May 2nd, 2016

True faith that saves you changes everything.

James 2:14-26

May 1, 2016


Paul and James

Are we saved by faith, or works?  Since the earliest years of our faith, some Christians have been asking if Paul and James contradict each other on that point.

Often with similar challenges, my approach is to say, “If people have been wrestling with this issue for thousands of years, I’m not going to say anything in the next 20 minutes that will resolve it.”  For example,

  • How can God be both three and one?
  • If God is good and all-powerful, why do bad things happen?
  • Did Judas have a choice when he betrayed Jesus?  If not, is he responsible?
  • Do dogs go to heaven?

The supposed conflict between James and Paul does not belong on this list.

James says, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).  Paul says, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28).  They use the same words – faith, works, and justified.  Paul and James even use the same Old Testament verse to prove their point:  “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6, quoted in Romans 4:3 and James 2:23).

If I were to say, “This issue has puzzled everyone else for two thousand years, but I have an easy answer,” I would be arrogant.  But that’s not the case.  Although some Christians (perhaps most notably the 16th century reformer Martin Luther) have been perplexed by this question, the far more common response has been that James and Paul do not disagree.  They are simply teaching different lessons to different groups using some of the same words.  The overwhelming consensus is that James and Paul both are inspired Scripture.

Paul is writing to people from mostly pagan backgrounds who are trying to earn favor with God by doing the right things.  Paul’s primary emphasis is on faith, but he says, “We are created in Christ Jesus to do good works (Ephesians 2:10).”  He asks, “Shall we go on sinning so that grace has something to forgive?” and answers, “Absurd!” (Romans 6:1-2)

James is writing to people with a Jewish background who have been taught that faith saves you, not keeping the law.  But they need a reminder about works.

Both Paul and James agree with this: The true faith that saves you changes everything.

James on faith

If there is such a thing as “true faith,” there must be such a thing as false faith.  At one point in this passage, James addresses anyone who disagrees with an insult worthy of the 2016 presidential race in the United States.

It’s only an illusion that we have hit a new low in political campaigns.  Google “political insults” and you’ll find some examples here and elsewhere throughout political history.  Some I can’t repeat in church, but here are a couple of examples –

  • Pat Buchanan said, Bill Clinton’s only foreign policy experience is pretty much confined to having had breakfast once at the International House of Pancakes.”
  • One of John Adams’ political opponents called him “a monkey just put into breeches.”
  • Across the pond, Winston Churchill was a master at political insults.  He once said of Prime Minister Clement Atlee, “An empty cab pulled up to Downing Street.  Atlee got out.”

In James 2:20, Jesus’ brother sounds similarly irritated at whoever misunderstands faith, shouting on paper, “You idiot!”  I know it doesn’t say that in your translation of the Bible, but honestly, “You foolish person!” doesn’t seem strong enough to me.  The word means, “You empty-headed man.  There’s nothing between your ears.”  He’s speaking to those with false faith.

So what is “false faith”?  In verse 14, he implies there is a faith that doesn’t save. In verses 17 and 26, he speaks of faith that is dead.  In verse 19, he says that demons “believe,” but their belief makes them “shudder.”  Demons know more than you and I do about God and the reality of the unseen world.   In verse 20, he says that there is such a thing as “useless” faith, held by a “foolish” person.  In verse 22, he says Abraham’s faith as “made complete,” suggesting there is such a thing as “incomplete faith.”

All these are variations on the same theme.  False faith is mental assent to a list of doctrines.  James says that won’t do.  This is going to surprise some of you, but in his whole letter James doesn’t even mention some biblical “facts” that many of us (myself included) have been taught and even hold are essential to the Christian faith.  You can search James forward and backward and never find a reference to Jesus’ death, resurrection, or second coming.

Don’t tell anyone I said it is not important to believe that Jesus died and rose again.  But James says if you think you’re saved by believing a checklist (I am a sinner, Jesus is the Son of God, he died and rose again, he will come back), you’re an idiot.  That’s false faith.

James is not anti-faith.  In 1:3, James says that faith is what enables you to persevere in trial.  You have to trust in God, who gives you wisdom.  In 2:1, James speaks of the object of faith – “our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.”  In 5:15, James says that the “prayer of faith will save the sick.”  Faith for James is a personal and total reliance on God and Jesus Christ.

But just saying, “I believe in God” is not faith.  Demons believe in God.

