Faith That Works: James 2 - Part 2 Jim Erwin
January 28, 2018
This morning I want to start off by reviewing our memory verse. I trust you’ve been able to work on it over the week. The book of James is one of the most practical books of Scripture. It speaks very openly and honestly about how we’re supposed to live and think-and last week as we started into chapter 2, James reminded us of the humble truth that God didn’t call the best and the brightest to be His followers. He didn’t call the rich and the famous or the popular and successful. Instead called the helpless and the weak; those who knew they had nothing and recognized their spiritual poverty in God’s sight-and that’s what our memory verse highlighted. So if you’ve been working on it, let’s say it together-James 2:5. What a great verse-and, of course, the answer is yes. As we recognize our spiritual poverty, even as we humbly accept the fact that we might not all be millionaires in this life-God has called us to something far greater and more valuable, something that no amount of money can touch-and that’s being an heir of His kingdom and rich in faith. So there’s nothing more priceless then our faith. Faith in Jesus is what saves us and gives us eternal life. Our faith is that assurance and confident hope of what lies ahead, that this world isn’t all there is because by faith we have a Savior who is preparing a place for us, an eternal home where we’ll dwell with Him forever. Faith says that perfect world we long for is coming up because we have a perfect Savior who’s made it all possible. But faith isn’t just thinking about what’s to come. Faith in Jesus affects our lives today, in the here and now, and that’s what we want to talk about this morning-as we continue on in chapter 2 of James.
Open your Bibles to James 2 and as we think about this topic of faith-who’s afraid of heights? Or more accurately asked-who has faith in architects and structural engineers? I’ve shown this picture before, but who’s been to the Sears Tower Sky Deck-Tower Pic 1? I would love to step out there and see the view. Who says no way, never? It’s on the 103rd floor so this picture gives you a good idea of the height-Tower Pic 2. If you think that’s fun-in Los Angeles at the US Bank Skyscraper they built a Skyslide on the 70th floor -Skyslide Pic 1. If you think the Giant Slide at the Iowa State Fair is fun-this is the giant slide extreme -Skyslide Pic 2. But it would take a lot of faith in the architects and engineers who deigned this to go out there. There’s a famous story about one of the first glass skyscrapers ever built in which the office workers were petrified to be in there working because all they saw separating them from sixty, seventy, eighty floors up was a wall of glass. So apparently they couldn’t get much done as they enjoyed the nice view, but feverishly worried about the glass breaking and giving way. So the story says that the architect and his team of engineers came to this office and explained that it was mathematically sound, the width and thickness of the glass was sufficient and there was no need to worry. However, that wasn’t enough to convince them and calm them down. Apparently the people didn’t just need the academic facts of the engineering specs to strengthen their faith, they needed to see it in action. So the lead architect ran across the office floor and threw himself and his whole weight into the glass wall-and it held and the people were finally satisfied. But I love that visual of a guy putting his faith of what he believed-that the glass would hold-into action. And he went at it with full force, not holding back. And that’s a great picture of the kind of faith we want to talk about today-a faith that isn’t just an academic reality but one that we put into action with our lives and don’t hold back-as this series is entitled Faith That Works.
Listen to how James describes this-James 2:14. James is asking the theoretical question of whether a person can be someone of faith, but with no actions to back it up. This is a person who claims to be religious, who claims to have faith, but doesn’t demonstrate any good works in their life. This would be like the architect who believed in the mathematics of how the skyscraper was designed, but wasn’t willing to run at the glass wall and throw his weight into it. Imagine that scenario-he’s trying to tell the people not to have any fear and trust the construction of the building-but he himself is refusing to do so. He’s too scared or petrified himself to test it out. That’s not very convincing. And that’s precisely what James is saying here-a person could speak all they want about having faith, but it’s not very convincing until it’s lived out and demonstrated. So he gives a very practical example of this-verses 15-16. This is the clear cut example of not practicing what you preach because the need is right in front of you. This is a brother or sister in Christ, someone in your own church family who literally doesn’t have enough food to eat that day. They will go hungry without your assistance, and yet you turn them away without much care or concern. In fact, that phrasing-Go in peace, be warmed and filled-is like a slap in the face because that’s the very thing they can’t do. They’ll remain cold and hungry without your help. So the big question is if you say you have faith in Jesus, but don’t display the compassion of Jesus then are you really following Jesus? That’s what James is asking. This isn’t the difference between someone of mature faith versus someone of immature faith, this isn’t the difference between a baby Christian and a long-term Christian. This is the difference between someone who’s a Christian and someone who isn’t-because listen to his opening conclusion-verse 17.
So Point 1-Dead Faith doesn’t exist. That’s what this passage wants us to understand right away. A faith that has no good works to show for itself isn’t a weak faith, it’s no faith. Like he asked in verse 14-can that faith save him? No. If somehow a person could have faith and not do a single good work or good deed then this would be the place to say that. James could have worded verse 17 as saying Faith by itself, if it does not have works is weak, it’s a faith that needs to be worked on and needs a lot of help. But he doesn’t say that-he says verse 17. And dead means what we think dead means-dead. This word in Greek-nekros-doesn’t mean slightly alive or partially living; it refers to a corpse, a dead body, literally what lacks life. I like how RC Sproul says it-Dead faith doesn’t mean a faith that has perished, rather it suggests a faith that never had any true life in it. A dead faith cannot make one alive, it cannot save your soul, it’s false and useless. That’s the sobering reality of what James is saying. The person who claims to have faith, but has no good works to demonstrate it really doesn’t have faith at all; meaning that person isn’t a believer. Back to Point 1-Dead Faith doesn’t exist. This seems rather obvious but I think deep down we’d like to argue the point-whether about ourselves or someone we know. We would like to think that a friend or family member or acquaintance who once said they were a believer, who once made a profession of faith years ago, is saved even though it’s made no difference in their life and there’s been no change. Obviously we don’t want to think that that person isn’t a believer and won’t go to heaven. We want to take their words at face value when they say-Oh yeah, I asked Jesus into my heart once, Oh yeah, I went down the aisle at church years ago and prayed the sinners prayer. We want to believe they’re saved-but when there’s been no evidence of it, when there’s been no change or growth or transformation in their life, when there’s no fruit, no good works to back it up-then we’ve got to arrive at the sad but sobering conclusion that faith without works is dead and this person isn’t saved. Remember what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount-Matthew 7:16-20. Jesus is saying that you will recognize believers, people who have faith, by the fruit of their lives. His analogy couldn’t be any more simple-a healthy tree bears good fruit. At our previous house in town we had a nasty, dying, unhealthy apple tree that bore nasty bad apples. They weren’t good. One bite and you’d throw them across the yard. Those apples weren’t good for eating or making pies, they were good for hitting with a baseball bat! So based on the fruit you could tell this tree was not in good shape. And Jesus is saying that our lives are like that-our good works are the fruit we’re called to bear. And if we have faith in Jesus it will produce good fruit that is seen and recognizable. Jesus is saying the picture should fit. A healthy tree produces good fruit-that makes sense, it works. A person with true faith produces good fruit-that makes sense, it works. What doesn’t work is when someone says they have faith, that they claim to be healthy spiritually and yet their life is empty and barren of any fruit. They’re like lifeless branches of a tree-and you’re left scratching your head saying this doesn’t fit, something’s off with this picture. How can you claim to have faith but have zero fruit to show for it? The apostle John says this as well-1 John 3:17-18. True faith isn’t just our talk-what we say. True faith is based on how we live and the way we love and reach out to others. Fruit in our lives is the evidence of faith in our hearts.
