(Owen, Justification. part 36)

is that of Abraham, verse 21-23: for he says, that by Abraham's being justified
by works, in the way and manner wherein he asserts him so to have been, "the
Scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed
unto him for
righteousness". And if his intention were to prove that we are justified before
God by works, and not by faith, because Abraham was so, the testimony produced is
contrary, yea, directly contradictory, unto what should be proved by it; and
accordingly is alleged by Paul to prove that Abraham was justified by faith
without works, as the words do plainly import. Nor can any man declare how the
truth of this proposition, "Abraham was justified by works," (intending absolute
justification before God,) was that wherein that Scripture was fulfilled,
"Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness"; especially
considering the opposition that is made both here and elsewhere between faith and
works in this matter. Besides, he asserts that Abraham was justified by works
then when he had offered his son on the altar; the same we believe also but only
inquire in what sense he was so justified: for it was thirty years or thereabout
after it was testified concerning him that "he believed God, and it was imputed
unto him for righteousness"; and when righteousness was imputed unto him he was
justified; and twice justified in the same sense, in the same way, with the same
kind of justification, he was not. How, then, was he justified by works when he
offered his son on the altar? He that can conceive it to be any otherwise but
that he was by his work, in the offering of his son, evidenced and declared in
the sight of God and man to be justified, apprehends what I cannot attain unto,
seeing that he was really justified long before; as is unquestionable and
confessed by all. He was, I say, then justified in the sight of God in the way
declared, Gen.22:12; and gave a signal testimony unto the sincerity of his faith
and trust in God, manifesting the truth of that Scripture, "He believed God, and
it was imputed unto him for righteousness". And, in the quotation of this
testimony, the apostle openly acknowledges that he was really accounted
righteous, had righteousness imputed unto him, and was justified before God (the
reasons and causes whereof he therefore considers not), long before that
justification which he ascribes unto his works; which, therefore, can be nothing
but the evidencing, proving, and manifestation of it: whence also it appears of
what nature that faith is whereby we are justified, the declaration whereof is
the principal design of the apostle. In brief, the Scripture alleged, that
"Abraham believed, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness," was fulfilled
when he was justi fied by works on the offering of his son on the altar, either
by the imputation of righteousness unto him, or by a real efficiency or working
righteousness in him, or by the manifestation and evidence of his former
justification, or some other way must be found out. First, That it was not by
imputation, or that righteousness unto the justification of life was not then
first imputed unto him, is plain in the text; for it was so imputed unto him long
before, and that in

such a way as the apostle proves thereby that righteousness is imputed without
works. Secondly, That he was not justified by a real efficiency of a habit of
righteousness in him, or by any way of making him inherently righteous who was
before unrighteous, is plain also; because he was righteous in that sense long
before, and had abounded in the works of righteousness unto the praise of God. It
remains, therefore, that then, and by the work mentioned, he was justified as
unto the evidencing and manifestation of his faith and justification thereon. His
other instance is of Ahab; concerning whom he asserts that she was "justified by
works, when she had received the messengers, and sent them away." But she
received the spies "by faith," as the holy Ghost witnesses, Heb.11:31; and
therefore had true faith before their coming; and if so was really justified: for
that any one should be a true believer and yet not be justified, is destructive
unto the foundation of the gospel. In this condition she received the messengers,
and made unto them a full declaration of her faith, Josh.2:9-11. After her
believing and justification thereon, and after the confession she had made of her
faith, she exposed her life by concealing and sending of them away. Hereby did
she justify the sincerity of her faith and confession; and in that sense alone is
said to be "justified by works." And in no other sense does the apostle James, in
this place, make mention of justification; which he does also only occasionally.
     (4.) As unto "works," mentioned by both apostles, the same works are
intended, and there is no disagreement in the least about them; for as the
apostle James intends by works duties of obedience unto God, according to the
law,--as is evident from the whole first part of the chapter, which gives
occasion unto the discourse of faith and works,--so the same are intended by the
apostle Paul also, as we have proved before. And as unto the necessity of them in
all believers, as unto other ends, so as evidences of their faith and
justification, it is no less pressed by the one than the other; as has been
     These things being in general premised, we may observe some things in
particular from the discourse of the apostle James, sufficiently evidencing that
there is no contradiction therein unto what is delivered by the apostle Paul
concerning our justification by faith, and the imputation of righteousness
without works, nor to the doc trine which from him we have learned and declared;
as,--1. He makes no composition or conjunction between faith and works in our
justi fication, but opposes them the one to the other; asserting the one and
rejecting the other, in order unto our justification. 2. He makes no distinction
of a first and second justification, of the beginning and continuation of
justification, but speaks of one justification only; which is our first personal
justification before God. Neither are we concerned in any other justification in
this cause whatever. 3. That he ascribes this justification wholly unto works, in
contradistinction unto faith, as unto that sense of justification which he
intended, and the faith whereof he treated. Wherefore,--4. He does not at all
inquire or determine how a sinner is justified before God, but how professors of
the gospel can prove or demonstrate that they are so, and that they do not
deceive themselves by trusting unto a lifeless and barren faith. All these
things will be farther evidenced in a brief consideration of the context itself;
wherewith I shall close this discourse.
