Jam_2:24. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.
CERTAINLY, of all the questions that can occupy the human mind, the first and greatest is, “How shall man be just before God [Note: Job_9:2.]?” On this subject men have differed from each other as far as the east is from the west. To this difference the passage before us has not a little contributed. It is therefore most desirable that we enter candidly into the investigation of it, and endeavour to ascertain with all possible precision what is so indispensable to our eternal welfare.
It is obvious, that the words which I have read to you are a deduction from a preceding argument. We ought therefore carefully to examine the argument itself; for, it is only by a thorough knowledge of the premises that we can understand the conclusion drawn from them. Suppose that I were, as a conclusion of an argument, to say, ‘So then man is an immortal being;’ if the argument itself were not investigated, you might understand it as a denial of man’s mortality: but, if the argument shewed, that the conclusion referred to his soul alone, the conclusion would be found perfectly consistent with an apparently opposite position, namely, that man is a mortal being. In like manner, if the Apostle’s argument in the preceding context be candidly examined, there will be found no real inconsistency between the deduction contained in the text, and an apparently opposite deduction which may be founded on premises altogether different.
Let us consider then,
The Apostle’s argument—
The first thing to be inquired is, Whence the argument arose? or, What was the occasion of it?
[St. James was reproving an evil which obtained to a very great extent among the Church in his day; namely, the shewing partiality to the richer members, whilst the poorer were treated with supercilious contempt, and harassed with the most flagrant acts of oppression [Note: ver. 2–6.]. Now, as this was directly contrary to the whole spirit of Christianity, he introduced his reproof with these words; “My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons [Note: ver. 1.].” Now these words, duly noticed, will give a clue to the whole. “Have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ with respect of persons:” hold not the true faith in so erroneous and unworthy a manner. He then proceeds to shew, that a faith productive of no better conduct than that, will never justify, “never save,” the soul [Note: ver. 14.]: for that it is a dead faith, and not a living one, a mere carcass, and not a living body [Note: ver. 26.].]
The next thing we have to do is, to trace the steps of his argument—
[Having reproved the partiality before-mentioned, he shews, that it is alike contrary both to the law and to the Gospel: to the law, the very essence of which is love; (which if any person habitually violates, he violates the whole law [Note: ver. 8–11.];) and to the Gospel, which inspires its votaries with a more liberal spirit [Note: ver. 12.], and declares, that the person who exercises not mercy to his brethren, of whatever class they may be, shall find no mercy at the hands of God [Note: ver. 13.].
He then appeals to the whole Church; and calls upon them to say, whether any person so holding the faith of Christ can be saved? and whether all the faith whereon he builds his confidence, be not a nullity, and a delusion? “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith, such a faith as that, save him [Note: ver. 14.]?”
He then proceeds to shew how vain any man’s pretences to love would be, if it were as inoperative as this faith. “If a brother or sister be naked, and be destitute of daily food; and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed, and be ye filled, notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit [Note: ver. 15, 16.]?” Could that person be said to possess any real love? or would such a love as that be approved and rewarded by God? Certainly not. “Even so then,” says he, “faith, if it have not works, is dead, being alone [Note: ver. 17.]:” and any person before whom you might boast of such a faith as that, might justly reply, “Shew me thy faith without thy works, (which you can never do:) and I will shew thee my faith by my works [Note: ver. 18.];” which is the only test to which such pretensions can be referred. Nay more, such a faith as that is no better than the faith of devils. “The devils believe that there is one God: and they tremble;” but they do not love. So you may believe that Jesus Christ is a Saviour; and you may be partially affected by that persuasion: but, if you do not love, your faith is no better than theirs: and, by pretending to a living and saving faith, when you have nothing but a dead and inoperative faith, you only shew, that you are a “vain,” ignorant, and self-deluded “man [Note: ver. 19, 20.].”
He now goes on to confirm these assertions by an appeal to the Scriptures themselves. “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect [Note: ver. 21, 22.]?” Abraham believed in the promised Seed, “in whom all the nations of the earth should be blessed.” But what kind of a faith was his? Was it unproductive of holy obedience? No: it led him to obey the hardest command that was ever given to mortal man, even to slay, and to reduce to ashes upon the altar, that very son, to whom the promises were made, and through whom alone they could ever be accomplished: so that his works evinced the truth and sincerity of his faith; and proved indisputably, that he was accepted of his God. His faith existed before: but now it operated; and “was made perfect by the works which it produced;” just as a tree is then only in a state of complete perfection, when it is laden with its proper fruits. The fruit indeed does not add to the vegetative power that produced it; but it evinces that power, and displays it in full perfection: and so did Abraham’s works evince the truth of the faith which previously existed in him, and complete the objects for which it had been bestowed. “And then was fulfilled the Scripture which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called, The friend of God [Note: ver. 23.].” The same he illustrates by another instance from Scripture, even that of Rahab, who evinced the truth of her faith, and was accepted in the exercise of it, when at the peril of her life she concealed the Jewish spies, and sent them home in safety to their own camp [Note: ver. 25.].
