The specific quotations of Genesis 15:6[i] and Habakkuk 2:4 in the New Testament, both by Paul and by James, lie in clear continuity with both the grammatical-historical meaning of the Old Testament texts in their specific contexts and the wider Old and New Testament doctrines about the status and character of the just, the nature of the life that they possess, and the role of faith. The New Testament quotations will be examined in their chronological order—James, then Galatians, then Romans, and finally Hebrews.
James, in his quotation from Genesis 15:6 in James 2:23, emphasizes the aspect of the Old Testament doctrine of faith that indicates that continuing faith, faithfulness, and obedience are the certain products of genuine conversion and justifying faith. His usage is clear from an examination of James 2:14-26. A man who says that he has faith, but does not have works, does not have the sort of faith that Abraham possessed, but a “faith” of a different and inferior character, a kind of mental assent that does not result in inward renewal and one that will not save he who possesses only it (James 2:14).[ii] James 2:14a-d does not actually affirm that the speaker is a possessor of genuine faith; rather, he is one who only vocally testifies that he is a possessor of faith (cf. 1:25). Nor does James call him a “brother”; he is simply “a man,” a certain one who says[iii] he has faith—indeed, he is but a “vain man” (2:20). While he does not affirm that this “vain man” has real faith, James does state that this man does not have works—while such a person says that he has faith, what is actually clear is that he does not have works.[iv] His faith does not express itself in deeds, only in words—the only way that he can show that he has faith is by a confession of orthodox doctrine, for his deeds show nothing (2:18-19).[v] The absence of works is a clear distinguishing characteristic of his life.[vi] James therefore asks, “can faith—the kind of faith[vii] that does not produce works—save?” (James 2:14e). James’ answer to this question is “no.”[viii] Such a profession of faith is as empty and worthless as are pleasant sounding words unaccompanied by genuine material assistance to a desperately needy, hungry, and naked Christian brother who is in danger of death by starvation or exposure (2:15-17; cf. Matthew 25:36, 43). A profession of compassion without deeds has no value in meeting physical needs, and an empty profession of faith that does not produce works similarly has no power to save spiritually. This kind of faith,[ix] the kind that is characteristically or continually unaccompanied by works,[x] is dead, being alone or by itself[xi] (2:17, 20, 26). There is as much of a difference between this professed but empty and dead “faith” and saving faith as there is between a dead body and a living man (2:26),[xii] and such a dead faith will only save men as much as it will save devils (2:19).[xiii]
James sets forth Abraham (2:21-24) as the paradigmatic example of the fact that saving faith is always accompanied with works. Abraham was justified by works[xiv]—shown to be righteous[xv] in this world—when he offered Isaac his son, as recorded in Genesis 22.[xvi] Works did not transfer Abraham from the realm of those under Divine wrath and headed for damnation into the realm of the redeemed who possess the Divine favor and are headed for eternal glory. Such a transformation, as James indicates by his quotation of Genesis 15:6, took place when Abraham believed and was accounted righteous through the imputation of Messianic righteousness. Works do not transform a dead faith into a living faith, but they manifest the presence of living faith. James recognizes the teaching of Genesis that faith, not obedience, is the instrumentality through which men receive that perfect and sufficient righteousness that provides a sure everlasting hope in the sight of God, while he emphasizes the fact, also clearly taught in Genesis and the rest of the Old Testament, that the believing are the faithful, so that those who are declared righteous before God on the basis of imputed righteousness are also shown righteous in this life by their works. James refers to the “works” of Abraham, rather than to the single “work” of offering up Isaac, because Abraham’s faithfulness on Mount Moriah, in putting Jehovah’s command before his own beloved Isaac (Genesis 22), was the culminating work recorded in Genesis of the patriarch’s life of faithfulness, all of which sprung out of the transformation