MESSAGE FOR NOVEMBER 30, 2003 FROM JAMES 2:14-26
This morning we continue to study the vitally important issue of true and false conversion and assurance of salvation in the hope of bolstering the faith of those who are genuinely in the kingdom while at the same time allowing the Spirit through the word to remove the veil of self deception that lies over the hearts of those who are NOT in the kingdom but who presume they are. This morning we will turn to a very important text on this topic in the book of James. Before we discuss that text, let’s first get some context for it. James 1:22 says, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” James doesn’t make that statement and then make us guess at what it means to be a doer of the word. Through the rest of chapter one and the first half of chapter two, James explains what it means to be a “doer of the word.” Doing the word for James includes things like keeping a tight rein on our tongues, which he discusses in 1:26. According to 1:27 doing the word means practicing a pure and faultless religion that includes reaching out to those who have need--those who don’t have anyone else and keeping yourself unpolluted by the world. Being a “doer” of the word according to chapter two means not showing favoritism to those in church who are wealthy or beautiful or talented or influential. Beginning with verse 14 of chapter two, James brings to a climax his treatment of what it means to be a doer of the word. In this section he takes aim at those who claim they are Christians because they “believe in Jesus” but who have a horribly incomplete and inaccurate understanding of what it means to believe. It is to these people (and perhaps some here today) that James addresses himself.
James writes, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16and 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? 17So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 18But 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. 19You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23and 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. 24You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25And 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? 26For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
In this text James answers the question, “What is saving faith?” Or, what is distinctive about the kind of faith present in a genuine believer? James draws a razor sharp distinction between a faith that saves (and from which works spring) and a faith that does NOT save. What we must understand is that James is teaching that it is possible to have a faith that may be very real to you and which you think indicates God’s saving grace, but is in fact a dead, demon-level faith. Let’s look at the question, “What is saving faith?” as James answers it here. James is thorough here. He not only states what saving faith is, he shows the inadequacy of non-saving faith. James teaches or implies three truths about this inadequate faith that distinguishes it from true, saving faith. It is NOT saving faith because it does not produce within the person who has it what genuine saving faith produces. First, “Saving faith produces more than just good intentions.” In verse 14 James makes the charge that faith without deeds is worthless when he says, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? The wording in the original language dictates that the answer to that question be a negative one. That is, this work-deficient faith is not a faith that saves. Then he illustrates what he means by this kind of useless faith in verses 15-16. “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 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?”
This is consistent with one of James’ main burdens that those who have been truly saved will minister to the poor--they won’t simply express their good intentions by only verbally wishing them well-- “I hope you stay warm tonight--I hope you know I really want a better life for you.” James says those good intentions are not an evidence of saving faith. There are several things many regular churchgoers may have the best of intentions about, but if that is where it consistently ends--with the good intentions, James says--that person does not have saving faith. It’s all too easy to be filled with good intentions, but little if any action.
“I want the poor to be taken care of.” I want the Sunday School to have enough teachers.” “I want to read the Bible regularly.” “I want to have a good prayer life.” “I want to share my faith with the lost.” “I want to sacrificially give money away.” “I want to stop these bad habits.” “I want to love my spouse selflessly.” “I want to stop hating those who have hurt me.” “I want to be more active in the body of Christ.” Those intentions are good intentions, but if that is all there is to the person, James asks the question, “what good is that kind of faith?” And the answer is—it’s not any good. A saying you don’t hear much anymore in our hell-muted culture remains theologically sound--“the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” We must ask ourselves if the faith we have is an intention-only and therefore a non-saving faith? It’s easy to be deceived into thinking that having good intentions for the poor means we have a Christ-like heart. Having good intentions is not an evidence of the grace of God. Pagans are full of good intentions. There is nothing necessarily redemptive about good intentions or a heart that easily feels someone else’s pain. The person with saving faith is distinct from the mere soft hearted person because they ACT on their good intentions. Saving produces more than just good intentions.
Another qualifier James makes about saving faith is: Saving faith produces more than a correct understanding of doctrine.” Some people in James’ audience believed saving faith was only a matter of having correct doctrine. He says, “You believe there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that--and shudder.” The demons understand Christian doctrine. Satan could give a perfectly accurate, highly nuanced Bible lesson on the substitutionary atonement of Christ. His understanding of Christian doctrine is extraordinary and...he is eternally condemned to hell. There are many self-proclaimed believers who equate saving faith with being in agreement with sound doctrine. If they were to walk up to James and say, “I know I’m going to heaven because I believe God sent Jesus to die on a cross to pay the penalty for sin.” James might in this context say, “I’m pleased you understand the gospel but what do you mean by the words “I believe?” If they explained their understanding of belief ONLY in terms of “I understand what it means and I have mentally accepted it as truth” James would doubtless question their salvation. He might very well say, “You haven’t told me anything more than any demon could.” Saving faith is not simply intellectually accurate faith, it is LIVING faith. It shows forth the character of Christ. We must ask ourselves if we think we are saved simply because we have accepted the gospel as truth. That is not enough. Doctrinal accuracy is necessary, but not sufficient. Many people in hell will be able to understand and clearly present the gospel. Saving faith produces more than a correct understanding of doctrine.
A final inadequate expression of faith is implied in the letter. James was writing to people in the church. These people doubtless met regularly for corporate worship. It's in those gatherings James expected the letter to be read. That gives us a final inadequate expression of saving faith. Saving faith produces more than loyalty to a church. Being part of a church is essential for anyone who is truly a Christian, but it is not necessarily a mark of saving faith. Jesus says in Matthew 7 by implication there will be many people in hell who sang in the choirs of evangelical churches, who sat on evangelical church boards and who brought their kids to church for years. You don’t have to have saving faith to be a good church member as we define that today. A goat can be standing in the middle of a herd of sheep but that doesn’t make him a sheep. He’s a goat by nature and in order for him to be a sheep God has to do a miracle and change him. Jesus said the church would be a mixed multitude of wheat and tares--people with saving faith sharing the same hymnal, going to the same conferences, attending the same Bible studies with those without saving faith. Saving faith produces more than loyalty to a church.
James condemns as inadequate a faith that produces only good intentions, sound doctrine and local church loyalty. He calls this kind of faith “dead” in verse 17 and 26. He says it’s no good or literally without “profit” in verses 14 and 20. In verse 20 he calls anyone who thinks this kind of faith will save anybody a “foolish person.” Now that we know what James says saving faith is NOT, let’s see how he describes genuine saving faith. On the basis of what James says, we could say this: Saving faith produces tangible behavior that endures negative consequences on the conviction that God will ultimately honor obedience.
We see two examples of saving faith in this text and both of them express this understanding of faith. The examples begin in verse 21. James asks, 21Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23and 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. 24You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25And 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? In Genesis 22, God told Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham’s faith produced within him a willingness to obey God at obviously great cost because he had the conviction that God would deliver on His promise to make of Isaac a great nation even if meant raising him from the dead. Abraham made a tangible expression of faith in offering up his son Isaac because he was convinced that God would honor his obedience. His saving faith gave him that conviction. That is James’ point.
