Faith: It’s Alive!

Posted: October 25, 2009 in James

James 2:14-26, “Faith: It’s Alive!”

Question: What does faith look like? We know we need to have faith in Christ Jesus as the Son of God risen from the dead in order to be saved…the Bible is perfectly clear here. But if faith is necessary to be saved, it’s vital that we can define that faith & demonstrate what faith looks like. To some, ‘faith’ is mere intellectual assent – a kind of holy Bible trivia. To others, ‘faith’ is some kind of force people can claim in order to work miracles. But what does the Bible say about faith – real faith?

To throw one more wrench into the works, is the Bible (as some claim) conflicted on the matter of ‘faith’? This very chapter is at the heart of why Martin Luther did not see the Epistle of James on the same level as the rest of Scripture. At first glance, it seems that Paul & James not only disagree on faith, but are at flat-out opposite ends on it. Eph 2:8-9 states plainly that we are saved by grace through faith & not of works. Couldn’t be any clearer here in Paul’s writings that faith saves us completely apart from works; otherwise we would have something to boast in – something we “achieved” apart from the grace of God.

So what are we left with? Is Paul in one corner & James in the other & we’ve got to let them duke it out in the Bible boxing ring – whoever lasts longest has the right doctrine? Be careful here! The 1st thing we need to remember is that even though James & Paul were the writers of their letters, the ultimate author behind them is God. God is One – and perfectly consistent within Himself – He is not the author of confusion. Thus James & Paul could not be arguing against each other; they must be making different arguments altogether.

And that’s exactly what’s happening. James and Paul are perfectly consistent because they are writing of two completely different aspects of faith. To Paul, we need faith (that God gives us) in order to be made righteous. To James, faith is what we as Christians already have, and it’s demonstrated through righteous acts & works. Paul is describing what happens when someone is born-again; James is describing the ongoing faith of someone who is already born-again. That person’s faith is alive! It’s active! It’s ongoing! And when it’s not, then it’s not really faith – it’s dead.

James 2:14-26 (NKJV)
14. What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?

A. At 1st glance, this is a shocking statement…and perhaps it’s meant to be exactly that. It’s the type of thing that makes you sit up & pay attention. ‘What do you mean by questioning whether or not faith can save?! Of course it can save! If it can’t, what hope do we have?’ That may be exactly the reaction the verse is meant to get. We have NO hope of salvation outside of faith in Jesus Christ – our best attempts at righteousness are like filthy rags (Isa 64:6)… Since that is the case, then we better take a close look at what James is talking about here.

B. What’s the issue here? A “faith” which “does not have works.” I.e., this is referring to a type of faith. People have faith in all kinds of things. Some people trust their own intellect alone – some trust in false gods – some trust in their own abilities, etc. But not all faith is of the same value. What determines its value? Its ability to save. [Magical pen/stick] If it can’t save, it’s worthless. The same concept applies here. Apparently in the 1st century church (as today), there were people who claimed to have a completely internal, intellectual faith – they could repeat the creeds & sing the hymns, but that’s as far as it went. There were no works in the person’s life as a result of that faith…no fruit showing what the seed of the gospel had done in him/her. A faith that has no works can’t truly be called “faith”…at least, it’s not a living faith. Thus this faith cannot save him.

– Example of this kind of ‘faith’…
15. If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16. and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?

A. Can you imagine it? You’re walking down the street one day, and you see someone from church in desperate straits. Their clothes are in tatters while the wind is blowing cold, and it looks like they haven’t eaten in days. Our pious response? “Trust in the Lord, brother! He’ll provide for you!” And then we walk off. How pious & how pathetic! It may be theologically true, but it’s practically useless. Such religiosity wouldn’t “profit” anyone…neither the person in need, or us. How so? Because we would have just proven our so-called faith was dead!

17. Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

A. That’s about as straightforward as it gets. Dead faith is useless faith. Dead faith is a faith that cannot save. Thus dead faith is dangerous because it gives people a false assurance of salvation. Dead faith is what Jesus condemns at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 7:21-23 (21) “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. (22) Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ (23) And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ [] On one hand, we could argue that these people had works in their faith because of all the religious things that they did. But Christ Jesus sets us straight. Their faith was dead because their faith was left to mere religious ritual; their actual lives were filled with ongoing lawlessness. …

B. We don’t want a dead faith; we need a faith that is alive & vibrant! A faith that’s alive is a faith that works. A living faith shows itself through actions & deeds.

18. But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.

A. The proof is in the pudding… Living faith can be (and is) demonstrated in works.

B. What kinds of works is James talking about here? Actually, James has already given many examples (and will give many more) – most famously Ch 1:27, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” Internal & external examples:
__a. Internal: Purity in spirit… Fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23)…
__b. External: Compassion… Purity in deed…

C. Note that none of the works James mentions throughout the letter are ritualistic. It’s not a matter of how many prayers we can pray (though prayer is good) – it’s not a matter of how much money we can give (though giving is good) – it’s not a matter of how many rituals we can participate in… The works that show our faith are works of love & purity. These are works of faith because they are works that began in faith.

19. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!

A. Believing is good! Believing is foundational – and we’ve got to believe essential doctrine correctly. James references the 1st part of the Hebrew Shema – from which Jesus gives us the Great Commandment: Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (4) “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! (5) You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. [] Faithful Jews would repeat this at least twice daily & affirm their belief in the One God. But for those who would equate “belief” with mere knowledge, the Bible shows us knowledge isn’t anywhere near enough. Even demons have right doctrine. The Devil himself has more Scripture memorized than most people. Faith begins with belief, but it cannot remain in our intellect…living faith shows itself.
__a. (Wiersbe) “Beware of a mere intellectual faith. No man can come to Christ by faith and remain the same any more than he can come into contact with a 220-volt wire and remain the same.”

B. It actually seems that demons believe more than some people do. At least they have a more appropriate response to the awesomeness of God: they tremble in fear! Is this an act of faith for the demons? No; they tremble because they know 1st hand the holiness of God. Yet they still rebel against Him. The person who claims to be a Christian but yet has a dead faith is in a similar category as the demons…a bunch of head knowledge, but no repentance. The difference is that the person with dead faith isn’t trembling yet!

20. But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? 21. Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?

A. Case study #1: Abraham… [Context of Gen 22]

B. Was Abraham justified by works or justified by faith? This is not the only time Abraham is brought up in the NT: Romans 4:1-4 (1) What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? (2) For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. (3) For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” (4) Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. [] So Romans 4 specifically says that Abraham was not justified by works, but James 2 says that he was. What’s going on here? This is James’ whole point. Abraham had faith – amen! But what would have happened if Abraham had told God, “Lord, I believe You. I know that You are God & that my life & my son’s life are in Your hands. I believe that Your promises are true, and that Isaac is the son that will inherit Your covenant. I’ve got no other hope except for You. But I’m not going to put my son on the altar, because I think You’re nuts.”?! It doesn’t matter what Abraham had previously confessed with his lips; his actions would have shown that he had zero faith in the promise of God…

C. But that’s not what happened. Abraham believed God, and his belief was demonstrated when he bound his beloved son to the altar & lifted up the knife to kill him. He knew that God was going to keep His promise – even if it meant resurrecting Isaac from the dead… Abraham’s intellectual belief was proven to be heartfelt faith in this singular act – and he was declared righteous by God & called the father of all those who believe (Rom 4:4).
__a. All of this is ultimately a foreshadowing of what God does with His only begotten Son Jesus at the cross!

22. Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?

A. Faith & works go hand-in-hand…it’s not ‘either/or’; it’s ‘both/and’. [Swindoll – goalpost.] Abraham’s work showed that his “faith was made perfect”…it was complete. IOW, his faith was shown to be a mature, living faith through his act of obedience and trust in the Lord.

B. Notice that these are not works of the Law. The Law hadn’t even been given by this point… And even the prior covenants of God (Adam, Noah, etc.) had nothing to do with Abraham’s act of faith. No one is EVER made perfect by keeping the law! The law stops our mouths & show us to be guilty before God (Rom 3:19) – the law shows us our sin & shows the holiness of God (Rom 7:7) – the law is our tutor to bring us to Christ, and once we are in Christ we are no longer in need of a tutor (Gal 3:24-25). Nowhere in the book of James do we find an exhortation to go back to the Law of Moses. This is not a book of legalism; this is a book that calls us to a living faith!

C. What’s the difference? Abraham’s work was not a work of the Law; it was a work of faith. It was a work borne out of his faith… His faith came first, and it was proven through his actions…see vs. 23.

23. And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God.

A. The timing here is really interesting & helps us to understand James rightly. He writes “And the Scripture was fulfilled…” Which Scripture is it? Genesis 15:6, after Abram had met Melchizedek (the mysterious king & priest who’s a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ), and when God cuts a one-sided covenant with Abram. God promised that Abram would bear a son of his own body & that God would make him into a great nation – and Abram believed God & it was accounted to him for righteousness. With that in mind, when did Abraham put Isaac on the altar? 30+ years later in Genesis 22! Was Abraham’s faith valid all that time? Yes! He was made righteous the very moment God accounted it to him in Gen 15:6. But it wasn’t until Gen 22:10 that the Scripture was “fulfilled” & his faith was proven/confirmed through his actions. Faith always comes 1st; whether or not it is alive is shown by our works.

B. Abraham was not justified in reward for any righteous deed (he didn’t buy God off) – he was not justified by any work of the law (God wasn’t forced to give it to him) – Abraham was only justified by the grace of God through faith, which was shown to be complete though his work…his work of faith.

24. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.