Listen to how James continues-verse 18. This is an important point to understand. James is saying that he will show people his faith by his works, but he isn’t saying that his faith is the result of his works-and that’s a big distinction. Point 2: Good Works aren’t the requirement for salvation, they are the inevitable result of it. You and I are not saved, we will never be saved, on the basis of our good works. As sinners we are lost and helpless before God. If you remember from last week we said that the ground is level at the foot of the cross and we’re all on an equal playing field. There is nothing we hold out to God, nothing that we’ve done for Him, no amount of charitable work or sacrifice or good deeds or godly upbringing will earn our way to Him and merit salvation. Our hands are empty-and not even the best do-gooder out there has a leg up or room to boast. Remember Ephesians 2:8-9. Twice it’s saying that our works, our efforts had nothing to do with this. That by God’s undeserved grace displayed in Jesus’s death on the cross we’re saved through faith; that faith in what He has done for us is the basis of our salvation. And that means no one can boast about what they’ve done, no one can feel like they’ve been the better person or made God happier because of their good works. There is nothing within any of us that will achieve salvation-it’s all from Him. Look at how this continues -Ephesians 2:10. That’s telling us that good works are an integral part of this. God intends for us to walk in them, to live them out and let them be evident in our lives-but those good works are for us as we’re in Christ Jesus. As we’re saved by His grace then we are transformed into people who begin to live that way and display those things. But we have to get the order right. So back to Point 2: Good Works aren’t the requirement for salvation, they are the inevitable result of it. You are doing good works because you’re saved. As someone who has put their faith in Christ, you are now beginning to grow in Christ and live the way He’s called you to live. Instead of being the means to salvation, your good works are the evidence of salvation, the logical result of what God’s done in your life.
For example, have you ever been shopping at a store and feel like you’re not dressed cool enough to be in there? That this is a store selling really trendy cool, stylish clothes-and you’re wearing your clothes where the trendiness is debatable. This is like going into American Eagle or Abercrombie or Banana Republic and what you want to do is leave the store because you feel that you’re sticking out like a sore thumb in your lack of fashion; that the employees and other shoppers are perfectly dressed to be there and you are not. But think about it this way-isn’t the purpose of the store to sell you clothes so that you will be stylish and trendy? That the necessary requirement to shop at Banana Republic isn’t to be well-dressed, but the inevitable result of shopping there is that you will be well-dressed. And just like with our good works, the evidence is clearly seen-Sweet shirt buddy-looking good! You’re displaying your new clothes as a result of shopping at that store just like a believer is displaying good works as a result of being saved by God. Understanding the order and getting it right is crucial- Point 2: Good Works aren’t the requirement for salvation, they are the inevitable result of it.
And no one displays that more vividly than Abraham. Look at how James describes his life-verses 21-23. What James has quoted is from Genesis 15:5-6. Now this happened long before the scene James is describing when Abraham offered up his son Isaac on the altar. In fact this happened before Isaac was even born so Abraham and his wife Sarah are only operating out of faith. All they can do is believe in what God has said and promised to them-that one day they will have offspring like the stars in the heavens, even though at this moment they are childless. But by believing God they are counted as righteous, meaning that they are justified by God. This is the truth Paul points out in Romans 4:1-3. This is saying that Abraham didn’t earn his justification before God by his good works, rather his justification came through his belief, through his faith in God. Look at Romans 4:16. And that speaks of you and me-we are those who share in the faith of Abraham. We are justified before God in the exact same way he was, which is by faith. However, when we read these verses in James it’s easy to be confused when after talking about Abraham, he says-verse 24. It makes us wonder if James has contradicted himself. He just got done quoting Genesis in which Abraham was justified by faith so how can he then say it’s by works and not by faith alone? How do we understand that? What James means is that the offering up of his son Isaac on the altar demonstrated the genuineness of his faith, his works revealed its reality. Again, Abraham was saved by faith long before Isaac was ever born. His good works were not the reason for his salvation, but when the time came for Abraham to march up the mountain with his son and sacrifice him according to God’s command, the reality of his faith was vividly displayed by his willingness to obey. Abraham’s internal claim to faith was justified by his outward actions. This is why it says his faith was completed at that moment. This was when you could truly see that it was genuine and real in his life. Going back to the fruit analogy, an apple tree hasn’t completed its goal for the season until there are ripe, juicy apples hanging from its branches. That’s when the genuineness of the tree is revealed. It’s the same with you and me. Our faith isn’t completed, its genuineness isn’t revealed until our good works are seen, until there’s godly fruit hanging from our lives. Remember how God said this to Abraham-Genesis 22:9-12. Abraham’s radical obedience displayed the reality of his faith. He saw it, God saw it, you and I and every other believer down through the ages have seen it here in Genesis. Abraham’s obedience did not contradict his faith-he didn’t run from this test of obedience as incredible as it was-aren’t you glad you weren’t in shoes having to sacrifice your child on the altar! Instead his obedience completed his faith, making him a great example of what James has been talking about. Abraham was someone who believed in God and then went on to reveal it through his actions. And that leads us to Point 3: True Faith always works-obediently, wholeheartedly, sacrificially. That's the type of faith Abraham revealed, that’s the type of faith we’re called to reveal.
