Faith & Works, Wisdom & Action
James 2:14 – 26
Wisdom in Action
Is there any evidence of your faith?
When I used to lead youth groups, we’d occasionally do an activity where we’d ask kids who were Christian, “If you were arrested and charged with having faith in Jesus, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”
And it would kind of tie some kids up in knots, because you generally don’t want to be convicted, and yet as Christians, they wanted there to be evidence of their faith.
It’s not just a question for kids in youth group, though, is it?
It’s one for all of us who would call ourselves Christians;
If it ever came to pass, that trusting in Jesus for forgiveness was illegal, as it is in many countries around the world,
If one of your neighbours turned you in to the police, suspicions raised maybe by you singing along loudly to the online Sunday service, would a jury find enough evidence to convict?
Or actually, pull that out of the hypothetical into the real world;,
We live in a world where it often feels like Christianity is being squeezed to the edges of public life,
We live in a word where Black Lives Matter protests force us to confront our own thinking about racism and unconscious bias.
We live in a world where COVID-19 has amplified issues of isolation and loneliness,
We live in a world where people need to hear about Jesus.
We live in a world where some of our church family have significant needs,
Countless opportunities for our faith to be evident, but is it?
Not just in the hypothetical world of youth group games,
Here is a question for us in the world we inhabit.
It’s the question for which this letter of James is famous, and these verses are the key section;, is there any evidence of your faith?
Does our faith work itself out, overflow into, any kind of action that other people can see, and especially, benefit from?
Faith that doesn’t lead to action is not real faith (v 14 – 19)
Because James is utterly convinced, that faith that doesn’t lead to actions is not real faith.
See how he begins this section, verse 14
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?
Clearly he’s expecting us to answer, “No”!
If we have a kind of faith that doesn’t lead to actions, to deeds, as the NIV says, our faith isn’t real. It’s counterfeit.
And the problem with anything that’s counterfeit, is that although it might pass for the real deal for a while, eventually it gets found out, and it can’t achieve what you want it to;,
The counterfeit money can’t buy you stuff,
The counterfeit artwork can’t be sold for millions of pounds,
That counterfeit faith can’t save us.
And faith that doesn’t overflow into action, well that’s counterfeit, James say.
Verse 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
We know this scene.
This could play out on the Broadway in Wimbledon any day of the week.
You see a homeless person on the street, they have almost nothing,
They’re asking for food,
You bend down, put your hand on their shoulder, and say, “have a great day!”, And you walk on.
What good have you done?
No good at all.
Perhaps we could illustrate it differently. Rather than a person without clothes and daily food, perhaps a person without opportunity,
To simply say, “I hope you’re well”, without actually doing anything, does that person no good at all, does it?
I was speaking on this passage in a primary school assembly once, and I read out verse 15,
If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?
And straight away some little 5 year-old kid sitting at my feet yells out, top of his voice, “No good at all!”
And he was spot on!
He could see it straight away!
But often we can’t see the point that James is trying to illustrate.
If you say that you have faith, but that faith doesn’t express itself in your life, then what you call “faith”, is as useless to you, as empty words are to a starving person.
The faith that does us good, is faith that is accompanied by action, verse 17
If we understand what this whole letter is about ;, God’s wisdom applied to our lives, our lives will be different.
If we understand what God has done for us in sending Jesus to save us, we’d have to expect that necessarily overflows into every area of our life.
It’s no good to say, “You have faith; I have deeds” as if you can have one without the other.
Such is the magnitude of what God’s done for us in Christ, that you can’t believe in it, without it impacting your life in real, visible ways.
When our kids were younger and we were trying to get them to try new foods, one of them would often pipe up,
“Different people like different things”, which was code for “I’m not going to change what I do!”
That’s this argument “Different people like different things”, “some people have faith, some people have deeds.”
But James say “No, there is no such thing as faith without deeds.” “show it to me”, he says, Show me your faith without deeds, verse 18,
But you can’t!
You can’t show faith without actions.
Now, when James talks about deeds he just means anything done in obedience to God.
In the Abraham example which is coming up, it’s obedience to God and responding to his word,
With Rahab down in verse 25, it’s her service to God’s people.
So we don’t need to tie down the definition of deeds too narrowly.
But there has to be something. There has to be some evidence of our faith.
Simply knowing the right things, is not enough.
Theological precision is not a sign of being in a right relationship with God.