Do you need to examine your faith, or works?  If you need to examine your faith, Paul gives much help…but so does James.  True faith trusts God enough to hang in there with him even when life doesn’t make sense.  True faith knows Jesus as the Lord of glory, God in the flesh.  True faith entrusts God with my deepest needs and struggles in prayer.  True faith believes Someone’s up there, caring, hearing, and healing.  True faith is personal trust.

James also helps you examine your works. If you’re wondering exactly what James means by the works that must accompany faith, he gives you three rather vivid examples.  They’re not exhaustive, meaning if you do these things it’s all you must pay attention to.  But if you want specifics, start with these three areas.

Naked and hungry

First, if you have true faith, you meet the needs in front of you.  James begins in verses 15-16.  “Suppose a brother or sister….”  Stop right there, and stay with James in his illustration.  While a gospel-saturated and transformed life will seek to meet the needs of the poor in general, and correct the injustices of society that keep people poor, that’s not who’s in view in this illustration.  When James speaks of a “brother or sister,” he is speaking of other people in your own faith community – in your own church family.  These are people you worship and learn with at church.  You know them by name.

We all struggle with whether we’re supposed to give a buck to every homeless person with a cardboard sign, or donate every time the grocery store invites us to buy a box of food, the drug store is selling red noses, or the Shriners stand outside Sam’s Club seeking help for crippled or burned children.  Faith certainly would participate at least some of the time in all of those random acts of kindness or opportunities for generosity to those less fortunate.

But that’s not James’ example.  He wants you thinking about people you know well, others who believe in Jesus, whose stories you have heard.  Look down the pew at the people you sit with every week.  Think about your Sunday School class or small group or foyer dinner.

Suppose one of them is naked and hungry.  Not even naked or hungry, but both.  Something has happened to someone you know and love.  Circumstances have dramatically changed, and a family member in Christ has literally nothing to wear and nothing to eat.  That’s James’ example.  He’s being deliberately extreme and dramatic.

“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?”  The illustration is so extreme it’s almost absurd.  Nobody would do that, right?  Nobody would have that kind of “faith” that says “I believe God will take care of you, brother; I’ll pray for you, sister.”  Not with a brother or sister in Christ!

Meet the needs in front of you.  Faith in a personal, interactive God sees no encounter, no relationship, as random.  God put this person with needs right in front of me.  Maybe the need is for food, maybe for emotional support, maybe for protection.  But when God puts a brother or sister in front of me, true faith responds.

Abraham and Isaac

Second, if you have true faith, you do what you know God requires.  This is the example of Abraham in verses 21-23, and it comes from Genesis 22.  God had given Abraham a son in his old age.  Even then, Abraham had to wait 25 years after the promise before the son was born.

Fast forward ten or twenty more years – we don’t know exactly how many.  The Bible just says “some time later.”  More than likely, Isaac, Abraham’s promised son, was a teenager or young adult.  God tested him and said, “Take your son Isaac and go sacrifice him as a burnt offering on Mount Moriah.”

Moderns have all sort of problems with this story, and well we should.  The Bible itself has all sorts of problems with child sacrifice as a form of worship.  It’s pagan.  It’s barbaric.  But it’s also significant that biblical writers never attacked or defended that element of this story.  They simply know, as you should know, that in its own cultural context it was not so strange.  Set aside a condescending attitude toward the story and live with it for a moment.

The point of this story is not that God might ask you to tie up your son or daughter on an altar and light a fire under your child.  If you said God told you to do that, I’d report you to the authorities and have you arrested.  I can say unequivocally God doesn’t ask people today to do something like that.

But he did ask Abraham.  The point of the story is that Abraham could say, “I have faith in a personal God.  I believe he demands and deserves ultimate allegiance.  I have faith that I heard his voice.  I believe he can even raise my son from the dead.”  But if Abraham doesn’t do anything, his faith is not faith.  It’s just talk.

What do you know God requires of you?  Not “What do you think he might be asking you to do?” but “What do you know?”  What is a clear issue of obedience?  If you know me, you know I understand the principle of gray areas.  Not everything is black and white.  But not everything is gray either.  Sometimes it’s as clear as the Ten Commandments.  Stop replacing God with idols (substitutes).  Stop using God’s name in vain.  Committing adultery is sin – stop rationalizing it.  Sometimes there’s a clear decision that requires renouncing self and giving all to Christ.

Don’t mutter nonsense that you believe in God and trust Jesus as your Savior if there’s something you know he wants you to do and you won’t.  Do what you know he requires of you.



Rahab the Prostitute

Third, if you have true faith, you risk identity with God’s people.  In some ways, Rahab (25) is the most poignant illustration for me in the whole chapter.  In part it’s because this may be the least familiar.  Let me remind you of the story.