Let me be perfectly clear this morning-God will lead you down the same road that He led Abraham. I believe that’s why James gave us him as an example. God will test the genuineness of our faith. Or look at the example of Rahab-verse 25. This was a life and death situation in the city of Jericho and based on her profession Rahab was about as far from God as you can get-yet when the two Israelite spies entered the city and stayed at her house Rahab communicated a beautiful testimony of faith-Joshua 2:8-11. And after she communicates her faith what does she do but follow it up with her actions by protecting the spies so they can return back to the Israelites and carry out God’s plan of overthrowing Jericho. At her own peril, she wholeheartedly believes God and obeys Him. And that’s what we’re called to do too. Back to Point 3: True Faith always works-obediently, wholeheartedly, sacrificially. That doesn’t mean like Rahab you’ll be harboring spies in your house-although that does sound kind of cool. Likewise, it doesn’t mean like Abraham, you and your firstborn son will be marching up a mountain with a big knife so you can sacrifice him-thank goodness. These were unique moments in the history of God’s people, so even though you might not repeat these things the principle hasn’t changed. God wants to reveal the genuineness of your faith-and He wants you to do it obediently, wholeheartedly and sacrificially. That’s what He’s after in your life-to be a vivid example of faith in action just like Abraham and Rahab were. He wants your life to speak just as powerfully as their lives. To be a testimony of someone who’s transformed and living by faith-willing to go wherever He calls and obey in whatever He says. God doesn’t want you to settle for the bare minimum. Your conversation with God shouldn’t be-Lord, if my faith needs to be revealed by my actions then what are the smallest amount of actions, the least amount of good works I can do and still get in? What’s the bare minimum? As if our good works are like a suggested donation. You ever come across those? The suggested donation says $5 so you’re giving $5-the bare minimum and not a penny more. But that’s not what God wants our faith to reveal. He hasn’t called us to a stingy, play-it-safe, bare minimum faith; He’s called us to a radical, obedient, wholehearted, sacrificial faith that works. So what step of faith is He calling you to take? Where is He wanting to see your faith in action? How can your life more fully and wholeheartedly display the fruit He’s calling you to produce? No doubt it will be something that will stretch you, something that will test you and grow you and move you outside of your comfort zone. Likewise, God wants your everyday life to be filled with the fruit of good works-that in your job, your relationships and your family the evidence of your faith is clearly seen, even when it’s hard. A faith that works is never convenient, but it’s always rewarding and fulfilling.
