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A Faith that Works

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A Faith that Works (James 2:14-26)

A diamond! The word diamond implies value, durability, and brilliance. A diamond began by God's creative initiative in the hidden places under the earth's surface. In a mystery that human effort cannot duplicate, heat and pressure transformed carbon into a diamond. In 1955, General Electric synthesized a poor, industrial-grade diamond. That took 1,500,000 pounds of pressure per square inch at a temperature of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Similarly, at God's intiative, He makes salvation available by faith. What He has provided is beyond human effort. He worked that salvation in the heat and pressure of Calvary. People cannot do that. Salvation is God's greatest creation.

On the other hand, no one knows a diamond's genuineness until an expert examines it for the "four C's" that determine the value of every stone: carat, cut, clarity, and color.

Paul and James wrote about saving faith and authenticating works. Paul's interest fastened on the beginning of faith. Just as a diamond originates in the hidden mystery of God's initiative, faith begins in God's saving act. However, James focused on the continuing evidence of faith. Just as a jeweler examines a stone for evidence, James examined professed faith for marks of reality. Like a miner who discovered a diamond and wondered at its origin, Paul wrote of faith's origin in God's grace. Like a jeweler appraising a stone, James looked at the works which vindicate faith.

The Critical Concern (2:14)

Every sincere seeker confronts a crucial concern: What is the nature of faith that ultimately saves at God's final judgment? In 2:14, James held a written dialogue with himself, his readers, and a straw man. "What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him?" (2:14). James's interrupter claimed to have genuine faith. By this, he must have meant the basic attitude toward a doctrine that made one a Christian. Sometimes, the word faith emphasizes warm personal trust in Christ. At other times, faith signifies the body of beliefs that a Christian holds. James's straw man claimed to have habitual, personal trust in the right doctrine of faith.

James made an additional observation and asked two questions. The observation was: This man had a wordy but workless faith. Words without deeds marked his "faith." First, James questioned the value of such a profession: "What does it profit?" Alternatively, this means: What use is it? Or, What good is it? The phrase in Greek implies: It is no use at all. Wordy but workless faith is worthless.

James's second question looked ahead to the judgment: "Can his faith save him?" My paraphrase reads: Can such a faith as this acquit him in the final judgment? The question demands a sharp, unyielding, No! In the final appraisal, this diamond will be revealed to be an imitation which is made of worthless glass. Faith based on no more than words and ritual will be unmasked as counterfeit.

James and Paul: Friends, not Foes

In every generation, an apparent difficulty baffles students of James. Superficially, James seemed to challenge Paul on the relationship between faith and works in salvation. This apparent difficulty may be seen by comparing Paul's words, "For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law" (Rom. 3:28), with James 2:14, 24: "What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him?" "You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone."

Sometimes, sincere readers have misunderstood James. These include Martin Luther. He called James "an epistle of straw" and without evangelical character. Luther's Reformation cried: "Salvation by faith alone." Reacting against the Roman church's works-oriented salvation, Luther misunderstood James. Others continue to misunderstand him. Five crucial facts clear up this disturbing misunderstanding: (1) Paul and James believed in salvation by God's grace alone through faith; (2) the remainder of the New Testament agrees with James that good works give evidence of faith's genuineness; (3) Paul insisted that faith always produces good works; (4) Paul and James used the key words works and faith with significant differences in meaning; (5) Paul and James fought different opponents, not one another. These five facts deserve more detailed study.

1. James believed that God's grace grants salvation just as Paul believed. James wrote: "Receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls" (1:21). God graciously implants the saving Word while the believer waits in meek receptivity. In James's section on repentance (4:1-10), he wrote that God "gives grace to the humble" (4:6). God's grace comes to those who humble themselves in repentance. A recognized authority on James, James Hardy Ropes, insisted: "He [James] has no idea of disparaging faith, which he everywhere assumes as present and which he highly values. His point is that faith and works are inseparable in any properly constituted Christian life, and he argues this clearly and effectively."

