This is an excellent question. It’s important that believers understand what James means, or they will fall back into trying to be justified by works and end up in self-condemnation when they fall short.
I believe you are referring to this Scripture from James: “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only” (James 2:24). Now, I believe that there is no contradiction between what James says and what the apostle Paul teaches. What many people don’t realize is that what James is referring to here is justification before men.
Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16, emphasis mine). Who sees your good works? Men. James said, “If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:15–17). Notice how the good work of giving to the needy is done before men and to men?
You see, people can’t see with their physical eyes that you have been justified by faith. They can’t see that God has made you righteous. They condemn or justify you based on what you do. You may tell your friends, “God has justified me and made me righteous through faith in Christ,” but they are not necessarily going to believe you or give weight to your words until they see your good works.
The problem with the church today is that we are focusing on works. We want to see good works and we want to see them now! No wonder so many new believers end up in self- condemnation when they can’t meet the expectations, and give up on church.
How often have we expected new converts to produce good fruit overnight? The moment they are saved, we expect them to stop cussing immediately and to use all the right words. Or we expect them to stop smoking or drinking right away, and to quickly begin reading the Bible and praying an hour each day. It’s like the little boy whose father expects him to grow a beard overnight—“Where’s your beard, boy!” And try as he may, the poor boy can’t grow a beard. But given time, just because he is his father’s son, he will grow a beard. And he will have this beard that keeps growing for the rest of his life no matter how many times he shaves it!
The truth is that once a person has been born again, once God has justified him based on his faith in Christ, good works will follow because he knows how much he is forgiven and loved by God. That forgiveness and love experienced will overflow to others (see 1 John 4:19 NLT). It may not happen right away, but the grace that God has placed in him will one day produce good fruit in his life (see 2 Cor. 9:8). That’s why I preach grace so strongly. Grace is the cause; good works are the effect. Focus on the cause and the effects will eventually come.
Let’s look at the two examples of good works that James gives: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? . . . Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?” (James 2:21, 25).
James cites Abraham’s offering of Isaac and Rahab’s assistance to the two Israelite spies as their good works. Christians like to quote these examples and say, “So where are your good works? Don’t you know that faith without works is dead?” What they don’t realize is that between the justification of these two Bible characters and their good works is a long time!
Isaac was around seventeen years old when Abraham offered him on Mount Moriah. Some believe that he was older—around thirty years old. Even if we take the younger age, that’s still more than seventeen years between Abraham’s justification and the manifestation of his good work. And we expect new believers to exhibit good works overnight!
Abraham was justified by faith even before Isaac was born. In the book of Genesis, we see how God brought Abraham outside and said, “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them. So shall your descendants be.” Abraham believed the Lord and “He accounted it to him for righteousness” (Gen. 15:5–6). That’s when Abraham was justified. Isaac wasn’t even conceived in Sarah’s womb yet. And only after Isaac was born and grew up to be a young man did Abraham perform the good work of offering him to God. It didn’t happen overnight.
What about Rahab? Scripture tells us that she went to the spies she had hidden on her roof and told them, “I know the LORD has given you this land. . . . We are all afraid of you. . . . For we have heard how the LORD made a dry path for you through the Red Sea when you left Egypt. And we know what you did to Sihon and Og, the two Amorite kings east of the Jordan River, whose people you completely destroyed. No wonder our hearts have melted in fear! . . . For the LORD your God is the supreme God of the heavens above and the earth below” (Josh. 2:9–11 NLT).
Notice how Rahab used the term “LORD” or Yahweh, and declared to the spies that He was “the supreme God of the heavens above and the earth below.” She was already a believer in Yahweh. That’s why she was willing to help the Israelites and even begged them to spare her and her extended family when the Israelites came into Jericho (see Josh. 2:11–13 NLT). She had no doubt that the same Lord Who had opened the Red Sea and defeated the two Amorite kings for them would also give them the land of Jericho. Rahab must have grown up hearing about how the Lord had dried up the Red Sea for the Israelites, and she’d believed then in the Lord, that He was surely the supreme God of heaven and earth. So if you think about it, as in the case of Abraham, there must have been a good many years between her believing God and her good work!
One last thought for those who love pointing to the two examples of good works that James gives: if you consider the acts that “justified” both Abraham and Rahab—attempted murder and lying, respectively—these are hardly moral acts or good examples of obeying the law. Clearly James was not talking about our justification before God, or the basis of our receiving blessings from Him.
Many of us, despite our best intentions, have made mistakes and bad decisions. And despite our failures, God in His grace continues to be patient with us.
There’s a beautiful Scripture that says, “A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench” (Matt. 12:20). Reeds can be made into flutes that produce beautiful tunes. Flax is used as wicks in lamps. My friend, when you’ve lost your song, when the fire in you is dying, God is not going to break you or snuff you out and throw you aside. No, He will not give up on you. He will love you back into wholeness so that there is a song in your heart once more. He will reignite your passion to live for Him and His glory as you see His love for you.
You will also find, like so many of the precious folks who write to my ministry, that when you know and believe you are justified by faith, it is a matter of time before you produce good works and live a life that glorifies Him. Just let your roots go deep into the healthy ground of His grace and stay in the bright sunshine of His love, and His glorious presence in your life will be evident to all!
Excerpted from Grace Revolution, chapter 8, Freedom from Self-Condemnation.