Topic: Faith Passage: James 2:14–2:26
Please turn with me to James chapter two. We’re going to be reading vv. 14-26 and we will also have the passage up on the screen if you prefer to follow along that way. We’re working our way through the epistle of James, and this morning we come to the central passage - and probably the most difficult to understand passage - in James so let’s pause to ask God’s blessing on this time in His word.
When I was a kid my uncle (who is only two years older than me) and I would get into heated arguments over one of the most profound and hotly debated questions of our time: who would win in a fight between King Kong and Godzilla? The 1962 film didn’t really answer it but I see that a new King Kong vs. Godzilla is due for release in 2020 so we may then finally have the answer.
The passage we’re looking at this morning seems to pit two spiritual titans against each other: James says faith needs works if it’s going to save us. The Apostle Paul says that we are saved by grace through faith, not of works lest anyone should boast. James says in vs. 24 that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Paul says in Rom. 3:28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. It’s like these two giants are going toe to toe in a battle over the role of works in the believer’s life. In this corner is James the brother of Jesus, the leader of the Jerusalem church. In that corner is Paul, the greatest missionary who ever lived and the writer of almost half of the NT. Who is going to win this battle?
But are James and Paul going toe to toe in battle here? Are they fighting over opposing views of the works and faith? The answer is no – and yes! They are fighting, but not each other. David Platt writes James and Paul aren’t standing toe to toe in a battle over the role of faith and works, they are standing back to back with each other fighting two different enemies of the gospel.
Paul is fighting against legalism – those who thought they could earn salvation by doing good works. They were trying to add good works to the finished work of Christ – faith plus good works equals salvation and Paul fights legalism with everything he’s got because it is the enemy of the gospel. We can ever do enough good works to be acceptable to God. The only way for us to be acceptable to God is by putting our faith in Jesus Christ’s finished work on the cross. Jesus obeyed his Father (God) perfectly and then died on the cross in order to take the punishment for our sins so that we could be forgiven and justified by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. We are saved by grace through faith not by works. Paul is fighting the enemy of legalism.
James is fighting a different enemy as he stands back to back with Paul. James isn’t fighting legalism, he’s fighting against “easy-believism” – the idea that saying a prayer and believing in Jesus intellectually is all it takes to be saved. That faith can have no effect on our lives, and belief can have no effect on our behavior, and yet still save us. James says emphatically no, faith that has the power to save us will also have the power to change us. Faith that never affects how we live is dead faith.
To understand this passage we need to recognize that James is not contrasting mature faith with immature faith, he is contrasting dead faith with living faith. We are all at different levels of maturity in our faith journey just like we’re all at different levels of maturity in our life journey. There are children here who are barely a couple months old. And there are adults here who have walked this green earth for many decades. We expect a 60 year old to be more mature than a 6 month old. But they aren’t more alive than the 6 month old. James isn’t contrasting mature faith with immature faith, he’s contrasting living faith with dead faith.
Living faith will produce fruit. The fruit doesn’t save us, the fruit doesn’t make us alive, it’s just the natural by-product of a genuine, living faith. James talks about two fruits that living faith will produce in our lives.
- Living faith will produce acts of mercy
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[b] is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
James says, “picture this: you’re going along and you come across a brother or sister in a desperate situation. Their clothes are ripped and inadequate to protect them from the cold, they don’t have enough food to eat to survive. If all you do is pronounce a spiritual sounding blessing over them: hey, go in peace, be warmed and filled with good food, what good is that? It’s just spiritual mumbo jumbo. It doesn’t help them in any way. It doesn’t show true compassion in the slightest bit. Faith that throws around a bunch of empty wishes but doesn’t do anything is dead faith. Living faith will produce acts of mercy.
The thing is, we can be deceived into feeling pretty good about those empty wishes. “Wow, I really felt something for that poor guy back there, and I got shivers when I said, ‘be warmed, be filled!’ I think it meant a lot to him. I am such a compassionate person!” We’re in trouble when we start equating words with actions.
Jean-Jaques Rousseau was an intellectual who lived in the 1700’s. He was known as the philosopher of compassion and the defender of the weak. He said of himself that he was born to love and called himself the friend of all mankind. But while he may have been a friend of all mankind, he wasn’t much of a friend to the people in his life. His only concern for his long-lost brother was to certify him dead so he could get the inheritance. He had five children and placed them all into an institution immediately after their birth where two-thirds of all babies died in the first year and only 14 out of a 100 children lived to the age of seven. This self-proclaimed lover of mankind didn’t even name his children or record their birth dates! For his heart not to be stirred with compassion for his own children shows his compassion was dead. His soaring words had no effect on how he treated people.
That’s what James is saying about faith – if it doesn’t lead us to acts of mercy towards the desperately needy and the oppressed than it’s dead. It’s just words on a page. A living faith will produce the fruit of mercy in us. And don’t think James is alone in saying this.
17 … if anyone 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? 18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. 1 John 3:17-18
And Jesus, in the parable of the sheep and the goats, separates those who enter his kingdom from those to whom he says, “depart from me” based on how they treated the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. As Keith Green sings in his musical adaption of that parable, the difference between the sheep and the goats is what they did and didn’t DO!
Tim Keller, retired pastor of Redeemer Church in NYC, wrote “Mercy to the full range of human needs is such an essential mark of a Christian that it can be used as a test of true faith. Mercy is not optional or an addition to being a Christian. Rather, a life poured out in deeds of mercy is the sign of genuine faith”
Living faith will produce acts of mercy.