2. The remainder of the New Testament agrees with James on the necessity of obedience as proof of real faith. Jesus warned: "'Not every one who says to me, "Lord, Lord," shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven'" (Matt. 7:21). James and Jesus agreed that verbal profession is not enough. Real faith works. Jesus insisted that final judgment would include the same concerns that James repeated: food for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and help for the helpless. These will be evidences on which the reality of professed faith will be judged (Matt. 25:31-46). John the Baptist stood solidly with Jesus and James. He insisted that a real relationship with God must "'bear fruits that befit repentance'" (Luke 3:7). John the Baptist insisted on exactly the same works that James did for proof of real salvation: clothes for the naked, food for the hungry, and no extortion of the helpless. (See Luke 3:10-14; Jas. 2:15-16; 5:4-6.)

3. Paul agreed with James that faith produces a radical change in one's deeds. After Paul's strongest statement on salvation by grace through faith alone, he insisted that saving faith does work:

"We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:10). In grace, God purposes a new creation so that good works may result. From eternity, God prepared a road of good deeds on which every believer invariably will walk. No exception exists. By God's divine decree, faith works.

4. James and Paul used the same words with different meanings. This should not surprise anyone. The English language does this often. Take the word rest. If a friend says, I got some rest last night, the statement means a brief period of refreshing sleep. If a doctor says, You need more rest, that indicates a much longer, more serious period of relaxation. If a funeral director tells a caller, We will lay him to rest today, that indicates a longer period of rest! The meaning obviously depends on the context.

In the same way, Paul and James used the words works, faith, and justify with some important differences. For Paul, the word works included especially the ceremonial law of Judaism: ritual washings, dietary laws, feast days, and so on. By "works of the law" (Rom. 3:20), Paul meant human activities by which a person attempts to earn salvation. On the other hand, when James spoke of works, he meant moral deeds of love which result from living faith. For Paul, faith usually meant warm, personal trust in Jesus. In James 2:14, faith may mean intellectual agreement to a creed, not effective, saving trust in Christ. The word justify will be discussed in the treatment of 2:24.

5. Finally, Paul and James stood back to back fighting different opponents, not face to face fighting one another. Paul opposed legalistic believers. By keeping the law, these people sought to obligate God to save them. James fought lax believers. These persons claimed that a mere verbal confession of faith saved a person. Paul and James literally fought enemies coming from two directions.

On October 25, 1983, the elite Ranger division parachuted onto the new Point Salinas airstrip on the tiny island of Granada. Such an act presents one of the most daring and dangerous situations a soldier can face. Enemy fire bursts from all directions at once. Immediately, the infantry employed the "buddy system." Fighting back to back, two infantrymen cover themselves until the objective is taken. In the same way, James and Paul fought the early, great battle of the church with the "buddy system." As brothers in Christ, they covered each other and all generations of believers by establishing the true nature of saving faith that works.

A Concrete Case (2:15-17)

Someone may say: Enough theology! What does James want me to do? In a December, 1980, letter to friends, George Sweeting, President of Moody Bible Institute, shared an experience that he had with one of his students:

Just recently, one of our students—I'll call him John—was returning to the campus from the nearby YMCA where he had been playing basketball. He was wearing his gym clothes and his "warm-up" suit and carried his street clothes and shoes under his arm.

As he hurried down the street, a poorly dressed man stopped him and asked him for some money. John asked him why he needed the money, and the man said he was hungry. So John invited the man to join him for a hamburger at a nearby restaurant.

As they ate together, John noticed the tattered and torn clothes he was wearing, and his worn-out shoes; so John gave the man his street shoes. John also shared the way of salvation with the man and told him how he could invite Jesus Christ into his heart and have eternal life. They prayed together and after a while John left to return to the campus.

But as he left the restaurant, John was stopped again... this time by an elderly lady standing outside the restaurant waiting for a bus. She had been watching John inside the restaurant. She asked him, "Why did you help that man? People just don't do that anymore." As John began to share his testimony with her, they were so busy talking, the lady missed her bus; so John offered to carry her shopping packages and take her a few blocks to another bus stop where she would not have to wait so long. As they walked and talked, the lady was so moved by what she had seen and heard, she told John that she would like to accept Christ. Before she got on the bus, she had prayed with John and invited Christ into her heart and life.

