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Faith and Works

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James 2:14-26


            While searching on the internet this week, I came across the following letter written by a high school student. ". . . My school was so gossipy and judgmental. All these students and teachers who claimed they were Christians were always gossiping about people. And there were so many times that a person would make a mistake, and all the “Christians” would basically shun them. To me, it all seemed very wrong. There were also a lot of students who were "role models" in the school who didn't "walk the talk". A girl who was on student council for two years, was our chaplain (for chapels, worship, etc.), is now a lesbian! There were others on stage leading worship, and raising their arms, and praising God, and then later you find out they are pregnant, after they have claimed they are abstaining for God! And, so many of these people are so rude and snotty! I can't explain it.”

            Sometimes it appears that there is little difference between those who identify themselves as Christians and the general population. Christians have emphasized that one is saved by God’s grace through faith and there are many people who claim that they are “born again” and going to heaven, but who change very little after that. Is this true faith?

            In many churches, people grow up in the community and because being part of the church is being part of the community, when they get to be a certain age, it is expected that they will become members of the church and so they do. They want to belong and so they are baptized and become church members. We sometimes level this accusation against mainline churches where people are baptized as infants, but the same thing happens in churches which practice adult baptism. As a result, their life is not really changed all that much. Is this true faith?

            Last week, we were challenged that “as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ”… we must “speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom.” We talked about how love must be a part of our life if we are people who belong to Jesus. In the passage which we are looking at today, this idea is further expanded and we learn that if you believe in God, it must show in how you live!

I. Faith Alone Is Empty 14-17

            If a farmer is out seeding his field with wheat and the gauge which tells him how much grain is in the hopper gets stuck, he would know after a while that he hadn’t seeded part of the field, but, if he didn’t reseed the whole field, he wouldn’t know for sure where the seed ran out until the grain came up. The absence of the fruit would show the absence of seed. The empty harvest would reveal the empty hopper.

            James asks us two questions which lead us to the same kind of a conclusion about faith. He asks “14” The answer to these questions is “it does no good” and “no, it can’t save him.” In other words, if there is a claim to faith, but no harvest of good deeds, it is evidence that such faith is empty, it is useless.

            He uses an example to demonstrate what he is talking about. When anyone, even a pagan person would read this illustration, he would be shocked at the callous nature of the person’s response. Instead of doing the obvious, the person in need is dismissed with friendly words. Does the person need kind words? Sure, they are great, but words will not fill the gnawing hunger or cover the nakedness. Such words are empty. The person expresses warmth and caring with his words, but empty coldness with his actions demonstrating that his words are empty words. These are the same empty words of the person who claims to have faith, but whose life does not show it.

            We have sometimes planted potatoes and the growth looked just great and we were hoping for lots of potatoes, but as we dug them up, there was nothing there and we were quite disappointed. Those of you who are farming have told me that the crops have not been very good this year. The growth looked good, the stalks of grain looked abundant, but when you harvested, you found that there was not much grain there. How disappointing! When a person claims to have faith and the words all sound so good, but the life that is lived is empty of fruit, that too is disappointing.

            As we study this passage, we will note that James comes to a similar conclusion five times. His first conclusion is found in verse 17, “faith by itself (empty faith)…is dead.”

II. It Isn’t Faith Or Deeds 18, 19

            But lets be realistic. Not everyone has the same faith and not everyone has the same ability to do good deeds. Some people have a tremendous capacity for believing, but are not so good at doing. Others struggle with faith, but excel at deeds of kindness. We may know people who are generous and giving and live good lives, but struggle greatly with many truths of the Bible. Perhaps it is like spiritual gifts. Perhaps some people have the gift of faith (there is such a gift) and others have the gift of mercy or deeds. This seems to be the reasoning of the person, who is introduced in verses 18-19, who objects to what James is saying. The straw man James presents, suggests in verse 18, “you have faith, I have deeds.” “The attitude seems to be that each person should live life as they are inclined to live it, you doing what you are comfortable doing and I doing what I am comfortable doing. So let it lie in peace.”

            There are different ways of interpreting this passage, but the one that makes the most sense is that someone is objecting to the statement of James and is suggesting that not everyone needs to have deeds to show faith. James demonstrates the folly of such a point of view.

