What is the Meaning of James 2.21-26

“A Living Faith That Saves”

James 2:21-26

INTRODUCTION What is the Meaning of James 2.21-26

James 2. A man had been telling his family and friends for a long time that he was going to build a house. And finally the day has come…his family and friends were relieved and rejoiced with him!

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Naturally, he first starts with the foundation. He purchases property, designs the home, gets the permits, and finally he builds the foundation and the house.

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And when the foundation and house were finished, he invited all his friends and family over… and he dusts off his hands and says to his family and friends, “See, look… Look at my house!”

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And his family and friends were a bit shocked…for one, the house was totally a mess; it didn’t look quite like other houses. He did it all wrong! And two, the man failed to investigate the soil and the area was known for having weak soil.

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The friends and family were perplexed and said to the man, “don’t you know this is weak soil and will never sustain a house? That’s not a real house, it’s pathetic!”

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So is the man who says he has faith and has no works. He plays the part of building a house, but it’s insufficient and useless and has no solid foundation and that kind of faith will never sustain a true whole house of good works. The foundation is weak and useless.

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The kind of faith that produces no good works will crumble one day and will only destroy the man who lives by it. It was clear to the house builder’s friends and family that he needed to be saved from his pursuits…

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Eventually he’ll say something like this …

“I think I’ve given up on praying and going to Church. It hasn’t helped. My world crumbled with and without him. The things I cared about most in my life are gone and nothing now will ever bring it back!

‘God does things for a reason, things will get better,’ I’m tired of hearing it! I don’t need a bible to tell me that. Things happen because we allow them to happen or we make them to happen. I control my own destiny, God doesn’t, nor does the bible. I tried giving Faith a chance and it has shown me nothing … Why would God allow this bad thing to happen if he’s supposed to be caring, understanding and loving.

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Where was God when I needed Him most…” this person’s house of works crumbled beneath him because he built on a dead faith … just like the builder’s house would if he builds his house on a weak foundation.

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And so too James is concerned that we have the kind of faith that produces good works, the right foundation of faith and the right house of works on that foundation. And James, in this passage, is concerned with those like the house builder in our story. What if that house builder comes to you and says, “I’ve built a house?” “Right …. “ You’d need proof, right? “Show me your strong foundation by showing me your well built house that can withstand an earthquake.” It’s the same in the Christian life … “Show me your faith by your works.”

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James is concerned in this passage about being declared righteous…not before God, but before men. That is justification … being declared righteous. James is concerned with this question … “Is your faith the real deal?” Let’s read James 2:14-26

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James 2:14–26 14 What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? 17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. 18 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.” 19 You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. 20 But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? 22 You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.

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Last time we saw from vv. 14-19 a dead faith that does not save. What is the kind of faith that does not save? It’s this: Claiming to have faith but not having works that back up that claim … that’s the kind of faith that does not save. This faith is dead, being by itself. This faith is the same kind of faith as a demon’s faith, a demonic kind of faith. This faith is useless, James just said.

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James vs. Paul

Again, I want to focus on the difficulty of this passage. Verse 24, “you see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” “You see that a man is declared righteous by works and not by faith alone.”

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But Paul says in Romans 3:28 “for we maintain a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”

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How do we reconcile this? They seem to be saying opposite things. It’s important when reading Scripture not to put one book’s teaching into another book. We can’t insert Paul’s teaching into James’s teaching. We know their teaching will reconcile in the end and not conflict. But we can’t insert Paul’s teaching into James’ teaching.

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And so we can’t insert Paul means by the word justification into James’ use of that same word justification. We have to allow for different usages.

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Justification by itself means to be declared righteous. Before who though? Paul says, “I use justification to talk about being declared righteous by God.” James says, “I use justification to talk about being declared righteous before man.”

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Paul is focused on receiving eternal life, not by doing good works, but simply by trusting in Christ. James is focused on proving that you are actually a saved person. Your works will prove you have faith.

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James’ focus is being declared righteous before man, proving to other people you have saving faith by your good works. Again, this is the context. James 2:14, “what use is it my brother if someone [comes up to you and] says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?” So somebody approaches you and says he has faith but his life clearly shows that he has no works. Is that the kind of faith that can save him? No.

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And again verse 18. Someone may say, “you have faith and I have works.” It doesn’t matter, see. You have faith and I have works, what’s the difference? But James says you can’t show me your faith without works. I will show you my faith by my works.

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So in other words, James is concerned about being declared righteous before man, or proving yourself to be the real deal. Your works and your faith must line up. James is concerned with teaching the family and friends of the house builder who built his weak house on a weak foundation … you can see that the man does not have living, saving faith. .. look at his life!

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But the man who builds his foundation on rock and has a glorious multi-story house of works, this man saving faith reached its purpose, its goal. He is justified before man and clearly has a faith that saves.