As I think of John's experience, I remember the words of one of my favorite gospel songs: "They will know we are Christians by our love." Because of John's love for others and his eagerness to introduce people to Jesus Christ, the world became a better place for two people that day.

What church could not use an evangelism program like that?

Yet, James described a believer who reacted differently from John. Some interpreters believe that James told a parable in 2:15-16. This little slice of life gives such a self-evident, crass example that it would be clear to all. On the other hand, James may have reported an event that he saw. Perhaps a sanctimonious church official hurried someone out of the meeting place: "'Blessings on you, keep warm, eat until you have plenty'" (2:16b, Williams).

James's word if (2:15) suggests a hypothetical case. The needy person was a brother or a sister in the Christian community. Curt Christians gave the needy person a seat on the floor by their footstools (2:3). The individual appeared in rags and starving. Ill-clad translates a term that can mean stark naked. Here, it probably meant without an outer garment. The person lived at a subsistence level. All of this underlined the urgency of the need.

The curt Christians' response shocks even today's reader: "'Good luck to you, keep yourselves warm, and have plenty to eat'" (2:16, NEB). How were these words spoken? That they were spoken in contempt or mockery is unlikely. They probably were spoken with a well-meaning smile. But the problem was just that: The words were only words. "Go in peace" reflects the common Jewish parting word shalom. In essence, the situation is like someone's telling the poor: You have had spiritual food and are clothed in Christ's righteousness. Good-bye.

The advice "be warmed and filled" (2:16) can suggest effort on the poor persons' part: "Find warmth and food for yourselves" (2:16). Or, the words may suggest a general passive attitude: Let somebody else do it, but not me. The words bark a command which indicates a habitual, heartless attitude on the speaker's part. The word filled is laden with irony. It referred to animals that gorged themselves to the point of satiation, as cattle in a feed lot. The needy person only craved a morsel to sustain life for a day.

"What does it profit?" (2:16) began this section of James (2:14a). Will the poor offer heartfelt gratitude for your good wishes? Will God affirm your saying that you have faith? Certainly, such worthless words do not fill empty stomachs. Just as certainly, such fake faith yields no spiritual profit for the sham believer.

Do you think that James's opinion is peculiar? Then compare the words of his fellow-apostle, John: "If any one has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?" (1 John 3:17). Such a heartless Christian knows nothing of God's love. What an irony that professed believers can spend a lifetime running from meeting to committee, convention to seminar, preacher to lecturer, and still demonstrate fake faith! The priest and the Levite conveniently "passed by on the other side" (Luke 10:31-32). The rush of busy religion often overlooks needs at its feet. Jesus promised no salvation, much less a reward, to those whose faith knows nothing but religious busyness without concrete compassion.

Paul Cho's church in Seoul, Korea, is the largest congregation in the world. Recently, 210,000 people attended the seven Sunday services! When he dismisses services, Cho tells his people to find someone in the streets of Seoul and to help them. They do just that. Some help young mothers carry groceries up the stairs. Others help old people onto public transportation. The city knows that Cho's church does not practice invisible faith, but concrete Christianity. No amount of hype, promotion, or slogans ever will substitute for such living. The church that practices it can explode. The church that ignores it will die.

A Crucial Correction (2:18)

In dramatic form, James presented an objection: "But some one will say, "'You have faith and I have works'" (2:18); Some debate surrounds the meaning of this objection. James's opponent may have stated this in a flippant way. Perhaps the statement could be paraphrased: You theologians can debate about faith and works all you desire. Some folks are doers, and some are believers. We're all trying to get to the same place. Shortly before writing these words, I tried to witness to a young man in a hotel. Formerly, he had been a Baptist; but he had been converted to the Islamic faith. When I confronted him with the uniqueness of Jesus, he dodged the discussion with the same words: "We're all trying to get to the same place."

