OBEDIENCE AND JUSTIFICATION: PART TWO.
If faith precedes justification, where does obedience fit in? We do know that obedience to God has nothing to do with our justification because in verse 5, we are told that God justifies the ungodly. But does that mean then that justified persons can live in sin for the rest of their lives? No. And the reason why is because obedience inevitably follows from a justified man.
This is Paul’s point in verses 11-12. He continues: “And he [Abraham] received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of faith which he had when he was uncircumcised, in order that he might be the father of all who believe, though they are uncircumcised, and [that he might be] the father of the circumcision, who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had when he was uncircumcised.”
Circumcision was important to the Jew, because this is what marked him off as a member of God’s covenant people. But more than this, to the Jew circumcision was the gateway of obedience to the law (cf. Gal. 5:3). When Abraham received the rite of circumcision in Genesis 17, we are told that he did “as God had said unto him” (v. 23, KJV). He obeyed God. The rite of circumcision then stood for a life of obedience to God’s law.
But Paul points out that circumcision was only a sign and a seal of Abraham’s faith. In other words, his obedience to God, which was signified by his performing the rite of circumcision, did not create or maintain a right standing with God but rather served as an evidence of it (since it was a sign) and a visible confirmation and authentication of it (since it was a seal).
The same is true of any act of obedience. Obedience to God does not put a person in a right standing with God; rather, it serves as a visible sign or evidence that such a person is already in a right standing with God.
In fact, you cannot even obey God in a way that pleases him until you are justified. For every act of conformity to God’s standards by a man who is not right with God is tainted by his guilt. It is like a man who is millions of dollars in debt paying for a bill of groceries. Paying for the groceries does not erase the debt. Even so, obedience to godly standards does not take away the huge debt we have already acquired. And it must be taken away if we are to be pleasing to God.
Also, an act of obedience before justification cannot be pleasing to God because it does not proceed from faith. “All that is not of faith is sin” (Rom 14:23). “Without faith it is impossible to please [God]” (Heb 11:6). God is not impressed with good deeds when they are done in a spirit of self-dependence or when they are performed without respect to the authority of God over the life. Also, a person without faith is a person without a changed nature. Even though they may have many good works outwardly, they still are not changed on the inside. Like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, they are whitewashed sepulchers. Though a criminal may obey the laws of the state most of the time, that does not make him any less a criminal. Like the prophet Isaiah put it, such “righteousness” is only “filthy rags” before God (Isa. 64:6, KJV).
Does James contradict Paul?
Incidentally, this is the whole point of James 2. There has been a good deal of debate through the centuries over whether or not James contradicted Paul. For Paul says that Abraham was justified by faith apart from works, and James says that Abraham was justified by works. At first this does seem like a hopeless contradiction. It caused Martin Luther to call James an “epistle of straw”! But when we take a closer look, we discover that the messages of James and Paul do not conflict but complement.
How do we know this? We know this because both apostles are dealing with different problems. Paul is battling legalism that seeks a righteousness divorced from God’s grace. James, on the other hand, is battling a sort of antinomianism that seeks a faith divorced from God’s law. Paul assumes that the faith that is justified is true faith (and he goes on to describe it in that last verses of chapter 4), but James assumes the possibility of a false faith.
This false faith was a kind of faith that paraded before men with good words but no good works to back it up. It consisted entirely in pious phrases (Jam. 2:15-17). So what James wants is some external confirmation that the faith is real (“do you see?” Jam. 2:22). And that confirmation he finds in good works: “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’” (Jam. 2:18). So, when James says that we are justified by works, he means that works are the evidence that we are truly justified, or that the faith that justifies is real.
I think the key to the whole passage is found in the word “fulfilled” in verse 23. Verses 22-23 read: “Do you see that faith cooperated with his works and by works faith was made complete? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness’ and he was called a friend of God.” Note how James quotes Genesis 15:6, just like Paul. But he is linking it to Genesis 22 (Jam. 2:21), which is the record of Abraham’s obedience in offering up Isaac his son. James’ point is that Abraham’s obedience in Genesis 22 “fulfilled” the statement made about his justification by faith in Genesis 15:6.
What does James mean by “fulfill”? Most of the time in Scripture, it refers to an event or events that mark the occurrence of a prophesy. But it does not always mean this, nor is it even its basic meaning. Douglass Moo explains:
The word [“fulfill” - pleroo] means, basically, ‘to fill’ or ‘fill up’ and can be used of fishing nets (Mt. 13:48) and houses (Jn. 12:3). More typically in the New Testament, it is used to designate the ‘filling up’ or ‘culmination’ of the Old Testament through the advent of Jesus. This can take the form of a ‘fulfillment’ of a prophesy, the bringing out of the ultimate significance of a historical event (Mt. 2:15) or the climatic interpretation and application of the Old Testament law (Mt. 5:17). There is no need, then, to think that James views Genesis 15:6 as a prophesy that was ‘fulfilled’ later in Abraham’s career. What he is suggesting, rather, is that this verse found its ultimate significance and meaning in Abraham’s life of obedience. When Abraham ‘put faith in’ the Lord, God gave him, then and there, the status of a right relationship with him: before he had done good works, before he was circumcised. . . . But the faith of Abraham and God’s verdict of acquittal were ‘filled up’, given their ultimate significance, when Abraham ‘perfected’ his faith with works. . . .”
In other words, when James says that Abraham was justified by works, he means that his righteous status, acquired by faith, was “fulfilled” – given ultimate significance – by his works. What James calls a “fulfillment” Paul calls a “sign.” They are saying much the same thing. Faith without works is dead because it is not real. A person with such a “faith” is not justified at all. There is no ultimate difference in meaning between the apostles at all. They are saying the same thing in different contexts with different words.
God could have required perfect obedience on our part for us to be saved. He would have been perfectly just to have done that. Instead he sent his Son Jesus Christ to be perfect for us. As a result, the ultimatum of the gospel is not a call to an impossible task but a call to Jesus and his work. This is a blessing beyond description. My friend, the order of faith, justification, obedience is not trivial. Your salvation depends on it. May God give us the grace to get it straight in our own minds and lives, so that we trust in Christ first, and obey God from a right standing and not in order to get a right standing before God.
 Douglass Moo, James TNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 113. I do think, however, that the idea of a prophesy is not altogether out of line in James’ use of the word “fulfilled.” Every time a person truly trusts in Christ, there is a Scriptural prophesy upon them so to speak, that such a person will perform good works. When good works are forthcoming, the prophesy is “fulfilled” and the claim to justification vindicated.