With this second rhetorical question James introduces his first biblical illustration to demonstrate that faith without works is fruitless. The grammar of the sentence (ouk) indicates that a positive answer is anticipated to this question, that is, that “our ancestor Abraham” (Abraam ho pater) was indeed “justified by works” (ex ergōn edikaiōthē). That James refers to Abraham as “our father” indicates the Jewish heritage of his readers, and of the interlocutor, and calls to the evidence stand the progenitor of the whole race. If this was the case with Abraham, why would it be any different for his descendants?
James asserts that Abraham was justified by works when or because or as “he offered his son Isaac on the altar” (anenegkas Isaak ton huion autou epi to thusiastērion). The participle anenegkas has been translated in each of the ways suggested in the various English versions of the New Testament. While the translation when may be the best (Vlachos, 96), each is possible, and perhaps in the end it makes little difference: it was because and as Abraham offered his son to God that he was justified. This, at least, seems to be James’s intent.
The event to which James refers is described in Genesis 22:1-6 where God tests Abraham and Abraham obeys God’s voice. Abraham’s obedience results in the confirmation of the blessing promised by God to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3, and the reiteration of the blessing pronounced in Genesis 15:1-6. We have already seen in the first chapter of this letter that the themes of testing, and of hearing and doing are prominent for James. It may be that these elements in the Abraham story drew him to use Genesis 22.
In verse 23 James will support his contention that Abraham was justified by this act of obedience by referring back to Genesis 15:6. James does not read the text in Genesis 15 in a chronological sense as though Abraham was first justified and then later obeyed. Rather, he reads the story as a whole in which Abraham’s trust in God (Genesis 15) and his obedience to God (Genesis 22) are all of apiece. Abraham’s actions of obedience were not simply a demonstration of his faith but were the expression of his faith.
Two aspects of James’s teaching in this verse are worth considering. First, Abraham’s “works” in this illustration are not those of care and compassion toward the poor, but of devotion and faithful obedience to God. This suggests, perhaps, that the works that James has in view in the entire passage are not simply works of mercy, but all those works which issue from a genuine faith in God.
Second, we must consider what James means by the term “justify.” It is very easy to read James through a Pauline lens and suggest that the term is identical in both New Testament authors. Such a move is problematic since it would then mean that James and Paul stand in stark contradiction to one another with Paul arguing that “a person is justified by faith apart from works” and James arguing the opposite (cf. Romans 3:28). A number of commentators, however, note that whereas Paul uses the term to speak of the initial work whereby sinners are brought into right relationship with God on the basis of faith, James uses the term to speak of the ultimate declaration of God in the last judgement on the basis of a whole life lived. The matter, therefore, is between initial and final justification (see, e.g. Moo, 110).
I will take this matter up further once the whole passage has been studied.