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Works in the Abrahamic Covenant: Reconciling Paul and James (Lesson 5.6)

Now, all we've been saying doesn't mean that God never gave Abraham commands to obey. God requires Abraham's obedience. He tells him Genesis 17:1, “Walk before Me, and be blameless.”1 The call to Christ is the call to follow a new Lord and submit to His ways. So yes, there are commands in the Covenant of Grace. But as we've shown, the commands that God gave to Abraham were never conditions.2 The promises God made to him were never conditional on his obedience. So, does God call us to a life of obedience? Absolutely. But is God's blessing and favor contingent on our obedience? No way. We obey—not to obtain God's blessing—but because we've already obtained it in Christ. One question remains though: If all this is true, how are we to understand James 2:14-26? Here we read:

14 What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,' and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? 17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. 18 But someone may well say, 'You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.' 19 You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. 20 But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? 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 a result of the works, faith was perfected; 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. 25 In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. (James 2:14-26).

What do we make of this passage? At first glance, it seems to blatantly contradict everything else the Scriptures say about the gospel and salvation. It's baffling to us. What in the world is James saying?

Well, in this passage, James is talking about the marks of true saving faith. His purpose here isn't to tell us how to be saved—but to tell us how we can know if we really have been saved. The Scriptures warn us that not all who profess to know and love Christ have truly embraced Him by faith. James himself used to be one of them! He was the brother of Jesus; yet Scripture tells us that James wasn't a true believer until Jesus appeared to him after His resurrection (John 7:3-5; 1 Corinthians 15:7). So, James has a special place in his heart for professing Christians who have never truly been born again. And his message is this: Don't think you're really a believer just because you claim to be.

One thing that helps us see this is recognizing the difference in the language between James and Paul. Paul often says the same things, but he uses different words. For example, when Paul talks about the evidence of true saving faith, he tends to use the word fruit rather than works. James is here using the word works where Paul uses the word fruit. They're using different words—but they're talking about the same thing: If your life hasn't been radically changed by the gospel, then you better check the reality of your profession. Because when God saves a man, He changes him completely.3

This is why, at the beginning of the passage, in VERSE 14, James doesn't ask what use it is if a man has faith but has no works—but rather—what use is it if a man says he has faith but has no works. It's a profession of faith that James is talking about. James is speaking of a person who professes faith in Christ, but whose life is left completely unchanged. And he's saying that that kind of faith will never save anyone.4 Then in VERSE 18, James is saying that true faith shows itself through works: “I will show you my faith by my works.” He's telling us that true saving faith demonstrates itself through works. The fruit reveals the root; real apple trees always bear apples.5 Then, in VERSES 22 and 24, James says that Abraham's faith was something you could outwardly see. In these verses he uses the Greek word blepo, “you see,” which, out of the 108 times it is used in the New Testament, always refers to physical sight (rather than our colloquial English expression). He's talking about something you can physically see. Faith is something you should be able to see as you look at someone's life.

So when James says that Abraham was justified by works, he's not saying our works justify us before God—he's saying our works justify the reality of our faith.6 He's using it the same way that Jesus did in Luke 7:35: “wisdom is vindicated by all her children.” The word here is the same word used in James. What's Jesus saying? He's saying that true wisdom is proven to be wisdom through the fruit it bears. And this is exactly what James is saying. A profession of true saving faith is proven by a life that has been changed. Fruit proves the reality of your profession. As one put it “The only man who has the right to say that he is justified by grace alone is the man who has left all to follow Christ.”7

To summarize: Paul tells us how we're justified; James shows us what kind of faith it is that justifies. Paul says faith alone justifies; James tells us that justifying faith is never alone but always will produce fruit. Paul's focus is that our faith justifies us; James' focus is that our works justify our faith.8