Rahab lived in the Canaanite city of Jericho about 1500 years before the time of Jesus.  Can we just pause there for a moment before we move on?  Let’s think about this woman and her life.  She lived during a time when morality was so low that child sacrifice was the norm.  Sexual mores of her time made our day look Puritanical.  She was one of the reasons.

Jericho was a crossroads city, a place where traveling merchants could stay the night, get a meal, and buy a girl.  Rahab was one of those girls.  She is beautiful and shapely, the kind of woman that captures attention of men without saying or doing anything.

Before the Israelites under Joshua tried to take Jericho, their first major conquest west of the Jordan River, Joshua sent two spies into the city.  They went to Rahab’s “place of business.”  We’re not told why they went, and I don’t think you have to assume they went there for the purpose that most men went there.  She may have had the only hotel in town.  The spies may have gone there because that would be the place visitors would attract the least attention.

Well, it didn’t work.  News came to the king of Jericho that these two men were spies.  The residents of Jericho had heard about the Israelites – the miracle of God parting the Red Sea, and their annihilation of kings on the east side of the Jordan.  They were terrified not just of the Israelites but of their God.  So the king of Jericho demanded that these spies be found and turned over.  They were found in Rahab’s house.

Rahab, however, had become a believer.  In her own words, she said to the spies, “the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Joshua 2:11).  So she hid the spies on her rooftop, lowered the men on a rope over the city wall, and gave them a strategy for avoiding those who would pursue them. She sent her pursuers in the opposite direction that she sent the spies. In turn, the spies agreed to her request to spare not only her life but her family when the walls of Jericho inevitably fell.

Sure enough, Joshua 6 records that she and her family were the only Jerichoites who lived through the destruction of the city and the slaughter of its people, and, Joshua 2:25 adds, “she lives among the Israelites to this day.”  Matthew 1:5 places “Rahab” in the genealogy of Jesus, meaning that either she herself was in the line of David or her story was so remarkable that Israelites named their daughters after her.

With that background, note how James speaks of her.  First, he calls her what she was – “Rahab the prostitute.”  That’s not so that we can permanently label her as a sinner.  It’s so that we don’t miss what she was before she believed.  James says she was “justified” – declared righteous – not by just mouthing words – “The LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” – but because her faith changed everything.  She “gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction” (2:25).

Her action was not only to believe in their God but to take the calculated risk of identifying completely with the Israelites instead of with her own people.  She took on a new identity:  “I belong with you.”

That seems to be one key way James is saying that faith works.  Who are your people?  Are they “out there” in the world?  Do you identify primarily as an employee of X, a graduate or Y University, or a community of people with an interest or identity outside the church?  What Rahab did was to risk everything – rejection, even death – in order to say, “This is my God and these are my people.”  Were they a perfect people?  Absolutely not!  But they were her people because of the character of their God.

That’s how James says faith works: you cast your lot with his people.  That’s who you are.  You worship with them, learn with them, grow with them, give with and to them.  “These are now my people,” and even if they are flawed, they will still be my people.

Faith, or Works

                I’ve had to live without my laptop all week.  How can one be a pastor without a laptop?  I can’t organize my task list.  I can’t send out group e-mails.  I have to borrow another computer to get to the network where all my files live.  (More than one person has muttered when I complain: “First world problems.”  I know.)

Bob without a laptop is “different.”  Faith without works is not “different.”  It’s “dead.”  Faith without works is a corpse.  Can you imagine a waitress asking, “Do you want some H2O?” and you answer, “No, I’m not that thirsty.  I’ll just have H2.  Two atoms of hydrogen is not 2/3 water.  It’s just two atoms of hydrogen.  The oxygen doesn’t make the water tastier.  It isn’t water unless it’s H2O.  Faith that doesn’t work is H2.

From a Christian perspective, it’s never about faith, or works.  It’s about faith that works.  The true faith that saves you is the faith that changes everything.

You may be thinking, “Where’s the gospel of grace?  Do I have to be perfect in order to have assurance that I’m going to heaven?”  You’re asking the wrong question of James.  Ask that question of Paul, or maybe John.  They’re talking about assurance.  James is talking about something else.  James is talking about the excuses we make because we believe in a God of unconditional love.  The theoretical debate about whether someone can go to heaven if they believe the right things is a distraction for James.

Stop debating theory and live your faith.  Meet the needs in front of you.  Do what you know God requires of you.  Risk everything by identifying yourself with those who believe in him.  That’s how you avoid being an idiot.  Amen.

Leave a Response

You must be logged in to post a comment.