m thinkin’ . . .
Not talking about earning merit, but about exhibiting a heart made new. Not talking about perfect obedience, but about a purposeful orientation towards walking the talk. Talking about others being able to pick up on an authentic faith in Jesus because it bears the fruit of actively following Jesus. And that only by His grace and by His enabling.
James gets the gospel dynamic. He knows that God “brought us forth by the word of truth” (1:18). He reinforces that it’s only receiving (aka believing) “with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (1:21). But James also gets that what really goes in, is gonna come out. Thus, the expectation that those saved by faith in the word are going to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (1:22).
I’m not looking for some legalistic faith. But oh, how I want a living faith. A faith justified, or evidenced, by works. A faith that exhibits it’s no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me (Gal. 2:20). A faith not by faith alone.
By His grace alone. For His glory alone.