Text: James 2:14-26
I recently participated in a Facebook discussion on the topic of faith and works. The question was whether belief or repentance came first in the order of salvation, which seemed to me like nitpicking. On the one side were those who were saying that those who believe would be saved – and they had their Scriptures to prove their point. On the other side were those who were saying that those who repented would believe and be saved – and they had their Scriptures. I merely tried to point out that there were verses on both sides, but questioned how one was to repent unless they believed. And it is nitpicking. It’s a hair’s breadth theological issue that is actually irrelevant to the average believer (like me), and confusing to those outside the church. I stepped away and watched as the discussion became more and more heated. I began to wonder what the rest of the world thought of the kinds of battles we fight with one another. Well, I think I know. Those sorts of discussions may be fine “in house” among believers, but they should be kept “in house”.
We sometimes pit Paul and James against each other in these sorts of discussions. Paul, you know said that we are saved by faith. Romans 1:17 is marshaled to the cause: “The righteous will live by faith.” Romans 4 is listed, telling us that Abraham was considered righteous because he believed God and not because of anything he did (4:3-5), adding that the one who does not work but trusts God ... their faith is credited as righteousness (4:5). Paul actually contrasts those who think they are righteous because they keep the law with those who believe in God. It is an important point that the Law was given long after Abraham died, so he did not have the Law as the later generations did. It’s pretty difficult to be justified by a law that doesn’t yet exist, don’t you think? God made promises to Abraham, and Abraham in hope believed God (4:18).
We can marshal Ephesians 2:8-9 to the cause: For it is by grace you have been saved through faith - and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast. We carefully point out that we cannot work our way to salvation. That is, you are not saved because you call yourself a Christian, because your parents were Christians, or because you do Christian things. You are not saved because you attend church, put money in the offering, or teach a Sunday School class. On the negative side, you are not saved because you don’t steal, murder, or commit adultery, or because you are a nice person. God has no scale to balance good against evil, so that we might be saved if our good deeds outweigh our bad. Salvation comes through our faith in God’s grace. If there is a human component to salvation (and there is), it is our faith. We must believe. Paul made that argument in Romans 10:9-10 - If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified ... That is, we believe and are saved by faith. The human element is limited to accepting what God has done in Christ Jesus.
Then we have the Faith chapter, Hebrews 11, which ends with this: These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised (11:39). And there are many other such verses we could enlist for support of the thesis that we are saved by faith. And then sit back and savor our victory.
Maybe you noticed, if you were following or if you know those references, that I was only giving you half of the story?
Romans 4 is followed by Romans 6, where Paul asks, What then, shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? (v. 1). Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? (v. 15). You have been set free from sin and have become slaves of righteousness (v. 18). In other words, your faith ought to make a difference in your behavior. Faith results in a different way of living. It changes who we are and (dare I say it?) what we do. And I only quoted half of Romans 10:10. The complete statement is this: For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. That is, a believing heart results in a speaking mouth. Faith has to be expressed; it has to be professed. There is a response to faith that is an essential component of salvation.
We find it easy to memorize Ephesians 2:8-9. But Paul wasn’t done – there is a verse 10 that says, For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Which means that salvation through faith results in the doing of good works. Faith isn’t the end of the operation. God has a purpose for our salvation, and it does not involve sitting back and basking in the glory ... at least, not yet. God has work for us to do. By the way, that’s why he gives us gifts and offices. That’s why he called some to be apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastor/teachers (Ephesians 4:11ff). That’s why there are spiritual gifts (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12: 1-11) and the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-25). Because we are not finished when we believe; we are to walk in the Spirit, live by the Spirit, and keep in step with the Spirit. Deeds follow faith, and Paul told the Philippian church to work out your salvation (Philippians 2:12). And the writer of Hebrews reminds us that those people of faith kept the Passover, walked through the sea, marched around Jericho, conquered kingdoms and administered justice (Hebrews 11:28, 29, 30, 33). That is, their faith resulted in action. They were obedient and acted in accordance with their faith. God spoke; they believed and acted on that belief.
Paul and James were not opponents in the faith versus works debate. In fact, they both would probably tell you that there cannot be any such debate. The debate is on the issue of salvation, not life. We are saved by faith, no doubt, and not by keeping the law. We are saved by faith, no doubt, and not by any number of good things we may do. But, faith, if it is real, will, no, MUST result in obedience. You may say you believe what I tell you, but if you don’t do what I tell you then I can’t be sure you even heard me, let alone that you actually believe me. And that’s the point James is trying to make.
Let’s just say, for example, that come December, when the weather is chilly, you are going to Target to buy Christmas gifts for your family. Standing outside the door is a teenager in a t-shirt and jeans, barefoot, shivering. What will you do? All your feelings of sympathy don’t make him any warmer. You may greet him and smile and say, “God bless you.” How does that help? Do you leave him in the cold and hope someone else will help?
