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A politician raves about the high standards of the local state schools in his area, but enrols his own children in an expensive private college. A McDonald’s executive claims his company offers the best family food, but is found taking his family out for a meal at Burger King. A husband insists he cherishes his wife and yet maintains a secret, longstanding affair with another woman.
In each of these examples there is a difference between what is claimed and what is done.
Just because someone claims something, doesn’t mean that’s who they really are. Actions, in fact, speak louder than words.
If you were here for our first sermon in this series, and if you were awake at the time, you might recall the words Eliza Doolittle sang to Freddy in My Fair Lady:
“Sing me no song, read me no rhyme, don’t waste my time – show me.”
She says, “I don’t want you to write me poems. I don’t want you to sing me songs. If you love me, show me.”
That’s essentially the book of James. That’s what God is saying through the book of James.
Don’t merely sing me songs (and we love to sing songs here don’t we, and that’s great), but don’t merely read me rhymes. Don’t waste my time. Show me.
If you belong to Jesus, there will be an observable difference, not just in what you say but in what you do, and that point becomes no clearer in James than this passage we’re looking at today.
In what will become something of a trademark in this letter, James begins with some arresting questions:
V14, What good is it, my brothers, if someone says [or claims] he has faith but does not have works [actions that back it up]? Can that faith save him?
No prizes for guessing what James thinks. V17 and then again in v26, faith by itself, if it does not have works is dead.
Before we continue perhaps we need to address the elephant in the room. Without a doubt, this is the most famous, most talked about, most controversial passage in James.
Many people say that James here is in direct contradiction to Paul, which just shows the Bible can’t be trusted etc etc.
On the surface of it, it looks as though they might be right.
For instance, in Romans 3:28 Paul says, “for we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”
James says in 2:24: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
Paul says we are justified by faith alone, James says we’re justified by faith and works. Is that what’s going on here? Was Paul a Protestant? And James a Roman Catholic?
Some people say that Paul is the foolish person in v20 that James is trying to correct.
How do we answer this apparent contradiction?
James and Paul are addressing different concerns
They’re dealing with different issues.
Paul: how are we made right with God? How are we put into a right relationship with God?
James: what does genuine faith look like? What does it look like to be a follower of Jesus?
Paul’s answering the question: how do Gentiles get into the church? Jewish Christians were saying, in order to be a real Christian you have basically become a Jew and keep all the OT regulations. And Paul emphatically says, no, no, no, you’re not saved by doing.
James is answering the question: why are people not caring about their brothers and sisters in the church?
You see the difference?
For Paul: there are people trying to behave a certain way in order to get into heaven.
For James: there are people going around saying they are Christians, but not behaving like it.
They use the word “justify” in different ways
We know in English, and the same is also true in Greek, and probably every other language, that sometimes one word can have two or more different meanings.
This ambiguity can cause confusion at times, but it can also be the source of hilarious jokes.
So we had this important English lesson at the dinner table this week when I asked, “What did the man who had cake in one ear and jelly and custard in the other say? Pardon, I’m a trifle deaf.”
The word “justify”, in Greek and in English, can mean two different things.
On the one hand it can mean to be declared innocent, so the judge can justify you when he makes the declaration “not guilty”. You have been justified.
On the other hand, justify can mean to prove something. You make a claim that winter is better than summer, and I say, “Can you justify that?”, that is, can you prove it.
Paul uses justify to mean: forensic, legal declaration of innocence (opposite of condemnation).
James uses justify to mean: practical evidence that faith is real, demonstration, proof.
Paul’s talking about God’s declaration. James is talking about man’s demonstration.
Paul is arguing, unequivocally, that the only means of a man or woman being declared righteous (being relived from condemnation) is through faith and faith alone.
James is arguing that works are the only way in which a man or a woman who has been declared righteous will be demonstrated to be so. (You can’t do an echocardiogram or MRI to determine if someone is a Christian or not).
Paul: works are of zero value in bringing a person into a relationship with God.
James: when such a relationship exists, works will follow. Where there are no works, we put a question mark over whether that relationship even exists.
We’re not talking about perfection, but we are talking about direction.
We’re not talking about all the flowers in the garden being in full bloom, but we are talking about evidence of life.
Paul agrees with James
There are plenty of places you could go in Paul’s writing where he talks about faith working itself out through love, the obedience that comes from faith and so on. Faith leads to works says Paul.
James is not saying that a person is put into a right standing with God by what they do.