More likely, however, James's opponent spoke in a hostile or angry voice. Some interpreters understand the objector to distinguish between faith and works as if the two were separate spiritual gifts. Some people would have the gift of faith, and others would have the gift of works. Paul did list a special spiritual gift of faith (1 Cor. 12:9). However, by that gift he did not mean saving faith that is common to all believers. Rather, he referred to a special gift of extraordinary or miracle-working faith. Saving faith and Christian works do not exist separately as two spiritual gifts. In every believer, the two are as inseparable as the spirit and the body (Jas. 2:26).

At least one scholar detected a church-wide misunderstanding behind James 2:18. Bo Reicke suggested that some believers in the early church tried to assist Gentile conversion by suggesting that "faith" was enough; deeds were not necessary. Perhaps such church members told potential converts that "faith" alone would suffice; deeds were not necessary. Earlier, the Pharisees made a separation between Jews who could fulfill the law's demands fully and those who could not. Since they had divided the law of Moses into 613 lesser commandments, many people could not even remember all of the commands. Thus, some members of Pharisaic groups accepted vicarious responsibility to perform good works on behalf of the many who would not! In this trade-off, some members had faith and others had works.

James's reply admits no false division between faith and works: "Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith" (2:18). James considered his opponent to be wrong. Only Christian deeds show real faith. Can one display faith in any other way? How much would a square foot of faith weigh? What size or color is faith? Such questions indicate the absurdity of claiming faith without works. Faith is an inward altitude toward God; without Christian deeds, it remains invisible.

For example, millions of Americans exercise each week in order to gain "aerobic points." Around thirty points that one gains every week should indicate good cardiovascular fitness. Yet, has anyone ever seen an aerobic point? How much does one weigh? What shape is it? Such questions sound absurd. One only sees an aerobic point in the exercise of jogging, cycling, swimming, and so on. One glimpses the reality of an aerobic point only in the physical exertion. An aerobic point has no independent existence apart from the exercise which demonstrates it. Likewise, faith never stands alone without the works that demonstrate it. God saves by faith only, but faith never is alone.

A Confused Confession (2:19-20)

Those who insisted on faith without works mouthed the most orthodox of creeds: "God is one" (2:19). To confess God's existence and unity is the foundation of all Jewish and Christian belief. From the days of Moses, every Hebrew repeated the great confession of Deuteronomy 6:4-5: "'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.'" These two verses were so famous that they were given a name, the Shema. That is the Hebrew word for hear, the first word in verse 4. The words of the Shema literally were worn next to the heart and in a box on the forehead. Jews taught them to their children and placed them in boxes beside their front door.

The value that the Jews attached to the words of the Shema reached almost superstitious proportions. For example, Jewish tradition taught: "'Whosoever prolongs the utterance of the word One (Deut. 6:4) shall have his days and years prolonged to him.'" Just to utter the word One supposedly prolonged life. The famous Rabbi Akiba faced a martyr's death. At the end of his final prayer, he recited the Shema. His last words were: "'Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God is one.'" According to Jewish legend, a voice from heaven was heard: "'Blessed art thou, for thy soul and the word One left thy body together.'" To maintain to the end this verbal confession virtually guaranteed a blessing at death.

Evidently, those who insisted on mouthing the creed "God is one" considered that merely saying it was enough. James certainly did not discount the validity or necessity of that confession. Every believer must make it. God's unity and existence are no less a Christian than a Jewish confession. (See 1 Cor. 8:4; Eph. 4:6; 1 Thess. 1:8.) For pagans turning from the worship of many gods to Christ, to confess God's oneness was essential. Jesus called it the great Commandment of the Law. The early and greatest creed of the church, the Nicene Creed, presented God's unity in its first article. James in no way minimized the confession of God's unity. He wrote: "You do well" (2:19). He did not mean that this confession exhausted all that Christians must believe. Christians believe this and much more. To confess God's unity is necessary, but it is not enough. The Christian must confess Jesus' lordship as the only begotten Son of God. The believer must add to that confession a life of beautiful deeds to demonstrate the truth of the confession.

