The Faith that Saves
James 2:14 – 26
The Faith That Saves
Lessons from Luther ...
Martin Luther, as many of you will know, was a church leader in the 16th Century, who lit the fuse on the Protestant Reformation in Germany.
Luther and those around him led the re-discovery of the great gospel truth that we can be justified, declared right in God’s eyes, only through faith in Jesus. Believe that Jesus died the death that you should have died for your rebellion against the God who made you, and you are reconciled to God.
That’s of course what the Bible has always taught, but that wonderful message had been buried during the dark ages under church teachings like the payment of indulgences;, that is, you pay money to the church, and supposedly reduce the punishment you have to suffer for your sins.
And there’s no doubt that Martin Luther was a feisty sort of fellow, with opinions about all manner of things!
Have a listen to some of the things that he said!
So this is Martin Luther:
A man remains foolish until his 40th year, when he begins to recognize his foolishness; then life is soon over.
The Devil is easy to invite as a guest, but hard to get rid of.
A lie is like a snowball; the longer it goes on, the bigger it gets.
The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me.
Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.
The world is like a drunken peasant; if one helps him into the saddle on one side, he will fall off on the other side.
But when it comes to this letter from Jesus’ brother James, Luther famously once described it as a “letter of straw.”
And once someone of the heft of Martin Luther labels something like that, that’s gonna stick! And so even today, James is often relegated to some kind of second-class status in Christian circles.
And it’s true that Luther wasn’t convinced that Jesus’ brother James was the author of the letter. 500 years or so later we have much more evidence to back that up,
And he didn’t think that the letter contributed much doctrinally to the Christian faith. He didn’t see much unique teaching in James, in the way that he did in , say Romans or Galatians, and he didn’t particularly warm to James’ teaching on the relationship between faith and works.
But on balance Luther didn’t really hate this letter quite so keenly as often we’re led to think by people who quote that line about the letter of straw. So he wrote in his preface to James, “I think highly of the epistle of James, and regard it as valuable.”
But if there is a particular feature that this letter from James is famous for today, and yet caused Luther such problems back then, it’s this question of how you get right with God;, the relationship between having faith in Jesus, and doing good things.
And this section that we’re in today gets right to the heart of the issue.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?
The great heart of the gospel message that Luther and the other Reformers rediscovered under those great piles of human and institutional baggage, was that faith alone can save you.
As I said a moment ago, believe that Jesus stood in your place, and took the punishment from God that you deserved, and that’s enough!
That faith can save you.
If you look on your outline you’ll see a couple of verses from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he’s making exactly that point;, we are justified, declared right in God’s eyes, not by anything that we do, but only by faith or believing.
For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.
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 3:28, 4:2 – 3
But then look back at James 2, and doesn’t James seem to be saying the opposite?!
if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?, clearly he’s expecting us to answer, “No”!
And he makes it explicit in verse 17, In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
And the same again in verse 20, and verse 26.
So what’s going on?! Was Luther right to relegate this letter to the very end of his Bible, thinking its contribution was very small, or is there something else going on here?
Well, you’ve probably figured out, there is something else going on here. We believe the Bible has one author behind the many human authors, the Holy Spirit of God, and if the Spirit wrote the whole lot, he’s not going to contradict himself just in the space of a few pages.
The Apostle Paul teaches that faith is the means to a right relationship with God.
See we need to understand that James is trying to address a very different problem to the one Paul’s trying to deal with in Romans, and other places where he makes that argument about faith apart from works.
So in Romans, Paul’s trying to correct the thinking that says we can get into right relationship with God simply by doing the right things
Paul knows that some people teach, that if you do enough good works, you can work your way into God’s good books, make God overlook your sin and rebellion.
And for the Jews, their Law was filled with “good works” that you could apply yourself to. And so the temptation was to think “Well, if I do enough good stuff, then God will overlook my sin,
The fact that I haven’t lived for Jesus in every decision,
The fact that I’m selfish,
That I sometimes refuse to trust his word,
As long as I can point to some good things in my life, then surely God will overlook those parts of my life where I haven’t lived to honour him, and he’ll forgive me, and welcome me in.
