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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – Abraham (2:20-24)
Abraham (2:20-24)

If the first example provided devastating irony, the second example gives biblical authority. The importance James sees in the issue is reflected in his hypothetical addressing of a foolish man—using a term meaning "empty," probably referring to the man's lack of understanding about this issue of faith. In other words, it is senseless to think that faith without actions is a genuine, saving faith.

Interwoven throughout this paragraph are three components to James's argument. One component is the credentials of the chosen model. The patriarchal standing of Abraham our ancestor, the explicit affirmation of his faith (quoted in 2:23 from Gen 15:6) and his title as God's friend (reference to 2 Chron 20:7 and Is 41:8) all make Abraham an indisputable precedent.

The second component in James's argument is the illustration of his point with an incident from Abraham's life. The incident James chooses is a revealing narrative to confirm what we have already argued, that James is not attempting to refute Paul or even to correct a distortion of Pauline teaching. James's illustration is Abraham's offering of Isaac—an act of supreme obedience carried out in faith, exactly suiting the context of what James is encouraging his readers to practice. Paul's illustration will be Abraham's confidence in the promise of God in Genesis 15—an act of trust in God's grace to provide what was beyond human ability, exactly suiting the context of what Paul would be encouraging his readers to practice. James's illustration here is not a refutation of Paul but an independent (and prior) addressing of a different issue.

Third, James describes faith and actions as inseparable by identifying three ways in which they operate together. In 2:22, faith and actions work together as part of one reality—"faith was working with his works" (a literal wordplay by James, synergei tois ergois). Then faith is said to be made complete by what Abraham did. The verb eteleiothe means "perfected" (or "brought to maturity," Davids 1982:128). This describes faith as a reality that grows and matures in a Christian's life, and it gives strong motivation for doing the works, because becoming "mature" (teleios) in faith is the goal to which James directed us in 1:4. Finally, in 2:23, even the scriptural promise of justification through faith is said to be fulfilled by actions. James would not have meant that Abraham was left unjustified until he offered Isaac; James knew that Abraham was credited with righteousness before he had offered Isaac (just as Paul would argue in Rom 4 that Abraham was credited with righteousness before he was circumcised). But James means that Abraham's belief in God's promise and the consequent crediting to him of righteousness in Genesis 15:6 were proved to be real and were carried out in deed when Abraham offered Isaac in Genesis 22.

These three ways in which faith and actions operate together make faith a dynamic factor in a believer's life, not a static condition. James has insisted on the union of belief and actions, so that he clearly wants neither faith nor deeds neglected; he is insisting on the inseparable union of the two. The imperfect tense of were working emphasizes that what James expects is a continuing life of deeds done by faith; the aorist verb was made complete describes his expectation of the final result. Faith "leaves evidence of its occurring" in the form of works, and "so `perfect' faith is produced through successive acts of obedience" (Moo 1985:112).

Finally, in 2:24, James's summarizing conclusion of the paragraph is that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. The verb justified is a repetition from 2:21, now in present tense instead of aorist. Together, these two verses are instances of James's use of identical terms with Paul (works and justified) but with a different emphasis appropriate to his different context. James is speaking of moral deeds flowing naturally from genuine faith and showing the doer to be righteous. James's emphasis on faith alone shows that he affirms the necessity of faith; what he is opposing is a faith that denies the obligation to obey Christ as Lord. (Again, see the section "Faith and Deeds" in the introduction.)

James's meaning is not particularly clarified if we decide whether justified carries a demonstrative sense (with works demonstrating a person's righteousness) or a declarative sense (with works securing a person's righteousness). The probable background for James at this point is in Jesus' teaching on recognizing trees by their fruit in Matthew 7:15-20 and 12:33-37. There it is emphasized that a tree will demonstrate its quality by the kind of fruit it bears, but the judgment in a declarative sense is also strong in the verb "acquitted" (dikaioo) in 12:37. James's point is this: faith is the initial and continuing context for one's relationship with God; the genuineness of one's faith will be demonstrated in actions; and this genuineness will provide the basis for whether one is declared righteous before God.

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