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So, I’d like to preach this morning on “A Living Faith that Saves.”

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POINT: We are declared righteous before God by faith alone, but we are proved righteous before man by works. As Paul says, we are declared righteous before God by faith alone, but as James says, we are proved righteous before man by our works.

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Intro to study: In verses 21-26, James gives 2 examples of how our works prove that we are really Christians. Abraham the patriarch and Rahab the prostitute.

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  1. Abraham’s Saving Faith Proven by Works (2:21-24)

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    First, saving faith is proven by works in the life of Abraham…

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    Again …verses 21-24.

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James 2:21–24 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? 22 You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.

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Notice in verse 21, James reminds us of Abraham and his offering up Isaac. That’s in Genesis chapter 22. Now, in verse 23, James quotes an early passage in Genesis 15:6. James references two passages from Genesis and the life of Abraham. Let’s turn back to Genesis, to the early passage, chapter 15. And we’re going to look at Abraham’s saving faith in Genesis 15 and later we’ll look at Abraham’s works that prove he has saving faith.

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At this point in Genesis, Abraham had been in the land for 10 years. He doesn’t have an heir and he isn’t getting any younger. He’s won a great victory when he rescued his nephew Lot with his 318 servants.

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Now … Genesis 15:1 After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great.”

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But Abraham is afraid he’ll remain childless and won’t have an heir; all he has for an heir is his servant Eliezer.

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The Lord promises to give Abraham an heir…verse 5…Genesis 15:5 And the LORD took Abraham outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”

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God promised Abraham a lot of descendants.

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Now Gen. 15:6 is the verse James quotes back in James 2…

Genesis 15:6 6 Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.

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Abraham believed the Lord. Abraham trusted the Lord that what the Lord said would come true. The Lord said that Abraham would have many descendents, countless descendents. Abraham trusted the Lord. And the Lord credited Abraham’s faith to him as righteousness. It says in the verse, “and he reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

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God reckoned, or credited “it”…that is Abraham’s faith…God credited Abraham’s faith to him as righteousness.

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That happened at this moment: at this moment, Abraham was declared righteous before God. But know this….this is before Abraham’s offering up Isaac.

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Now, let’s move forward 30 years or so…after Abraham and Sarah have Isaac and to when Abraham is called on to sacrifice Isaac in Genesis 22 …

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While you’re turning there, I’ll again read James 2:21 “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?”

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And again the context of James 2 indicates this is what James means … “Was not Abraham our father proven to be righteous before man by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?”

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Abraham is now 100 years old. God has told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah. A literal human sacrifice … what a command… How could God do this and promise that Isaac would be his heir? Abraham would’ve been repulsed, terrified … This defies God’s plan and God’s command to love his family … What dreams he must’ve had for his son… But at the same time, Abraham is obedient. That is amazing! So early in the morning, he gets on his donkey brings his servants and wood for the sacrifice….

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…but what is really going on in Abraham’s heart at this moment? We’re told here in verse 5…Genesis 22:5 Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go over there; and we will worship and return to you.”

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Abraham knew that somehow they both would return to those servants … “we will worship and we will return to you.” Hebrews 11:19 tells us that Abraham considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead…” Abraham thought God was going to raise Isaac from the dead after Abraham killed him

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Could you imagine Isaac’s thoughts? At some point he realizes that he himself is the sacrifice … Abraham obediently places his son on the altar and on top of the wood…Isaac magnificently obeys … there have been the goodbyes and we’ll see you soon…and dad taking a deep breath reaches for the knife … ”

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And as Abraham grabs the knife … Abraham doesn’t have the knife raised at this point btw…notice…

Genesis 22:10–12 Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”

Verse 12 … He said, “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.”

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Verse 16 … Genesis 22:16–18 and said, “By Myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies. “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.”

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Same promise in both Genesis 15 and Genesis 22: God would give Abraham many descendants. Abraham trusted God in chapter 15 and he obeyed God in chapter 22.

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Abraham’s work of righteousness here proved that he trusted God. Abraham showed his faith by his works when he offered up Isaac. Chapter 22 verse 18 again … that promise will come true that through Abraham all the nations will be blessed why … ? Because he obeyed God. Abraham’s works proved that his faith was saving faith. Abraham’s works proved that his faith was saving faith.

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Now, back to James 2 verse 21 …

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James 2:21 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?

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Again, don’t insert Paul into James here. Paul’s justification is before God; James’ justification, as we noted from James 2:14 and 18, is before man. “Was not Abraham our father proven to have saving faith by his works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?”

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Abraham proved his faith by his works. So Abraham was justified. He was vindicated as being the real deal. He went through a test and passed the test. His foundation of faith was proven to be able to hold a real house of good works.

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And so we can see verse 22 “that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected.”

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Faith was working with his works. Faith was working … This is not a one time thing, faith was working with his works. There was a life of trust and works that proved his faith in God.

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This wasn’t a one-time thing…a one time thing doesn’t prove someone has a living saving faith. If someone says a prayer with you to accept Christ, that doesn’t necessarily prove he’s saved. There must be works that follow that initial trust.

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Hebrews 11:8 By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going.

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By faith Abraham obeyed. Obedience is empowered by faith. Faith, James says, was working with his works. Faith and works are working together and so the result is verse 22 … faith was perfected, or completed. “James what do you mean?” Faith was brought to its intended goal. Faith was perfected, it was brought to its intended goal… That’s the word perfected… For Abraham, faith reached its goal which is what? Of being shown in the life through good works.

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ILL: It’s like the foundation of a house. The foundation has an end goal of supporting the house. So also is faith. Saving faith has a goal of supporting the life of works. When the house is complete, the foundation was perfected, completed. It has reached its goal. When there are good works in your life as a Christian, the foundation of your faith also has reached its goal.

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Saving faith is demonstrated by good works.

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Abraham’s works proved his faith. Abraham proved his faith by his works…and because we saw Abraham’s works, we know he trusted God in a saving way…and that’s why James can say …verse 23 … James 2:23 and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “AND ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS,” and he was called the friend of God.

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This is the first result of faith and works cooperating: Saving faith is fulfilled in good works.

That Scripture passage was fulfilled. It was fulfilled, but not like a prophecy is fulfilled. That word fulfilled can also mean to bring to an end, a goal. Abraham’s faith had a goal: Abraham’s life of obedience.

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James’ point is this then: because Abraham performed good works by offering Isaac in Genesis 22, his faith back in Genesis 15 was proven to be the real deal. Genesis 15 was now fulfilled because Abraham performed good works in Genesis 22. Abraham performed good works by offering Isaac in Genesis 22, his faith back in Genesis 15 was proven to be the real deal.

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Abraham’s saving faith found it’s goal in Abraham’s life of obedience.

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APP: And that’s the story of your life as well: if you have trusted Christ then you will perform good works. Just like Abraham trusted God in Genesis 15 and performed works later in his life in Genesis 22 , so also you … if you have the saving kind of faith in Christ, you will do good works. And if you do, then that day you first trusted in God will be fulfilled. Your saving faith finds it’s significance in your life of obedience.

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Second result of faith and works cooperating was that Abraham is called the Friend of God

James testifies that Abraham is called the friend of God. 2 Chron. 20:7; Isa. 41:8 both refer to Abraham as the friend of God.

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Note this: Abraham is called the friend of God after he obeyed God.

It wasn’t before Abraham’s obedience on Mount Moriah, it was after. It wasn’t until later, after his obedience that he received that great title.

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It’s one thing for you to call the Prime Minister your friend but it’s quite another for the Prime Minister to call you his friend. That’s the privilege Abraham has from God! But that’s the same way it is with us today…

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John 15:14–15 “You are My friends if you do what I command you. 15 “No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you.

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We to, if we trust in Christ and prove ourselves to be doers of his word and do what he commands us, we too are his friends. Trusting God results in our being righteous before God. Trusting God and doing good works results in that truth being made evident to all.

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That’s why James can say in verse 24, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” “You see that a man is proven to have saving faith by works and not by faith alone.” That’s the idea.

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Abraham was declared righteous before God in Genesis 15. But Abraham was declared righteous in the sight of man in Genesis 22.

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So if somebody says he has faith but has no works, that faith cannot save him.

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And the way that we prove that we have saving faith is by our works. So Abraham was proved to be righteous, not just by tipping his hat to some facts at one particular moment, but by trusting in God with the kind of trust that works together with good works. And the works prove that he has saving faith.

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ILL: It’s the difference between saying you’ve free climbed up a several hundred foot tower and actually climbing towers for a living. You know those communication towers that are real tall…how do you fix them when they break?

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First guy says…“I trust my safety equipment when I climb towers.” But the guy actually works the cash register at the 711 … ok, his life is contrary to his claim.

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Second guy says, “Come with me tomorrow and watch.” And you do and see him in action.

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For the first guy, I heard him say he trusts his equipment, but his life doesn’t back it up, so his claim is suspect. But for the second guy, I know he trusts his equipment, I’ve watched him, his works back up his claim.

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That’s James’ point in all of us: We are declared righteous before God by faith alone, but we are proved righteous before man by works.

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As John Calvin has said … “Faith alone justifies, but the faith that justifies is never alone.”