     In the beginning of the chapter unto verse 14, he reproves those unto whom
he wrote for many sins committed against the law, the rule of their sins and
obedience, or at least warns them of them; and having showed the danger they were
in hereby, he discovers the root and principal occasion of it, verse 14; which
was no other but a vain surmise and deceiving presumption that the faith required
in the gospel was nothing but a bare assent unto the doctrine of it, whereon they
were delivered from all obligation unto moral obedience or good works, and might,
without any danger unto their eternal state, live in whatever sins their lusts
inclined them unto, chap.4:1-4; 5:1-6. The state of such persons, which contains
the whole cause which he speaks unto, and which gives rule and measure unto the
interpretation of all his future arguing, is laid down, verse 14, "What does it
profit, my brethren, though a man say he has faith, and have not works? Can faith
save him?" Suppose a man, any one of those who are guilty of the sins charged on
them in the foregoing verses, do yet say, or boast of himself, that he has
faith; that he makes profession of the gospel; that he has left either Judaism or
Paganism, and betaken himself to the faith of the gospel; and therefore, although
he be destitute of good works and live in sin, he is accepted with God, and shall
be saved;--will, indeed, this faith save him? This, therefore, is the question
proposed,--Whereas the gospel says plainly, that "he who believeth shall be
saved," whether that faith which may and does consist with an indulgence unto
sin, and a neglect of duties of obedience, is that faith whereunto the promise of
life and salvation is annexed? And thereon the inquiry proceeds, How any man,--in
particular, he who says he has faith,--may prove and evidence himself to have
that faith which will secure his salvation? And the apostle denies that this is
such a faith as can consist without works, or that any man can evidence himself
to have true faith any otherwise but by works of obedience only; and in the proof
hereof does his whole ensuing discourse consist. Not once does he propose unto
consideration the means and causes of the justification of a convinced sinner
before God, nor had he any occasion so to do; so that his words are openly
wrested when they are applied unto any such intention.
     That the faith which he intends and describes is altogether useless unto the
end pretended to be attainable by it,--namely, salvation,-- he proves in an
instance of, and by comparing it with, the love or charity of an alike nature,
verses 15,16, "If a brother or sister be naked and destitute of daily food, and
one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled;
notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what
does it profit?" This love or charity is not that gospel grace which is required
of us under that name; for he who behaves himself thus towards the poor, the love
of God dwelleth not in him, 1 John 3:17. Whatever name it may have, whatever it
may pretend unto, whatever it may be professed or accepted for, love it is not,
nor has any of the effects of love; it is neither useful nor profitable. Hence
the apostle infers, verse 17, "Even so faith, if it has not works, is dead, being
alone." For this was that which he undertook to prove;--not that we are not
justified by faith alone, without works, before God; but that the faith which is
alone, without works, is dead, useless, and unprofitable.
     Having given this first evidence unto the conclusion which, "in thesi," he
designed to prove, he reassumes the question and states it "in hypothesi," so as
to give it a more full demonstration, verse 18, "Yea, a man may say, Thou hast
faith, and I have works: show me thy faith without thy works," (that is, which is
without works, or by thy works,) "and I will show thee my faith by my works." It
is plain, beyond denial, that the apostle does here again propose his main
question only on a supposition that there is a dead, useless faith; which he had
proved before. For now all the inquiry remaining is, how true faith, or that
which is of the right gospel kind, may be showed, evidenced, or demonstrated, so
as that their folly may appear who trust unto any other faith whatever? "Deixon
moi ten pistin sou",--"Evidence or demonstrate thy faith to be true by the only
means thereof, which is works." And therefore although he say, "Thou hast faith,"
that is, "Thou professes and boastest that thou hast that faith whereby thou
mayest be saved,"--"and I have works," he does not say, "Show me thy faith by thy
works, and I will show thee my works by my faith," which the antithesis would
require; but, "I will show thee my faith by my works," because the whole question
was concerning the evidencing of faith and not of works.
