At one time Martin Luther believed the book of James should not be part of the Bible. Luther felt James was teaching a false way of salvation. In the preface of his 1522 translation of the New Testament, Luther called James a “right strawy epistle”. Luther drew this conclusion from the passage we have before us in James 2:14-26.
James writes, “You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” However in the book of Romans the apostle Paul wrote, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” (3:28) If you are listening, it sure sounds like James and Paul contradict each other. This is the tension and difficulty that Luther observed.
Martin Luther however, changed his mind about James. He came to understand that Paul and James were not at all contradicting each other. They were speaking to two different audiences and addressing two different problems. In truth, the teaching of Paul and the teaching of James are like two wings on a bird. Both wings are necessary for the bird to fly. We must understand both James and Paul if we are to truly understand the prerequisite to new life in Jesus Christ.
The Faith That Cannot Save
James begins by asking a question: “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” The key phrase here is in the second question: Can such faith save him? James is not asking if faith is necessary for salvation. James does not deny the need for faith (rather than religious deeds) for salvation. James is looking at the nature of the faith that is necessary for salvation. James asks: Does a faith that does not impact the way we live constitute genuine faith? His answer is a resounding “No”.
Don’t miss the implication of what is being said. It is possible for a person to proclaim faith in Christ and not really be a child of God. It is possible for a person to be religious and still not be “born again.” It is possible that you feel quite content in your Christianity while remaining outside the bounds of His children. Because of the importance of understanding true faith let’s look at some of the kinds of faith that do NOT save?
Faith that is merely intellectual. A person can have a great deal of knowledge about God and even believe the truthfulness of that knowledge with all their heart . . yet still not have saving faith. A person could be a Bible scholar and still not the faith required for forgiveness and new life.
In verse 19 James proved this point by declaring “even the Demons believe”! Satan and his host know and believe the truth about God. Warren Wiersbe writes.
It comes as a shock to people that demons have faith! What do they believe? For one thing, they believe in the existence of God; they are neither atheists nor agnostics. They also believe in the deity of Christ. Whenever they met Christ when He was on earth, they bore witness to His sonship (Mark 3:11–12). They believe in the existence of a place of punishment (Luke 8:31); and they also recognize Jesus Christ as the Judge (Mark 5:1–13). They submit to the power of His Word.
The demons have an informed theology but that theology has not changed the direction of their lives. They do not have a faith that “saves”. They will not be in Heaven!
Faith that is based on emotions does not save. Many point for the evidence of their conversion to a specific moment when they were moved to say a prayer or come forward in a camp or evangelistic meeting. They may recount an strong awareness of God’s presence or being flooded with tears, a warm feeling or a powerful sense of having been forgiven. These things are not bad in and of themselves. Having such experiences does not mean that you are NOT a believer. However it also does not guarantee that you have saving faith. James tells us that even the demons had an emotional response- they shuddered! Being moved by the truth of God and being transformed by that truth are two different things. Experiences do not guarantee faith.
Faith that is pious but not practical does not save James illustrates another kind of faith that does not save. It is the kind of faith that sounds spiritual but does nothing. It is a faith that says to a person who is hungry and without clothes, “Go, I wish you well, keep warm and well fed” but does nothing to meet those needs. It would be like slowing down by someone stranded by the side of the road, rolling down the window and saying, “I hope someone stops to give you a ride soon.” It sounds good but is of no value.
Obviously, we can’t meet every need that is out there in the world. James is not saying we have to respond to every fund-raising letter. His point is that faith that does not have some kind of practical expression is merely a façade and is not the genuine article.
We could add other kinds of faith that cannot save: a faith that is placed in someone or something other than Christ. People who have a faith in their own ability or goodness have a faith that cannot save. Faith that is mystical (“you just have to believe in the God that lives within you. This God may express himself differently to different people but he is the same God.”) Such faith will not and cannot save. This faith may change your life (it may lead you to do good things) but if it is placed in something or someone other than the Jesus of the Bible, this faith is powerless. There are others who have faith in faith! The idea is that if you have enough faith . . . things will turn out alright. When the object of our faith is something other than Jesus Christ, our faith cannot and will not save a person.