Going back to the image James started-verse15. It makes me think of the Good Samaritan. Flip back in your Bibles to Luke 10. And as you’re doing that think about the story. Two people whose faith was supposed to be working-and working well-a priest and Levite-happened to walk by as an injured and beaten man lay on the road robbed and nearly dead. How lucky for that guy! These were two who worked in the temple for their job, two people of well-known faith were coming by-and yet what did they do-Luke 10:31-32? They did nothing. They walked by on the other side of the road basically saying the words of James 2-Go in peace, be warmed and filled-but they didn’t give him anything as this guy was bleeding out and his life was slipping away. What good was the faith of the priest and the Levite to this dying man? Not at all! But then the Samaritan comes along-Luke 10:33-35. Talk about a faith that works. Talk about wholeheartedly and sacrificially helping this guy out and not settling for the bare minimum. And as Jesus tells this parable and describes this Samaritan, He, like James, wants us to remember that faith isn’t something that’s merely internal and academic. Maybe that’s how the priest and Levite viewed faith-something to do at Bible study. Most Bible scholars believe the priest and Levite were too busy to stop because they were on the way to the temple to conduct services. Talk about irony-but to them faith is just Scripture to read, theology to lean, even verses to memorize-it’s concepts to know and ideas to master. Now there’s nothing wrong with internalizing God’s Word, we need to study and soak it up-just like we’ve been doing this January at Wellspring with our memory verses. Our goal is to internalize God’s Word. But if our faith stays at an internal, academic level-like it did with these guys and doesn’t become external and active to the needs around us-than we’ve missed the heart of what it’s all about. What these guys are revealing is a perfect example of the dead faith James has been describing-and that’s our memory verse-James 2:14. It doesn’t. So what we learn about in Scripture ought to be applied in what we do. What we understand about theology ought to be displayed in how we act. What we know about Jesus ought to be reflected in how we live and how we love others. As our knowledge of Him abounds so ought our works for Him.
Where are you tempted to make your faith something internal instead of external? Or how often are you tempted to feel good about yourself because you’ve learned a lot and have good Bible knowledge? That’s easy to do-but let’s not be a people who are merely satisfied with having head knowledge, let us instead be a people having hearts of faith that surrender to God and follow Him obediently, wholeheartedly and sacrificially. I like what RC Sproul says on this-Faith and Works, Sproul Study Bible:
When James says that faith without works is dead, he is describing a faith that knows the gospel and even agrees with it, but has fallen short of trust in God. Failure to grow, develop and bear the fruits of righteousness shows that the free gift of God in Christ has never been received. The answer for those with such a faith is not to save themselves by establishing a righteousness of their own, as if they could create faith by their own efforts, but to call on the name of the Lord…the faith required is a faith that rests in the living God.
That’s so true because there’s a danger in thinking that to have a faith that works we have to work harder and do more stuff for God and thereby prove to Him that our faith is real and we’re doing okay. But that’s not what God wants us to do. As we said earlier that’s not the gospel. In order to have a faith that works we don’t need to worker harder, we just need to call out to Him more humbly and believe His Word more fully. That’s where it begins. To turn to the Lord in faith saying I need you and your grace to save me-it’s nothing I’ve done, but it’s all about what you’ve done for me by dying on the cross. And once you do that you’ll never be the same again. I go back to the words of Ephesians 2:10. Do you believe what that says? If you’ve put your faith in Jesus, not trusting in your own good works, but in the sufficiency of His grace, then this is true of you. You are God’s workmanship, you have been created in Christ Jesus for what-the bare minimum? No-for the good works that God’s already prepared for you to do. So will you do them? Will you live by faith that walks that road and does those things God’s prepared for you? He’s the one who’s at work-you’re simply called to follow and go where He leads you. Back to our opening story where the architect was so convinced of the faithfulness of his construction that he ran into that glass wall with full force not holding back. Merely explaining the mathematics of the glass’s thickness wasn’t enough, he put what he knew into action. We are to be so convinced of the faithfulness of our God that we’ll run to Him with full force, not holding back or merely settling for something academic, but putting our faith-what we believe-into action. God doesn’t call us to have dead faith-but one that is fully alive and bearing fruit for Him as we live out those good works He’s prepared in advance for us to do.