     That this faith, which cannot be evidenced by works, which is not fruitful
in them, but consists only in a bare assent unto the truth of divine revelation,
is not the faith that does justify or will save us, he farther proves, in that it
is no other but what the devils themselves have; and no man can think or hope to
be saved by that which is common unto them with devils, and wherein they do much
exceed them, verse 19, "Thou believest there is one God; thou does well: the
devils also believe, and tremble." The belief of one God is not the whole of what
the devils believe, but is singled out as the principal, fundamental truth, and
on the concession whereof an assent unto all divine revelation does necessarily
ensue. And this is the second argument whereby he proves an empty, barren faith
to be dead and useless.
     The second confirmation being given unto his principal assertion, he
restates it in that way, and under those terms, wherein he designed it unto its
last confirmation: "But wilt thou know, 0 vain man, that faith without works is
dead?" verse 20. And we may consider in the words,--First, The person with whom
he deals, whose conviction he endeavoured: him he calls a vain man;--not in
general, as every man living is altogether vanity, but as one who in an especial
manner is vainly puffed up in his own fleshly mind,--one that has entertained
vain imaginations of being saved by an empty profession of the gospel, without
any fruit of obedience. Secondly, That which he designs with respect unto this
vain man is his conviction,--a conviction of that foolish and pernicious error
that he had imbibed: "Wilt thou know, O vain man?" Thirdly, That which alone he
designed to convince him of is, that "faith without works is dead";--that is, the
faith which is without works, which is barren and unfruitful, is dead and
useless. This is that alone, and this is all, that he undertakes to prove by his
following instances and arguing; neither do they prove any more. To wrest his
words to any other purpose, when they are all proper and suited unto what he
expresses as his only design, is to offer violence unto them.      This,
therefore, he proves by the consideration of the faith of Abraham, verse 21, "Was
not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon
the altar?" Some things must be observed to clear the mind of the apostle herein;
as,--1. It is certain that Abraham was justified many years before the work
instanced in was performed; for long before was that testimony given concerning
him, "He believed in the LORD, and he counted it unto him for righteousness": and
the imputation of righteousness upon believing is all the justification we
inquire after or will contend about. 2. It is certain that, in the relation of
the story here repeated by the apostle, there is not any one word spoken of
Abraham's being then justified before God, by that or any other work whatever.
But, 3. It is plain and evident that, in the place related unto, Abraham was
declared to be justified by an open attestation unto his faith and fear of God as
sincere, and that they had evidenced themselves so to be in the sight of God
himself; which God condescends to express by an assumption of human affections,
Gen.22:12, "Now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy
son, thine only son, from me." That this is the justification which the apostle
intends, cannot be denied but out of love to strife; and this was the
manifestation and declaration of the truth and sincerity of his faith whereby he
was justified before God. And hereby the apostle directly and undeniably proves
what he produces this instance for,--namely, that "faith without works is dead."
4. It is no less evident that the apostle had not spoken any thing before as unto
our justification before God, and the means thereof; and is therefore absurdly
imagined here to introduce it in the proof of what he had before asserted, which
it does not prove at all. 5. The only safe rule of interpreting the meaning of
the apostle, next unto the scope and design of his present discourse, which he
makes manifest in the reiterated proposition of it, is the scope of the places,
[and the] matter of fact, with its
circumstances, which he refers unto and takes his proof from. And they were
plainly these, and no other:--Abraham had been long a justified believer; for
there were thirty years, or thereabout, between the testimony given thereunto,
Gen.15, and the story of sacrificing his son, related Gen.22. All this while he
walked with God, and was upright in a course of holy, fruitful obedience; yet it
pleased God to put his faith, after many others, unto a new, his greatest, his
last trial. And it is the way of God, in the covenant of grace, to try the faith
of them that believe, by such ways as seem meet unto him. Hereby he manifests how
precious it is (the trial of faith making it appear to be "more precious than
gold," 1 Pet.1:7), and raises up glory unto himself; which is in the nature of
faith to give unto him, Rom.4:20. And this is the state of the case as proposed
by the apostle,--namely, how it may be tried whether the faith which men profess
be genuine, precious, "more precious than gold," of the right nature with that
whereunto the gospel promise of salvation is annexed. Secondly, This trial was
made by works, or by one signal duty of obedience prescribed unto him for that
very end and purpose; for Abraham was to be proposed as a pattern unto all that
should afterwards believe. And God provided a signal way for the trial of his
faith,--namely, by an act of obedience. which was so far from being enjoined by
the moral law, that it seemed contrary unto it. And if he be proposed unto us as
a pattern of justification by works in the sight of God, it must be by such works
as God has not required in the moral law, but such as seem to be contrary
thereunto. Nor can any man receive any
encouragement to expect justification by works, by telling him that Abraham was
justified by works, when he offered up his only son to God; for it will be easy
for him to say, that as no such work was ever performed by him, so none such was
ever required of him. But, Thirdly, Upon Abraham's compliance with the command of
God, given him in the way of trial, God himself "anthropopathoos" declares the
sincerity of his faith and his justification thereon, or his gracious acceptance
of him. This is the whole design of the place which the apostle traduces into his
purpose; and it contains the whole of what he was to prove, and no more. Plainly
it is granted in it that we are not justified by our works before God, seeing he
instances only in a work performed by a justified believer many years after he
was absolutely justified before God. But this is evidently proved hereby,--
namely, that "faith without works is dead"; seeing justifying faith, as is
evident in the case of Abraham, is that, and that alone, which brings forth works
of obedience: for on such a faith alone is a man evidenced, declared, and
pronounced to be justified or accepted with God. Abraham was not then first
justified; he was not then said to be justified;--he was declared to be
justified, and that by and upon his works: which contains the whole of what the
apostle intends to prove.