- Living faith will produce obedience to God
James then imagines an argument with someone trying to make the case that they have faith even if it produces no works and he simply says to them: prove it.
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.
Prove you have faith without works. “I’ll show you my faith by my works, you show me your faith apart from your works. Can’t be done.”
So to prove it, they point to their orthodoxy of belief: I believe in one God, I believe Jesus is God’s Son and the only way to be saved, I believe in heaven and hell, and I believe it so much it moves me emotionally.” James says, “that’s good – so do demons!”
19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!
Demons believe in God, in Jesus, in heaven and hell. And it moves them emotionally – they shudder at the thought of Judgment Day! But it’s not a saving faith.
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.
To prove that the kind of faith that saves us is a faith with works he goes back to the OT and calls us to look at Abraham. Which is ironic because Paul also refers us to Abraham to prove that we are saved by faith and not by works: For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in[a] him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness Rom. 4:3-5
Paul is referring to Abraham believing God’s covenant promise when as yet he couldn’t see how any of it would be fulfilled. And before Abraham did anything except believe, God counted his belief as righteousness. It is a beautiful picture of how we, when we believe in Christ, have Christ’s righteousness credited to our account as if it were our righteousness.
But James speeds ahead in the story to the time God called Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac and he obeyed in faith. James then quotes the same passage Paul quoted “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Paul and James aren’t fighting, they’re looking at different moments in Abraham’s life: Paul is focusing on the moment of faith in Abraham’s life, James is focusing on the fruit of Abraham’s faith which was obedience to God. The fruit proved the faith was genuine and living.
The same is true with Rahab. Her faith wouldn’t have saved her if she hadn’t acted on it and protected the Israelite spies. Living faith will produce obedience to God. Again, it’s not just James who says this. Listen to Paul in Rom. 1:5
5 Through him (the Lord Jesus Christ) we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake.
It’s not that there is something we need to add to our faith in order to be saved. We are saved by grace through faith in Christ. Period. But the nature of living faith will produce change in our lives – it will produce acts of mercy, of obedience, of love.
One important insight from these verses will help us understand the burden that is on James’s heart. James asks the question in verse 14, can that faith save him? And then in verse 24 he says a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. The word “save” and “justify” can mean a person’s salvation the moment they believe, but it can also refer to that final day when we stand before God. Scholars believe that’s how James is using it: not the day you became a Christian but the day you will stand before God and give account and all of eternity will be at stake.
And James is asking, on that day, when we stand before God with all eternity at stake, can an empty, dead faith save us on that day of judgment? The answer is no. Dead faith won’t have the power to justify us before God, only living, genuine faith in Christ can do that.
The burden on James’ heart is that no one live their life deceived into thinking because they intellectually assent to certain biblical truths and believe in the Lordship of Christ but there is no fruit from that belief, no evidence of their faith affecting their lives, that they not have a false security that all is well when it is not.
One day we will all stand before the throne of God the Judge. No exceptions. And where we will spend eternity will literally be on the line. James is saying, if your faith doesn’t have the power to lift a finger in your life today, why would you think it will have the power to save your soul for all eternity on that day? If your faith is just wishing and empty words, don’t wait till that day to recognize it, cause then it’ll be too late. If you say you believe in Christ but there is no evidence of that belief in your life, it doesn’t change a thing, don’t be fooled into thinking that a dead faith can save you. Recognize it now and do something about it! Confess to God that your faith isn’t affecting your life in any real way. Ask Him to ignite a living faith in your heart that will trust in Christ alone. A living faith that will begin to work in you and on you. We’re not talking perfection, or even spiritual maturity, we’re talking about a faith that produces fruit of love and compassion and obedience in your life. God loves you and is eager to save you. The Bible promises that when we draw near to God, He draws near to us. He is ready right now. (Pray)
I just want to close with a word for those who see the fruit of your faith, but it’s not what you’d want it to be. You know your faith is alive, but not as alive as you’d like it to be. You see compassion in your heart and you act on it, but you also see many missed opportunities and too much selfish apathy. You see some obedience, but you also see a lot of disobedience and a lot of failure. If that’s where you are, I relate to you.
First of all, we want to always lay down the foundation of God’s grace saving us when we didn’t and don’t deserve it. Christ is the foundation of all our hope. But sometimes we want to be comforted where we are rather than convicted about where we should go. James writes to be doers of the word, and it should spur us on to add more “do” to our faith. Not to earn with God, but to see more of His power and grace working in us and through us.
Let’s stir up a deeper compassion for the needy and desperate and look for ways we can make a difference. For example – and this isn’t to lay a guilt trip on anyone or pressure anyone – but tonight we’re holding an adoption information night. Not everyone is called to adopt, I get that. We didn’t. But for someone here, that might be something God is stirring in your heart – maybe has been for some time – and the thing you most need to do is add action. Take a step. And as you do, God will show you the next step.
It will look different in each of us – faith isn’t a cookie cutter thing. For one it can be going on missions or giving to missions, caring for a needy person you know, or sharing your faith with a neighbor. Don’t settle for comfort where you are, pursue a growing conviction to move you to where God wants you to be. This isn’t about condemnation or guilt, this is about grace stirring our hearts to action. We need that. Let’s ask God to give us more grace leading to a maturing faith leading to more action leading to more fruit for the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ.