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Worthless Faith

Faith Works (James)  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  30:15
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This is a manuscript, and not a transcript of this message. The actual presentation of the message differed from the manuscript through the leading of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, it is possible, and even likely that there is material in this manuscript that was not included in the live presentation and that there was additional material in the live presentation that is not included in this manuscript.
On June 30, 1859, Charles Blondin became the first man in history to walk on a tightrope across Niagra Falls. Over 25,000 people gathered to watch him walk 1,100 feet on a tiny rope suspended 160 feet above the raging waters. He walked across several times, engaging in different daring feats on each trip.
As the crowds gathered around him, he stopped and asked the audience, “Do you believe I can carry a person across in a wheelbarrow?” The crowd enthusiastically responded, “Yes we believe you can do that!” “Okay,” said Blondin, “Who wants to get in the wheelbarrow?” Not surprisingly no one volunteered,
That is a great illustration of the idea we’re going to develop from our text today:

Workless faith is worthless faith

Someone once said that faith is like calories – you can’t see them, but you sure can see the results. And we’re going to see this morning that real genuine faith will always be demonstrated by the works that flow from that faith.
Many of you are probably aware that in some circles, the passage we’re going to study this morning is one of the most controversial in the entire Bible. That is because some claim that James is contradicting Paul and the other New Testament writers who taught that salvation is by faith, not by works. Although he later removed the comment from his preface to the Book of James, Martin Luther once called it the “epistle of straw” because he erroneously believed that was the case. As we’ll see this morning, a closer look at what James wrote will reveal that not only does James not contradict Paul, he actually complements Paul’s teaching.
So let’s go ahead and jump right in because we have so much to cover today.
James 2:14–26 ESV
14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
Before we jump into the text, I need to take a few minutes to explain why it might appear at first glance that James is contradicting Paul here in order to show why that is not the case at all.
Paul and James are writing to different audiences, with different purposes. So even though they use some of the same words, those words are going to have different meanings given that context.
Paul is primarily writing to Gentiles, many of whom were not yet followers of Jesus. They were being taught a kind of legalistic salvation in which they were told they first had to observe the Jewish law before they could become a follower of Jesus. So his focus was on the fact that salvation is not dependent on man’s works, but rather on the grace of God.
James was writing to Jewish believers, some of whom had perhaps even taken Paul’s teaching out of context and held to a libertine salvation that required them only to claim they were followers of Jesus without the need for a change in lifestyle that would demonstrate the genuineness of their faith. So his focus was on the need for a mature faith that is demonstrated by the way a person lives.
So the way that Paul and James use three key words in their writings differs because they have different focuses:
Paul - volitional trust
James - knowledge
Paul - works of the law
James - acts of love/Christian lifestyle
Justify (to declare righteous)
Paul - justification before God based on faith alone
James - justification before men based on works
Both Paul and James write about the importance of both faith and works. Instead of being contradictory, they actually complement each other. Perhaps it’s helpful to think of that in these terms:
Paul stresses the root of salvation
James emphasizes the fruit after salvation
This makes a lot of sense when you consider what James’ audience was struggling with the most. They were trying to figure out how to live with each other in this new thing called the church. They were facing persecution from other Jews who used to be their friends. They weren’t really sure about how much of the Old Testament law they needed to keep. They were having a hard time getting along with each other. They didn’t know when to pray or how to pray or what to pray for. So James is giving them a crash course in discipleship.
We see this right away in this passage. James asks two questions, both of which are negative rhetorical questions in Greek, which simply means that the expected answer is “no”. Let’s look at those two questions:
What good is it, my brothers is someone says he has faith, but does not have works?
We could reword that question like this:
If someone says he have faith but does not have works, it’s not really any good, is it?
The key word here is the word “good”. It could also be translated “beneficial”, “advantageous”, or “profitable”. So James isn’t even considering salvation with that question. He is basically saying that if someone says they have faith, but their actions don’t reflect that, it doesn’t have any benefit in their lives or in the lives of others in the body.
Here’s the second question:
Can that faith save him?
Or we could reword it like this:
That kind of faith can’t save him can it?
Unfortunately some translations leave out the word “that”, which is really unfortunate because James is not writing about faith in general, he is writing about the kind of faith that is not accompanied by works. It is also important to understand which aspect of salvation James is writing about here.
We’ve talked about this often before. There are three aspects of salvation.
For the most part when Paul is writing about faith and justification, he is writing about the past aspect of salvation. At the very moment I put my faith in Jesus I was saved and I was justified before God.
Here James is focusing on the present aspect of salvation. I am being saved and becoming more like Jesus. We see that very clearly in verse 22:
James 2:22 ESV
22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works;
We’ll come back to this passage in a moment and talk more about Abraham, but for now what I want us to see is that the goal of works is to “complete” our faith, or as it can also be translated to “perfect” our faith. So James is focusing here on how works are necessary to make us more mature spiritually.
That is why we have said this morning that...