Now, listen. I know that many of the street-corner panhandlers are begging money for drugs, alcohol, or just because they don’t want to work. I know, from personal experience, that just because they say they are out of gas doesn’t mean they actually want you to buy them gas. Some drive nice cars and live in nice houses and this is tax-free income. Not all. Of course, some are hungry; some are homeless and desperate, and the freeloaders have made it difficult to know who or how to help. Some we may direct to helpful agencies. Some we may help in person. I’ve made it a personal policy to never give money. If someone is hungry, I’ll buy them a meal. I’ve given rides. We’ve provided food boxes and clothing. You have to make up your own mind how you will respond. And maybe the best response is to support the agencies that help: Open House Ministries, FISH, Salvation Army, or a local food bank. They have people who know how to vet their clients and direct help to those who really need it. There’s a difference between helping and enabling. But James does not give us the option of doing nothing.
That is, your faith must be manifest in deeds. Faith gives birth to action and action is evidence of faith. God gives each of us gifts for ministry. I think I’ve said this before, but the gifts of the Spirit are not given to make you look good or to give you some special rank in the kingdom of God. They are all ministry gifts, to be used to build up the church in one way or another. If your gift is evangelism, you will be out telling people about the Risen Christ. If your gift is teaching, you will be helping people to understand Christ and the word of God. If your gift is compassion, you will be feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and so forth. If your gift is music, you will be composing, singing, playing an instrument, helping others to worship. Spiritual gifts are not for you to have, but for you to use.
James is quite critical of the whole idea of belief without action. I’ve had people declare that they believe in God. So what! James says. Even the devil believes that. And he’s content that you should only believe; Satan’s perfectly happy for you to sit on your “salvation” and “believe”. You’re lack of action plays right into his hands, leaving him free to work unhindered by your prayers or your compassion.
To those who point out that Abraham was considered righteous before there was a law to keep, and considered righteous merely because he believed God, James points out that Abraham also obeyed God. He left his country and traveled to an unknown land, where he lived as a stranger. He took Isaac up the mountain and laid him on the altar. By the way, the writer to the Hebrews agreed: By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son ... Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead ... (Hebrews 11:17-19). Abraham did not just believe God; he also acted on that belief. He offered Isaac on the altar in obedience and in faith. Abraham’s faith was evident in his action.
Both James and the writer to the Hebrews mention Rahab, whose faith was evident in her action of hiding the Israelite spies. It was her action that saved her, and not merely her faith. And so, James says, You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone (v. 24). Faith by itself, unaccompanied by action, is dead (v. 17). He repeats, Faith without deeds is dead (v. 26).
Christians have been in danger on two fronts in this “debate”. Î On the one hand, they, like many others, have thought that if they just worked hard enough, they could be saved. There are those who think they have to earn their salvation. That would make salvation a matter of reimbursement or wages paid by God for our good deeds. No grace is involved at all. Nor is there any real faith. It is the Pharisees’ error, that righteousness comes through the keeping of the Law. If we are good enough, God will save us. It is the bugaboo of the Holiness movement, that we define what holiness looks like, and if we just do that, we’ll be holy and we’ll be saved.We have this list of dos and don’ts, rules about dancing, drinking, drugs, movies, places we can go, places we can’t go, times to do things and times to not do things. I remember the days when holy people didn’t have television, didn’t shop on Sunday, didn’t go to the movies (even Billy Graham movies if they were shown in the theater). We don’t drink, smoke or chew, or go with girls who do. And we have been know more for what we don’t do than for what we do. Echoing Dr. Warrick at our recent camp-meeting, it’s high time we were known for what we do instead of for what we don’t do. But we made our list and measured our salvation by how well we kept the rules.
Ï On the other hand, Christians have been in grave danger of believing that they didn’t have to do anything. Salvation is free and we are free to go on our merry way with nothing required and nothing expected. Salvation, being entirely God’s work, doesn’t need any help from me.
When pioneer missionary William Carey applied to his board for funding to go to India as a missionary, he was told, “If God wants them saved, he will save them. He doesn’t need your help.” Carey went anyway. His “missionary sermon” contained only two points:
1. Expect great things from God; and 2. attempt great things for God. Faith from a distance was not an option for William Carey; faith had to respond. Faith has to have feet. Faith has to go. Faith has to have hands. Faith has to work. Faith has to have a voice. Faith has to speak. Faith from a distance is not an option. Faith has to act.
Let me close by asking you one of the most important questions you will ever have to answer: What is the evidence of your faith? How does anyone know what you believe? Or, does anyone even know that you believe in Christ? Is your faith living?
Tell me, what is the evidence of your faith?