Confirming Case Studies (2:21-25)

Great theological truths clamor for demonstration in daily life. One needs a concrete incarnation of truth as much as theological information about truth. For that reason, James gave two case studies to show that saving faith always produces godly works. His examples represent two opposite extremes of humanity: Abraham the godly patriarch and Rahab the godless prostitute. Both of these Old Testament figures demonstrated faith that works.

A Godly Patriarch (2:21-24)

No one ever questioned Abraham's faith. For Jews and Gentiles, he stands as the embodiment of a life of faith. Indeed, Paul gave him the highest compliment in the family of faith: He is "the father of all who believe" (Rom. 4:11). For the Gentiles no less than the Jews, Abraham stands as the head of God's family of believing children. Abraham is the first man whose faith explicitly is mentioned in the Bible (Gen. 15:6). Whereas others before him did believe, the first specific act of faith was attributed to Abraham. He formed a good case study for James, because no one questioned Abraham's faith.

Steve Allen hosted an interesting television show, a meeting of great minds. The format presented an imaginary situation in which men and women from different centuries and various walks of life sat around the same conference table. Perhaps Alexander the Great, Woodrow Wilson, Florence Nightingale, and Julius Caesar would all discuss a common topic. Because they lived centuries apart, the show was amusing but actually impossible. What if one could seat Abraham, Moses, David, and Paul around the same table? Three of them quickly would agree that the fourth one was the greatest of all when it came to a life of faith. They would identify Abraham as the greatest of all at the point of faith.

James used Abraham as the perfect test case by pointing out two dramatic moments in Abraham's life. James first pointed to the moment when Abraham revealed the reality of his faith by attempting to sacrifice Isaac (2:21). Next, James indicated the time earlier in Abraham's life when the patriarch first trusted God; therefore, God pronounced him righteous (2:23). James reversed the order of the events in time in order to stress Abraham's works. Keep in mind these two events and their order in time.

God Pronounced Abraham Righteous (Gen. 15:6; Jas. 2:23)

Abraham Shown to Be Righteous Through Works (Gen. 22; Jas. 2:21)

Keep in mind that the first event took place forty years before the second one. Initially, God justified Abraham by pronouncing him righteous. Finally, Abraham was justified (shown to be upright) by his works. An examination of these two events that took place forty years apart clarifies the two meanings of the word justify. Also, that God saved Abraham on the basis of faith alone becomes clear. Following that, Abraham's obedient deeds vindicated that grace.

Initially, the moon-worshiping Mesopotamian Abram heard God's voice and abandoned Ur. He started west with God at age seventy-five. How God spoke to him, no one knows. Was in it a dream by night, a vision by day, or an audible voice? What matters is Abraham's faith response to God's call. Abraham peered up at the sky where a million pinpricks of light looked like diamonds against black velvet. God promised him that his offspring would be more numerous than the stars. Abraham "believed the Lord; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness" (Gen. 15:6). The wording implies that God wrote it down in His book (accounted) that Abraham was righteous. Paul rejoiced in this great truth. He repeated it in Romans 4:3,22, citing Genesis 15:6 twice. God declared Abraham to be righteous on the basis of belief, apart from his works. Paul concluded that God justifies all people apart from their works (Rom. 4:5). James heartily agreed with Paul that Abraham's initial experience with God was justification by faith alone (Jas. 2:23).

Years passed before God gave Isaac, the son of promise. Probably, when Isaac reached nine or ten years of age, God gave a startling command to Abraham. "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you'" (Gen. 22:2). Who could forget the gripping story that followed? Abraham tried to offer his son as a sacrifice in absolute obedience to God's command. Only God's intervention kept Abraham from the act. James insisted that this act of obedience justified Abraham. James used the word in a different way from Paul. Justify can mean to pronounce or make righteous. James in 2:23 and Paul in Romans 4 used the word in that sense. But justify also can mean to show upright or to vindicate as righteous. Williams rendered James 2:21: "Was not our forefather Abraham shown to be upright by his good deeds, namely, by offering Isaac his son upon the altar?"

Wiersbe caught the essence of this truth: "By faith, he was justified before God and his righteousness declared; by works he was justified before men and his righteousness demonstrated." "God pronounced Abraham righteous and recorded his righteousness. Over twenty-five years later, Abraham's works justified on earth what had been announced in heaven.