that took place in his life decades earlier through his being brought into union with God through faith in the land of Ur[xvii] as attested in Genesis 15:6. Abraham’s faith was “made perfect”[xviii] by his works (James 2:22) because Abraham’s receipt of a Divine imputed righteousness was not left alone, but led to progressive sanctification and ultimately to glorification. Justification, sanctification, and glorification are a continuum along which all the saints, but none but they, are brought. Abraham’s faith in response to the Divine call and revelation in Genesis 12 and 15 was brought to full measure, to completeness, by works, in that inward holiness and its outward fruit of good works are products of the union with Christ established through faith. The statement of Genesis 15:6 that Abraham believed God was “fulfilled” (James 2:23) by Abraham’s faithful obedience, culminating in the events of Genesis 22, because true faith, the faith that brings he who exercises it into union with Jehovah and results in imputed righteousness, also always results in faithfulness and obedience. Such obedience is so certain an issue of saving faith that James can regard the statement of Abraham’s exercise of saving faith in Genesis 15:6 as a prediction[xix] of following obedience which was fulfilled in the patriarch’s works, culminating in Genesis 22. Abraham’s offering up his son was a fulfillment of his believing in God. One who believes will come to act like Abraham did in Genesis 22 and will be the friend of God[xx] instead of being the friend of the world and the adulterous enemy of God (James 4:4). Had Abraham stayed in Ur of the Chaldees instead of rejecting idolatry and entrusting himself to and following Jehovah based on the Abrahamic covenant, he would not have been justified, as Rahab would likewise not have been justified had she sided with the idolatrous enemies of Jehovah in Jericho and had she refused to protect the spies (James 2:25; Joshua 2, 6), but they both would have been unjustified not because they had a true faith that just never produced anything, but because such a lack of works would have been indicative of an absence of true faith.[xxi] Since true faith always results in faithfulness,[xxii] the kind of faith that does not produce works is dead (James 2:20, 24, 26). James affirms, as does Paul (Romans 2:13) and the rest of the Old and New Testament, that one who possesses a dead “faith only”[xxiii] that is without works, one who is a “hearer only” (James 1:22)[xxiv] who does not obey the Word, is yet unregenerate.[xxv] Such a person must not allow himself to be deceived by his empty profession. Abraham’s life is clear—true faith results in faithfulness, and only the believing, who are the faithful, possess spiritual life now and eternal life in the eschaton. The just shall live by faith.
[i] Richard Longenecker notes:
The theme of the faith of Abraham in the NT . . . has a number of facets to it, and each possesses its own validity as well as serves to enhance the whole: Faith is a wholehearted response to God in Christ, apart from a person’s own attempts to gain merit, as Paul has stressed in countering the Judaizers; it is that which results in acts of positive helpfulness and kindness with respect to the physical needs of others, as James has emphasized in combating a perversion of Christian doctrine: and it is that which eagerly looks forward to the full realization of God’s promises in the future, arranging its priorities and setting its lifestyle accordingly here and now, as . . . Hebrews has highlighted in confronting the situation [it] was addressing. Like the beauty of a diamond which is only fully appreciated when the gem is rotated slowly in the light, so the faith of Abraham is only known in its fulness as we study it in its varying circumstantial dimensions and as we allow those dimensions to transform our own thinking, outlook, lifestyle and action. (pg. 211, “The ‘Faith of Abraham’ Theme in Paul, James, and Hebrews: A Study in the Circumstantial Nature of New Testament Teaching,” Richard N. Longenecker. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 20:3 (September 1977) 203-212)
[ii] Ti÷ to\ o¡feloß, aÓdelfoi÷ mou, e˙a»n pi÷stin le÷ghØ tiß e¶cein, e¶rga de« mh\ e¶chØ; mh\ du/natai hJ pi÷stiß sw◊sai aujto/n; James 2:14 states the topic of the entire section of 2:14-26.
[iii] le÷ghØ tiß. Note also 2:18, where his claim that he has faith is repeated, although James affirms that his claim is merely empty.
[iv] e¶rga de« mh\ e¶chØ.
