Two Kinds of Justification
Matthew 25:31–46; James 2:18–22
Matthew Lesson #164
May 21, 2017
“Father, we thank You for your Word. We thank You for the Living Word—the Lord Jesus Christ—Who is the perfect expression to us of who You are.
“Father, we thank You for the written Word which is described in 1 Corinthians as “the mind of Christ,” so that we can learn to think as You think, that we can come to understand Your creation as You created it, as You designed it.
“That we can come to understand—as we understand who You are as a righteous and just God—that we as sinners can never do anything to merit that salvation. We can never do anything to make ourselves savable. We can never do anything to please You of our own effort that has eternal value.
“But that You in Your grace took upon Yourself the responsibility to provide a salvation that would not in any way be dependent upon us, but that would be totally dependent upon the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, to die for our sins.
“That we would be saved not because of our good deeds or our works or our morality or ethics or anything else, but we would be saved because at the moment of faith in Christ, we would be given His righteousness—credited with His righteousness.
“Which doesn’t mean that we would be perfect, but that when You look at us, You have declared us righteous because of what we possess in Him.
“Father, we pray that as we study today You will help us to understand that more fully and that we can see its implications in many ways in our lives.
“In Christ’s name. Amen.”
When we get into the topic of salvation—how a person is saved—and I’m using the term in this introduction only to refer to going to Heaven when we die. There are approximately three views that are presented.
One is that we get into Heaven, or nirvana, or utopia, or whatever that final future state is, by our morality, by our good works, by doing good things for people.
The exact opposite of that view is the view of biblical Christianity. The view that is set forth and was recovered by a Roman Catholic monk by the name of Martin Luther in 1517, which started the Protestant Reformation, and the recovery of the truth that was set forth in Galatians and Romans, as he had studied them, that a person is justified before God—is made right before God, is declared righteous before God—not by his own works or his own efforts, but by faith alone in Christ alone.
The in-between position states something to the effect that we are saved by faith, yes, but that must be accompanied by certain good works. There’s two ways that is expressed:
The front door presentation of works, which are those who claim that you have to believe in Jesus, but you also have to be baptized, or you have to believe in Jesus and you change certain things. You have to join a certain church, you don’t commit certain sins, and that way you know you’re saved.
The back door presentation, which says that you’re saved by faith alone, but if it’s genuine saving faith—if it’s real faith—then there will be accompanying works that is the validation or vindication of that faith. That’s how you know you’re saved: you have the right kind of faith. There are those who teach that there can be a faith in Jesus that isn’t saving, if it wasn’t accompanied by the right kind of works.
The basic problem is it’s not biblical, but one of the basic problems with that view is that it is attempting to quantify what that fruit is. It makes us “fruit inspectors” when many times we can’t even figure out what we think about a lot of things, much less what we’ve done that may be of some value to God.
These are the key issues.
When you come to the passage we’ve been studying in Matthew, this judgment that is described at the end of Matthew 25 that is referred to as the “judgment of the sheep and goats” is frequently taken out of context.
In fact, there are many who say that this is the most difficult passage in the Scripture to interpret. As I pointed out last time, one commentator identified 32 different interpretations, but fundamentally, the problem there is that they identify this as a final judgment.
It’s not the Great White Throne Judgment, but they identify it as the final Great White Throne Judgment. They say that the reason that the sheep are identified as such is because of the way they have treated the “least of these My brethren.” We saw that that is a term for Jewish believers that will survive the Tribulation period.
But the confusion comes when many people say that it is because they fed them when they were destitute, clothed them when they had no clothing, visited them when they were in jail. In other words, the reason the sheep are separated and identified as the sheep is because of their good works. And their good works are emphasized because that shows that they had genuine saving faith.
Now that raises the question for us that needs to be addressed, what is the relationship of faith to works? That’s why we started last time looking at James 2, and we’re back there this morning for a couple of reasons. One is I didn’t quite finish going through it last time.
We started it towards the end of the hour as an illustration to answer this first question, the relationship of justification by works. I was giving a flyover, more of a summary of the passage. One of the problems that I run into as a pastor who teaches the Word is that often I am accused of being obsessed with detail. “Why is he going into so much detail?”
The reason I go into detail is the reason I’m going to go back over some things and go back into detail, is because if I don’t, I will get a slew of questions where I have to go back in order to answer those.
If I go into detail, I don’t get that many questions, but if I don’t go into detail, I will. “So what about this and what about that, and what about this other thing,” and then I have to say, “Okay, we are going to have a little bit of a redo and review because of the questions that I was asked.”
I was not planning on doing a detailed study of this, but it is an extremely important passage. As several commentators have pointed out, the central interpretive hinge for the passage is in Matthew 25:18–19, which has some real technical issues in it, and I think that we have to spend a little time talking about that. These are, as I pointed out last time, words of an objector to what James is saying, and it’s important that if you understand that, it helps to understand the entire passage.
What we’re going to see here in answering three important questions related to Matthew 25 is understanding that there are two different kinds of justification.
We have to address the question, what’s the relation of faith and works? What are they really believing?
Within that passage, it calls them the righteous—the sheep are the righteous—how did they become righteous?
Then, the penalty is going to be condemnation. The goats are sent to eternal death, and those who are the sheep are sent to eternal life.
Is the Lake of Fire really eternal? Why does God judge people eternally?
Last time we looked at these questions in the context of Matthew 25, and this morning I’m going to focus on probably the two underlined, that is:
What’s the relationship between faith and works?
How did the sheep become righteous?
Did they become righteous by their works, by taking care of the poor, by clothing those who were without clothes, taking care of those who are in prison, visiting them? Or is that something different?
The second question is: What is the gospel? I remind you that there are basically three gospels in the Bible.
1. The Old Testament gospel: a gospel that looked forward to a future provision of a Savior and salvation. In the Old Testament, the sacrificial system wasn’t a means of salvation. But it was a training aid to understand the nature of salvation: that there needed to be a death—a penalty that had to be paid for sin and that this could not be paid for by any human being. It had to be paid for by someone who was perfect, pictured by the Lamb who was without spot or blemish.
2. The gospel of the Kingdom. The first gospel is by faith alone in the Messiah alone—the future promised Messiah, but it’s future. It’s not looking back, it’s looking forward. In the gospel of the Kingdom it’s still faith alone in the Messiah alone, but there’s something that’s new in the concept of Messiah, and that is that He’s coming, He’s present, and He’s offering the Kingdom.
Believing in the gospel of the Kingdom was to respond to the message of John the Baptist and Jesus and His disciples at the first part of His ministry, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” calling the Jews to turn back to God because the Kingdom was at hand in the Person of the King who is offering the Kingdom.
Since that Kingdom was rejected, the offer was withdrawn, postponed. Jesus was rejected as the Messiah, He was crucified, buried, rose from the dead, ascended to Heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father as the Son of Man, waiting to be given His Kingdom, to come and establish His Kingdom in the future.
3. The Church Age gospel, which is believe that Jesus is the Messiah, who died on the Cross for your sins. And by trusting in Him and Him alone, you have salvation forever and ever.
At the end of the Church Age, that which ends the Church Age is the Rapture. Those who were dead in Christ will be resurrected from the grave: 1 Thessalonians 4:17, “Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds.”
That is followed by a seven-year tribulation period, which is the final seven years of God’s plans and purposes for the nation Israel to bring them to turn, to accept their Messiah. We see in Matthew 24:14 that the gospel that is preached in the Tribulation is the gospel of the Kingdom.
The gospel of the Kingdom entails believing the Messiah has come, He’s died for our sins and He’s about to return to establish His kingdom. It is a Jewish Messiah who is going to establish a Jewish kingdom that will be centered in Israel with the capital and His throne in Jerusalem.
