20 You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.
25 In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? 26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
James finishes his argument by giving examples from the Old Testament of people who put their faith into action. Once again, taken out of context this sounds like Abraham and Rahab earned their salvation through their actions. But a greater understanding of the Old Testament tells us just the opposite. Abraham and Rahab did great acts of faith and they were rewarded for their faith. But the Old Testament is by and large a story of failure. Time after time even the greatest characters fell short of God’s standard which was the whole point of why Jesus had to die on the cross. If anyone could earn salvation on their own through works, Jesus didn’t need to come and He didn’t need to die on the cross.
Faith and deeds is often looked at as an either/or issue but it is absolutely a both/and. Abraham’s deeds didn’t save him. He was still a sinner and he still needed forgiveness for his sins. He needed Jesus to come and die. Today, we don’t do good deeds to earn our salvation or to prove that we are saved. They should be a natural outflowing from us because we are saved and because we love the Lord. Good deeds will serve as proof that we are saved but they are never a part of the salvation process nor are they required to keep one’s salvation. Instead they should naturally be evident in the life of every believer. This is the argument that James makes here and the same one that Paul makes in Ephesians 2.
In contrast to the deeds related to favoritism which James addresses earlier in the chapter, these deeds are more inward. We would certainly say that Rahab “did a good deed” in assisting the Israelites but this is not the same as the good deeds that we often think of such as aiding the widows and orphans and visiting the sick and shut in. Even further away from the typical definition was Abraham’s “good deed.” When he agreed to sacrifice his son Isaac, there was no one who was to benefit from such an act. From an outward perspective, there was no good to come from it.
This is ultimately why we need to carefully recognize how faith and deeds go together. Abraham in no way earned his salvation through any good deeds because there was nothing “good” behind being willing to sacrifice his own son aside from the fact that God had asked him to do it. However, Abraham is commended for his deed because it put his faith into action and gave evidence that his faith was real and not just something that was said.