Workless faith is worthless faith

Maturing in our faith requires the kind of faith that is accompanied by works. When our faith is not accompanied by works, it is worthless in the sense that it does nothing to help our faith mature and become complete. James further emphasizes this idea by identifying...


Saying faith
Unfortunately, I’m really familiar with this kind of faith, because at one time that’s all I had. When I was a student at the University of Arizona, a young man came and shared the gospel with me and I “prayed to receive Christ”. So if you would have asked me if I was a Christian, I would have said, “Yes, I prayed the prayer”. That is what James is talking about in verse 14 when he writes “...if someone says he has faith...” But honestly at that time in my life I had no intention of making any changes in my life and had anybody observed my life they wouldn’t have any changes either.
Looking back now, I don’t really think I was a disciple of Jesus at that point. I guess only God knows that for sure. But I do know that whatever kind of faith I had at that point was certainly not profitable for me of for anyone else.
Emotional faith
We see this in a couple places in this passage, most notably in verses 15-16. Today’s equivalent would be when we become aware of a need for a brother or sister in Christ and we tell them “I’ll pray for you”. First of all, how many times do we really even do that? But it’s even worse to have the ability to meet that need and not doing anything about it. We have an emotional reaction to the situation, but we’re just not willing to turn our feelings into action. That’s another violation of what James called the “royal law” in the passage we studied last week - to love our neighbors as ourselves.
The other place we see that is in the response of the demons. James says they believe - I’m going to come back to that in a moment - and they shudder. They have the emotion of fear. Now demons don’t have the same opportunity we have to receive the gift of eternal life through faith in Jesus. But they demonstrate that it is possible to fear God in some form and still not act on that fear.
Intellectual faith
I mentioned a moment ago that the demons believe in Jesus. We see this all throughout the New Testament whenever Jesus drives out a demon from a person. In almost every case they recognize Jesus and know that He is God in the flesh. You could even say that they have the right doctrine or the right theology. But that intellectual knowledge is never turned into any kind of faith, let alone the kind of faith that James wants his readers to develop.
James describes those first three kinds of faith asdead” faith. The word “dead’ in the Bible never means “non-existent”. So James isn’t saying here that the people he is describing here have no faith at all. The Greek word translated “dead” here means “useless’ or “ineffective”. In context we could even say it means “unprofitable”. That is because dead faith doesn’t produce life and growth. Only the last kind of faith can do that:
Demonstrated faith
James gives us two examples to illustrate this kind of faith - Abraham and Rahab. And the two examples he gives us couldn’t be more different:
Abraham was a man; Rahab was a woman
Abraham was a Hebrew, Rahab was a Gentile
Abraham was a noble Chaldean; Rahab was a despised Canaanite
Abraham was a man of good moral character; Rahab was a prostitute
Abraham was at the top of the social order; Rahab was at the bottom
And yet both Abraham and Rahab are included in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1 and both are included in the “Faith Hall of Fame” in Hebrews 11.
For the sake of time, I’m going to focus on Abraham, but Rahab’s actions are quite similar in many respects.
Since both Paul and James refer to the same events in Abraham’s life, I want to compare their approaches. Here is what Paul writes in Romans 4:
Romans 4:1–3 ESV
1 What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”
Both Paul and James are referring back to Genesis 15 where Abraham was declared righteous before God as a result of his faith, not as a result of anything he did. We can see that Paul equates that faith with Abraham’s justification before God. Both occur at the same time. But that was only the beginning of a process in which Abraham’s faith became mature or complete through the way he lived his life and the works he did. Those works did not make him righteous before God - his faith had already done that. But they were profitable in the sense that they helped him mature in his faith.
That faith came to fulfilment 30 or 40 years later in the events recorded for us in Genesis 22. Abraham demonstrated his faith by taking his son Isaac, the son that God promised would be the son through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed, and placing him on the altar in obedience to God’s command. That obedience did not in any way justify him one bit in the sight of God. But it was a demonstration of his faith that resulted in him being justified him before men. That is the justification by works that James writes about here.
During those 30 or 40 years, Abraham did not live a perfect life. There were times where he got impatient and tried to take things into his own hands. But the overall trajectory of his life was toward holiness and that was consistently demonstrated by his works. And the same is true for all of us who are disciples of Jesus. We will mess up. We will get seduced by our own selfish desires and the world. But if we’re growing in our walk with Jesus, the overall trajectory of our lives will be upward and that will be both evidenced by the works we do and powered by those works.
That is why we have said this morning that...