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Verse 17…saving faith is never by itself…v.24 … saving faith is not alone…Works are necessary…but in what sense? To justify us as the real deal before man. We are justified before God by trusting Him alone, but the faith that declares me righteous before God is never alone; it produces good works so that others know I have saving faith as well.

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Calvin again, “… just as Paul contends that we are justified apart from the help of works, so James does not allow those who lack good works to be considered righteous.”

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TRANS: James’ second point from the OT is Rahab…verses 25-26

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  1. Rahab’s Saving Faith Proven by Works (2:25-26)

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James 2:25–26 25 In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.

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James goes from Abraham the patriarch now to Rahab the prostitute. James uses two stories to illustrate the same point: saving faith is proven in the life by works. And it doesn’t matter your status in the history of God’s people. You could be a patriarch or you could’ve been a prostitute… Saving faith is the same for everybody: it is proven in the life by good works.

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Rahab is in Joshua chapter 2…we could turn there quickly…Joshua 2.

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Btw, Rahab happens to be what my wife is teaching on in children’s church this morning, so you could ask your children what they learned…

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The story goes the people of Israel have ended their wilderness wanderings and they have crossed the Jordan River. They are commissioned by God to take over the land which would be the land of Israel. Joshua sends spies into the land and they meet the prostitute Rahab.

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When the king of Jericho sent 2 messengers to Rahab to tell her to hand over the two spies, Rahab instead hides the two Israelite spies and tells the messengers that they had already left and encouraged them to go and capture them.

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But actually she had hidden them on the roof of the house. And the two messengers ran off attempting to find them.

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Joshua 2:9–11 9 and Rabah says to the two Israelite spies… “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that the terror of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land have melted away before you. 10 “For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. 11 “When we heard it, our hearts melted and no courage remained in any man any longer because of you; for the Lord your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath.” … says the pagan prostitute.

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She clearly trusts in the one true God, the God of Israel. And as James says… she eventually sends out the spies by another way …

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Joshua 2:15 15 Then she let them down by a rope through the window…

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And Rahab was kept safe when the Israelites came to destroy the city because she put that scarlet colored thread in the window.

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Hebrews 11:31 31 By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish along with those who were disobedient, after she had welcomed the spies in peace.

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Rahab trusted in God and her saving faith produced good works: she received the spies in peace, and didn’t hand them over to the king. She risked her own life … Her faith produced good works.

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She was declared righteous before God by a saving faith, but she was proved righteous before man by her good works.

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James concludes with the simple illustration in verse 26…

James 2:26 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.

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Just as breathing is evidence of a living body, good works is evidence of a living faith. And so just as not breathing is evidence of a dead body, so also the absence of good works is evidence of a dead faith, a faith that doesn’t save.

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CONCLUSION What is the Meaning of James 2.21-26

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Your trust in God will produce good works. It’s different for everybody. For Abraham it was the willingness to sacrifice Isaac. It cost something! For Rahab, at the risk of her own life, it was sending out those 2 spies by another way. It cost something! For you it costs something to. Time, energy, effort, diligence in serving God no matter the cost, encouraging that brother or sister at a cost to me, sacrificing my life, my job, my whatever in order to follow God’s call on my life…pay the price, do what Jesus commands, build up his kingdom.

So know this as we conclude James 2: receiving eternal life is by trusting God only. As James quoted Genesis 15:6, “Abraham trusted God and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

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As Paul says in Galatians 3:6–7 6 Even so Abraham BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS. 7 Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham.

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Those who trust God are credited with righteousness, the very righteousness of Christ.

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Romans 4:5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness,

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Ephesians 2:8–9 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.

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Salvation is by faith, trusting in God. If you confess with your mouth, the Lord Jesus, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

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Salvation is not by works: Isaiah 64:6 For all of us have become like one who is unclean, And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; And all of us wither like a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

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We are dead in our trespasses and sins…and what could works can a dead man do? Salvation is not from any good deed you can do, it’s a gift of God. Salvation is by faith only.

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But know this … salvation is by a faith that is not alone. Saving faith is not alone. When saving faith comes to a person, it will never be by itself. It will bring with it the power to do good works.

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Saving faith is alive, active. It’s powerful. It releases somebody from the chains of sin. And it always results in good works and that life is never the same, it’s clearly released from the power of sin.

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Like the house builder in our opening story, we can’t just slap together some building material and call it a house. Neither can we slap together some religious sayings and the practice of church going or Bible reading and think we’re right with God. Saving faith will produce good works. And when we have the right foundation of saving faith …once you’ve prayed to be saved from your sin and once God has saved you…if you build your life on that foundation…and build a life of good works, that house will be the house of your dreams…a life of joy in Christ, in fellowship with him, of honoring him, and pleasing him and in the end hearing from the Lord, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord.”

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525 trust and obey.

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