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James 2:21

ESV Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?
NIV Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?
NASB Was our father Abraham not justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?
CSB Wasn't Abraham our father justified by works in offering Isaac his son on the altar?
NLT Don’t you remember that our ancestor Abraham was shown to be right with God by his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?
KJV Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?

What does James 2:21 mean?

James continues to make the case that saving faith in God results in the believer doing good works. Works do not save, but they are the natural result of a faith which does. Now James turns to two examples from the Old Testament, stories his Jewish readership would have known well.

It's important that we read this verse in the context of the verses that will follow. James's point throughout this section has been that works flow naturally from saving faith. His teaching complements that of Paul in Ephesians 2:8–10, where Paul is clear that we are saved through faith by God's grace and end up, inevitably, doing the good works that God has planned for us all along.

Some see a contradiction between Paul and James in this and the following verses. The confusion is understandable, but in the context of each passage, we can see that there is no such error. Paul writes in Romans 4:1–5 that Abraham was justified by faith, not works. Here, James states clearly, in the form of a question, that Abraham was justified by works when he obeyed God's command to sacrifice Isaac—until the moment God said "stop," in Genesis chapter 22.

Context, however, is crucial. All of James's words leading up to verse 21 have been about how works demonstrate saving faith. Paul used the term "justify" to describe the formal process by which God declared a person righteous. This is clear from the context of his other words. James, in this passage, has been describing the difference between a living faith and a dead faith. James is using the term "justify" to refer to proof, in the eyes of people. Paul and James are not contradicting each other; they are speaking of two different things.

James is pointing to Abraham's faith as the motivating power behind his works. James will also show that it was Abraham's belief that allowed him to be counted as righteous. His works were evidence of that faith, and therefore evidence of his salvation.
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