In short, James is warning us that intellectual orthodoxy with no life-change is not true saving faith. Having good theology can't save you. Demons actually have great theology (verse 19), but they will perish forever. True saving faith proves itself through our works. When someone professes faith in Christ, how do you know if he's really saved? You watch his life over the next 5, 10, 25 years, and you ask, has this person been changed? Does his life back up his profession? We're not talking about perfection. But does his life show forth the reality of a true and living faith in Christ? How about you? Can those who know you best say: that guy is far from perfect—but I see Jesus in him.9


1 For other examples of Abraham being bound to God's commands, see Genesis 12:1-3; 18:19; 22:1-2; 26:5.

2 Some make passages such as Genesis 17:1-2 into a condition; but commands are not the same as conditions. If a father tells his son, “If you are diligent to make your bed every morning and tidy up your room every evening, then I will continue to be your father,” that is a condition. But if the father tells his son, “Son, I am your father. I love you and I'll always be your father. Now then, be diligent to make your bed every morning and tidy up your room every evening,” that is a command, not a condition. The language of Genesis 17 is the language of command, not condition. The literal Hebrew wording is not, “Do this so that I”, but rather, “Do this, and I. . .” Genesis 26:3 contains the same Hebrew construction (a command followed by a promise and linked with the Hebrew “and I will”). Here God tells Isaac, “Sojourn in this land and I will be with you and bless you, for to you and to your descendants I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath which I swore to your father Abraham. . .” God gives Isaac here a definite command: “Sojourn in the land.” But God isn't saying, “Isaac, if you sojourn in this land, then (and only then) will I fulfill the promises I have made to you;” rather, God is saying, “Isaac, sojourn in this land, and I will bless you, because that's what I've promised on oath to do.” And this is how we must interpret passages such as Genesis 17:1-2 (cf. 17:19; 24:44,46; 48:9 with the same Hebrew construction, “and I will;” and Genesis 35:11-12 with the same structure of 1) declaration of God's character; 2) command; 3) promises to Jacob, with no conditions). Not, “If, then” but “Do, and.” A command, but not a condition (Genesis 26:5 is another matter, where Abraham's active obedience typifies the active obedience of Christ—the basis through which blessing would come to the nations). This is how Bavinck interprets Genesis 17:1-2: “The bilateral dimensions of God's covenant—the obligations on those with whom it is made—are never conditions for entering the covenant, but understood as the rules of conduct for those who by grace had been incorporated into it (Gen.17:1-2; Exod.19:5-6,8; 24:3,7; Lev.26:14ff; Deut.5:29; 27:10ff; 28:1ff; 30:1ff; etc).” (Reformed Dogmatics, p395). Joel Beeke likewise notes: “true saving faith necessarily yields willing and continual obedience. Good works [however]. . .do not constitute the ground of justification, nor are they instruments by which sinners are justified. . .Because Abraham had true faith, he was commanded to walk before God and be perfect, and all true believers from Abraham onward would reflect 'their father Abraham,' both in their faith and in the obedience of faith.” (A Puritan Theology, ch.16). Alec Motyer warns us at this point: “Genesis 17:1-2 needs to be guarded from misunderstanding as it might be taken to mean, 'If you walk before me and be blameless, then I will make my covenant with you.' This would make the covenant appear as a divine response to Abram's commitment, even a reward for the perfection of his 'walk.' This cannot be so because the covenant between God and Abraham had already been formally inaugurated many years before (Gen. 15:18). Also, the wording in Genesis 17:2 does not express the idea of inauguration but rather confirmation. A literal translation would be, 'and I will place my covenant,' an expression which signifies the covenant coming into active operation as the stated relationship between its maker and its recipient. Abraham's life of fellowship with the Lord was not the pre-condition of the covenant but rather the response. . . From beginning to end, God's covenant relationship with his people is based on his grace and not their merits.” (Exodus, p19).

3 They also, at times, use the same words, but use them in different ways. This is especially true “justify”, as we'll see below.

