In James 2:21-23, James brings up the story of Abraham and Isaac from Genesis 22. You know the story: God tests Abraham’s faith in verse 2, saying, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering.”
What a test it was! Abraham, as the story goes, trusted God and obeyed the tough command. On the way up to the mountain, Isaac noticed the lamb was missing, and he asked his father, “My Father! Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said to his son, “God will provide for himself a lamb.” Abraham believed God himself would provide a lamb to replace Isaac. The Bible says they went “both of them together” on the mountaintop, and there the angel of the Lord intervened, saying, “Do not lay your hand on the boy,” and, “For now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” You see, Abraham’s “saying” faith was tested in the story and his “works” showed his belief to be a “living” and “saving” faith.
So in Genesis 22:13 it says, “Abraham lifted up his eyes, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns.” When Abraham obeyed God with Isaac, James says that his faith was put to work, and his works (i.e. his obedience) showed that his faith was real, not merely a faith in name only.
You know, James wants our faith to be a real faith. He, as a pastor, wants your faith to be a living and saving faith that “works.” The theme in James 2:14-26 is the same as what he talks about at the end of chapter one. If you are a real hearer of the word, you will do what it says. If you are hearer of the word only, and not a doer of the word, you are deceiving yourself. To hear the word and not to do it is really to not hear the word at all.
It seems there is another lesson to consider here too. Abraham’s example is a tough example for us, is it not? How many times do we say that we believe God, and will follow him wherever he wants us to go, and will do whatever he wants us to do, but we only mean that when it is something that takes no living faith at all? I admit I find it hardest to do what God wants me to do when it requires the hardest stretching of my faith.
Yet James would encourage me, and you as well, to take notice of Abraham’s faith in Genesis 22. Abraham’s faith was so alive that “he was called a friend of God.” I want to be called a friend of God, and I do not think James illustrates living faith with the example of Abraham just to make us feel guilty. I believe James would encourage me, and you, to stake our belief on God who is able to overcome weak faith, and who is able to grow a “saying” faith into a saving faith, like Abraham’s.