“Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?”
Beginning with 2:21, James mentions 2 examples of dynamic faith of believers and one example from human anatomy:
1) Abraham (vv. 21-24);
2) Rahab (v.25);
3) the human body and spirit (v. 26).
James directly rebuts the objection of the immediately previous verses in 2:21-23. He addresses the objector in verse 22 – “Do you see?”
Was not Abraham our father
Abraham was the first Jew, and thus the father of all Jews. The Jews to whom James wrote venerated Abraham as the founder of Judaism. He was a Gentile that became the first Jew by faith (Ge 15:6; Ro 4:1-16). God justified him by faith alone and credited God’s righteousness to him on the basis of the work of Christ on the cross.
justified by works
Over two decades after his conversion, God declared Abraham’s faith vindicated in the eyes of people. God justified Abraham by grace through faith exclusively (Rom. 3:20; 4:1–25; Gal. 3:6,11; Ge 15:6 [referred to in v. 23]). God credited forensic righteousness to Abraham at his point of belief (Rom. 1:17; 3:24; 4:1–25). The justification in this verse is not God’s justification of Abraham but the justification of Abraham by people who watched his life. People vindicate his salvation by his works.
Rom. 4:1-5, “What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ 4 Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. 5 But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness…”
The word “justify” has two basic meanings in the New Testament: 1) acquittal, declare righteous, and 2) vindication or proof. Paul uses “justify” in the sense of declare righteous by God in Romans and Galatians:
Ro 3:24, 27-28 “…being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…27 Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law [principle] of faith. 28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.”
Ro 5:1, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…”
Ga 2:16, “…knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.”
James uses the second idea of “justify” in this verse — vindication. Abraham exceptionally verified his faith by offering Isaac. This was justification by works in the eyes of men. Justification by faith is in the eyes of God, and justification by works is in the eyes of men. The New Testament uses “justify” in this sense in the following passages:
Lu 7:35, “But wisdom is justified [vindicated] by all her children.”
Ro 3:4 “Certainly not! Indeed, let God be true but every man a liar. As it is written:
‘That You may be justified [vindicated] in Your words,
And may overcome when You are judged.’”
1 Ti 3:16, “And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness:
God was manifested in the flesh,
Justified [vindicated – this is obviously no reference to salvation but to verification of his authenticity] in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Preached among the Gentiles,
Believed on in the world,
Received up in glory.”
Not only is there a justification by faith, but there is also a justification by works. Even Paul himself uses “justify” in this sense in Romans 4:2,
Ro 4:2-3, “For if Abraham was justified by works [vindication before men], he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’”
The word “by” indicates source rather than means. Abraham’s works did not justify him, but people, the source, justified him. His works gave occasion for people to vindicate him.
God justifies our souls eternally, but men verify our testimony in time.
Men justify us by works, but God does not justify us by works. Works do not gain us any legal standing before God, but they give us a testimony before men.
Only God can justify or declare our soul as righteous as He Himself is righteous (Ro 3:21-24).
Ga 3:5-9, “Therefore He who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you, does He do it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? 6 just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ 7 Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham. 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, ‘In you all the nations shall be blessed.’ 9 So then those who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham.”