4 “Abraham was not justified by a vain show of faith, by a workless faith, which James so much condemns; but by a true faith that justifies itself by works. . .[his] intent in this chapter is, not to show how or wherewith we are justified, or whether faith, or works, or both, justify us; but rather to show what manner of faith that is whereby we must be justified; viz, a lively working fruit-bearing faith. . .the plain scope of James is, to prove, that this faith which brings not forth true fruits, true good works, is a vain dead useless faith, as to the point of justifying or saving anyone” (Roberts, pp623-24). “James does not say 'though a man has faith' but 'though a man say...' James offers something of a definition of the faith which he is examining. It is a mere matter of claim, a formally correct statement, but its doctrinal credibility does not issue in a new direction of life.” (Motyer, p108).

5 “James challenged anyone who claimed to have faith to demonstrate it, to make it visible. The only visible evidence available to human eyes is that of the deeds of obedience. Although God can read the hearts of individuals, humanity's only view of the heart condition is the sight of outward fruit.” (From the Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible on James 2:18).

6 “James used the word 'justified' to refer to the proof, or vindication, of Abraham's faith that took place many years later (Gen. 22:12). In James, the phrases 'considered righteous' (here) and 'is justified' (v24) do not refer to reconciliation to God but to demonstration of the truth of a prior claim. Jesus used the same verb (dikaioo) in this way in Luke 7:35, when he declared, 'Wisdom is proved right by all her children' (IE, wisdom is shown to be genuine wisdom by its results). Just as true wisdom is demonstrated by its fruit, Abraham's claim to faith was justified (IE, demonstrated by his outward obedience.” (Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible). Roberts says: “And 'by works was faith perfected'; that is, not essentially or causally, as any cause or concause (sic) cooperating with his faith in the point of his justification; for Abraham's faith was perfect, and had done many excellent exploits long before, yea had justified Abraham perfectly before God many years before his offering up of Isaac; but evidentially or declaratively, this act perfectly evidenced before the Lord the truth of his faith. . .So that when James said, 'Abraham was justified by works when he had offered up Isaac', his meaning was, that he was justified by works only a posteriori, as effects and fruits of faith and justification; but by faith, a priori, causally, which produced such works, and was evidentially and experimentally perfected of them.” (p625-26). And again: “By his faith, his person was justified, and he [was] accounted a righteous person; by his works, his faith was justified, to be a true sincere living and saving faith.” (p470).

7 Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship. And Motyer quotes A. Barnes: “There is as much necessity that faith and works should be united to constitute true religion, as there is that body and soul should be united to constitute a living man.” (p110).

8 Roberts says: “Paul speaks of a true lively faith as justifying; James excludes the false dead workless faith from justifying; Paul shows whereby we are justified, viz, by faith; James shows what manner of faith it must be, viz, a lively working faith, whereby we are justified; Paul proves that we are justified by faith, without works as causes of justification; James proves that we are justified by works also as effects and consequents upon justification, and not by faith only; Paul maintains that faith alone justifies; James maintains that justifying faith is not alone in the justified person, but produces good works; Paul intends our justification a priori, casually, and instrumentally, by faith without works; James intends our justification a posteriori, declaratively and demonstratively by works the fruits of faith; Paul evinces that faith alone justifies our persons, but James evidences that works are requisite to justify our faith. So that the doctrine of Paul and James is [unified] most harmoniously agreeing one with the other, even wherein they seem most of all to disagree.” (pp626-27). Vos says: “[James'] argument is aimed against libertines who used the teaching of grace of the gospel as a cloak for their licentiousness. . .In his Letters to the Romans and to the Galatians, Paul naturally had to do with entirely different opponents—namely, with Pharisaic proponents of salvation by works, who replaced faith with works. That is why his polemic turned out differently. His watchword. . .[is] sola fide, 'by faith only.' The watchword of James is sed non fide solitario, 'but not by a faith that is solitary, standing alone.' The one watchword does not exclude the other.” (Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 4, p168). See also Calvin, Institutes, 3.17.11-12.

9 Most of this section was based on and gratefully gleaned from a sermon on James 2:14-26 by Phil Smuland.


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