What he is saying is that, yes it is faith alone that saves, but the faith that saves is not alone.
Is it ok to say we are justified by faith alone? Of course, as long as you understand what Paul means.
Is it ok to say we are justified by works and not faith alone? Yeah, as long as you understand what James means.
Here is the genuinely frightening truth, that James is saying, that should give us pause. It’s possible to claim, and to believe you possess, genuine saving faith when in fact you don’t. It’s possible, to believe you have things sorted with God—that you will not face his judgment, that there is hope for you beyond the grave—and yet remain under the judgment of God.
How can we be sure that our profession of faith is real? That when we say we have faith, we’re actually talking about true faith? That when we say we have peace with God, we really do have peace with God?
James answers negatively and then positively.
What you say is not enough
We’ve seen this already from v14.
How you self-identify may not be accurate.
We have a census coming up. Anybody can put Christian under religion. What does that mean or prove? Nothing.
James illustrates in v15, 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?
Maybe the person says it with a pious sort of tone, or maybe they’ve really convinced themselves that they’re helping, but they say, “Oh, that’s so terrible. Oh, you look so hungry. Oh, you’ve gone through so much. You know what? Let me just, let me pray for you.” That’s what he’s talking about.
“Can I just, can we just get a few people? Can we just lay hands on this brother or sister? Can we just pray for you? You know what? Oh, boy, as you really struggle, I just want you to know I’m going to be thinking of you this week. I’m going to be praying for you. Go in peace.”
James says what has that person done?
Nothing. Mere words achieve nothing.
What you know is not enough
V19, You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!
You believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God. You believe Jesus is the Son of God. You believe Jesus rose again from the dead.
Way to go, good for you!
Even the demons believe that, and at least the demons have something to show for their faith.
You see the irony?
You and the demons are believing the same thing.
Ok, you can sign a good, orthodox, evangelical statement of faith. You’re not a Darwinist. You’re not an atheist. You’re not a deist. You’re not a theological liberal.
Good – neither are the demons.
They know who Jesus is. They know what the Bible is. They know what happened on good Friday and Easter. They have some sense of what’s coming, but it doesn’t help them.
Now don’t get me wrong – theology matters. At Trinity we think doctrine is important.
As Calvin said, “We do not attain salvation by a bare knowledge of God.”
What is faith?
What does it mean to have faith?
What it isn’t: it is not the intellectual acceptance of certain truths about Jesus. It includes the acceptance of some facts, but it’s more than that.
It’s not just saying, I’m a Christian, I was christened as a baby, I came forward or raised my hand at a Christian rally, my parents are Christian, I tick “Christian” on the census. It’s none of those things.
Faith is the entrustment of our lives to Jesus as Lord and Saviour.
It’s not the belief that we have been saved. It’s the commitment of ourselves to Jesus as unsaved, lost, helpless, and undone in order that we may be saved.
All that we bring to our salvation is the sin from which we need to be forgiven. We bring nothing in our hands.
When you do that, not only does Jesus forgive your sin, but he provides the Holy Spirit to teach us to say no to ungodliness and to live a life that is pleasing to him, because faith works.
What does this faith in action look like?
Abraham had been told that all the peoples of the earth will be blessed through his offspring. That’s quite an amazing statement.
God has come to Abraham, called him out of his paganism and his lostness, and said to him, “Abraham, you’re my man. This is what’s going to happen to you Abraham. This is what will happen through you Abraham.”
Some time had passed by, so Abraham asked, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless? Things are not going particularly well on this front.”
God comes to him and he takes him outside and he says look up and see if you can count all these stars. You can’t, I know you can’t. You will also be unable to count the innumerable company of those who become your children.
If Abraham was in our church, what would we do? We’d interview him in Family Business.
Question: When God spoke to you Abraham, what did you do?
Answer: I believed him.
Q: Did you do anything else Abraham?
A: No, I just believed.
Q: Doesn’t that surprise you Abraham, that you even believed him?
A: It certainly does. When I think about where I came from. When I think about the orientation of my life. When I think about God coming and speaking to me in the first instance, and then saying this to me, it is a mystery to me, it is a deep mystery to me. Not only that God would came speak, but that I would both hear his voice and believe what he said.
Q: So you just believed?
A: Mmm hmm.
Q: You didn’t do anything else?
A: Nope. I believed, and it was counted to me as righteousness. I became a friend of God.
