James Series | Writings

James 2:20-24 – The Patriarch and the Prostitute, Part 1

But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?

And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.

If you follow these posts as they appear, you know that it has been a while since we have delved into the book of James together. So perhaps a little recap is in order.

Since verse 14 of chapter 2 James has been bringing his formidable argumentative skills to bear against a pernicious lie, to wit, that it is possible to have genuine faith divorced from any resulting works. In typical James fashion, he has has dumped argument upon withering argument upon this heresy, liberally seasoned with biting sarcasm.

Now, for his grand finale, his pièce de résistance if you will, James brings out the big guns. His mostly Jewish readers are about to be confronted with two revered examples from their past: Abraham and Rahab.

Since we undertook to study the book of James several months ago I have made every effort to present these devotionals in bite-sized portions, expounding on one or two verses at a time. These next few verses, however, are not so easily separated. Instead, we will divide them into three parts. Part 1 will deal with Abraham, part 2 with Rahab, and then part 3 will tie both of them together as we discuss a subtle point that I believe James is making.

So now, without further ado, Abraham.

But it’s fair to say that if any of us leaving this church saw Abraham on a roof of a building raising his knife, we would, at the very least, call the police and expect the Department of Children and Family Services to take Isaac away from Abraham. We would do so because we do not hear what Abraham hears, do not see what Abraham sees, true as those experiences may be. So the best we can do is act in accordance with those things that we all see, and that we all hear, be it common laws or basic reason.

The above quote is from a speech on the intersection of religion and politics given by none other than Barack Obama himself. (You can read the entire speech, in all its condescending glory, here). My point in quoting our former President here is not to highlight his deplorable biblical hermeneutic, but rather to point out that, over four thousand years since he walked this earth, Abraham is still a topic of discussion.

It should come as no surprise, then, that James brings him up here, to his Jewish readers. Abraham was the superstar of Jewish history, the father of all who were to be called the Chosen People. Jesus himself was known to invoke his memory. So it should come as no surprise that we find him mentioned in this part of James.

It is also important to note that, like Mr. Obama, James concerns himself with one specific aspect of Abraham’s life – namely, his near sacrifice of Isaac, his only son.

So what is James’ point here? Remember that Abraham had received a direct command from God: “Sacrifice your son Isaac.” Abraham could have loudly proclaimed his faith all day long, but unless he too his son to the altar in obedience to God’s direct command, such a proclamation would have been a waste of breath.

Christ himself expressed the same truth thusly:

“If you love Me, keep My commandments.”

And again…

He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him.”

And yet again…

“If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him. 24 He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine but the Father’s who sent Me.”

(read here for the context of the above quotes)

Now, if Abraham was anything like me, when he got that command from God, he began to look for ways around it. I feel fairly confident in saying this, as I have engaged in the same exercise when confronted with commands in Scripture that are far less drastic. And yet whatever “third ways” may have occurred to Abraham (“I could sacrifice my prize bull, my best laying chicken, my most faithful servant…”) in the end, he trudged up the mountain, a thoroughly confused Isaac in tow.

In citing the example of the patriarch, James wants each one of us to look at our lives, and see if there is any clear command of scripture that we are avoiding.

And if there is, our faith – if it is real faith, like that of Abraham – demands that we act.

**Banner image: The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio**

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