[v] James’ reference to the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4) is illustrative, not comprehensive, of the orthodox doctrinal affirmations of his rhetorical adversary (the “vain man” of v. 20) in 2:14-26. The point is not that one has dead faith who is merely a monotheist, but that one who has a matchless profession of doctrinal orthodoxy, as illustrated in a happy confession of the Shema, but has no deeds, has dead faith. The devils are not merely monotheists, but have a peerless theological orthodoxy; they believe in the Trinity, in justification before God by faith alone, in the creation account of Genesis, the resurrection of Christ, heaven and hell, and all other Biblical doctrine, but they are obviously devoid of saving faith.
[vi] James consequently employs the present subjunctive e¶chØ rather than the aorist subjunctive scw◊ (Acts 25:26; Romans 1:13; Philippians 2:27) to describe what the man of James 2:14 does not have. Many texts with the present subjunctive of e¶cw clearly refer to durative or continuing action, and not one clearly refers to a point action (Matthew 17:20; 19:16; 21:21; Mark 4:25; Luke 8:18; John 3:15–16; 5:40; 6:40; 8:6; 10:10; 13:35; 16:33; 17:13; 20:31; Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 4:15; 6:4; 13:1–3; 2 Corinthians 1:15; 2:3; 5:12; 8:12; Ephesians 4:28; Colossians 3:13; 1 Thessalonians 4:12; 1 Timothy 5:20; Hebrews 6:18; 12:28; James 2:14, 17; 1 John 1:3; 2:28; 3:17; 4:17).
[vii] The article in James 2:14e on hJ pi÷stiß is anaphoric, referring to the pi÷stin le÷ghØ tiß e¶cein of James 2:14c; that is, it “points back to a certain kind of faith as defined by the author” (pg. 219, Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics), namely, the kind of faith that does not produce works. This kind of faith, a faith that does not manifest itself in works, is the topic in view throughout the passage. Note the series of anaphoric articles on faith in the following verses: hJ pi÷stiß, v. 17; th\n pi÷stin sou . . . th\n pi÷stin mou, v. 18; hJ pi÷stiß, v. 20; hJ pi÷stiß, v. 22 (2x); hJ pi÷stiß, v. 26.
[viii] The question with mh/ in v. 14 anticipates a negative answer.
[ix] Note again the anaphoric article in ou¢tw kai« hJ pi÷stiß.
[x] mh\ e¶rga e¶chØ expresses durative action.
[xi] Compare the kaq∆ e˚auth/n of James 2:17 with Acts 28:16; Hebrews 6:13.
[xii] In James 2:26, the “faith” which is compared to a body is, in keeping with the pericope, intellectual assent to a body of doctrinal propositions. Such intellectual assent, James affirms, is not living without works, which are compared to the animating spirit. A living man, in contrast to a corpse, has both a body and a spirit.
[xiii] While the pisteu/w o¢ti in James 2:19 is not unable to express the totality of what is involved in saving faith, it here emphasizes the intellectual assent of the “faith” mentioned.
[xiv] The question of James 2:20 with ouj, which introduces the example of Abraham, expects a positive answer, as do the questions with ouj in 2:4-7, 25; 4:1, 4.
[xv] The verb to justify (dikaio/w) in James 2:21, 24, 25 does not refer to a legal declaration of righteousness at the judgment bar of God, based solely on the imputed righteousness of Christ, as it does in a variety of other texts in the New Testament (Luke 18:14; Acts 13:39; Revelation 22:11) and especially frequently in Paul, when he refers to the present justification believers receive through the sole instrumentality of faith (cf. Romans 3:20, 24, 26, 28, 30; 4:2, 5; 5:1, 9; 8:30, 33; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Galatians 2:16-17; 3:8, 11, 24; 5:4; Titus 3:7). A variety of other senses of justification appear in the New Testament (cf. 1 Timothy 3:16; 1 Corinthians 4:4). The reference in James is rather to Abraham being declared, manifested, or shown as righteous in this world, during his lifetime, because of his righteous actions. James’ declarative point is clearly stated in the context: “I will shew thee my faith by my works” (James 2:18). Abraham was shown to be righteous because he offered up Isaac, and Rahab was shown to be righteous because she protected the Hebrew spies. Neither the predominant Pauline sense of to justify as a reference to the Divine declaration of the believer as righteous based solely on the imputed righteousness of Christ, nor the sense of to justify in James 2, refers to justification as an infusion of righteousness that confounds justification with progressive sanctification; in both Paul and James justification is a declaration based on what is already present, not an infusion of holiness that inwardly constitutes one righteous. It should be noted that the New Testament certainly does not always refer to justification as a legal declaration by God directed towards men, although justification remains always a declaration of righteousness rather than an infusion of holiness: the children of wisdom justify wisdom (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:35); God is justified in his sayings and overcomes when He is judged (Romans 3:4); people justify God by submitting to the baptism of John the Baptist (Luke 7:29); the self-righteous wish to justify themselves (Luke 10:29), and, indeed, the Pharisees were justifying themselves before men while they were still abominable to God (Luke 16:15). People can declare God to be righteous, but they hardly can make Him so. In light of the range in New Testament usage, there is nothing out of the ordinary in James’ use of justification as a this-worldy recognition of the righteousness of the righteous upon the earth, nor does his usage of the verb in this sense contradict in the least the usage of Paul about justification before the legal tribunal of God in heaven.
