3rd Sunday in Lent 24 March

 20Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith without works is barren?

21Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. 23Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’, and he was called the friend of God.

Translation is a curious business. In James 2:21 the NRSV follows standard practice rendering James’ rhetorical question as

Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works?

The question anticipates the answer “Yes Abraham was justified by works.”

This seems contrary to Ephesians 2:8,9:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works.

How do you reconcile, “Abraham is justified by works” with “you have been saved through faith… not the result of works”?

The word translated “justified” is dikaioō. It can equally be translated as “show,” “exhibit,” or “declare.” The Common English Bible translates James 2:21 to read,

What about Abraham, our father? Wasn’t he shown to be righteous through his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?

“Works” demonstrate but do not cause justification.

Justification by works, is a terrible burden. The “work” that allegedly justified Abraham was his willingness to “offer his son Isaac on the altar.”

If my justification depends upon me being willing to take one of my daughters, bind her, lay her on an altar to be cremated, and slitting her throat, I am going to be condemned to an eternity of suffering. Child sacrifice is not, and has never been, consistent with a life of faith and trust in the God of love.

If, for some strange reason, I believed I heard a voice telling me to execute one of my children, faith would cause me to politely decline. The voice of love does not kill children.

Faith manifests in the rejection of violence and the performance of acts of compassion. Perhaps real faith for Abraham might have been to respond to what he thought he heard by replying, “I’m sorry God. I do not believe you approve of child sacrifice; we’ll have to find another way.”