Workless faith is worthless faith

Not surprisingly, the words of James here are very consistent with the words of Jesus at the end of the Sermon on the Mount.
Matthew 7:21–27 ESV
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ 24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
Jesus confirms the idea that saying faith and emotional faith and intellectual faith alone aren’t enough. If our faith is genuine, it will be evidenced by our works. That is the only kind of faith that helps us to grow spiritually and is profitable for the kingdom of God.
What’s really ironic this morning, is that for a message that is all about applying the Bible in our daily lives, I’ve spent almost all of our time giving you a lot of information without a whole lot of application. But I think that is actually what this passage requires. If we in any way think that what James is writing here contradicts Paul or any other part of the Bible, we probably won’t heed what we read here anyway.


On the other hand, we really don’t need a whole lot of time to talk about application, because it’s actually pretty straightforward. Last week we were reminded that the two most important commandments are to love God and to love others. The two applications I’m going to share with you each flow right from those two commandments.
First, here is how you love God:
Obey what you know
You might be asking what obedience has to do with love. I’ll let Jesus make that connection:
John 14:21 ESV
21 Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”
If you really love Jesus, you will obey His commands. You don’t do that to be right with Jesus or to earn favor with Him. You do that out of gratitude for what He did for you on the cross to make it possible for you to be justified in God’s eyes through faith.
And as you are obedient to what you find in God’s Word, guess what happens? Those works are profitable in the sense that they foster growth and maturity in your life and help you to become more and more like Jesus and they also are profitable for others in the body of Christ.
The second application is how you love your neighbor:
As you have the opportunity do good
Sometimes all we can do for someone else is to pray, so I don’t in any way want to discount the importance of prayer. But I do wonder how many times in our lives that God wants us to be the answer to those prayers. I wonder how many times God wants us to provide the meal for the hungry person or give one of our coats to the one who is cold.
Paul would agree with James 100% on that idea. Here is what he wrote to the church in Galatia:
Galatians 6:10 ESV
10 So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.
In a moment I’ll pray at the close of this message and as I do that I’m going to give you some time to pray and ask God to reveal to you some practical steps you can take this week to apply these principles.
Specifically I want to encourage you to ask Him to show you any areas of your life where you’re not obeying His commands and then as He reveals that, go ahead and confess that and do whatever you need to do to start being obedient in that area of your life.
Second, ask Him to show you this week where you can take some practical steps to do good for someone else - especially for another brother or sister in Christ. I’m pretty sure that is a prayer that God will answer this week if you really desire to do that.
Apparently, on one of his many trips across Niagara Falls Charles Blondin did actually push a wheelbarrow from the Canadian side back to the U.S. side, but no one had enough faith to get in the wheelbarrow. But on August 14, 1859, his manager, Harry Colcord, got on Blondin’s back and let Blondin carry him across. That, my friends is the kind of demonstrated faith that God wants each of us to have, not because it’s required for salvation, but because that is what produces mature disciples of Jesus.
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