James’ usage of to justify also matches the dominant Pauline usage of the verb to refer to present realities possesssed by the people of God upon the earth, rather than an eschatological vindication. In James 2 neither Abraham nor Rahab was justified with reference to an eschatological judgment; Abraham offered up Isaac, and Rahab protected the spies, on the earth during their respective lifetimes. Since all those who possess true faith will also be faithful, so that those who have had Christ perfectly fulfill the law for them will also be characterized by obedience to the law, there is no reason to deny that the people of God will experience an eschatological vindication of themselves as righteous associated with their speech and deeds (Matthew 12:37, cf. Romans 10:9-10). Nonetheless those that are shown righteous, whether in this life (James 2) or in eschatological judgment, still have as the ultimate ground or basis of their standing before God only a righteousness from Christ credited to them through faith alone. Those who characteristically obey the law will be justified (Romans 2:13), but not on the ground or basis of their obedience to the law, but because the doers of the law are those who have believed on the Lord Jesus Christ and consequently, by means of regeneration, have become faithful, although their standing before God, whether during their earthly pilgrimage or at the time of their standing before God in judgment, remains solely based on the imputed righteousness of Christ.
[xvi] Note God’s statement of Abraham’s righteousness in Genesis 22:12, where Abraham’s willingness to offer Isaac reveals the patriarch’s already extant faith, resulting in the blessings stated in 22:16-18.
[xvii] Compare Hebrews 11:8-19. Note the view of James 2 in 1 Clement 10-12 also.
[xviii] In the expression e˙k tw◊n e¶rgwn hJ pi÷stiß e˙teleiw¿qh, teleio/w + e˙k indicates that faith is “made perfect” by works in the sense that faith reaches its intended goal in works, rather than that faith is inherently imperfect or flawed until a certain level of works become manifest. A conceptual parallel is found in 1 John 4:12 (e˙a»n aÓgapw◊men aÓllh/louß, oJ Qeo\ß e˙n hJmi√n me÷nei, kai« hJ aÓga¿ph aujtouv teteleiwme÷nh e˙sti«n e˙n hJmi√n), where the love of God is “perfected” in believers as they love one another in that Divine love is brought to its intended goal—certainly God’s love is not imperfect until believers come to love one another enough. The specific teleio/w + e˙k construction in James 2:22 is a New Testament hapax legomenon, but Koiné parallels support the idea of perfecting as being brought to an intended goal; e. g., Philo refers to one who has been “made perfect by education,” that is, brought to the intended goal by means of education (e˙k didaskali÷aß teleiwqe÷nti, On Rewards and Punishments 1:49; cf. On Husbandry 1:42; On the Confusion of Tongues 1:181).
[xix] The “and the scripture was fulfilled” (kai« e˙plhrw¿qh hJ grafh/) formula of James 2:23 is Biblically employed for the fulfillment of prophecy (Matthew 26:54, 56; Mark 14:49; 15:28; Luke 4:21; Acts 1:16) and should not have its prophecy/fulfillment sense weakened in the exposition of James 2.