     There is, therefore, no appearance of the least contradiction be tween this
apostle and Paul, who professedly asserts that Abraham was not justified before
God by works; for James only declares that by the works which he performed after
he was justified he was ma nifested and declared so to be. And that this was the
whole of his design he manifests in the next verse, where he declares what he had
proved by this instance, verse 22, "Seest thou how faith wrought with his works,
and by works was faith made perfect?" Two things he enforces as proved unto the
conviction of him with whom he had to do:--1. That true faith will operate by
works; so did Abraham's,--it was effective in obedience. 2. That it was made
perfect by works; that is, evidenced so to be,--for "teleios, teleioumai," does
nowhere in the Scripture signify the internal, formal perfecting of any thing,
but only the external complement or perfection of it, or the manifestation of it.
It was complete as unto its proper effect, when he was first justified; and it
was now manifested so to be. See Matt.5:48; Col.4:12; 2 Cor.12:9. "This," says
the apostle, "I have proved in the instance of Abraham,--namely, that it is works
of obedience alone that can evince a man to be justified, or to have that faith
whereby he may be so." He adds, in the confirmation of what he had affirmed,
verse 23, "And the Scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and
it was imputed unto him for righteousness, and he was called The friend of God."
     Two things the apostle affirms herein:--1. That the Scripture mentioned was
fulfilled. It was so in that justification by works which he ascribes unto
Abraham. But how this Scripture was herein fulfilled, either as unto the time
wherein it was spoken, or as unto the thing itself, any otherwise but as that
which is therein asserted was evidenced and declared, no man can explain. What
the Scripture affirmed so long before of Abraham was then evidenced to be most
true, by the works which his faith produced; and so that Scripture was
accomplished. For otherwise, supposing the distinction made between faith and
works by himself, and the opposition that he puts between them, adding thereunto
the sense given of this place by the apostle Paul, with the direct importance of
the words, and nothing can be more contradictory unto his design (namely, if he
intended to prove our justification before God by works) than the quotation of
this testimony. Wherefore, this Scripture was [not], nor can be, otherwise
fulfilled by Abraham's justification by works, but only that by and upon them he
was manifested so to be. 2. He adds, that hereon he was called The friend of God.
So he is, Isa.41:8 ; as also, 2 Chron.20:7. This is of the same importance with
his being justified by works: for he was not thus called merely as a justified
person, but as one who had received singular
privileges from God, and answered them by a holy walking before him. Wherefore,
his being called "The friend of God," was God's
approbation of his faith and obedience; which is the justification by works that
the apostle asserts. Hereon he makes a double
conclusion (for the instance of Rahab being of the same nature, and spoken unto
before, I shall not insist again upon it):--l. As unto his present argument,
verse 24. 2. As unto the whole of his design, verse 26. The first is, "That by
works a man is justified, and not by faith only";--"Ye see then, you whom I
design to convince of the vanity of that imagination, that you are justified by a
dead faith, a breathless carcase of faith, a mere assent unto the truth of the
gospel, and profession of it, consistent with all manner of impiety, and wholly
destitute of good fruits: you may see what faith it is that is required unto
justification and salvation. For Abraham was declared to be righteous, to be
justified, on that faith which wrought by works, and not at all by such a faith
as you pretend unto." A man is justified by works, as Abraham was when he had
offered up his son to God; that is, what he really was by faith long before, as
the Scripture testifies, was then and thereby evidenced and declared. And,
therefore, let no man suppose that by the faith which they boasted of, any one is
or can be justified, seeing that whereon Abraham was declared to be so, was that
which evidenced itself by its fruits. 2. He lays down that great conclusion;
which he had evinced by his whole disputation, and which at first he designed to
confirm, verse 26, "For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without
works is dead also." A breathless carcase and an unworking faith are alike, as
unto all the ends of natural or spiritual life. This was that which the apostle
designed from the beginning to convince vain and barren professors of; which,
accordingly, he has given sufficient reason and testimony for.

(... end, Owen, Justification)

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