He affirms the importance of belief. We must believe! Last week, there was an article in the Free Press in which the writer vehemently expressed that he did not believe the Bible to be the Word of God. If we are followers of God, we need to understand and believe that God has spoken to us in His word and even though we may not understand everything, we must believe that God has spoken. We must believe that God is one, that He is the creator of the world. We must believe that Jesus came to earth to call people to God, that he died on the cross and rose again from the dead. Accuracy of belief in the Christian faith is very important, but believing these things is not enough.

James points out that even the demons believe that there is a God, but that does them no good. In fact, they shudder even though they know that they stand condemned. They know who God is and still refuse Him. They know that they are doomed, but still don’t follow Him. John Calvin said, “Knowledge of God, can no more connect a man with God, than the sight of the sun can carry him to heaven.”

            The second conclusion is in verse 18b, “I will show you my faith by what I do.” It can’t be faith alone. It is faith and works, not faith instead of works or works instead of faith.

III. Faith Is Made Complete By Deeds 20-24

            But as we read this, a question comes to mind. Doesn’t the Bible say that we are not saved by works of righteousness which we have done? In Romans 4:2,3 we read, “If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Yet in James 2:21, we read, “was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?” What is going on here? Do we have a contradiction in the Bible? Are we being told two totally opposite things?

            Many have thought so and even Martin Luther, the instigator of the protestant reformation thought James to be an epistle of straw exactly because of these words. Is there a contradiction here or is this an opportunity to understand accurately the relationship of works and faith and so better understand what James is saying? What is the relationship of faith and deeds? If we are saved by faith, why are deeds so important?

            The apparent contradiction can be easily cleared up when we understand that Paul and James are answering completely different questions.

            Paul was asking, “how is a person made right with God?” Paul was demonstrating that we are not saved by works. He was refuting the perspective that acceptance with God comes only by complete and absolute obedience to all the laws of the Old Testament. He was reminding us that we have been freed from the burden of the law which demanded perfection but was impossible to do. He has given us the good news that God has been gracious enough to forgive all our shortcomings and accept us on the basis of the work which Jesus did on the cross. Paul says that it is by faith in Jesus that we receive this forgiveness and acceptance. So Paul teaches that we are saved by faith and not by works.

            James, however, is asking a different question. He asks, “How does a person who has been made right with God live that faith?” James goes on from salvation by faith to teach us what kind of faith it is that saves. It is not the faith of mental assent or academic understanding. What is the kind of faith which makes us acceptable to God? It is a faith which acts. It is interesting that the life of Abraham is used by both Paul and James to make their points. Abraham began by an act of faith. Coming out of a pagan home and community, God spoke to him and as God spoke, Abraham did not reject what he heard, but responded to it by believing God and because of that faith was accepted. But the genuine nature of the faith of Abraham was demonstrated when he was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham not only loved his son, but also had understood that this heir of his old age was the promised one who would fulfill all of God’s promises. Killing Isaac would not only destroy his beloved child, but also his hopes in God’s promises. Hebrews 11 gives us an interesting spin on this action of Abraham. It tells us, “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.” The faith of Abraham was a real faith as demonstrated by his actions and that is the point that James is making. Twice he comes to this conclusion in this section. In verse 22 he says, “You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.” And in Verse 24 he says, “You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.”

One of the key lessons of this section, in verse 22, is that works complete faith. They are the fullness of faith, demonstrating its reality. Before a football game there is always a lot of talk. One team claims it is the best and can easily beat the other team. The other team making a similar claim from the other side. All the talk is meaningless. It is the action on the field which demonstrates the reality. The action of winning the game shows which words are accurate.

I could make a claim to be a great mechanic. I could talk about torque and rpm’s and displacement and all kinds of other words. I could make great promises about how your car should be fixed, but if you brought me your car for repair, you would soon find the truth. You would see that I would be confused and would have no clue as to how to actually fix it. The action would demonstrate that the words were false.

Someone can claim to know that Jesus is Lord and that he died on the cross, but it is the way that this person lives that demonstrates the reality of that confession.

James calls the person who would object to this a fool. He is not at all doing so in a demeaning sense. He is a fool in the sense that “if a person can not comprehend how these can never be separated, then a person does not have eyes to see spiritual reality.”