A. It ought to be so clear. If we’re trying to reduce “faith” to some sort of list of doctrines we claim to believe, and then tell God, “I’m cleared to be saved now; I can pass the test!”, then we’re fooling ourselves. We’re certainly not fooling God into thinking that our faith is real! … Works are absolutely essential to a living faith, in that we see the reality of our faith through our works.

B. Keep in mind that the entire NT is consistent here. The gospels tell us that we need to believe & have life in the name of Christ (John 20:31), but also tell us that he who has Jesus’ commandments & keep them, that’s the person who truly loves the Lord Jesus & that’s the person Jesus loves (John 14:21). The 1st evangelistic sermon given on the day of Pentecost challenged the Jews to show their faith by their works by repenting (action) & being baptized (declaration of faith) & if they did so, they could be assured of receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). Even the apostle Paul makes it perfectly clear that we are saved through faith alone, but still calls us to walk worthy of the calling with which we were called. Even his most famous writing on the subject makes the point: Ephesians 2:8-10 (8) For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, (9) not of works, lest anyone should boast. (10) For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. [] We are to walk in faith, so we want a real faith – a living faith. And a faith that’s alive is a faith that works!

C. This is a truth the American Church needs to be reminded of today! We’ve done a perfectly good job of separating faith from works, with camps on both extremes declaring the other to be heretics. Generations of people have come up in churches where it’s works, works, works, and nothing but works. Ritualistic works – social works – priestly works. Miss a work, and you miss salvation… On the other hand, we’ve got the other extreme where all someone has to do is walk forward, mutter a prayer, and they’ve been declared to be saved for all eternity. Never mind the fact that they have no fear of God; no respect for the Lord Jesus. They know the bare facts about the gospel, but it made no difference in their lives whatsoever – yet they’ve been assured that they’re “saved” & they never need to worry about examining their own heart ever again…
__a. Both extremes are wrong! We are saved by grace through faith alone, but true faith is never alone. Faith is always accompanied by works; when it isn’t, it’s probably a sign that the faith wasn’t real in the 1st place.

25. Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?

A. Case study #2: Rahab. [Context… Joshua 2] What makes Rahab such a good 2nd example is that she’s such a stark contrast from Abraham. Abraham was THE patriarch of the Hebrew faith; Rahab was a Gentile woman. Abraham was well-known & respected; Rahab was a prostitute. For those who might claim that Abraham was justified because of what such a good person he was, James blasts away that argument with a single shot! Abraham was justified because of his living faith; not because of anything he had earned. And we know this because Rahab was justified in exactly the same way.

B. Just like Abraham, Rahab demonstrated true living faith in the One True God through her actions. She could have easily have claimed to have faith & then let the Hebrew spies be found & killed…but what kind of faith is that? It wouldn’t have been faith at all. Yet she not only declared her faith in words (Josh 2:11), she demonstrated it through her actions…

26. For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

A. Concluding statement. Our spirits are what move our bodies into action. Our bodies can actually be kept alive on medical equipment, but once the spirit is gone, that body isn’t going to get up out of bed ever again. Likewise with faith & works. It takes both for it to be real & alive. May God keep us from holding up a shell of so-called faith in place of the real thing!

Is it clear? A faith that’s alive is a faith that works. It’s such a simple concept, but it’s absolutely foundational! God forbid any of us would stand before Jesus Christ on the Day of Judgment & hear those terrible words: “Depart from Me; I never knew you.” It’s not a matter of whether or not we’re claiming to have faith for ourselves because we know the right answers to Bible trivia questions; it’s whether or not we truly have faith – a living faith, an active faith, a faith that shows that we’ve received Jesus as Lord because there’s no way that could actually happen without something changing.

So here’s the million dollar question: is your faith alive? Is your faith the type of faith that’s merely intellectual, that’s had no impact on your life? You’re still living in just as much sin as you always did prior to claiming Jesus as Savior – you’ve had no outpouring of compassion on your neighbors to love them as yourself because of what Jesus did for you? That’s a dead faith! It’s an empty shell. You need to take the test of 2 Cor 13:5 & examine yourself to see if Jesus Christ is in you. And then get on your face before God & seek Him.

What if your faith seems to be inconsistent (like the rest of us)? Some days it seems to be alive & vibrant, and other days it seems to be dead? That’s just life. Keep in mind that we don’t put our faith in the Lord Jesus for salvation, and then try to hold onto our salvation through our works…as if the 1st time we mess up, God will throw us out of the family. Both James and Paul (and the rest of the Bible) would affirm your salvation rests in the hands & grace of Jesus Christ. It is HIS work on the cross that saves you; not your own. The works we do in Christ are simply the evidence of the work Jesus has already done within us through our faith in Him. So let James 2 be a wake-up call to you. If you’re falling into the trap of a lazy intellectual faith, beware of what that faith looks like – and then take action. Ask Jesus for forgiveness & then repent…


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