Intro: “I think I’ll wait”
Do you remember as a child playing in the car and pretending? Some of us have a faith like that – we play with all the parts, but the engine’s not running. And some of us are perfectly happy to flash the lights and honk the horn, but never take the car out of the driveway… or our faith out of the sanctuary.
A few centuries ago, Martin Luther tried to pit James against Paul – Paul, the defender of salvation by faith, and James, the legalist whose salvation was by works. I’ll have to admit, pull a couple of verses out of context and you’ve got a dogfight:
Paul – “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9)
James – “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?.... You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” (James 2:14,24)
Martin Luther looked at the apparent contradiction and cut James out of his Bible. Most of us look at Paul suspiciously, and think, “Grace is nice, but people have to do something to be saved – I’m sticking with James.”
Now, please understand this – the Bible doesn’t need defending. Paul’s view of grace doesn’t need me to footnote it with a “yes, but…” And James doesn’t need me to temper his words with “let me explain…” The problem comes when we take their words out of context – when we try to pit Paul against James, grace against works. Paul never let anybody off the hook with grace, and James never declared anybody saved because they earned it.
But having said that, I hope you came this morning ready to have your toes stepped on, because James doesn’t mince his words or pull his punches. He cuts to the heart of the problem as he sees it – and the problem is, we don’t understand faith.
Oh, we think we understand faith – it’s that confidence in God, a willingness to let him control our lives, trusting his promises. And yes, faith is that. But James asks a tough question here – “So what?”
When push comes to shove, what does faith look like when it faces real life? And James gives us a dose of real life in vs. 15 “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food.” That could happen. I’ve seen families whose finances have been devastated – some by poor choices, some through absolutely no fault of their own – but it doesn’t matter to James – they are in need – what is your faith going to do about it?
· Well, you could become very spiritual and say, “Brother, I know the Lord is going to take care of you. And he has some really important lesson I know he’s going to teach you through your suffering.” And you pat them on the back and say, “I’ll be praying for you.” And you walk away thinking, “I sure am spiritual. I’ll bet they’re glowing in the warmth of my encouragement.”
· But James says, “What good is that kind of faith? It’s worthless, it’s dead.” Why? Because somewhere in your definition of faith, if it doesn’t cause you to do something, it’s not real faith. Don’t just feed them a line, feed their bellies, put clothes on their backs.
Listen to James in vs. 17, “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”
Is James saying, you are going to be saved by your works? No, you’re still saved by faith, but if that’s what your definition of faith looks like, that’s not saving faith.
What James does is kind of like what the doctor does during a thorough examination – heart, blood pressure, EKG, EEG. Is it your heart rate or your brain waves that make you alive? No, they are evidence that you are alive. If they rush you to the hospital and your heart’s not beating and your EEG is a flatline, they call the funeral home to come pick up your body. There’s no life left in it.
James holds up a spiritual stethoscope to your faith – is your faith changing how you live, how you treat people, is there evidence of your faith showing up in your daily life? If it isn’t, it’s not a living, saving faith. Call the mortuary, your faith is DOA.
Now, I love how James anticipates our objections – he says, “I hear you out there thinking, ‘I’m not so sure I agree…’”
“But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’”
· This is the person who says, “It’s just different personalities – one person is more introspective, another is more hands-on. It takes all types.”
· James’ response is “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” You can no more demonstrate faith without some kind of action than you can demonstrate physical life without a heartbeat and a brain wave.
· Can you do good works without faith? Sure you can – lots of people do good things from wrong motives. But nevertheless, James says faith isn’t faith without them.
A second person says, “I believe in God” – and what he’s saying is “My faith is intellectual – I believe in God, I just don’t let it get in the way of how I live.”
· Again James’ response is blunt and tactless – “You believe in God? Good for you, so do the demons.”
· Faith is not comprised of what you are convinced of, but of what you are convicted of. Could a grand jury indict you of having faith on the basis of your actions? Could a prosecutor make his case based on the evidence?
· The demons believe in God, and they just shudder with fear. You believe in God, what does it cause you to do?
And then James illustrates his point with the evidence of scripture itself. Vs. 20 “You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?”
He begins with Abraham himself, the father of the faithful – “Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called God's friend.”
Abraham was a great man of faith, but his faith didn’t sit around contemplating the goodness of God. When God said “Go,” Abraham went. When God told Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, Abraham was ready to thrust his knife. Abraham was always ready to back up his words with his actions. James says, “His faith was made complete by what he did.”
And just so we don’t say, “Well, that’s Abraham, what would you expect?” James says, consider Rahab – a Canaanite prostitute, who had no reason to demonstrate faith, and yet that’s exactly what she did. Two Hebrew spies came to Jericho, casing the city for attack. Rahab has a choice to make and she chooses to trust God. How do you know? Look at her actions – she hid the spies and then smuggled them safely out of the city. She did what faith does – it acts out of a firm conviction that God is in control.
And here are James’ conclusions:
Vs. 24 “You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” James and Paul would agree – you’re saved by faith – but they would also both agree that faith that doesn’t demonstrate itself in action isn’t really faith.
Deitrich Bonhoeffer called that cheap grace – listen to how he describes that: “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves… Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession… Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” (Cost of Discipleship, p. 47).
You are saved by real faith – living faith. Faith that demonstrates itself by taking care of the needs of the poor, the widows, the orphans. Faith that not only causes us to think like God thinks, but to act like God would act. That our good deeds are born, not out of a guilt-ridden fear of punishment if you don’t, but a joyful expression of our relationship with Jesus Christ.
You are saved by real faith – living faith. Anything else is counterfeit and worthless.
Vs. 26 “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” If your heart stops, your body is dead. If there are no good deeds in your life, your faith is dead.
The challenge here is not for the committed Christian to worry about whether she’s working hard enough to earn her salvation, but for the Sunday morning Christian who thinks that warming a pew is all God expects.
James isn’t scolding you for not doing enough – he’s pleading with you to look honestly at your faith. Are you content with playing church? Have you settled for a counterfeit faith that is just a painted cardboard box without the inner workings? Is your faith like the plastic plants that never need watering? Is your faith really going to save you?
When real faith meets real life, it doesn’t spout platitudes and kind thoughts – it puts on work clothes and gets its hands dirty. It serves people, it provides for the needy, it gets involved in the lives of others.
You may recall the name David Livingston, a great pioneer missionary into the heart of Africa. His missionary society wrote him and asked, “Have you found a good road to where you are? If so, we want to know how to send other men to join you.” Livingston wrote back, “If you have men who will come only if they know there is a good road, I don’t want them. I want men who will come if there is no road at all.”
Real faith pushes us out of our comfort zone into the kind of life that willingly risks it all to live for Jesus.