Now from all this he draws, as an unquestionable deduction, that very truth, which in the first instance he had only asserted; namely, that persons, whatever degrees of faith they might pretend to, could never be accepted of God, unless their faith wrought by love: “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only:” for as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also [Note: ver. 24, 26. If ver. 25. were put into a parenthesis, the connexion between ver. 24 and ver. 26 would more plainly appear, and the argument stand more full and complete.].]
Thus viewed, the argument is clear from beginning to end. That the terms which are used are strong, is certain: but then they may be accounted for from the general drift of the argument, and its immense importance to the Church of God. The Apostles do not measure words and syllables as we are apt to do, but speak in broad unqualified terms. St. Paul had done so on the subject of a sinner’s acceptance by faith alone: and St. James does so on the subject of those vain pretences to faith which were made by many who were destitute of good works: but an attention to the scope of their respective arguments will lead us to a just view, both of the terms which they use, and of the conclusions at which they arrive. St. James’s argument we have seen. Let us now attend to,
The conclusion drawn from it—
This must accord with the argument on which it is founded. If we make the premises refer to one thing, and the conclusion to another, or, if we make the conclusion broader than the premises, we destroy the argument altogether, and make the Apostle reason, not only as if he were not inspired, but as if he were not endowed with common sense. What then does his conclusion amount to? it amounts to this:
That the future judgment will proceed on grounds of perfect equity—
[God could, if it pleased him, assign to every man his portion in the eternal world, according to what he has seen existing in the heart. But it is his intention to shew before the whole universe, that, as the governor and the judge of all, he dispenses rewards and punishments on grounds which are not arbitrary, but strictly equitable. On this account the day of judgment is called “the day of the revelation of the righteous judgment of God [Note: Rom_2:5.].” If the judgment were passed on men solely on grounds which none but God could see, it would be impossible for any one to judge of the equity of his proceedings: but when the works of all are brought forth as witnesses of the inward dispositions and habits of their minds, all can see the correctness of the estimate which is formed of men’s characters, and the justice of the sentence that is passed upon them. This then is one part of the conclusion which the Apostle arrives at in the words before us: God will not judge of men by their faith, which he alone can discern, but by their works, which all may judge of as soon as ever they are laid before them. A man may pretend to faith of the strongest kind: but the inquiry will be, what effects did it produce? And, if the fruits which it produced were such as were insufficient to attest its genuine truth and excellence, they will be utterly disregarded; and God will say, “Depart from me, I never knew you, ye workers of iniquity [Note: Mat_7:21-23.].” However confidently the truth and genuineness of it may be asserted by the persons themselves, God will not at all regard it, but will bring every thing to the test which is here established, and condemn or justify every man according to his works [Note: Mat_12:36-37.].]
That faith, of whatever kind it be, is of no value, any farther than it is attested by works—
[If faith in the first instance apprehends Christ as a Saviour from guilt and condemnation, it does not rest there: it lays hold on him for sanctification, as well as for righteousness [Note: 1Co_1:30.]; and would account him not worthy of the name of Jesus, if he did not save his people from their sins [Note: Mat_1:21.]. The characters given to faith in the inspired volume are inseparable from it: it works by love [Note: Gal_5:6.], and overcomes the world [Note: 1Jn_5:4.], and purifies the heart [Note: Act_15:9.]: and if it produce not these effects, it will never benefit the soul. Knowing therefore in what way God will appreciate it hereafter, it becomes us to form a correct estimate of it now; and to weigh ourselves in the balance of the sanctuary now, that we may not be found wanting in the day of judgment.]