You don't do this kind of thing if your faith only produces good intentions. If Abraham had THAT kind of mutant, incomplete faith, he would have reasoned to himself, “You know, I WANT to obey you Lord about Isaac, but I’ve waited decades for him to be born and Sarah would just die if I should come back without him. Besides that Isaac would ask a lot of nagging questions on the way. I just can’t do this.” That’s the way people without genuine faith consistently respond when God calls them to obey him in ways that will cost them. They have the best of intentions, but they always find good reasons for them to not do what God calls them to do. Having only orthodox doctrine would not have motivated Abraham to climb that mountain. If that was the kind of faith he had, he would have said, “I understand what you are asking God and I accept it as truth, but what you are asking is just too hard. I can’t do it”
People who only mentally accept the facts of the gospel will not obey in the face of sacrifice because head knowledge alone will not compel you to sacrifice. The kind of faith that only makes you loyal to a church will not compel you to raise the knife above your son, either. That kind of faith might respond to a sacrificial request, “Lord, I would love to do what you ask, but I’ve got a Long Range Planning Committee meeting scheduled for that night.” People with only church loyalty are great at meeting routine church obligations, but when God invades their personal comfort zones, they find a reason why they can’t obey--sometimes a church-related reason. James holds up Abraham’s offering of Isaac as an example of saving faith. He was willing to endure negative consequences on the conviction that God would honor his obedience.
Another example James gives of this kind of faith is Rahab. Verse 25 says, “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?” You remember the story of Rahab from Joshua chapter two. The spies are scouting out the Promised Land and Rahab risks her life by harboring these men. The reason she did it was because she was convinced that the God of the Hebrews had given his people their land and given his awesome, Red Sea-splitting power, it would be best for her to work with Him than against him. She risked the negative consequences of being punished for treason because she believed God would honor her obedience. That’s saving faith.
A faith of good intentions would have turned the spies away with the parting words like, “Gee fellas, I would really LIKE to help out, but if I get caught with you in my home, they’ll kill me. So see ya’ around.” A faith that produces only sound doctrine would have turned the spies out with the parting words, “I definitely believe your God is the one true God, but I have a business to run--so you better try to find another place to hide.” A church-loyal only faith would have sent the spies packing too. “I would take you in--I believe you are doing the right thing and I’m so encouraged you are doing it, but with my busy schedule I’m sure there are other people in Jericho who are in a better spot to do this than me.” Rahab didn’t have that kind of faith; she had the kind of faith that accepts the negative consequences on the conviction that God will honor obedience. She had saving faith.
It’s the kind of faith the author is speaking of in Hebrews 5:9 where he says of Jesus, And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him,” We expect that verse to end in “to all who believed in his name” but the author of Hebrews says “to all who obey him” and the reason is because in the bible there is such an enmeshed relationship between faith and obedience. Saving faith is indicated by a heart that endures negative consequences on the conviction that God will honor it. That is the Romans 1:5 “obedience that comes from faith.” We see this relationship between faith and works in Galatians 5:6 where Paul says, “...the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” Faith for Paul was a faith that produced the fruit of Christian character and obedience.
This is the faith of the Reformers. Luther in the preface to his commentary on Romans writes as powerfully as anyone on this topic where he says about faith, “O it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good things incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done this, and is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such works, however is an unbeliever. He gropes and looks around for faith and good works, but knows neither what faith is nor what good works are. Yet he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works.”
Luther helped recover the church from what he called its “Babylonian captivity” by recovering the gospel and in particular the doctrine of justification through faith alone. But he also said, “We are justified by faith alone, but faith is never alone.” In saying that he is simply reflecting this text in James where in verse 22 we see, “You see that faith was active along with works, and faith was completed by works;” Neither Luther and certainly not James are contradicting the teaching of Romans chapter four where Abraham’s faith in God is said to justify him apart from works. Paul in Romans uses Abraham as his exhibit “A” to illustrate the truth that a person is justified by faith alone. In Romans 4:3 he cites Abraham’s faith saying, “For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” It was Abraham’s faith that enabled him to be counted righteous before God not on the basis of works.