The Faith that Saves
James seems to anticipate someone responding: “Can’t we just ‘get along’? I have faith and you have deeds . . . can’t we just agree to disagree?” James understands that this is not simply a question of semantics. This is essential to understand. James says, “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” James’ point is that faith without a change in the way we live is a contradiction in terms.
James is arguing that genuine faith is not just affirming certain truths (even though that is important) or reciting a particular prayer. Real faith means embracing Christ as our Savior and as our ruler and leader in life. If we claim Him as our Savior we must also follow Him as our Master and King. It means trusting Him in our day to day living.
Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once told a parable about Duckland:
It was Sunday morning, and all the ducks dutifully came to church, waddling through the doors and down the aisle into their pews where they comfortably squatted. When all were well-settled, and the hymns were sung, the duck minister waddled to his pulpit, opened the Duck Bible and read: “Ducks! You have wings, and with wings you can fly like eagles. You can soar into the sky! Use your wings!” It was a marvelous, elevating duck scripture, and thus all the ducks quacked their assent with a hearty “Amen!”—and then they plopped down from their pews and waddled home.
The ducks professed faith but if they possessed faith they would have spread their wings to fly!
Let’s say a person tells you that they love you. They constantly tell you that they love you. Let’s say they even write you love poems. These are certainly good things. However, they treat you like dirt in public, they are physically intimidating or abusive, or are sexually involved with others, how would you evaluate that declaration of love. Would you not conclude that the person has not true understanding of love? The test of true love is practical.
James is saying the same thing. If we say that we trust in Christ but do not follow His way of life . . . we are only mouthing words. Let’s draw one more picture. Suppose you have a Sports Booster Club where 25 people say they want to help support the sports program. However, every time there is a fund-raising activity the same 10 people are the ones who help with the activity. Who would you say are the true sports boosters: the 25 or the 10? Obviously it’s the 10 because they actually did something to support the team. This is the same argument James is making. The person with genuine faith is the one who reveals that faith in the way they live.
What True Faith Looks Like
James gives us two examples from the Bible. He points to Abraham and to Rahab.
Abraham In Genesis 12 and 15 God made a promise to bless Abraham and his descendents. We are told that he believed that promise even though he did not have any children. The Bible says that his faith was “credited to him as righteousness”. James takes us to something that happened 30 years after this in Genesis 22. Abraham now has that promised son who was born when he was close to 100 years old. This son is his pride and joy. One day God told Abraham to take his son, the very son God had given him, and sacrifice him on an altar on Mount Moriah. The next morning Abraham got up, took his son, and went off to do what He was told. The Book of Hebrews tells us that Abraham reasoned that God must be planning to somehow bring his son back from the dead. Abraham may not have understood why God was commanding this act, and surely didn’t like the command . . . but he went to the mountain because he trusted (had faith) in God.
James is not saying Abraham was “made right with God” because he was willing to offer his son on the altar. Abraham was made right by trusting God. He showed that He truly trusted God by taking his son to the mountain.
Rahab Rahab’s story is less familiar to us. In the book of Joshua we are told that just before Israel crossed the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land after 40 years in the desert, Joshua sent spies into the city. The spies hid in the home of a woman name Rahab. Rahab said she knew God was going to give the city to the Jews. She knew about God and had faith in Him. We KNOW she had faith because of what she did. When people looking for the spies they heard were in the city, she risked her own life by hiding the spies, misdirecting the soldiers, and sneaking the spies out of the city.
True faith is a trust in God that results in action. Jesus made this same point several times.
- He said we will know true followers by the “fruit” they bear. We will see faith in the way the person lives.
- Jesus said those who hear His words and obey them are like the man who built his house on the rock . . . it will not be destroyed by the storms of life.
- Jesus cursed the fig tree because it didn’t bear fruit and do what it was designed to do.
- In Matthew 21 Jesus told a parable about two sons. One son agreed to do a task but didn’t do it. The other son whined and complained but did do what his father asked. Jesus points out that it was the second son that truly obeyed the father.