To accept that gospel means that you cannot be anti-Semitic. And when Jesus says “whoever does these to the least of these My brethren,” He’s talking about “My brethren” in terms of an ethnic sense: those who are Jewish. But “the least of these”: that term we also saw is one that describes disciples of Jesus, so the term “the least of these My brethren” is a term to describe Jewish believers in the Tribulation period.
We saw that these verses were critical for understanding the gospel today. The Gospel is always on the basis of grace through faith.
Ephesians 2:8–9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works lest any man should boast.”
Works are not part of the package. We are not saved by doing good deeds. We are not saved by trying to measure up to the righteous standard of God. There is nothing we can do as constitutionally corrupt sinners that can ever measure up to the absolute perfection of God’s standard.
If we’re going to be perfect, which is what God demands, what His character demands, then we must have someone give us that righteousness. That’s the picture of salvation. Jesus gives us His righteousness when we trust in Him, and we’re saved on the basis of His righteousness, not our righteousness.
Titus 3:5 says, “He saved us, not on the basis of works which we have done in righteousness …” Works are not the basis for God saying, “You are righteous.” It is the possession of Christ’s righteousness.
In Romans 11:6, Paul says, “But if it is by grace”—and it is—“it is no longer on the basis of works”—which is “from works” literally in the Greek—“otherwise grace is no longer grace.”
If you add anything to it, Paul says it’s not grace. That’s why in Galatians 1, Paul says if anyone preaches another gospel—a gospel that is different from by grace-based salvation, by grace through faith-alone salvation—then let them be accursed. That is a false gospel. Faith plus anything equals nothing, no deal. God is strict: My way; no way.
What’s the relationship then between faith and works, and this is the claim by many in the Matthew 25 passage, that the sheep are saved by works. They believe that faith without works—that is faith without good deeds—is a false faith. It is a pseudo-faith. It is an inadequate faith. It is not a faith that saves. Therefore, in their view, we are saved by faith plus good works.
It was pointed out to me by several in the congregation who listen to me that at any Roman Catholic funeral—because they believe you’re saved ultimately by works—this passage in Matthew 24 is cited. That this is how you’re saved, and it’s the foundation.
If you read anything that tries to relate the social gospel, social programs, social justice, or socialism to Christianity, they always cite this passage and take it out of context.
The key passage for asserting this relationship to faith and works is in James 2:14–26. Last time I spent most of the time on James 2:14–17, tried to just hit some high points after that, and got myself in trouble because people asked me technical questions.
Just a reminder, justification in Scripture is faith alone, faith minus works. They are not an inherent part of the gospel, and there is not a necessary connection between works and faith. Faith alone in Christ alone.
Then there’s the view that justification is the result of faith plus works—in combination with— works.
The third view is of faith plus works as the necessary result. So if you don’t see the works, you aren’t saved. The danger of that is that people then say that the way you know you’re saved is the evidence in your life. It’s not what the Bible says.
The Bible says the way you know you’re saved is you believe the promise of God, and the focus is on the promise of God, not on our response to the promise of God other than faith alone in Christ alone.
James 2 can be broken down into three sections.
1. James 2:14–17 Doctrine without application is useless.
James is basically saying that “by faith,” and by “faith” he means not the action of believing, but what is believed. That is, when you say, “I believe ‘X’,” that if you believe it, it doesn’t really do you any good if you don’t apply what you believe. So what he is saying is the doctrine—or faith or what you believe—is useless if you don’t apply it.
2. James 2:18–19, there’s the presence of this objector.
This verse is very difficult. In fact, on one hand I told you that there’s this commentator that said there were 32 different positions on Matthew 25; and it’s clearly the most difficult passage in the Bible to interpret. Until you get to James 2:18–19, and then you will read in almost every commentary this is the most difficult passage in the Bible to interpret.
When you deal with these kinds of things, you have to take a little more time to understand what’s going on here, so that people won’t be confused.
The objector is basically saying, “All you need is faith. You don’t need works.” He’s trying to avoid having to apply Scripture in his life. All that matters is what you live and what you say. It doesn’t matter what you do, just as long as you say the right things.
