By Terry Partain
There is a familiar ring to the Protestant approach to James 2:21 in the “faith-works” controversy. “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?” The well informed Protestant has learned to say, “Abraham was justified by works but only before men; not before God.” His basis for this approach is Romans 4:2, “For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God.” Aside from the mutilation of both contexts, the truly distressing thing about this approach is its similarity to the thinking of the New Testament Pharisee.
The single greatest fault of the Pharisee was his faith in the “circumcision principle” to satisfy the demands of God even while he angered God by neglect of the weightier matters of the law: judgment, mercy and faith (Matt. 23:23). To the Pharisee, works were done to be seen of men (Matt. 23:5). John the Baptist shook the wilderness rafters with his demands that they repent of their unfaithful faith. “We are Abraham’s seed, ” they said. Said John, “Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance” (Matt. 3:7-10). Work or else be cast into the fire. Their legal standing did not exempt them from obedience to God.
The single greatest fault of the Protestant is his faith in the “faith principle” to satisfy the legal, requirements of justification before God even while he angers God by neglecting the weightier matters of ” the faith” such as obeying the Lord in the worship and work of the church. Ask a Protestant even about moral matters such as dancing, drinking, and divorce and you will hear: “Your sins might take away ‘your witness’ but your eternal destiny is still secure.” That my friend has the fragrance of Phariseeism.
Context of James 2
Let’s return to the context of James 2:21. Before whom did Abraham offer Isaac his son upon the altar? There was not a single human witness. Only God saw the work and justified him by it; that is, because of it. That work made his faith perfect (complete). That work fulfilled the Scripture “Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the friend of God.” The works of James 2 were works of mercy. Are these the works that God will be indifferent about? Look at Matthew 23:23 again.
Context Of Romans 4:2
What about Romans 4:2? The works at issue in this context are the works that substitute for obedience: specifically here circumcision. Abraham was uncircumcised in Genesis 15:6 when he was given the promise. He became the father of all men who walk in the steps of that faith which he had while still uncircumcised Romans 4:10-13. The Judaizers that Paul here exposes were like the Pharisees in that they put their trust in certain portions of the Law of Moses and refused to be faithful like Abraham to the whole counsel of God. Consequently they excluded the Gentiles contrary to the Law and rejected God’s grace offered in Jesus in defiance of the Prophets (Acts 15:10-18).
Brethren, let’s not be baited into taking the old Protestant line that our security does not depend on our “works.” The history of Israelite unbelief is deeply rooted in the same notion. You can call it “salvation by faith” or you can call it “salvation of Abrahamic birth” or like those of Jeremiah’s day you can just stand there and cry “the temple, the temple. . . ” (Jer. 7:4) but it really is disobedience to the will of God.
Guardian of Truth XXX; 14, p. 436
July 17, 1986