The Faith and Works of Abraham
We come now to one of the difficulties in the Word which appear to show the irreconcilable difference between James and Paul. James and Paul both appeal to the example of Abraham but come to seemingly opposite conclusions. James 2:21-24 says,
21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? 22 You see that faith was working with his works, and as result of the works, faith was perfected [completed]; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone.
Paul, on the other hand, says in Romans 4,
2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about; but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. 5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.
Paul taught that justification came by faith alone, and that works were part of the sanctification process—a natural outgrowth of one's faith. One might prove this by showing that the feast of Passover justified the Israelites, while Pentecost occurred later at Mount Sinai and was designed to teach them obedience. Hence, faith preceded obedience, and justification preceded sanctification.
James, however, focuses on the evidence of faith. If faith is not active, it is not real. If Abraham had claimed to hear the voice of God and yet did nothing about it, his faith would have been dead or lazy. James does not discount the need for faith; he says that faith alone is not genuine. His conclusion is that “a man is justified by works and not by faith ALONE.”
Paul tells us in Rom. 10:17 that “faith comes from hearing.” That is the key. If God remains silent, no man can have true faith. Once God speaks, some men hear—or SAY they hear. But the Hebrew word for hearing is shema, which carries a double meaning: to hear and to obey. Built into the language itself is the demand for obedience.
James understood this well. It was illustrated by Jesus Himself in Matt. 21:28-31,
28 But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, “Son, go to work today in the vineyard.” 29 And he answered and said, “I will, sir”; and he did not go. 30 And he came to the second and said the same thing. But he answered and said, “I will not”; yet he afterward regretted it and went. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?
The lesson here is that it is not so much what a man SAYS, but what he DOES that reveals the condition of his heart. Action gives evidence of faith. Hearing without response is not really hearing at all, and faith comes from hearing. James preserves the order of events when making his point, so Paul was in full agreement. However, James shows their connection, while Paul shows their distinction.
Paul argues against the idea that men's justification comes from the feast of Pentecost (sanctification) that Israel received at Mount Sinai. These were two distinct feasts, many weeks apart. The common thinking in Judaism in that day was that men were saved by obedience to the law in accordance with the vow of their ancestors at Sinai, saying in Ex. 19:8, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!”
The conditions of the Old Covenant said that men had to fulfill this vow in order to be justified and to receive immortal life. The problem was that no man was sufficiently obedient—even those who tried very hard. The Old Covenant was broken, and for this reason, no man can be saved by their good intentions. It required a New Covenant where God Himself vowed to turn the hearts of men by the Holy Spirit working from within.
I have no doubt that James was in agreement with Paul on that issue as well.
The “works” of James' letter referred to the works of Israel at Passover, which required them to be obedient in killing the lambs and putting the blood upon the door posts and lintels. It was their faith in God's word, accompanied by obedience, which justified them and saved their firstborn sons from death. If an Israelite had claimed to have faith in God's word, but failed to partake of the lamb or cover his house by the blood of the lamb, his “faith” was insufficient.
The “works” of Paul's letters referred to the law given at Sinai at that first Pentecost. Israel was justified by faith at Passover prior to being given the law at Sinai. Likewise, Abraham had faith long before he was circumcised.
Hence, Paul and James were talking about different works for different purposes.
Paul cites Abraham's faith prior to circumcision; James cites Abraham's faith in offering up his son on the altar.
Paul's example links Abraham's circumcision to Israel's Old Covenant vow of obedience. In that sense, he was correct. Circumcision was a sign of the Old Covenant, because it demanded obedience for that Covenant to be of benefit to them. Though the law was good, it demanded more than the people were capable of fulfilling. And so, Paul says in Rom. 7:10,
10 and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me.
Paul did not fault the law, but man's ability to fulfill the vow of the Old Covenant by which he might have obtained the promise of Life.
On the other hand, James shows us the example of Abraham hearing the word of God and then responding in obedience—proving that he did indeed hear the word. We read in Gen. 22:1-3,
1 Now it came about after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2 And He said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.” 3 So Abraham rose early ... and went to the place which God had told him.
Abraham heard and obeyed. Why? Because He had genuine faith. And because of this genuine faith, he was “justified,” as James tells us. James 2:22 says,
22 You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected [teleioo, “to perfect, complete, bring to the end”].
If we were to take this principle and explain it in Paul's context, we would argue that when God brought Israel out of Egypt by faith, their journey was incomplete. Justification could get Israel out of Egypt, but their journey was incomplete until they entered the Promised Land. Most of them died in the wilderness, in fact, because their faith was not sufficient (Heb. 3:19).
Israel needed to hear and to understand both Paul and James. Paul could have told them that their vow at Sinai was not possible to fulfill, and that it was really their faith that would save them. James could have told them that they needed more than faith to leave Egypt if they expected to enter the Promised Land.
If they had had both preachers in their day, they might have understood the mind of God more fully. Yet the revelation of God is progressive. Moses was limited by the Passover Age; Paul and James were limited to the light of Pentecost; we ourselves are receiving the greater light of Tabernacles that will enlighten us in the Tabernacles Age to come.