3. James gives two illustrations: one from Abraham and one from Rahab in the Old Testament.
He concludes by saying that faith without works—that is, saying what you believe without application—is useless. It doesn’t help you spiritually. It doesn’t mean you’re not saved because we’re not talking about salvation. We’re talking about spiritual life.
James 2:14 begins saying, “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works. Can faith save him?”
Now we know that he’s talking to believers because he calls them “My brethren.” In fact, throughout the epistle he refers to those to whom he is writing as my brethren or my beloved brethren. He is talking to them as believers.
He uses this phrase OPHELOS, which he’ll use again in James 2:16, which shows the connection, the internal unity of this whole section.
“What value is it”—or what benefit is it—“my brethren, if someone claims to believe” certain things, and maybe they do—“but doesn’t have works”—or application?
In the structure of this epistle back in James 1:19, James says to them, “So then, my beloved brethren”—indicating they’re believers—“let every man”—this command of them—“be swift to hear, slow to speak and slow to wrath.”
That’s the outline of James; James 2:21–26 he’s talking about what it means to be swift to hear. In the first part he talks about hearing the Word and doing it or applying it. It is not Christian service; it is application of what the Word says.
If the Word says to pray without ceasing, then you pray—make it a habit pattern in your life. If the Word says give thanks in all things, then you apply it by giving thanks in all things. If the Scripture says love one another as I have loved you, then you love one another as Christ has loved you. It is not talking about Christian service, it’s talking about applying the Word.
James 1:19, you’re to be swift to hear; so you hear and do. Then he gives an example of where they’re not doing, which is they’re showing favoritism to the wealthy and ignoring the poor. Then he comes back and talks about hearing and doing, but now he uses the words “faith” and “works,” but the hearing is analogous to faith, and works is the same as application. It’s just talking about the same thing with two different words.
He says “be slow to speak”: James 3 is talking about the sins of the tongue. Then he says “be slow to anger,” that’s representative of all of the mental attitude sins, and James 4:1–5:6 talks about being slow to speak.
Then he comes back to his major theme which is to endure and persevere in the Christian life so that ultimately, when we as Christians appear before the Judgment Seat of Christ, we will have rewards and not shame.
James 2:14, “what value is it if you claim to believe certain things”—I’m paraphrasing—“if you say you claim to believe certain things, but you don’t have application, can that faith save him?”
See, this word “save” is one I pointed out many times, where we think that it means getting into Heaven when we die because that’s how we use it in our evangelical idiom, but the Bible uses the term in different ways.
James 1:21 tells us that this is a focal point of his overall application: he’s talking about being swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. He says, “Therefore, lay aside all”—in the old King James it was “superfluity of naughtiness”; this is a little bit of an improvement—“filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word.”
I’m not getting into all the details of that verse, but what he is saying is, receive the Word into your life. In other words, study the Word, learn it and believe it because that’s able to save your soul. But they’re already justified because in James 1:18 he said, “Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first fruits among His creation.”
He is saying that they’re already justified; they’ve already been born again. They’re regenerate, they have eternal life. So what kind of salvation is this? This is growth: spiritual growth.
Salvation is used three ways in the Bible:
The idea he’s writing to them is: they are believers, they have been brought forth by the Word of God, they are the first fruits of His creatures, they are “my beloved brethren,” they are believers, but now they have to learn to apply the Word.
James 1:22, he says, “But become doers of the Word”—apply what you’re learning—“and not merely hearers”—or not merely listeners—“who delude themselves.”
Then he gives us an illustration from what the problem is: that they are ignoring the poor and not applying the love of Christ to those who are impoverished. In fact, they’re treating them with a lack of respect and care, and they’re fawning over those who are wealthy.
He uses the same word at the conclusion of verse 16 that he used in verse 14. He said, “… what value is that?” If all you say to them is “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” you’re not doing anything to help them, you’re not applying what you say you believe.
I paraphrased it this way: What spiritual benefit is it, my brethren, if someone claims to have doctrine. “I’ve got doctrinal notebooks. I’ve got Chafer Systematic Theology. I know all this,” but they’re not applying what they learn. Can that doctrine deliver them from the deadly and destructive consequences of sin in our present life?
That takes us up to where we stopped last time. In his conclusion in that section, as stated in James 2:17, where he says, “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
For it to be dead it first had to be alive, which means they were saved, but now it’s of no value. What it means by being dead is, it’s nonproductive. It’s a sterile faith. It’s not a living or vital faith that’s making any difference in the spiritual life.
Now we get to the fun part, James 2:18–19; this is the voice of the objector: “But someone will say ‘you have faith and I have works. Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one. You do well, even the demons believe, and tremble.’ ”
I stated in the introduction to this, these are a couple of verses that many will say are the most difficult to interpret in the Scripture. They are difficult; there are a lot of details we have to address here.
First thing I want to point out is the word “someone” doesn’t appear here for the first time in this passage. James says, “But someone”—that someone is an objector, someone who isn’t agreeing with him. But he has used this word. It’s a pronoun in the Greek, TIS, and it’s used at the very beginning, in James 2:14 of this section, “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says …” This is the objector.
He’s already raised one question, “If someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?” What if someone says this? It’s stated again in James 2:16. It’s not clear in your English because he says, “And one of you says to them,” there’s the word “someone.” This word “someone” appears two or three times there, so he’s using this as a rhetorical device to talk about what some other people say.
This is from four different translations, and the one that most of you use is either going to be the second one or the third one.
The second one reflects the New King James Version, the New English Translation—or the NET Bible; the English Standard Version, the RSV—Revised Standard Version; even the NRSV or the NIV.
The third example is from the New American Standard Bible.
What you’re comparing are those words that are underlined.
If you will notice in the first one: this is from Moffatt’s translation. Moffatt was a scholar, he wrote several commentaries and published his own translation of the New Testament. If you will notice he has the words of the objector as only the first six words, “Someone will object and you claim to have faith.”
In the second example, which is what you have in New King James, NET, ESV, RSV, and NIV, the words of the objector are a little bit longer. There you have, “You have faith and I have works”—and then after that you would assume that’s the voice of James.
In the third example, this is the example from the New American Standard Bible translation, “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.’ ”
In this translation, it appears that all of verse 18 are the words of the objector, and you see why people would be confused. Now how many people—don’t show your hands, this is a rhetorical question—how many people think that the quotation marks are from the original Greek?
None. There are no punctuation marks in Greek. They didn’t use punctuation marks, so it is an interpretation based on numerous factors, and in this case especially theology, to decide where this guy’s voice begins and ends.
The trouble is that there is clear indication in the language as to where this goes. This is seen in the fourth example, which I believe is correct, which is Williams, New Testament translation and also reflected in Young’s Literal Translation. According to this understanding, the voice of the objector includes both verses 18 and 19.
James isn’t affirming—James isn’t saying in verse 19—“You believe that God is one, and you are quite right: evil spirits also believe this, and shudder.” James is not saying that. That’s still in the voice of the objector. Now, why do I say, in contrast to the Bibles you read, that the quotation marks should go all the way through verse 19?
First of all, we see that this is a typical rhetorical device that is used in much of Greek literature. It is called a “diatribe”, and this diatribe is often presented where you have words initially introducing the objector, and then there is another statement that is made that indicates that the original writer is taking up his cause.
For example in Romans 9:19, this is an example of this diatribe. Paul says, “You will say to me then”—see that’s the same thing that James does here and says, “but someone may say”—“You will say to me then”—and then the voice of the objection—“ ‘Why does he still find fault? For who has resisted His will?’ ”
Now to counter that, Paul clearly indicates that he’s now back speaking, and he says, “But indeed, O man”—see there’s this address to the objector—“But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God?”
Another example is 1 Corinthians 15:35–36, similar to what James says, “But someone will say”—someone might object—“ ‘How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?’ ” Then we hear the voice of Paul, “Foolish one, what you sow is not made alive unless it dies.”
So diatribe—which was very common in Greek literature—is a sophisticated argument where the writer uses the voice of someone else in a debate-type format to express an objection, then he answers that objection.
It is also seen in Luke 4:23, Romans 11:19; various examples in Josephus, and also in the Septuagint.
Another thing that indicates this just structurally is James 2:14–17 are a unit, as indicated by what’s called in literature, an inclusio. You have a statement made at the beginning and a statement at the end, which in artillery terms, brackets the target.
James 2:14 raises the question, “If someone says he has faith but does not have works …” In James 2:17 it says, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works,” So the beginning of the section talks about faith without works, the end of this section is a sentence that says faith by itself without works, so that’s a unit of thought.
James 2:20, which comes after verse 19, the question is asked, “But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?” The question that’s asked in verse 20 focuses on faith without works as being dead, and in verse 26 it repeats that phrase “faith without works is dead.” That’s an inclusio.
So if James 2:14–17 is a unit, and James 2:20–26 is a unit, then that means James 2:18–19 must be the unit in between. That’s really important because one of the questions I got last week after the message focused on this very thing. The person said I’ve had trouble talking to people, helping them understand this. How do you really understand what’s going on here with these demons in James 2:19? And you can’t really—it’s very confusing for a lot of people. If you don’t understand who’s talking, then you can’t really understand how to interpret that passage.
In James 2:18 we have the introduction of this objector. James says, “But someone—somebody doesn’t agree with me—may well say, ‘you have faith and I have works; show me your faith from’ ”—and notice I put in there [not “without”]. This is another little problem: there is a textual variant.
A textual variant means that: we have over 5,000—it may be over 6,000 by now—original language manuscripts from the first through about the eighth or ninth century of the New Testament. Manuscripts that are very ancient. Sometimes copyists would miscopy, so you have an error that comes in and so you have some manuscripts that might have a different reading.
What happens is you have some manuscripts that use the Greek word CHORIS for “from” right here, and it’s translated “without”. But the vast majority of manuscripts, including many ancient manuscripts don’t have CHORIS here. They have the word EK, which is the word “from.” So if it’s EK here and EK here, it makes much more sense.
What the objector is saying is, “You have faith, I have works. If you start with your faith, show me from faith your works, and I’ll start with works and try to show my faith from the works.” What he’s arguing is that there’s not a necessary connection between what a person believes and what they do.
He’s saying, “Your idea, James, that faith without works is useless, doesn’t work. It’s nonsense because there is no necessary connection between what a person believes and what they do.”
Then he’s going to give an example in James 2:19. He says, for example, “You believe that God is one. What impact does that have on you that you believe the God is one? Well, you worship God. On the other hand you have demons; they believe the same thing. They believe that God is one, and they shudder.”
See, just because you believe the same thing doesn’t mean you’re going to have the same application. He’s saying there is no connection between application and what you believe. So he’s trying to void—nullify—James’ argument.
For the sake of argument, there are those who think that James 2:19 is in the voice of James, but this is in the voice of the objector. Assuming their position, they will then say, “See, this proves that real faith has some consequent action. Even the demons believe, but they don’t have the right kind of fruit.”
Let me ask you a question—pop quiz. Is believing that God is one the gospel? Is believing that God is one what you have to believe to go to Heaven when you die? No. That’s not the gospel. This isn’t talking about a salvation proposition here. The demons clearly believe God is one.
When Jesus came on the earth and He cast demons out, what did they call Him? They called Him LORD. They called Him God. They knew who He was, but it had nothing to do with salvation. Just believing that God is one is not going get you to Heaven. This is not a proposition at all that talks about salvation.
The reality is James’ objector is simply saying, like many people today, “I just need to study the Bible. If I just know the Bible, that’s enough.” James is saying that may be great to know the Bible, but if you’re not applying it, it’s not doing your spiritual life any good. You may still be saved, but you’re not growing. That’s his whole point.
He goes to the next level of his argument, he says, “But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow ...” In the diatribe, it starts with an introduction, “but someone will say …” But when the original speaker is coming back, he makes some comment: Romans 1:19 Paul says, “O man, how long will you do this?”
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul did the same thing James does: he calls the objector a fool. So you clearly know when the writer’s coming back. That’s why I said, how do you know those quotation marks go all the way through James 2:19? Because of the way it’s structured. It’s basic to the literary structure of this kind of rhetorical device in Greek.
James is saying, “But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?” He’s not saying that that they’re not believers, but that, as believers, you’re not applying what you say you believe.
He gives two examples. The first example comes from Abraham. That’s the only one I’m going to talk about. James 2:21 says, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?”
Abraham is the classic example of justification by faith alone. Paul will refer to him in Romans 4. It’s the first clear statement of justification by faith alone in the Old Testament in Genesis 15:16. Genesis 15:16 refers to Abraham’s original salvation.
But this event—when Abraham was told by God to sacrifice his son Isaac—this is in Genesis 22. This is 30 or 40 years—maybe 50 years—later.
In the interim period, Abraham has grown spiritually. He’s come to understand that God is going to fulfill His promise to him. And many times he tried to fulfill that promise himself—that’s why we got stuck with Ishmael. Now he understands that God’s going to fulfill that promise to Isaac just as God has said. And even if he kills Isaac, the writer of Hebrew realized God would bring them back from the dead. God is going to fulfill His promise.
Abraham is like, “I finally got it. I am believing God for His promise.” Not for salvation, but that He’s going to provide me with an eternal seed and an eternal people, and that’s going to be through Isaac and nobody else, so I’m going to do what God says to do.
James 2:21, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works”—it’s not his justification for salvation, it’s the justification of his spiritual growth and maturity—“when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?”
James 2:22 James says, “Do you see that faith was working together with his works”—or his application—“and by works faith was made perfect.”
Now that word “perfect” is really important. It’s the word in Greek that means to be mature. Not to be flawless, not to be sinless, but to be brought to maturity, to be completed. That’s the base meaning of the word TELEIOO.
James is saying that by his application his faith in God was matured. That’s the subject of the whole epistle is how believers are to grow by hearing and applying the Word and by being slow to speak and slow to anger.
James 2:23, “And the Scripture was fulfilled which says ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him as righteousness’ ”—that word “accounted” is an accounting term meaning to impute or credit something to his account. James 2:23 is quoting from Genesis 15:6. His conclusion in James 2:24, “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not only by faith.”
What’s important there, as you’ll see that there’s a little bit of a difference there between the way I translated that and what you might have in your Bibles, and that is because of a misreading of a Greek term that’s translated “only.” In the Greek it is an adverb, MONOS.
This is why grammar is important. It drives some of you nuts I know, but this is why it’s important. An adverb modifies what kind of word? Multiple-choice: a) verb. b) noun. An adverb modifies a verb. So if you’re reading this in most translations, it says, “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.”
What kind of word is faith, noun or verb? Noun. Nouns are modified by adjectives. So this is an adverb. It’s not there to modify the noun “faith.” It’s modifying a verb that is left out. It’s already supplied by the context, but it is applied.
Just as a side note, this is called an ellipsis. We do it in English all the time. You hear people say, “Wait for me. I’m going to come with.” What are they saying? I’m to come with “you”. They left out the word “you”, but we understand that.
Listen to British English on some of these murder mysteries I know some of you watch. How many times do they leave out words, because it’s understood what the word is. When James says, “You see then that a man is justified by works,” he’s already given us the verb, and then he is saying, “and not justified”—and that’s where the adverb would come—“not justified only by faith.” There are two kinds of justification.
