One of the distinctives of Christianity is that we believe that salvation is by faith alone. There is no religious ritual or level of good deeds that will bring about our salvation. The thief who died on the cross hours after meeting Jesus for the first time is just as saved as the missionary who preaches and cares for the poor for fifty years. This is extremely important and we must hold on to this at all costs. But if it is only through faith, we better have a good idea of what we mean by faith. Many people describe the Christian religion as being about believing in God, or even more specifically believing in Jesus. If you asked a person why they thought they were going to heaven, if they didn’t say because they were a good person, they would say that it was because they believed in God. So all God wants is for you to believe that he exists? James tackles this in the passage we are looking at. If all it took was for someone to believe that God exists, then the demons would be saved because they have seen him face to face. So if it is not just simple belief that God exists, what is faith? Instead of giving a theological definition of faith, James does what a good preacher does and provides an illustration. James holds up Abraham as a model of faith and expects us to follow that example. There is one problem. James looks to Abraham and finds evidence that faith must include works. The Apostle Paul looks at the same passage about Abraham and concludes that it is all about faith apart from works. What is happening here? Are Paul and James contradicting each other? The best way to deal with this is to look at the passage in Genesis about Abraham, look at what Paul says and then look at what James says. Then we can put it all together and hopefully have some idea of what faith is supposed to look like in our life.
Jews, Christians and Muslims all look to Abraham as a hero of the faith. But what did he do that was so faith-filled? There are many things that Abraham did. He undertook long journeys and won military victories. But there was a specific thing that made Abraham known for faith. Abraham and his wife Sarah were childless. That was a shameful thing in that culture. People would rather die than be without an heir. This filled Abraham with a deep grief. Abraham would have done anything to have a child of his own, but he knew that with their age and Sarah’s barrenness, it was absolutely impossible. In the midst of this, God spoke to Abraham. “Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”” (Genesis 15:4–5 NIV) God promised that Abraham would not just have a child, but that a large nation would come from Abraham. Looking at the physical circumstances, how could Abraham possibly accept this? But what happened? “Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6 NIV) That is not to say that Abraham had no questions, he did. But the believing came before the questions. Abraham believed God, he trusted God, he accepted God at his word. And as a result, God considered Abraham to be righteous. Abraham did not do anything to earn the label ‘righteous’, he simply believed and it was a fact.
The story of Abraham was of interest to Paul, but not just as a neat Bible story. Much of Paul’s challenges came from conflicts between Jewish Christians and Gentile (or non-Jewish) Christians. Both groups agreed that faith in Jesus was important. The question was: Were Christians also obligated to follow the Jewish Law? Were there specific rituals and works that were required for salvation? When false teachers tried to convince the Galatians that they needed to be circumcised and adopt the law, Paul responded: “Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard? Consider Abraham: “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” (Galatians 3:5–9 NIV) This came up again with the Roman church that was experiencing conflict between Jews and Gentiles. Paul reminded them: “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.” (Romans 4:1–5 NIV) Paul’s point is simple. Do you want to know how to be considered righteous by God? Abraham believed God and was considered righteous. If we believe God, we will be considered righteous. No works necessary for salvation. Case closed.
Paul makes a pretty convincing case. The trouble is that James quotes the same verse and concludes that works are important. Why is this? Some have suggested that James and Paul were in conflict and James is purposely attempting to refute Paul’s position. Yet we find in Acts that James gave his blessing to Paul’s ministry and in Galatians, Paul describes James as one of the pillars of the church. There has to be more going on here. When we look closely at what James says here, we will find that the contradiction melts away. It is true that James quotes the passage in Genesis where Abraham believed and was considered righteous. That is from Genesis 15. But James describes a story that takes place in Genesis 22. Abraham was promised that he would have a son and indeed Sarah gave birth to Isaac. It must have been a tremendous joy for Abraham to finally have his son. But some years later, perhaps when Isaac was a teenager, God had another message for Abraham. This time God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Imagine the emotional roller coaster to go from unbelievable joy to unbelievable grief. Strangely, Abraham did not oppose God or even argue with him. Abraham obediently took his son to the chosen place, lifted the knife and was about to sacrifice him. Thank God (literally), Abraham did not have to kill his son, as God provided a last minute alternative in the form of a ram caught in a thicket. What was Abraham thinking? I can’t even imagine how I would react if God commanded me to kill one of my sons. What we find here is an act of faith. We read in Hebrews: “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.” (Hebrews 11:17–19 NIV) This seems to be the same direction that James is going. Abraham had reasoned that God promised him a son and that from that son would come a great nation. Whatever else God was going to command, it could not take away from God’s initial promise. Abraham probably did not know exactly how things would work but assumed that if worst came to worst, God would at least bring Isaac back from the dead so that the original promise could still be fulfilled. The point is that Abraham was faithful when it was most difficult and that faith was demonstrated by what he did. What does this have to do with Genesis 15 and Abraham believing and being considered righteous? James understands faith not just as a momentary decision to join one team over another, but as the starting point for a life of faith. James would not have disagreed with Paul about it being only faith that makes us justified. Abraham did not have to do anything at that moment in order to be considered righteous. But what if Abraham said he believed God and then later refused his command to sacrifice Isaac? That refusal would be an indication that Abraham deep down did not really believe that God was going to use his son to bring about a great nation. Faith is not really faith unless there is some evidence on the outside. This is something that Paul would whole heartedly agree.
I would like to conclude by bringing this all together for us. How is a person saved? How does one receive eternal life? How does one enter into the kingdom of God? It is by faith. But what do we mean by that? I do not mean some evangelist gave an emotional appeal and all your friends responded, so you figured you should pray the prayer as well. I do not mean that you believe the facts about Christianity and that you can recite theological doctrines without a flaw. To be considered righteous by God requires real faith. If I was to ask you if you believed that someone could walk a tightrope over Niagara Falls pushing a wheel barrow, you probably would believe me. After all, there are people with the courage, balance, talent and experience to do such things. What then if I asked you to sit in the wheel barrow while they did it? You may be a bit more hesitant. This is what James is talking about. Faith without works is dead. If what you believe does not affect you in a real way, you do not believe it. Not really. Not the way Abraham believed. God said he would have a son and that son would become a great nation. Abraham believed. Years later, God told him to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham still believed. He believed so much that he lifted that knife over his son. God accepted Abraham’s faith because it was real faith. We cannot earn our salvation. No amount of works or rituals will ever make us good enough. But the faith that saves is the faith that transforms and shapes our life into a life of obedience. That is a living faith.