That’s what verse 19 is about, You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
If your faith, the thing that you’re relying on for your confidence before God, is just the amount of doctrine that you believe to be true, even evil spiritual beings are capable of that, so let’s not kid ourselves that that counts for anything.
Theological precision is great.
A certain theological understanding is necessary in order to come to saving faith in Jesus;
You have to understand sin,
We need to believe in God,
We have to know that Jesus was a willing substitute, but the evidence that we really understand what Jesus has done is when our faith spills over into action.
And for those of us, perhaps many of us at Dundonald, who value theological precision, and learning, and understanding,
Notice how verse 19 closes;, Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
Theological precision, on its own, will only lead us to being afraid of God.
See, if you know that God is just, and right, and holy, but you haven’t come into relationship with him through a real, saving faith,
Then a desperate fear of God, is the only appropriate response.
But what about salvation by faith alone?
But what about, salvation by faith alone?
The wonderful news that we’re saved from our sin by faith alone, and not by any action, or work or deed, was a core truth rediscovered in the Protestant Reformation.
If you believe that Jesus stood in your place, and took the punishment from God that you deserved for rejecting and ignoring God, then that’s enough! That faith can save you.
One of the words the Bible uses to capture this is the word “justified”, when God declares that we’re in right relationship with him.
And the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans is one of the places where this is spelled out most clearly.
Have a listen to these words from Romans 3;,
Paul writes, For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. Romans 3:28,
And in the next chapter,
If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. 3 What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
Romans 4:2 – 3
Paul’s point is that we are justified, declared righteous not by anything we do, but only by faith;, believing that Jesus paid the full penalty for our sin and rebellion.
So how are we to understand what James is saying; “faith without actions is dead”, if in fact faith on its own is what saves?
Because James has been unequivocal, hasn’t he?
Remember verse 17,
faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
And the same in verse 20, where he calls this kind of faith useless, and verse 26, faith without actions is dead.
But Paul and James are trying to do 2 different things.
Paul wants us to understand, that we can’t get into God’s good books, by doing, well, anything!
There is no work, no action you can do, to get into right relationship with God.
The only way to forgiveness and relationship, is to believe that Jesus does it for us.
That is, to have faith.
That’s what the Reformers discovered under all those centuries of institutional baggage;,
Salvation is by faith alone.
But James is not thinking about faith versus actions in salvation. He’s concerned for the person who thinks their faith doesn’t have to be visible in any way.
See if we misunderstand this, we’ll think James is anti-faith and pro-action.
But he’s not anti-faith at all.
What he’s opposed to, is something that calls itself faith, but isn’t real faith, and the proof of its fraudulentness, if that’s a word, is that it doesn’t lead to actions.
Which is also what Paul teaches.
Even in the opening sentence of his letter to the Romans, Paul speaks about something he calls “the obedience of faith.”
If you have faith in Jesus, you’ll be obedient to what Jesus says,
True faith, necessarily leads to action.
He’d said basically the same thing to the Galatians a few years earlier;, The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
Or think of Jesus’ own words in Luke 9; Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?
True faith is proved genuine by action.
We could summarise these arguments by saying Paul wants to emphasise that it’s faith alone that brings you into relationship with God.
While James wants us to know “faith is proved genuine, only through actions.”
When the Roman Catholic church restated its teaching of justification by works in the Council of Trent in the 16th Century, John Calvin, responded by saying, “It is faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone”
Can you see the distinction? It’s only faith that saves us.
But you’ll be able to tell that faith is real, by the actions it leads to.
This is really just an extension of what James said back in chapter 1 verse 22;, To merely listen to God’s word, without doing what it says, is to deceive yourself.
Which means mostly in this section when James uses the word “faith”, we need to read it as if it’s in “air quotes.” You know what air quotes are, don’t you? You put air quotes around your word, because you’re quoting what other people say, but you don’t think that’s a legitimate use of the word.
So, people tell me that air quotes are much more commonly used in Australia, where I come from, but that nobody does it in more, “sophisticated” places, like London.
Any faith that doesn’t lead to actions, is not real faith.
Faith is proved genuine only by actions (v 20 – 26)
Because as James demonstrates from verse 20, faith is proved genuine only by actions.
Without actions, faith is useless, verse 20.
There was a scholar back in 8th century Northumbria known as the Venerable Bede. He goes one step further, not content to say that faith like this is useless, he says the person whose faith doesn’t go any further than words, is useless.
Now, none of us want to be insulted by an old, dead, Englishman, so we need to hear this warning.