[xx] James 2:23, fi÷loß Qeouv. See Isaiah 41:8 (Symmachus, touv fi÷lou mou for the Hebrew y`IbShOa); 2 Chronicles 20:7; cf. John 15:14-15. In Genesis 18, Abraham also showed friendship/hospitality (filoxeni÷a) to the Lord and two angels (Hebrews 13:2). Abraham was the friend of God from the time of his justification by faith, but he was called (e˙klh/qh, James 2:23) and recognized as the friend of God subsequently because of the works that manifested his faith.
[xxi] Hebrews 11:31. All the inhabitants of the city of Jericho had the “faith” of the “vain man” of James 2:20 (Joshua 2:9-11), but only Rahab truly believed and entrusted herself to Jehovah (Hebrews 11:31; Joshua 2:11; cf. Deuteronomy 4:39) and consequently acted on her already present living faith, so that she was saved instead of perishing with the idolators of Jericho. While those in Jericho with the vain man’s “faith” perished as “accursed” (M®rEj) under the temporal curse of death and the eternal curse of the second death, “Rahab . . . shall live” and be “saved . . . alive” (Joshua 6:17, 25, hÎyDj) with all that pertained to her, delivered from spiritual, physical, and eternal death with the pagans in Jericho, to possess spiritual life, a blessed portion with the people of God, and eternal life.
[xxii] From his use of both Abraham and Rahab as illustrations, James demonstrates that in all cases works proceed from true faith. If those from the status of the patriarch of Israel down to the status of a Canaanite prostitute woman manifest their faith in works, surely all those of any status with real faith will manifest their belief in works (cf. James 2:1ff.).
[xxiii] pi÷stiß mo/noß.
[xxiv] mo/noß aÓkroath/ß, the only other use of mo/noß in James.
[xxv] Warfield notes:
It was to James that it fell to rebuke the Jewish tendency to conceive of the faith which was pleasing to Jehovah as a mere intellectual acquiescence in His being and claims, when imported into the Church and made to do duty as ‘the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Glory’ (James 2:1). He has sometimes been misread as if he were depreciating faith, or at least the place of faith in salvation. But it is perfectly clear that with James, as truly as with any other New Testament writer, a sound faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as the manifested God (James 2:1) lies at the very basis of the Christian life (James 1:3), and is the condition of all acceptable approach to God (James 1:6, 5:15). It is not faith as he conceives it which he depreciates, but that professed faith (le÷ghØ, James 2:14) which cannot be shown to be real by appropriate works (James 2:18), and so differs by a whole diameter alike from the faith of Abraham that was reckoned unto him for righteousness (James 2:23), and from the faith of Christians as James understood it (James 2:1, 1:3, cf. 1:22). The impression which is easily taken from the last half of the second chapter of James, that his teaching and that of Paul stand in some polemic relation, is, nevertheless, a delusion, and arises from an insufficient realization of the place occupied by faith in the discussions of the Jewish schools, reflections of which have naturally found their way into the language of both Paul and James. And so far are we from needing to suppose some reference, direct or indirect, to Pauline teaching to account for James’ entrance upon the question which he discusses, that this was a matter upon which an earnest teacher could not fail to touch in the presence of a tendency common among the Jews at the advent of Christianity (cf. Matthew 3:9; 7:21; 23:3; Romans 2:17), and certain to pass over into Jewish-Christian circles: and James’ treatment of it finds, indeed, its entire presupposition in the state of things underlying the exhortation of James 1:22. When read from his own historical standpoint, James’ teachings are free from any disaccord with those of Paul, who as strongly as James denies all value to a faith which does not work by love (Galatians 5:6; 1 Corinthians 13:2; 1 Thessalonians 1:3). In short, James is not depreciating faith: with him, too, it is faith that is reckoned unto righteousness (ii.23), though only such a faith as shows itself in works can be so reckoned, because a faith which does not come to fruitage in works is dead, non-existent. He is rather deepening the idea of faith, and insisting that it includes in its very conception something more than an otiose intellectual assent. (“The Biblical Doctrine of Faith,” Biblical Doctrines, vol. 2 of Works)