James 2:24 and Romans 3:28 are challenging.
James 2:24 reads, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” And Paul says in Romans 3:28, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.”
Understanding these verses is important to know what it means to live as those who will be judged according to the Law of Liberty.
Take a look at James 2:14-26.
14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
James introduces two questions to help us understand the nature of saving faith. He asks:
What good is it if a man claims to have faith but does not have works?
Can that kind of faith save him?
The answer is no, that faith cannot save him because it is dead.
In verse 20 he asks if an example of how both faith and works are necessary for salvation would be helpful?
“Yes!” There is obvious confusion between this passage and what Paul says in Romans. Any information that gives clarity to his point is more than welcome.
To further explain, James gives the example of Abraham offering up his son Isaac.
This event is described with unique detail in Hebrews 11:17-19.
17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, 18 of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 19 He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.
According to James, this event exemplifies how works play a role in our salvation. Therefore, let’s highlight exactly what Abraham’s works were to see what kinds of works are necessary for salvation. In order to do that, we will mark the actions Abraham took and the phrases that describe his mindset.
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, 18 of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 19 He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.
Now let’s make a list of What Abraham did and How he did it.
1. By faith, he offered up Isaac
2. He had received promises
3. And he believed that God could raise him from the dead
According to Galatians 3:6-9, God preached the gospel to Abraham when he gave him the promises of the Covenant way back in Genesis 15. Abraham received these gospel promises and it was credited to him as righteousness. Abraham was saved when he believed the promises, and now his obedience in Genesis 22 is a fulfillment of that salvation and completes it.
The works modeled by Abraham are the same works required of us, but are different from the works Paul is discussing in Romans 3:28. Paul is attacking the legalism associated with the Mosaic Covenant. He specifically says “works of the Law” in reference to the Mosaic Covenant. The kind of works Paul is confronting are those done without faith and in obedience to obsolete commands.
Another example of Paul confronting this type of legalism is found in Galatians 5:1-6:
1 For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. 2 Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. 3 I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. 4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
James and Paul both use the words work and law, but they do so in regard to two different covenants, each of which has its own standard of righteousness. Not only do the different covenants have their own law, they also have their own priesthood.
The covenant Paul is referencing is the Mosaic Covenant given by God to Israel at Mt. Sinai. The covenant served a unique purpose as a tutor to lead people to Christ. The Levites served as priests and there were unique commands that governed the life of Israel. One command, for example, was the physical sign of circumcision. This covenant is fulfilled by the coming of Christ and is therefore made obsolete. Paul asks why anyone would submit themselves to the yoke of slavery of the Old Covenant when Christ has come to set us free from it.
Jesus came to usher in the New Covenant prophesied throughout the Old Testament.
Jeremiah 31:31-34 says,
31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
With a change of the covenant, there is a change in the priesthood and therefore a change in the law. The Mosaic Covenant’s priesthood has been fulfilled in Christ and has changed from the order of Levi to the order of Melchizedek. With this change there is also a change in the law. Hebrews 7:12 says, “For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.”
The Law of the New Covenant is the Law that brings freedom. James refers to it as the perfect Law, the Law of Liberty. (James 1:25) This is the Law we will be judged by, (James 2:12) and this Law has commands. James, and Jesus, refer to the fulfillment of these commands as works, as do the other apostles in the New Testament. These are the works we will be judged by.
Below are a few passages that contain commands from the Law of Liberty:
Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:28-29)
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. (Galatians 5:6)
He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. (Romans 2:6-8)
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:9)
The Bible clearly states you have to do things to be saved. However, only obedience to New Covenant commands that are done by faith will result in salvation.
Let’s return to the example of Abraham. Abraham’s works were consistent with obedience to New Covenant commands, not the requirements of the Mosaic Law.
I. He received gospel promises and he believed.
New Covenant Command: This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent. (John 6:29)
II. By faith, he offered the sacrifice God required.
New Covenant Command: And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
New Covenant Command: I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. (Romans 12:1)
III. He believed God could even raise him from the dead.
New Covenant Truth: knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. (2 Corinthians 4:14)
The Bible is not concerned with the issue of salvation by works. Scripture is more concerned with the questions, “Who is your High Priest?”, “Which Covenant are you attempting to use to approach God?” and, “Are your works done by faith?”