Issue: Righteousness (Part 4)

We continue our look into righteousness. I hope you have been blessed by the study as much as I have. I pray your faith is being fed by the Word and God is blessing your soul. I ask that you continue to pray for God's name to be praised as holy here in North Minneapolis as well as around the world. We last spoke about God's declaration of Abraham as righteous by faith. Tonight, we look at a passage that has been used to say Paul's assessment of Genesis 15:6 is incorrect. As we look into the context of James, I hope to bring out the consistent truth of God's word on what it means to be declared righteous by God as well as work through promises and revelation from God in regard to the work He continues to do in the believer.  I will be turning this blog series on Righteousness into an eBook. All current members of my blog at the time it is finished will receive a link to download it via email. If you are not signed up for the newsletter, please take a moment to do so. It is on this page and only requires you enter your email and confirm your email from the response that is automatically issued. May God bless your pursuit of enjoying Christ Jesus.


Abraham is declared righteous by God without merit earned. God declared Abraham righteous by faith. Abraham believed God and it was credited, or accounted, to him as righteousness.[1] Abraham was a sinner. Paul confirms that Abraham was declared just, or righteous, by faith alone apart from works.[2] At the same time, James seems to offer another view, a counter view, on the source of Abraham’s justification. Here is the passage:

But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! 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 own 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 as righteousness.’ And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.[3]

Do you see how some might believe that Abraham earned his righteous declaration from God? If you pick the text out of the Bible or assume it conflicts with Paul’s presentation, you might be led to think what is being said is Abraham was not justified by belief, but by doing what God told him to do. That misses the whole argument James is making. What James is really saying is meant to break into the hearts of specific people he is ministering to. The book is filled with warnings to act on the truth of God’s word as taught in the person and work of Jesus. An example of the heart state of his audience is can be found by looking at what James says just a little earlier:

What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.[4]

You can read that section and believe it is getting at a quality, or meritorious level, of faith. That is to think some faith is being judged as better in quality or merit than another form. That is true to some extent, but misses the reality of what James is saying. James is arguing that there are two kinds of faith. The first is dead faith. Like a dead tree, no fruit comes from it. The other type is living faith. This type of faith is alive and naturally produces fruit. The difference between viewing James’ words as distinguishing between faith that merits salvation and faith that is only either dead or living is that you end up at a different place. What James is really saying is knowledge isn’t faith. There is only really one kind of faith and that is living faith. Living faith doesn’t earn salvation. No. God has already given life to the tree and it produces fruit by its very nature. A healthy, living tree produces fruit. A dead tree cannot produce fruit because no life is flowing through it to make anything. It’s branches are bare.

Let’s look at Paul’s argument in Galatians a bit more in-depth.

Oh, foolish Galatians! Who has cast an evil spell on you? For the meaning of Jesus Christ’s death was made as clear to you as if you had seen a picture of his death on the cross. Let me ask you this one question: Did you receive the Holy Spirit by obeying the law of Moses? Of course not! You received the Spirit because you believed the message you heard about Christ. How foolish can you be? After starting your new lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort? Have you experienced so much for nothing? Surely it was not in vain, was it?

I ask you again, does God give you the Holy Spirit and work miracles among you because you obey the law? Of course not! It is because you believe the message you heard about Christ.

In the same way, “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.” The real children of Abraham, then, are those who put their faith in God.

What’s more, the Scriptures looked forward to this time when God would make the Gentiles right in his sight because of their faith. God proclaimed this good news to Abraham long ago when he said, “All nations will be blessed through you.” So all who put their faith in Christ share the same blessing Abraham received because of his faith.

10 But those who depend on the law to make them right with God are under his curse, for the Scriptures say, “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the commands that are written in God’s Book of the Law.” So it is clear that no one can be made right with God by trying to keep the law. For the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.” This way of faith is very different from the way of law, which says, “It is through obeying the law that a person has life.”

But Christ has rescued us from the curse pronounced by the law. When he was hung on the cross, he took upon himself the curse for our wrongdoing. For it is written in the Scriptures, “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” Through Christ Jesus, God has blessed the Gentiles with the same blessing he promised to Abraham, so that we who are believers might receive the promised Holy Spirit through faith.[5]

I will try to summarize Paul’s argument here for you. Let’s start with some background on who Paul is speaking to in order to understand the meaning of his words. Paul is talking to a body of people who have had false teachers come in and begin teaching that faith in Jesus is not enough. Instead, you have to obey the Law of Moses to become a member of the family of Abraham called Israel. Israel was the name given to Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, and was meant to establish the promised people of God.[6] These teachers believed you needed to be a member of this community which requires a physical sign made to your body in order to be a child of promise. Life would then shift to obedience to God to remain in His promise. The Law of Moses had requirements, in their mind, that either joined you to the people, or cut you off from the promise. This sign, circumcision, reflected being cut off as skin was removed from the body and discarded. It was a reminder to the people of being cut off and separated from God. We see that same reality in Genesis 3 when Adam and Eve had to leave the Garden of Eden and were cut off from access to the tree of life. They had to leave and die.

But Paul begins his argument against them by getting to the root of life, the Holy Spirit, which had been given to men by God’s grace. All people do not have life by the Spirit. He goes right to the point of how you receive the Holy Spirit. He asks them if they got it by obeying (doing works) the law or by the hearing of faith. Did you catch that? Faith hears. Faith is working in the person and it heard the gospel message and believed. I will try to distinguish the two ways Paul is presenting that people believe life comes. Those who look to the law for life believe they will receive life if they keep the law. This points the person to go learn the law, practice it, and hopes life will come by God’s favor on those whom He deems obedient and therefore worthy of His gift.