It will here be expected, of course, that we answer a common objection to the foregoing statement—
[It is said that St. Paul’s sentiments and declarations on this subject are directly opposed to those of St. James; since, after a long argument, he comes to this conclusion: “Therefore we conclude, that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law [Note: Rom_3:28.].” He goes farther still, and says, that “to him that worketh not, but believeth in him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness [Note: Rom_4:5.].” Now it may well be asked, ‘How can this be reconciled with the foregoing statement?’ I answer, ‘Only examine St. Paul’s argument, as you have that of St. James, and you will see that there is no opposition at all between their respective assertions.’ The two Apostles are writing on two different subjects. St. Paul is proving that a man is not to seek salvation by any righteousness of his own, but simply by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ: whereas St. James is proving, that the man who professes to have faith in Christ, must shew forth his faith by his works. St. Paul endeavours to convince the self-justiciary; St. James, the Antinomian;—St. Paul, by shewing, that works are nothing without faith; St. James, by shewing, that faith is nothing without works. St. Paul exalts Christ, as giving a title to heaven; St. James, as giving a meetness for heaven. St. Paul bends the whole force of his mind to establish the one leading doctrine of the Gospel; St. James, to have that doctrine adorned. Thus, according to the two Apostles, a man is justified by faith, because by it he is made righteous; and he is justified by works, because by them he is proved righteous: and God in justifying him, whether on the one ground, or the other, approves himself both “a just God and a Saviour.” We may render this matter somewhat more clear by means of a familiar illustration. A scion must be engrafted into a stock in order that it may live: and it must bring forth fruit in order to prove that it does live. Is there any opposition between these two assertions? None whatever. So then with Paul I assert, that man must be engrafted into Christ by faith, in order that he may live: and with St. James I assert, that he must bring forth fruits of righteousness, to prove that he does live. Without being engrafted into the stock, he can have no life: and, if he bring not forth good works, he shews that he has no life. These two positions are perfectly compatible with each other: and so, when properly understood, are the apparently opposite positions of these two Apostles.]
Hoping now that I have set the whole of this matter in a clear light, I conclude with a few words,
[Two things in particular I would caution you against: first, Do not separate faith and works; and next, Do not confound them.
Do not separate them, or imagine that you can be saved by either of them apart from the other: for faith, if it be alone, is dead; and works, if they be alone, leave you altogether destitute of any interest in Christ. If your faith be strong enough to remove mountains, yet, if it work not by love, it will leave you no better than “sounding brass, or tinkling cymbals.” And if your works be ever so perfect, they can never exceed what the law requires of you; and consequently, can never discharge the debt which you owe to God for your past violations of it: nor indeed can you ever in your present imperfect state fulfil the law so perfectly as not to come short of it every day you live: and consequently, every day you live, you stand in need of mercy for your daily transgressions, instead of purchasing heaven by your superabounding merits.
On the other hand, Do not confound the two, as though you were to be saved by faith and works united; or to have a first justification by faith, and a second justification by works. Either the one or the other of these errors will invalidate the whole Gospel; and will rob Christ of his glory, and you of your salvation. Christ is the only Saviour of sinful man: and his righteousness is that in which alone any child of man can be accepted before God. If you join any thing with that, you make it void: and, as far as respects you, “Christ will have died in vain [Note: Gal_5:2; Gal_5:4.].” The true way of salvation is this: go to Christ as a sinner: and seek salvation altogether through his atoning sacrifice, and his obedience unto death. But, when you have believed in him, be careful to “maintain good works,” yea, and to “excel in” good works
[Note: Tit_3:8. ð
.]. Then will Christ be honoured in every way: your faith will honour him as the alone Saviour of mankind; and your works will honour him as your Lord and Master. But remember to keep each in its place. In building an edifice, you do not build the superstructure first, (if I may so speak,) and then lay the foundation afterwards; nor do you mingle the foundation and superstructure in one indiscriminate mass: but you keep each in its place; and then it answers the end for which it was raised. So you must lay Christ as your foundation first; and afterwards raise on him the superstructure of good works: then shall you be found “workmen that need not be ashamed;” and both in your faith and in your works be justified before God.]
[Let not any apparent difficulties in this subject embarrass you. They will all vanish in an instant, if only you get a broken and contrite heart. It is surprising what light such a state of mind will reflect on the subject before us. It may not indeed enable you to solve all the verbal difficulties that may be raised: but, as far as relates to the main subject, it will scatter all doubts, as mist is scattered by the noon-day sun. It will convince you that no righteousness but that of Christ can ever avail for your acceptance before God: and, at the same time, that holiness is no less necessary for your final enjoyment of his favour. It will convince you too, that both faith and holiness, being the gifts of God, you have no reason to despair of attaining all that is necessary to your complete salvation; since God is pledged “not to despise the contrite heart,” or to withhold from his upright people the blessings either of grace or glory [Note: Psa_84:11.].]