Same thing Paul says in Romans 4:1, “What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works”—but you notice I put a little superscript there on “if”—a 1? That’s a first class condition in the Greek. That’s a way of expressing a condition that is expected to be true. So he is saying, “Yes, Abraham was justified by works, but not before God.” See, it’s a justification before man. It’s a vindication of his salvation originally.
You go back to Genesis 15:6. Just walk through the Old Testament. Abraham believed in the Lord, and it was imputed or counted to him as righteousness. It is not what he did, it’s what he believed. Justification is by faith alone.
Isaiah 64:6 in the Old Testament says, “For all of us have become like one who is unclean.” He includes himself. Remember in Isaiah 6, he appears before the throne of God, and he says I am a man of unclean lips. He says we’re all unclean, we’re all sinners. “And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment.”
All of our righteousness is like filth. So how do we become righteous if all of our good deeds, not our bad deeds, but all of our good deeds are garbage? We do it through God.
Isaiah 50:8 says, “He is near who justifies Me; who will contend with Me? Let us stand together. Who is My adversary? Let them come near Me.” This is talking about justification as by the Messiah, the Servant.
Isaiah 53:11, “He shall see the labor of His soul”—this is God the Father saying He shall see the labor of His soul, the Servant—“He”—the Father—“shall see the labor of His soul”—the Son, the Servant—“and be satisfied. By His knowledge”—that is, the knowledge of the Father—“My righteous Servant shall justify many”—He will make them righteous—“for He shall bear their iniquities.”
This is the same point that Paul is making in Romans 4:3–5, “For what does the Scripture say?”—same quote that James uses—“ ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him’ ”—or imputed to him—“for righteousness.”
“Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but debt.” In other words, you can’t work to get to Heaven—that’s a debt. That’s not going to get you there; it’s not grace.
“But to him who does not work”—that is, you just believe in Christ as your Savior—“to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted to him for righteousness.”
In conclusion, how are we to be declared righteous before the throne of God? How did those sheep, in the separation of the sheep and the goats, they are called the righteous, how did they become righteous? Not by doing good deeds, because all through the Scripture it says that doing good deeds doesn’t make you righteous. All your righteousnesses are as filthy rags.
What makes you righteous is that you have believed in Christ as Savior—you believe the gospel. And the gospel during the Tribulation is the gospel of a Messianic King who died for His people—who died for their sins—and He will come and bring a Jewish Kingdom that will be centered in Israel in Jerusalem.
When that Jewishness of the gospel is understood, then it will be impossible for those who believe a Jewish gospel for a Jewish King and a Jewish Messiah to reject aid to Jewish believers during the Tribulation period.
For us, the issue is, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. The word “Christ” is the word for “Messiah”. We believe that Jesus died on the Cross for our sins, and by faith alone in Christ alone—by believing that He died for me, He paid my penalty on the Cross, He is my substitute—that when I believe in Him I’m credited with His righteousness. And on the basis of His righteousness, which I have by faith alone, I am declared righteous.
With our heads bowed and our eyes closed.
“Father, thank You for this opportunity to work through this difficult passage, to understand how consistent it is with the rest of Scripture, to understand that we are saved by faith alone in Christ alone. We trust that He is the Savior, the One who died for our sins, He is Your Lamb who took away the sins of the world. And by trusting in Him alone we have eternal salvation.
“Father, we pray that if there is anyone listening, anyone here that has never trusted in Christ, never clearly understood the gospel, always thought perhaps that somehow they contributed something to their salvation, that it is clear that we contribute nothing, we bring nothing, we simply accept what He has done for us.
“He is the One who brings and offers salvation to us as a free gift, and we trust in Him and Him alone, and instantly we’re given the gift of His righteousness when we believe. We’re given the gift of His righteousness and eternal life, which can never be taken from us.
“Father, we ask that You would help us to understand that also as believers it’s important for us to apply Your Word in every area, not just to learn it, not just to accumulate knowledge, but to apply that knowledge in every area of thought and life.
“We pray this in Christ’s name, amen.”