The other view finds life has been granted to them, not because they are worthy, but because they realize they have a need God has saved them from. It hears the gospel and believes it. At the core of those two different views is a crucial difference. The first view looks at the law as a way to be confirmed righteous and therefore receive life. The other hears the gospel message, realizes there is a great need, and believes God has done the work necessary to save them. The second message does not come from a desire to be confirmed righteous, but instead recognizes its unrighteousness while also seeing the righteousness of God in Christ. The hopes are therefore not set on being confirmed righteous, but in trusting in the righteousness of the God who has acted to save them. Life comes from God’s grace, not one’s merit or level of obedience to God’s demands.

Paul and James are dealing with the same core issue in two different groups. James’ group is looking to obey the teaching that what one knows or believes to be true is enough to merit salvation. God looks on the knowledge of the person and thus declares them worthy of salvation. Paul’s audience is confronted with the law and told that salvation is merited by becoming a true Israelite, or Jew, by obeying God’s laws including joining the people through taking the covenant sign. Both authors are really getting at the same things. First, they are addressing the source of life. That source of life is found in God by faith alone. Paul has to remind and warn his readers of taking on law to guarantee salvation. They already have it and the proof is in the presence of the gift of God, the Holy Spirit. James’ is trying to appeal to the heart of his readers by explaining that faith is more than knowledge. Knowledge doesn’t save. God does. And He does this when people hear His word and believe, but that belief is never disconnected from the life God gives. If they truly believe God, it will naturally produce fruit, or actions (works) that spring up from that belief. You can’t get life from a set of rules. You get life from the God who breathes life (His breath or Holy Spirit) into the empty, dead lives of those He saves. If you are full of yourself, you can’t be full of God’s life.

Second, they are dealing with the root of being a part of the people of God. The people of God are planted in His garden. They don’t come from a line, or from a connection to knowledge, but from His free gift of faith. Paul explains that the people of God are connected by faith in Christ’s death on the cross. This is a shared faith with Abraham. Therefore, his children are not by blood or law, but by adoption from God. James gets at the root of the tree of death. If you haven’t been changed in such a way you begin to produce good works because of what you believe God has done in Christ, then He hasn’t planted you in His garden. You are a dead tree in the wilderness. God is not a slack gardener. His garden is well cared for and it produces fruit. John 15 really digs into this truth. God is the vinedresser and Jesus is the vine. All who are in him produce fruit. Abraham’s family is not a family in the way we see it as humans, in a physical sense, but are gathered and transplanted into Jesus. He clips them from the wilderness and inserts them into Jesus. They grow together and are connected by one thing: Abiding (a word that means living in) Jesus. How do you live in Jesus? By faith. Faith connects the people because the people are connected to Jesus.

So what of this confirmed righteousness? It goes back to testing. God, the Good Gardener comes by to test the vine and he does so by putting pressure on the fruit. In these times of divine testing, fruit is confirmed as living and good. The vine, Jesus, is alive and well. But he warns us to beware a life of deadness, lest we find we were never truly connected to Christ. You may find you were simply uprooted, cut off, and pruned from the garden of God. God is filling His world with this garden and He removes dead vines, or branches in order to make room for life. Listen to Matthew 15:4: “But he answered, "Every plant which my heavenly Father didn't plant will be uprooted.” Jesus also warned there were wheat growing with tares (weeds that look like wheat) and He would divinely garden the earth on Judgment Day by sending His angels, or messengers, to gather them, separate them, and throw the tares in the fire to be burned up. God does not simply coexist with dead branches. He works diligently to create a perfect garden. Only those who are in the good vine, Jesus, will inherit life in the garden Kingdom He is establishing.


You cannot be in Christ and not produce fruit. A branch that has been truly joined to a living, healthy vine will receive life, and will naturally produce fruit. Death in a joined branch reflects death in the vine. Jesus is sufficient in every way to fill all of His branches with all the life-giving resources they need to produce fruit. Death in the branch is evident it never actually took root or is not connected to the life-giving source it needs to survive. It will wither and die. Romans 8 is one of the clearest passages on the truth of what it means for us that we are joined to Jesus by faith and filled with His life (the Holy Spirit). When this is done, there is nothing that can separate us from Him. He will complete His good work and will hold us in Him until the end. We can rest assured in this by faith.

The life of faith is a process. It’s not a straight line or a quick jump into perfect maturity. It is a slow, dependent life that has to continually rest in the gospel. To have to rest implies that there are times we face unrest. You can become stirred up or rattled. God shakes the world to bless the vine.[7] What sticks is alive and growing. What falls off is dead and never grafted to Christ. It may have exhibited what looked like faith, but it was not true faith. It was dead and dying all along. Did you know that trees that grow in areas of heavy winds grow deeper roots and can withstand greater intensity storms than those that do not endure this pressure? God shakes the vines to drive the roots deep.[8] This is experience often feels like suffering, but the fiery trial is not meant to separate you from Christ, but to drive your roots deeper into Him in order for you to grow stronger and be held firmer in the true vine.

[1] GENESIS 15:6

[2] ROMANS 4:1-4; GALATIANS 3:6

[3] JAMES 2:18-24

[4] JAMES:2:14-17

[5] GALATIANS 3:1-14

[6] GENESIS 35:10

[7] HAGGAI 2:6

[8] HEBREWS 12:25-29