For James, the combination of faith plus works yields a synergism. That word does not belong to normal, daily vocabulary. If you consult a dictionary, you will find that a synergism results when two or more things combine. In a synergism, they combine so that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. For example, ordinary table salt consists of two chemical elements, sodium and chlorine. By itself, sodium is a highly reactive, poisonous element. Chlorine also is poisonous and reactive. Yet, bringing the two together yields sodium chloride (ordinary table salt). Not only is it not poisonous, it is necessary for life. In a similar way, faith that stands alone is deadly (2:17). Merely to mouth a creed poisons one's religious life. On the other hand, works alone are just as deadly. The arrogant attempt to work one's way to God produces futility (Rom. 4). Yet the synergism of a faith that works yields spiritual life.

James pointed out the faith-work synergism: "Surely you can see that faith was at work in his actions, and that by these actions the integrity of his faith was fully proved" (2:22, NEB). Work had a complementary relationship to Abraham's faith, not a supplementary relationship. Faith was expressed dramatically in good deeds. Abraham's works cooperated with his faith. He was not saved by faith plus works; he was saved by a faith that worked. Each step of obedience in Abraham's long life strengthened his faith.

A Godless Prostitute (2:25)

James deliberately designed the greatest conceivable contrast to the godly patriarch Abraham. Abraham was a Jew; Rahab was a Gentile. He was a man; she was a woman. What is more, she was a weak, erring woman—a prostitute. Yet, Hebrews 11:31 designates her as a woman of faith. She confessed her faith in God clearly: "The Lord your God is he who is God in heaven above and on earth beneath'" (Josh. 2:11). But Rahab did not merely mouth a creed. She took elaborate precaution to lodge Israel's spies and to send them off in a safe direction. (See Jas. 2:25.) As simple as her faith was, it was a faith that worked. Her faith acted immediately, and with some degree of risk for her. By using examples so different, James implied that all who claim faith must show that faith by deeds. Rahab's acting faith earned her a place among Jesus' ancestors (Matt. 1:5).

A Climactic Conclusion (2:26)

The relationship between faith and works is like that between the body and the spirit. Without the spirit, the body is a corpse. Without works, faith is dead. Wordy but workless faith is worthless.

Lessons for Life from James 2:14-26

Christians always should be narrowing the gap between what they know and what they do.—They may keep log books of sermons or Bible studies that they attend. On one side, they may write the subject and on the other enter the definite, concrete living that the message motivated.

Believers need to discover the helpless people in their communities.—Jesus stated clearly that working faith meets life's basic needs. No believer should feel exempt from feeding the hungry persons and clothing the ill-clad people. Where are these people in your community? What contact do you have with them?

Check the balance between words and deeds in Christian living.—When believers are long on words and short on deeds of love, a serious imbalance exists. Some need to confess less and to do more.

Does what you confess at church match what you live at home?—John Bunyan's character, Mr. Talkative, was a saint at church but a devil at home. The home is the crucible of Christian living. No one can fool people at home for long. Faith that does not do loving deeds at home is questionable.

Personal Learning Activities

1. James challenged Paul on the matter of the relationship between faith and works in salvation.

□  True   □  False

2. To James and to other New Testament writers, _____ is the proof of genuine faith. (Choose the correct answer from the list.)

□  (1) Profession

□  (2) Religious ritual

□  (3) Obedience

□  (4) Keeping the Law

3. Saving faith always will issue in (select the proper response from the list):

□  (1) A sinless life.

□  (2) Good works.

□  (3) Automatic maturity.

□  (4) Multiple spiritual gifts.

4. James contended that orthodox confession must be coupled with a life of beautiful deeds.

□  True   □  False

5. In presenting his case on faith and works, James used __________ and ________ as illustrations. (Choose the correct responses from the list.)

□  (1) Noah

□  (2) Abraham

□  (3) Ruth

□  (4) Moses

□  (5) David

□  (6) Rahab


1. False; 2. (3); 3. (2); 4. True; 5. (2),(6)

James: Faith Works!.

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