And there are plenty of people today, who think that’s how a relationship with God works. That when you stand before Jesus, he’ll get out the cosmic scales, and they’re always the old type of scales aren’t they? No one ever imagines Jesus with digital scales!
But there’s this great balancing, and as long as your good deeds outweigh your bad deeds, you’re in.
And you and I know people, who live as if that were true.
And maybe even some here today, think that’s how a relationship with God works.
But Paul is saying in Romans, and elsewhere in the New Testament, that’s not how it works.
You could never do enough good, to make up for the offence of living in God’s world with no regard for God.
The only way you can stand confidently before Jesus, is by believing that he has enabled you to stand confidently, by his death in your place.
You are saved by faith, Paul says, not by anything that you do.
You’re justified, made right with God, by faith in Jesus’ life and death and resurrection.
But that’s not what James is talking about! And I think I’ve just set a personal record for the longest part of a sermon which is not what a passage is saying! But it’s absolutely key that we understand this, or we’re going to think, that James and Paul disagree,
Or that the Bible contradicts itself,
Or perhaps, even worse, we’ll read James chapter 2 and conclude that this kind of behaviour is how we get into a right relationship with God.
James warns us about a kind of “faith” that is useless (v 14 – 17)
So come back to James 2 with me, if you’ve closed your Bibles, because James isn’t trying to teach us about how someone becomes righteous, justified, how someone enters into a right relationship with God,
James is warning the person who doesn’t even have a proper saving faith in Jesus.
And it’s not that we need some sort of special knowledge to see behind the text of James so we can know what he’s talking about. It’s right here, isn’t it?
There is a type of faith, something that passes for faith, that isn’t the genuine article.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?
See James isn’t talking about faith in contrast to works, or deeds.
He’s talking about the claim to have faith on its own, in contrast to faith that works itself out in action.
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.
See if we misunderstand what James is saying, we’ll think he’s anti-faith. 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 work itself out in actions.
Someone who claims to have faith, but their faith has no impact on their life, well, it does them, no good.
Notice the repeated what good is it from verse 14, come up again in verse 16.
What good is a so-called faith, that doesn’t overflow into a life of doing good? “I’ll tell you exactly what good it is”, James says, “by illustrating it with this scene of a hungry person.”
And you can imagine it can’t you? This isn’t so far from our experience. You see a homeless person on the street, they haven’t eaten for days, you bend down to them, and offer them one of Luther’s pearls of wisdom; “A lie is like a snowball; the longer it goes on, the bigger it gets. All the best!” And you walk on.
What good have you done?
No good at all.
Someone who offers platitudes when they could offer real help, does , no good.
I was speaking at St Mark’s school chapel a week ago, and I decided to speak on this passage because I was already immersed in it.
And so as I was reading it, I got to this verse, 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 Foundation kid sitting at my feet yells out, “No good at all!”
And he was spot on!
And amusingly, Saint Mark’s is a Lutheran school but obviously this little guy’s doesn’t share Luther’s general distaste for the letter of James!
If you say that you have faith, but that faith doesn’t express itself in your life, then that so-called faith, is as useless to you, as empty platitudes are to a starving person.
The faith that does us good, is faith that is accompanied by action, verse 16.
There is no room for thinking, as his imaginary opponent argues, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
When we try to get our kids to try new foods, which is not something we are generally very successful at! But if we’re trying to get then to eat something new, one of them will pipe up, “Different people like different things”, which is code for “I’m not going to change what I do!”
That’s what this person who James is quoting is saying, “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, and the implication is , you can’t.
Because deeds, show that your faith is real.
Now, when James talks about deeds he just means anything done in obedience to God. So in the example that he gives, the deed that is lacking is giving to the poor, isn’t it?, showing compassion.
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 that’s on view.
So don’t think we need to tie down the definition of deeds too narrowly.
But there has to be evidence of your faith.
Simply knowing the right things,
Being able to say the right things, is not enough.
Theological precision is not enough to get you into 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, if that’s just being able to agree with a certain amount of doctrine, then even the demons could do that.
When you think about it, the evil spiritual forces would have a pretty accurate understanding of doctrine wouldn’t they?
And James gives one example here.