Do we want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?
Well, here are 2 examples.
The example of Abraham (v 21 – 24)
Firstly, Abraham’s faith was proved by his actions.
Verse 20, You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?
Now, for a Jewish person, there was really no higher human authority you could appeal to, than to Abraham. He was the father of the nation of Israel.
If James can show that his argument is true in Abraham’s case, his readers are likely to think it applies to them too.
The story is recorded in Genesis 22. God had promised that it would be through Abraham’s son Isaac, that his promises would be fulfilled.
But then, he tells Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice.
The letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament tells us that Abraham expected to receive Isaac back from the dead, which is kind of what happens, because at the last minute, God stops Abraham, and provides the sacrifice himself.
And so James restates his point, faith needs action in order to be proved genuine. Verse 22, You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.
Abraham had faith, that is, he believed something about God;
He believed God’s promises,
He believed God’s goodness,
He believed that God could raise the dead.
And what happened?
That faith, his confidence about those things, overflowed into his life.
The fact that he did what God told him to, shows that his faith was real.
And James says Abraham’s faith was made complete by what he did, it reached its logical conclusion,
It got to where faith needs to get to in order to show that it’s genuine;, into the mess of daily life.
And so James can agree whole-heartedly with the author of Genesis, whom he quotes in verse 23, And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.
It’s from Genesis 15:6
His right standing before God came from his belief, his faith.
But the reason we know his faith was real, is because he acted on it.
See, if Genesis 22 had gone differently, if I had been in the story, it’s always very dangerous to read yourself into the Scriptures, but if it had been me,
If God were speaking to me about my son,
I imagine I would have said to God,
“Yes, I have faith,
I believe your promises,
I believe your goodness,
I believe that you can raise the dead”,
But I’m pretty sure I would have struggled to show that I really do believe those things, by proceeding with the sacrifice.
And so you’d be right to question whether my faith was real.
To say, “I believe”, or “I have faith”, but for my life to be entirely unaffected by that, means I don’t really believe those things at all.
If my faith doesn’t produce fruit, to use Jesus’ words, then my so-called faith is really no faith at all.
You might know the story of Charles Blondin, the French tightrope artist, who in 1859 crossed the gorge below Niagara Falls numerous times, on a rope about 3 inches across.
At one point, he stops, and he asks the crowd, and they reckon up to 25,000 people would gather to watch him do this, he asks, “Who thinks I can push a wheelbarrow across the falls?”
330 metres from one side to the other, but everybody says “yes, yes, we think you can.”
So he gets his wheelbarrow, pushes it all the way across, and comes back.
He asks again, “Who believes I can push the wheelbarrow, with a person in it, across the Falls?”
Again, “Yes, yes, we believe you can do that.”
And Blondin says, “That’s great! who wants to be the person in the wheelbarrow?”
Funnily enough, not a single hand!
And the whole crowd’s probably trying to avoid making eye contact!
In the end, it’s his manager, Harry Colcord, who gets into the wheelbarrow and goes across the falls.
James would say of him, his faith was made complete by what he did
When all those people said, “we believe you!” They didn’t really believe, did they?
What looked like faith, was really no faith at all.
But Harry Colcord, the man who knew Charles Blondin, well his faith was real.
He said, “I believe you can do it”, and his faith was shown to be real through his actions.
The example of Rahab (v 25)
James’ second example is Rahab, whose faith was proved genuine by her actions.
Have a look with me at verse 25, In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction?
Rahab’s story begins in Joshua chapter 2, when Israel sent spies into Jericho.
Rahab says to the spies “I know that the Lord has given you this land”, and she rattles off a list of mighty acts that God has performed, and she concludes, for the Lord your God, is God in heaven above and on the earth below.
She understands something of God,
She has that theological precision.
But she doesn’t say, “I believe God has given you this land, though I’m just going to go about my life as normal.”
No, what she believes about God, overflows into her life, and she hides the spies, and as James says, sends them off in a different direction.
Now, Abraham was, not perfect, but he was pretty much what every Israelite wanted to be.
Rahab is the opposite.
She was a Gentile,
She came from the enemies of Israel,
And she was considered of low moral substance.
Do you see James’ point?
Whether you’re the father of the nation of Israel, or a pagan prostitute, or, more likely, someone in-between,
This is what faith in God looks like.
This is what faith in God always looks like.
It doesn’t matter who you are,
There is no other kind of faith.
Of course, there’s “air quotes” faith,
But that’s not real!
It’s dead verse 17,
Useless, verse 20,
Dead, verse 26.
Now, there are plenty of other things that are only proved genuine when they lead to action. This shouldn’t surprise us;
It doesn’t matter how many times I say, “I love my wife”, unless I act in a loving way towards her, I’m not actually loving, am I?
Or do you really believe in justice, if you never act justly? Of course not!
So what kind of faith do we have?
So, we’re faced with the question, what kind of faith do we have?
If we look at our lives, and don’t see our faith in Christ working itself out in action, is it possible that all we have is, “faith”,
Theological precision, maybe, but not real faith, the kind that saves, because that kind of faith is proved genuine by action.
If you believe that Jesus is God made known, how does that affect your life?
If Jesus’ words are the very words of God, are we clamouring to hear more?
To understand more?
If you believe that Christ died so that you can know forgiveness, how does that work itself out in your relationships with others?
Where are the actions that say, here is someone who knows what it is to be forgiven, and so is forgiving to others?
If you believe that God has called you to live a holy life in Christ, where is that holiness evident?
What are the actions that say, “this person works hard to avoid sin, rather than skirting along the fine-line edge of it.”
If your faith is in a relationship with God through Jesus’ death in your place, what actions flow from that?
What are the signs of new life that others should be able to see?
If you believe that the Scriptures command you to follow Christ’s example, and always put the needs of others before your own,
To give up comfort,
And what the world would call security,
And status, and reputation,
Where is the evidence of that?
This seems to be an issue very close to James’ heart.
He’s often thinking about how the poor and the most vulnerable get treated.
How does our faith overflow in a way that impacts those in our church family who lack relationship, who feel isolated and disconnected?
Especially in these difficult times.
As Christians, how does our faith overflow into the way we treat those who are disadvantaged, whether that’s because of their race,
Or their financial situation,
Or their employment status, or whatever it is.
Clearly we’re not free to be silent and do nothing, because real saving faith, compels us to action.
How does faith lead to action in issues of justice and equality?
Now we don’t want to lay down legalistic rules,
“True faith means you’ll give this many pounds to these charities,
Serve this way,
Join these protests,
Boycott that company,
Write to your Member of Parliament on this issue,
Get involved helping this particular group of people.”
It will be different for different ones of us.
But there should be something, if our faith is real.
Of course, none of this is to say that we ought to go round doing good things for people while putting evangelism on hold.
We want to love our neighbours – especially with the gospel.
One of the early church bishops, a guy named Hilary said “True love has two sides to it—help for the body and help for the soul”
The most loving action we can take, is to share the gospel with someone. That will be one of the actions that points to a genuine faith.
But hear this.
But where is our confidence?
Where is our confidence?
If, you look at your life, and you can see all manner of good actions;,
Helping the poor,
Serving in church,
Giving to gospel causes,
Caring for your neighbours who are self-isolating,
You’re on the front line of Black Lives Matter,
If, when you see those things, you think, “It’s because of those things, what I’ve done, that God will welcome me on that last day, then your confidence is misplaced.
The good things we do, they show our faith is complete,
They demonstrate that our faith is real,
But only because they point us back to our faith in Jesus.
Don’t put your confidence in your actions. They’re just the outworking of your faith, and it’s faith that matters.
Your confidence can only come from faith in Jesus, and what he has accomplished.
But there’s a flipside.
If we look for the actions that true faith necessarily has;, these actions that show my faith to be real,
If I look and I can’t see any, and so I wonder, “well perhaps I don’t have a genuine faith in Jesus.”,
The solution is not, to do the actions,
Don’t throw yourself into actions, so you’ve got something to point to.
That’s the wrong way round, isn’t it?
If, today, the Scriptures confront you with the reality that your “faith” in Jesus is not the kind of faith that saves,
Not the kind of faith that overflows into action,
The solution is to grow your faith,
The solution is to look to the object of your faith,
The solution is to be so captured by Christ, caught up in him and his purposes, that your life is changed.
Don’t do more, but let the gospel of Jesus and his Spirit, do more in you.
Our gracious Father we thank you for the gift of faith.
We praise you that a right relationship with you doesn’t come about by our actions, because we could never do enough.
And so we pray that you will be at work in us, growing our faith, and our trust in the object of our faith, Jesus Christ, such that it overflows into every part of our lives, for the good of many people, and for your glory. Amen.