- Jesus said our love was to be different from that of the pagans.
The faith that God requires for salvation is a faith that is so real that it is willing to bet its life on Jesus. It’s a faith that changes our outlook, our direction, and our behavior. Saving faith changes our lives.
So what does true faith look like in our lives? True faith may reveal itself in many ways but let me present some verbal snapshots to drive home the point.
- It is seen in the person who continues to praise God in spite of a devastating diagnosis.
- It is seen in the person who refuses to give in to the temptations of the world to despair, to live beyond our means, to live with no regard for our commitments.
- It is seen in those who make the tough decision to put God first even if it means missing out on some of the things others do.
- It is seen in the person who continues to love a person even though they have been repeatedly unkind.
- It is seen in those who give what they have to alleviate the needs of others rather than indulge ourselves
- It is seen in the person who refuses to give in to anxiety because of their trust God’s wisdom and timing.
- It is seen in those who do what is right even though everyone else is doing what is wrong.
The fact is that we know real faith when we see it. It always stands in stark contrast to the world around us.
If we take these things to heart, there are a couple of practical conclusions I think we must draw. First, we must be careful in our evangelism. We must constantly remember that Jesus did not call us to get people to make decisions for Christ . . . He called us to make disciples. In other words He didn’t call us to get people to profess faith . . .He called us to challenge people to put their trust and confidence in Him.
It is good to call people to make a decision. It is OK to invite them to pray to receive Christ. However, we must not stop there! I am afraid that there will be some who stand before the Lord on the last day and point to a moment when they “received Christ” but will be denied Heaven. They will think they are believers because of something they said and miss the fact that the true believer is one who follows Christ. God wants us to do more than acknowledge Him, He calls us to bow before Him and serve Him.
Our challenge is to call people to a radical discipleship. We must not water down the truth in order to get more people into the church. Church membership can save No One! If people are to be forgiven and made new, they must turn to and follow Christ. Our job is not to “sell” the gospel . . .it is to announce it. We must, like Jesus, encourage people to count the cost before they declare their faith.
Second, not only should we be careful in our evangelism . . . we should be diligent in examining our own lives. Take a hard look at your own life,
- Was there a time when you honestly realized that you were a sinful person and admitted this fact to yourself and to God?
- Have you ever seriously been troubled by your sin?
- Do you understand that your only hope of new and eternal life is through Jesus Christ?
- Do you have a living relationship with Christ or is it purely academic?
- Do you see a genuine change in the way you live your life?
- Is serving Christ central to your life or only something you turn to when it is convenient?
- Are you working to live by God’s Word rather than by your desires?
- Do find your values often going against those of your non-Christian friends?
- Do others ever ask you about the hope that is clearly evident in you?
- Is worship a delight to you or an obligation?
- Do you enjoy God’s people or do you merely endure them?
What does your lifestyle tell you about your faith? Do you live to serve the Lord or do you live to serve yourself? Have you adopted His values or the values of the world? Does the Lord have priority in your life or is He on the sidelines?
If you find that your faith is not what it needs to be, do something about that fact. Commit yourself to Christ today. Confess your sinfulness, seek His forgiveness on the basis of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and ask the Lord to begin that process of making you more and more like Jesus. Instead of merely visiting God’s Kingdom (as you would on vacation), become a citizen of His kingdom.
No matter where you are in God’s family we need this reminder that God calls us not to the hobby of faith but to a life of dynamic and life-changing faith. I encourage you to look at the things that cause you to churn inside and make the choice to trust Him rather than your own schemes and devices. Rest in His arms rather than live restlessly. In the decisions of your life renew your determination to choose God’s way over the way of the world. Look past the immediate pleasures and focus once again on the long term blessing of serving the Lord. Let’s determine once again that we will choose
- Faithfulness over popularity
- Honesty over deception
- Love over selfishness
- Endurance over expediency
- The way of Christ over the ways of the world
In short, let’s choose to be disciples rather than pretenders. Let us choose to live by faith instead of simply talking about it.