Q: Ok. So you were saved by faith alone?
Q: That sounds like a great story Abraham. How do we know you’re not making this up?
A: Good point, I wouldn’t want you to believe me just because I say it. I’m not God. The reality is, I was saved by faith alone, but the God-given faith that saved was not alone. That God given faith produced God-glorifying works. Sometime later God tested me.
Abraham waits 25 years for that child to be born. The child is born. God comes to him again and says, “Take your son, your only son Isaac whom you love and go the region of Mariah and sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I’ll tell you about.”
You could say this is faith put to the test. After all, if he thinks rationally and logically about things, according to the promise that God has made, this boy Isaac is the key to the fulfilment of what he promised.
It is this very son Isaac that God is now asking him to sacrifice on an altar, which from a human perspective says, the show’s over before we’ve even begun.
The only heir I have so far is about to go down. How am I going to have any more?
What did he do? He believed God. How do we know? It is because of what he did.
At this point things would get awkward in Family Business because Abraham would be there with tears in his eyes:
“You can be sure, and this is how I was sure, when I held the knife to my son.”
V21, 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.
God shows us this so we get the picture. True faith produces results. In particular, the result of trusting, costly obedience to the Word of God.
Isn’t that what we see in Abraham’s life?
Trusting, costly obedience to God’s Word. He does what only a “man of faith” would do.
Trusting, costly obedience. Is that your faith?
How do I know that I’m in Christ?
One test is because of my trusting obedience to Jesus even if it’s costly.
No trusting, costly obedience. Question mark. Big question mark says James.
If Rahab was in our church, what would we do?
We’d interview her in Family Business of course.
Q: Rahab, what did you say your occupation was again?
Q: Oh, right. Just as well the kids are out for skids. What about your background? A Canaanite, Gentile, prostitute. Right.
[This is a reminder that local churches are not a club for those who have everything sorted out, got it all together. Local churches are for those who have been rescued and redeemed and made right. Rahab’s past was no barrier, and neither is yours.]
Q: And what about your knowledge of God?
A: I know that the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.
Q: Alright, that’s quite good. It’s not much, but that’s alright. How do we know you really believe in this God? Tell us about these spies from Israel.
A: Well I took the spies into my house, hid them up on the roof, looked after them for a while, and I made sure they could sneak out, because the gates of the city were locked, I made sure they could sneak out unharmed.
Q: Why did you do this?
A: Well, it just seemed to me that a person who believes in the living God, who is sovereign and compassionate would act in this way.
It just seemed to me, that a person who believes, no matter how fledgling a belief, would do what needs to be done.
Rahab’s actions stand in direct contrast to the person up in v16 don’t they?
Rahab puts her home, her resources, her ingenuity, and her personal safety on the line, because hers is a living faith. Not the empty profession of v26, comparable only to a corpse. She did what only a woman of faith would do.
It’s mysterious isn’t it, that this shady lady from Jericho should ever come to believe in the God of Israel. Somehow or other, in the goodness of God, she got it, she believed it, and having believed it she demonstrated her belief.
If you look at the stories of both Abraham and Rahab, and who they were and where they came from and what they did, what stands out is not so much their faith, but an incredible story of amazing grace. That God should reach down into the lives of people and pick them up and grant them faith and change them.
Has he changed you?
Have you done things that only a person of faith would do?
“Like what?” you might ask. “What does this look like?”
Repenting of your sins is a good and necessary start.
We only need to look back at what James had already said to get a bit of a list:
Loving your neighbour as yourself, even when it’s costly
Not showing partiality, even if it means you miss out
Bridling your tongue, even when others around you don’t
Not pursuing riches
Counting it all joy when you meet trials of various kinds, because it’s a chance to test your faith.
If that list is not enough, then just stick around as we work through the rest of James.
Again, we’re not talking about perfection, but we are talking about even through stumblings and faulterings and the realisation that there’s still a long way to go in our pursuit of holiness, in our better moments our desire is for that to be the direction of our lives.
If that’s not your faith, then you need to get down on your knees and cry out, God be merciful to me a sinner.
If that is you, then we don’t celebrate our faith, but praise God for his amazing grace.
We know that faith is not our gift to you, but rather your gracious gift to us. So give us faith we pray, faith that transforms our affections and attitudes and actions, that through our actions we don’t give people even more reasons not to believe Jesus, but our conduct will only commend him, as the wonderful, gracious Lord of glory.
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