IV. Faith Without Deeds Is Dead 25,26

            In the next example, he uses an illustration of someone who was a polar opposite to Abraham. Abraham was revered as a man of faith who was known and honoured as a man who followed God. Rahab was a pagan prostitute whose city was about to be destroyed because of God’s judgement on their wickedness. She had nothing to commend her to God. But when she met the spies from Israel, she confessed that “the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.” But it was her actions in actually risking her life and saving the spies that showed that she truly believed what she spoke. As a result she was saved from destruction. Her faith was alive as demonstrated by what she did.

            The conclusion of James is found in 2:26, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”

            In the beginning when God created people, we read in Genesis 2:7, “the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” The human creature lives as the physical body is filled with the breath of life and the spirit is the life in the physical body. When the spirit leaves, the body dies. We have all seen people who have died and have seen that when the breath of life, or the spirit is gone, the body is dead and lifeless. What a stark picture of our spiritual life, which is a combination of faith and works. If there are no works, faith is as dead as a body without breath.

            Just as God breathes life into our physical body, he breathes life into our spiritual body. When we have faith in God, through Jesus Christ, God breaths the life of the Spirit of God into our body. When the Spirit of God is in our life, deeds will follow. If there are no deeds, it is evidence that the life of the Spirit is not in us either. In other words, deeds demonstrate the presence of God in us, the reality that we are Christians and that we have eternal life. So we see that “Works are not an ‘added extra’ any more than breath is an ‘added extra’ to a living body.” The same message is spoken by John the Baptist who said in Luke 3:8, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance;” by Jesus who said in Matthew 7:17, “Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit;” and Paul in Romans 1:5, “Through him and for his name’s sake, we…call people…to the obedience that comes from faith.”

If you don’t obey, you show that you don’t trust that God’s way is best.


            And so we have said essentially the same thing five times, 17, “faith by itself…is dead,” 18b, “I will show you my faith by what I do,” 22, “faith and actions work together,” 24, “a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone” and 26, “faith without deeds is dead.” It is clear that such a message requires a response.

The first response is to examine ourselves to see if the life we live gives evidence that we belong to God. Do we show that we trust God in all of life? Do we demonstrate trust that he promises to care for us, by having peace in turmoil and hope when we lack? Do we demonstrate, by obedience, that we believe that God has our best in mind when He says, avoid immorality, wait until marriage, do not be drunk with wine? Do we demonstrate by obedience that we believe that love will win the day rather than revenge and hatred? Do show by obedience that we believe that forgiveness is better than anger and that living for God is better than living for self? Do we demonstrate faith by engaging not only in random acts of kindness, but in consistent acts of kindness?

            Two people who work together were having lunch together. One was a believer and the other was not. The unbeliever told the believer that she saw in her and another Christian co-worker a vibrant Christianity that was attractive to her. Is our genuine faith evident in a vibrant Christian life?

            Elton Trueblood has said, “Our faith becomes practical when it is expressed in two books:  the date book and the check book.” If someone would examine our date book and our check book, would our faith be evident?

            If we fail the test, we need to be saved. We need to confess our sin and ask God to forgive us, accept us, fill us with His Spirit and become Lord of our life.

            If we pass the test, we need to continue to answer the inner voice which prompts us to deeds. We need to grow in our understanding of what obedience means as God works in our life. Some people come to the conclusion that they need to lose a little weight. They go on a diet and the results are amazing, but the diet is a contrived matter which is an exception to their lifestyle. In order to lose weight and keep it off, certain habits must become a part of a lifestyle otherwise you go through cycles of losing and gaining weight. In the same way, new ways of obedience must become part of our lifestyle as we are prompted by the life-giving Spirit of God who has made us and is remaking us. What are the deeds of obedience which must become a part of our lifestyle because of our faith?

The following poem is by James S. Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, 1988), p. 423.

We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end war;

 For we know that You have made the world in a way

 That man must find his own path to peace

 Within himself and with his neighbor.

 We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end starvation;

 For you have given us the resources

 With which to feed the entire world

 If we would only use them wisely.

 We cannot merely pray to You, O God,

 To root out prejudice,

 For You have already given us eyes

 With which to see the good in all men

 If we would only use them rightly.

 We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end despair,

 For You have already given us the power

 To clear away slums and to give hope

 If we would only use our power justly.

 We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end disease,

 For you have already given us great minds with which

 To search out cures and healing,

 If we would only use them constructively.

 Therefore we pray to You instead, O God,

 For strength, determination, and willpower,

 To do, instead of just to pray,

 To become, instead of merely to wish.

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