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Monday, March 23, 2009

Faith Plus Works Equals Faithfulness (James 2.14-26)

March 22, 2009
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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Last week we talked about Christian behavior, focusing in with James on the sin of favoritism. We defined that as trying to make faith about our favorite things and favorite people rather than singularly and exclusively about following and obeying Jesus Christ. The key question coming out of that – for individual Christians and for churches – was “What is God doing and how can I be a part of that?”

James continues in chapter two with the verses we are looking at today. And he is continuing to make a similar point: faith is not just an internal belief, but is expressed outwardly through godly behavior. Not playing favorites is just one example. In today’s text James will give several more examples, pointing us towards one of his primary teachings: true faith cannot be separated from godly behavior.

James is often characterized as being about “works” in contrast to Paul’s emphasis on “faith alone.” James makes clear in today’s text that there is no either/or, but a both/and for the follower of Jesus Christ.

Opening Questions

In verse 14, James begins this set of verses with two questions that introduce the topic:

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?

The first question kind of gives away his point – he’s going to say that kind of so-called “faith” is no faith at all and is of no use. Nonetheless, one answer someone might give to the first question is that faith does save us for heaven – that’s it’s usefulness. But then James’ second question gets right at that: is the kind of faith that is “useless” on earth the kind of faith that saves us for Heaven? He then follows with a number of illustrations and a hypothetical argument to speak to these questions.

Dead Faith

His first illustration is grounded in the here and now, and is one to which we can readily relate.

If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?”

I’ll go ahead and translate it into our modern setting. At Good Shepherd we have several wonderful mercy ministries – caring for people who are in this kind of need. What James warns against would be a church policy where we say, “Let social services provide food and clothes – we are only here for spiritual needs because those are most important.” So if someone came to us who needed financial help and we said, “We can’t help you with money, but will pray for you,” James would say to us, “What use is that?”

Now the illustration is a little more complex than is immediately apparent. There are times we say ‘no’ to people – if they refuse to sit down with deacons and talk about the broader financial picture… if there is repeated physical need without effort to work on improving the situation… if someone calls me from 50 min. away asking for the church to mail rent money just on a phone call. But in none of those cases is our attitude that material help is unimportant. We recognize the need for accountability and wisdom and seek to work with people. Neither do our deacons simply provide materially without ALSO offering spiritual resources.

James’ point is that Christian faith has an impact in the material and present world. We are not just about prayers, heaven, and holy huddling, but are hands and hearts plunged into the world around us.

His conclusion after this illustration is in verse 17: “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” A “faith” that doesn’t engage the world is dead faith, no faith at all. A living faith is vitally interested in the world because God is vitally interested in the world.

“Maybe That’s Your Thing…”

In verse 18, James introduces a hypothetical argument:

But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”

You might have been expecting the hypothetical argument to be against James’ strong teaching on works, but instead it is just the kind of statement you might hear today. It goes something like this: “Well, maybe that’s your thing… we all have different gifts and strengths.” “Your thing” may be evangelism, prayer, feeding the hungry, being in front of people, or any number of things. There is a legitimate and biblical point to that – we do all have gifts to be used as we follow Jesus. But what is not allowed is to separate out belief in God and obedience to God, as if basic faith or obedience aren’t your thing.

James tightens the screws on the faith-without-obedience side of things by noting that even the demons of Hell believe God is God. But they do not have saving faith because they refuse to obey and serve that God. At that point, James is probably kind in saying that holding the view that there is a faith without works is only “foolish” and “useless.” (He could have gone for idolatrous and sinful!)

Some Classic Examples

He goes on from there to offer two historic and classic examples of faith-filled people from Israel’s history. And his point is to demonstrate that these giants of the faith were known precisely for their extraordinary obedience to God – in other words, their faith is known because of their works.

He mentions Abraham, particularly the severe obedience of preparing to offer Isaac, his son, to God as a sacrifice. Many are thrown off by the phrase in verse 21 – “justified by works.” But James uses the word differently than Paul who writes of being “justified by faith.” For James, “justification” is proven faith. For James, faith is untested until proven in the real world. So, Abraham, who was full of faith, was shown to be so in his obedience to the Lord’s command. Again, James’ point here is not that works save us, but that real faith is faith-in-action or faith-filled obedience. It’s kind of like saying little Johnny is honest, but not really knowing he is until he tells the truth or refuses to lie. His conclusion, after citing Abraham, is in verse 24: “You see that a man is justified (shown or proven just) by works and not by faith alone.”

For Paul, justification was like innocence or guilt in a courtroom. Either you are or you aren’t. Paul says, because of Christ’s work, all who trust in him are innocent.

For James, justification is proven innocence or guilt in a courtroom. In order to be judged innocent or guilty, there must be some evidence! And with Paul, James would say that because of Christ’s work, all who trust in him are innocent. How do you know who that is – it’s by one’s fruit or works.

James gives a second illustration from history with Rahab. She was also a famous figure in Israel’s history – the citizen of Jericho who hid the Israelite spies and helped them escape. She and her family later joined Israel and became part of God’s people. She was known for her faith in the God of Israel and James is pointing out that she demonstrated that faith – made it known – precisely through her obedience and good works. From this illustration, James concludes in verse 26, “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” Obedience and good works are the “guts” of faith. Without them, faith is an empty (and meaningless) shell.

What Do We Make of All This?

So what do we do with all this theology, illustration, and teaching?

James is simply reminding us of something we need to hear. Faith, like love, is not an intellectual construct. Each has its life in the real world. Without hands and feet and breath, there is no faith or love.

I’ve said before that we can take the greatest and godliest good thing and mess it up. It is true that our works don’t save us. But even the great truth of “grace by faith alone” can be twisted and distorted into an excuse not to live obediently in service to Christ.

James is a good corrective to that distortion, reminding us that there is only one kind of faith, the kind that is engaged in the world around us that God loves. Maybe one way to help remember that is to realize that to be full of faith is to be faithful. Rather than only think about faith and works as if they are two different things, James challenges us to think of faithfulness, the true combination of belief and obedience that is the sign of a real relationship with God.

So, ponder what faithfulness means in your life. Consider how your belief in God intersects the world that God loves. I talk often of a personal ministry and mission for each one of us. Come talk to me or one of the elders about plugging in and experiencing God’s purpose for you in ministry. Come study scripture with us in Sunday school and on Wednesday nights, for that is where God speaks His Word to you. Pray for God to put you into play, that you might know what it means to be “a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.”

And hear this: this is why you are here! You are here, saved by God’s hand, that your life might honor and glorify God in all you do. You are here to love God and reflect that love to those around you in thought, word, and deed. You are here as a rescued wanderer, a student and disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ.

As you believe in this God who saves, be diligent to do His work in the world. It will honor God and fulfill your eternal purpose in the here and now. Amen.

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