Justifying Rahab

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Rahab turns up a surprising number of times in the bible. After helping the two Israelite spies (Judges 2) and being spared in the downfall of Jericho (Judges 6), she’s mentioned on three other occasions, the third providing the real question for this discussion.

As an aside, if you search for verses with the name “Rahab” in them, you’ll find several that mention God shattering or crushing Rahab (Psalm 89, for instance). That’s because “Rahab” was also a poetic name for Egypt, much like Zion is for Jerusalem. Fortunately, all of these texts give great context clues for determining which Rahab is being addressed.

God didn’t just save Rahab from a life of prostitution or the destruction of her city; he gave her even more grace by including her in his plan to redeem the world.

The first time Rahab the person is referenced after Judges 6 is in Matthew 1:5, in which Matthew notes Rahab’s role in Jesus’ ancestry. That makes her one of only four women mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy. In week 3 of our summer series you’ll see a question about how this reveals several things about God, including his desire to redeem and be gracious towards those lost in sin. God didn’t just save Rahab from a life of prostitution or the destruction of her city; he gave her even more grace by including her in his plan to redeem the world. Matthew’s lineage is the only place in scripture where Rahab isn’t named, “Rahab the Prostitute.” There, she’s just another member in the family of God.

The second time Rahab is referenced is in Hebrews 11:31. In that section the author is citing figures from Israel’s history and pointing out how those figures acted out of faith in the Lord. He lists Rahab along with the all-stars of the Old Testament, like Joseph, Moses, and Abraham. She’s one of only two women mentioned by name in the list. The author tells us that her receiving the Israelite spies was an act of faith, shown in a similar light with Abraham’s faith. Back in Genesis 15:6, God counted Abraham’s faith as righteousness or right standing before him.

That second reference maybe makes the third even harder to sort through. That reference occurs in James 2:20-26, and reads:


20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

So Hebrews tells us the great heroes of the bible were counted as righteous because of their faith, and yet here it looks a lot like James is saying Abraham and Rahab were justified (declared righteous) by their works. So which is it? Is James really saying that we’re justified by our good works, that we can earn our salvation?

First, we need to know what we mean by justification. In Romans 4:2-3, Paul writes, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’” That word justify in the original Greek is dikaióo, which Paul kind enough to define for us as “being counted as righteous.” This is a legal term, meaning to be acquitted, pronounced just, or exhibited as righteous, and in Romans that legal standing is before God himself.

Justification by faith alone is taught throughout scripture, from Genesis 15, Romans 4 and 5, Ephesians 2:8-9, Galatians 3:11, Philippians 3:9, and Hebrews 11, the latter of which interprets many Old Testament characters for us through this lens of Abraham’s righteousness by faith. In the early church, some of Paul and James’ contemporaries were teaching that you couldn’t be saved without doing good works, and yet arguably the entirety of scripture points to the fact that humans can’t save themselves. So Paul emphatically attested to the truth that we are saved by faith, not works.

We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.

And here’s the thing: so did James. We see in James 2 that James directly mentions Abraham’s faith-as-righteousness and doesn’t discount it. We also see in the broader context of the Book of James that he is rebuking believers who aren’t doing any good works, so he’s focused in his argument, not his overall theology, on good works. Look before the Rahab section at James 2:14, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” Later he reiterates in 2:26, “Faith without works is dead.” James is hammering home the interconnection of faith and good works, not the contrast.

Early Protestants made sense of this through a phrase from John Calvin: “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.” In James 2, James is saying that true faith is proved by good works, and thus truly good works are an indicative reflection of saving faith. We see this in the way he uses dikaióo in this verse, which was a legal term that could indicate being declared righteous either before God or before another person, like in a court room. In Romans 4:2-3 Paul clearly uses dikaióo in reference to justification before God. But here’s the important distinction for James: in James 2 this same word is used to indicate justification before men. Look at James 2:18, “Show me your faith apart from works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”(emphasis added) James is talking about true faith being justified or proven to another person by good works, not about salvific justification before God.

Rahab didn’t deserve salvation; no one does. But our God is a saving God.

The only parts of James 2:14-26 that talk about salvation are 2:17 and 2:26, which tell us faith without works is dead. James is explaining that true, saving faith will be accompanied by works, and will never be without them. It’s kind of like saying you can tell someone is alive by the fact that they’re breathing. It isn’t the only vital sign, but it’s pretty indicative. If we’re trying to determine whether someone is truly a follower of Christ, we should look at the product of their life and whether or not the Holy Spirit has transformed their deeds as much as their words. Similarly, James is calling his audience to reflect on their own behavior, and whether or not their spiritual vital signs indicate life.

Looking again at Rahab we see an example of faithful action despite her former life, and we’re reminded that God saves out of his merciful kindness. Rahab didn’t deserve salvation; no one does. But our God is a saving God. He regenerates us through the work of his Spirit, resurrecting our dead hearts and enabling us to live lives that declare the saving power of our God.