In light of that text, it is reasonable to ask, “If we are justified by faith alone and not works, then what is James talking about in 2:24 when he, using Abraham as his example says,” “You see that a person is justified by works and not faith alone?” It is fair to ask the question, “How on earth is that statement not only a direct contradiction of Paul but also a profoundly different interpretation of the life and faith of Abraham?” The answer is--James is writing to answer a very different concern than Paul and their answers are actually quite complimentary to each other when you understand the issues they are addressing. Paul wants to drive home the truth that we can in no way be acceptable or righteous before God on the basis of our works so that no one will be able to boast before God on the basis of any alleged native righteousness in them. James is responding to the wrong belief that he addresses throughout his letter that could be stated like this, “Because you are saved by “faith” any mention of works for the believer is misplaced and in fact works are in no way mandated for the Christian—all you have to do is agree to the truth of the gospel.”
Do you hear how different the concerns of Paul and James are? What concerns James is the question, “what is the nature of saving faith that brings justification—are there no works that accompany that?” Paul is answering the question, if you will, “How does a sinner get right with a holy, sin-hating God?” And Paul’s answer is “by faith alone.” James answers the very different question, “What does this faith that brings justification look like?” And his answer is—“It is a living, active faith that induces the possessor of the faith to work the works of Christ.” In the very limited immediate context of verse 22 which says, “You see that faith was active along with works, and faith was completed by his works” James can say in verse 24, “You see that a person is justified by works and not faith alone.” James is saying that the saving faith that by God’s grace justifies the sinner is also a work-producing faith.
Tragically, there are well-intentioned, doctrinally sound, church-going people who do not have saving faith. And James says the way you can tell them from people of genuine faith is they are seldom if ever willing to sacrifice their own personal comfort or reputation or personal agenda for Christ because they don’t have the faith to believe that God will give them joy in this life and the life to come. Because they don’t have that saving faith, they don’t act. They aren’t spending serious time studying the Bible because their faithless hearts ultimately don’t see the point. They don’t sacrificially give their money away because they don’t have a faith that will believe God will give them joy in that and provide for them financially should they obey. They don’t regularly reach out to help others beyond their immediate family in any kind of sacrificial way because they don’t have a faith that deep down believes God will take care of them. They don’t leave their comfort zones to get involved in ministry because they don’t have a faith that sees anything in it for them.
They act on what they can see, feel, and hear because they don’t truly believe God will intervene in their lives and make whatever negative consequences worth it. They believe they are going to heaven, but ultimately they don’t see heaven as being related to being a doer of the word. If they could peel back their self-deception for a moment, they would say they are going to heaven because they have good intentions (which they misconstrue as having a “good heart”), they accept the gospel as true and they go to church. That’s why they are going to heaven in their eyes. They aren’t Abraham’s or Rahab’s or even close because the kind of “obedience that comes from faith” would cost them and because they don’t trust God to honor the cost and give them present and future joy, they avoid the cost. James says these well intentioned, doctrinally sound, church-going people have a faith that is dead, demon-like and useless. It will not get them to heaven and we know that because it did not motivate them to give to the poor or control their tongue.
However, if you are a “doer of the word” then you should derive great comfort and blessing from these texts because this indicates that God has given you the real article of saving faith. Your good works don’t save you—God’s grace through faith alone does that. But if you are an intentional, risk-taking, Christ-honoring, grace filled doer of the word (albeit imperfectly) then that indicates the presence of saving faith. You have it—God has blessed you with it and your good works in that sense radiate out of you as evidence of a saving, justifying faith in God through Christ.
Where are you this morning? Do you have the kind of faith that will endure negative consequences or discomfort because you are convinced God will honor your obedience? That alone is saving faith--that’s what it means to be a doer of the word and not only a hearer. If the Holy Spirit has been convincing you these past weeks and this morning in particular that there is sound reason to question whether you are a Christian, come before God and cry out for his mercy. Don’t let your pride stand in the way. One of the marks of the ministry of the Holy Spirit in a church is that people who thought they were saved realize they are not believers. I say again with Paul, “Examine yourselves to see if you are in the faith.” May God show us the truth about ourselves and may He in his grace give us a faith that will produce works for his glory.
Page last modified on 12/14/2003
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