This statement about God being one, was known to the Jews as the Shema, it came from Deuteronomy 6:4 and 5, and while it might seem to us a little like just an arbitrary doctrine for James to have chosen, this was a significant theological foundation for God’s people Israel. Jews would recite that statement from Deuteronomy, and still do recite it, twice every day.
It’s not some random doctrine that James has picked because the demons happen to agree with it. This was something God’s people valued the same way we might value the doctrine of the Trinity, or the assurance of our own resurrection guaranteed by Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead.
Which, let me say, the demons also know those 2 things to be true!
Theological precision is great.
A certain theological understanding is necessary in order to come to saving faith in Jesus, but the evidence that you really understand what Jesus is done, will be shown in how your faith spills over into action.
And notice how verse 19 ends. Theological precision, on its own, will only lead to fear before God.
That’s quite a warning, isn’t it?
Faith is proved genuine by works (v 20 – 24)
So works don’t come before faith, contributing to our relationship with Jesus, James and Paul would be in complete agreement.
But James keeps following the trail through, and says that faith is proved genuine by works.
Abraham’s example (v 21 – 23)
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. It was to Abraham, that God made the promises of relationship and blessing, that he spends the rest of the Bible fulfilling.
He was the epitome of the nation of Israel.
He was the Crocodile Dundee of Israel!
Did you see in the news last week it’s 30 years since the movie was released, sparking an enormous flood of tourism into the outback, setting box office records that still stand today.
It shaped our culture, “That’s not a knife, that’s a knife”,
And to many people outside our country, Mick Dundee is the summing up of every Australian person.
That was Abraham,
OK, maybe the parallel is not exact, but it’s close.
If you could demonstrate to a Jewish person that something was true of Abraham, that would go a long way to convincing them that it should be true of them.
And what was Abraham’s experience?
Well, his faith was proved genuine by his works.
The story is recorded in Genesis 22. God had promised that it would be through Isaac, that all those promises he’d made to Abraham 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 from killing Isaac, and God himself provides a sacrifice.
In case we missed it – faith needs actions to be proved genuine (v 25)
And so James restates his point, faith needs works, in order to be proved genuine. Verse 24, You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.
And that’s actually pretty straight forward, isn’t it?
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. And because of his faith, he was willing to offer Isaac on the altar.
James says his faith was made complete, it reached its logical conclusion,
It got to where faith needs to get to; , into life.
And so James can agree whole-heartedly with the author of Genesis, verse 23, And the scripture was fulfilled that says, it’s Genesis 15:6 if you want to look at it later, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness
See it’s not at odds with what he’s just said, to say Abraham believed God, had faith, and it was credited to him as righteousness
No, Abraham was absolutely justified, made righteous, by faith.
He entered into relationship with God , through faith, But the reason we know he had faith, is because he acted on it.
See, if Genesis 22 had gone differently, that is, if I had been in the story, it’s always very dangerous to read yourself into the Scriptures, but bear with me!
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 demonstrate, that I really do believe those things.
To say, “I believe these things”,
To say, “I have faith”, but not follow through, actually means I don’t really believe those things, doesn’t it?
If my life doesn’t change,
If actions don’t flow,
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 diameter.
And at one point, he stops, and he asks the crowd, and they reckon up to 25,000 people would gather to watch him,
If it were Australians they’d all be watching for him to fall to his death, but they were Canadians, so very polite, so he says to this huge crowd, “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 across the falls on his rope, 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.
The moral of the story is never get an admin job in show business!
But actually, it shows us something very important doesn’t it?
When all those people said, “we believe you!” They didn’t actually believe, did they?
What looked like faith, was really no faith at all.
It was useless.
But Harry Colcord, the man who knew Charles Blondin,
The man who was Blondin’s friend, well his faith was real, wasn’t it?
He wasn’t lying or confused when he said, “I believe you can do it.”
And he showed his faith to be real, through his actions.
And for those of us who are familiar with the Apostle Paul’s writing in the New Testament, it’s not like this idea is foreign to Paul, is it?
All of the so-called disagreement between Paul and James, evaporates when you stop and think about that they’re saying.
In the very beginning of his letter to the Romans, for example, Paul speaks about the obedience of faith. What does he mean?
He means that if you have faith in Jesus, you’ll be obedient to what Jesus says,
If you have faith in Jesus, that will be obvious in your life,
Faith, leads to obedience.
It might sound on the surface as if James is contradicting Paul, that verse from Romans 3 on the leaflet, For we maintain that a person is justified by faith, apart from the works of the law.
While James says in verse 24 here, You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.
But remember Paul’s talking about how you get into a right relationship with God.
James’ attention is taken up with what happens after you’re brought in, to relationship with God.
And if someone who’s been brought in still looks entirely like someone on the outside, that’s a problem, says James.
See here in verse 24, and back in verse 18, even verse 14, we need to read James’ references to faith with “air quotes.” You know what air quotes are, don’t you?
You put air quotes around your word, because you’re quoting other people who use that word, even if you don’t think that that’s a legitimate use of the word.
So, people tell me, that air quotes are much more commonly used in Adelaide, and that in more , “sophisticated” places, like Melbourne, people don’t use air quotes as much!
If you need deeds, to demonstrate your faith, then any faith that doesn’t give rise to deeds, is not real faith.
It’s “faith” in air quotes.
In fact one of the commentaries I have on James keeps using the term “bogus faith”, which is not really the high falootin’ academic language you expect in a Bible commentary! But it gets the point across, doesn’t it?!
Rahab’s example (v 25)
The other thing that gets the point across, is James’ choice of his second example that faith is proved genuine by works.
This comes in 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 is told in Joshua chapter 2. When Israel sent spies into Jericho, Rahab says to them “I know that the Lord has given you this land”, and she rattles off a list of God’s mighty actions, and 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, but I’m going to go about my life as if everything is going to keep going as normal!”
No, her understanding of who God is,
What he’s done,
What he’s going to do,
Overflows into her life, and she hides the spies, and sent them off in a different direction.
And if Abraham was , not perfect, but everything Israel wanted to be, Rahab was the opposite.
She was a Gentile,
She was 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 someone in between,
This is what faith in God looks like.
It doesn’t matter who you are,
What kind of religious background you have,
How good your theological understanding is,
There is no other kind of faith, not real faith.
There’s the air quotes faith,
The bogus faith, that’s dead verse 17,
Useless, verse 20,
Dead, verse 26.
What do we do about faith and confidence?
So what kind of faith do we have?
You knew that question was coming, didn’t you?!
We can’t listen to James without being forced to think about our faith.
And there is a warning for us, that if we look at our lives, and don’t see our faith in Christ working itself out in deeds, there’s a great danger that our faith is, “faith”, bogus, mere intellectual assent to certain truths.
If you believe, with Christians throughout history, that Jesus is God made known, how does that affect your life?
If you believe that Christ died for sin, so that you may be done with sin, how does that work itself out every day?
If you believe that God has called you to live a holy life in Christ, where is that holiness, the distinct life set apart for Christ evident?
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?
If you believe that you have been brought into relationship with God only through Jesus’ death in your place, the righteous dying for the ungodly, where are the signs of life, the signs of life lived in response to so great a gift.
But hear this.
If, you look at your life, and you can see all manner of good deeds;,
Helping the poor,
Serving in church,
Giving to gospel causes,
Living a moral life,
If, when you see those things, you think, “there is my confidence. It is because of those things that I can stand before God on that last day, assured that he will welcome me in.
If your certainty of eternal life is based on what you’ve done, then your confidence is misplaced.
The good things we do, deeds as James says, they show that faith is complete,
They demonstrate that faith is real,
They keep pointing us back to our right relationship with God that comes through faith in Jesus.
Don’t put your confidence in your works, 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 the introspection that James’ words kind of force us into,
If asking these questions, looking for the deeds, the works in your life that come from faith and show your faith to be real and complete,
If that makes you anxious, that perhaps there is a question about your faith,
If you don’t see the evidence for your faith that James says true, saving faith necessarily has,
The solution is not, to do the works,
The solution is not to focus on what you can do,
Don’t throw yourself into deeds, so you’ve got something to point to.
That’s the wrong way round, isn’t it?
That’s what both James and Paul will say can never work!
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 work on your faith,
The solution is to look to the object of your faith,
The solution is to be so captured with Christ, caught up in him and his purposes, that your life is changed.
Don’t do more, but let the gospel of Jesus do more in you.