Even if you have heard Abbott and Costello's "Who's On First" routine, it cannot help but elicit a laugh. That's because good comedy is the art of deliberate misunderstanding words and Abbott and Costello were masters of the art. They were able to take the subtle range of meanings most words have and twist them into an eloquent tapestry of confusion and laughter.
These misunderstandings of words, so vital to comedy, are absolutely disastrous in theology. No place more than in James chapter two. The Bible is abundantly clear that forgiveness of sins and eternal life are received exclusively through faith without works at all. We will include a few verses as representative of the entire view of God on the subject.
Genesis 15:6 And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness.
Habakkuk 2:4 Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him: but the just shall live by his faith.
Acts 13:39 And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses.
Romans 3:28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.
Romans 4:1-5 What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found? For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.
Ephesians 2:8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9 Not of works, lest any man should boast.
But wait! The objection comes, doesn't James two say we are justified by faith and works? Yes, it does. James speaks of Abraham offering Isaac and concludes in verse 24:
James 2:24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.
Whoa! There's a contradiction in the Bible! No, there isn't. Here's where comedy meets tragedy. The tragedy comes when we assume that justification always refers to eternal justification before God. It doesn't. If it did, we would have a contradiction in the Bible. This is worth repeating. Justification in James chapter two IS NOT talking about eternal justification before God that frees us from Hell. Like every other word in the Bible and like all words in every language, the word has a specific shade of meaning based on context. As we pointed out in our first post, "Without Works, Faith Can't Save You", the context of James chapter two is not saving faith. It is the general principle that what we truly believe will affect our actions. The action that results from truly believing in Jesus Christ is calling upon His name for forgiveness and eternal life (Romans 10:9-13). As the verses above clearly teach, justification BEFORE GOD is achieved solely through faith in Jesus Christ, completely divorced, separated, surgically removed from any type of work!
The justification of James two refers to the qualified validation our works provide for MANKIND that we truly believe what we say we do. Notice the word, qualified, we will look at that more, later. James two is a companion passage to Hebrews 11. There the Bible says that by faith, "the elders obtained a good report" (Hebrews 11:2). The saints listed in Hebrews 11 gave witness that when you trust God, and act on that trust, you are pleasing God. The witness of their faith was for our benefit, not God's. God already knew their faith was genuine. We see this clearly in Hebrews 12:
Hebrews 12:1 Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us,
And that is the point of James two as well. Our faith is no good to anyone, it is dead, if we do not believe God enough to act on His Word. Again, our actions depend on what we are believing God about.
Remember that word, qualified, from the last paragraph? Here's what we mean. It is possible to fake the works normally associated with faith. That is the whole meaning of hypocrisy. It is pretending to be something that you are not. That is why the Pharisees, the most morally upright of the Jewish society were rejected by Christ. They were just pretending to be something they were not. That is why Christ said:
Mark 7:6 He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.
That is how Judas Iscariot, an unsaved man, could fool the disciples even when Christ pointed him out as the betrayer during the last supper (John 13:26-29). That is why Christ said that many, not few, but many would be surprised at the judgment day to find they are damned to eternal hell-fire (Matthew 7:21-23). That is also how a backslidden, fleshly, selfish and foolish man such as Lot could be in heaven (Compare Genesis 19 and II Peter 2).
That is also why misunderstandings of words in theology are not funny, but tragic. Words are important. They communicate reality. They can be used to confuse reality and fantasy. In a comedy routine that can be hilarious and very entertaining. When we are dealing with the vital truths of God's Word and the destiny of an eternal soul, it is not so funny.