Series > James: The Wisdom of Faith
The Wisdom of Works
Zach Pummill // January 27, 2019
scripture Passage // James 2:14–26 (ESV)
“ 14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 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? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 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; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.”
This is the most theologically dense passage in the book of James and also the passage that's been written about the most because it's often used by critics to pick a fight between James and Paul. They'll take these verses and they'll say, "See, James and Paul don't agree on what it means to be saved. They disagree on how one comes to know Christ and experience salvation." So maybe if you're unfamiliar with why this passage is used to say that James and Paul disagree, here's why in two verses, one from Paul, one from James. In Romans 3:28, Paul says "For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law." Then James in 2:24 this morning says, "You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone." Confused yet? Me too. Let's go home.
No. It's actually not that confusing. It really comes down to how we understand the words that they're saying. Part of our work this morning is going to be understanding and recognizing the harmony between James and Paul, but more importantly, it's going to be recognizing that James is urging us to understand that true faith also has works that follow after it. You cannot separate faith and works and that works are a requirement for one who professes to be a believer.
So let's just boil James's point down very simply. All he's saying is what you do matters. What you do matters. Your actions – your deeds – they matter. We know this. We have a saying for it in our own language: "Actions speak louder than words." We teach our children these things. What you do matters. If you learn that I lost my house and I went bankrupt and lost everything because of an online gambling addiction, would you want me to be your pastor? Would you be really willing just to sit and listen to me preach and teach on Jesus's words about money? Of course not. What you do matters. Really what you do speaks louder than your words because we have all sorts of words that we say. We're full of words, but our actions actually tell a different story and they tell the story of what it is that we really want. Your actions matter.
So as we jump in this morning, I'm going to outline this passage with three simple headings. The first is understanding the context, two is faith that's dead, and three is faith that's alive. Understanding the context, faith that's dead, and faith that's alive. So first, we need to understand the context that James and Paul are addressing and why they seem to be saying different things. What appears to be differences between James and Paul is the way that they use three very big words in a scripture: works, justification, and faith. Both of them are using these words in different ways because each of these words actually has a range of meaning and never only means one thing anytime that it's used.
Every language is that same way. English is the same way. Words have a range of meaning. If I said, "I'm taking my son to the park, but I don't know where to park," you don't need to pray through what I mean, asking God for divine wisdom. Why? Because you understand the language and the context. ‘Park’ has two different meanings. It's a verb, it's also a noun. Words have a range of meaning and certainly ‘works’, ‘justification’, and ‘faith’ have a range of meaning, and Paul and James are both employing them in different ways to make their point about salvation. So part of our work will be to understand what they do mean when they use these words.
Also very simply, James and Paul do not disagree on the gospel. The difference between them is not their understanding of how we are saved. What is different is the situations and the context that they're speaking into and particularly the situations and context they're speaking into in Romans, Galatians, and here in James. So very briefly, what are these contexts they're speaking into? What makes them different? In Romans, Paul is speaking into the situation where he's essentially arguing "What is it that saves us?" It's true faith in Christ and not by works of the law. True faith in Christ saves you, not your ability to perform the mosaic law to perfection. You're saved by true faith.
Then in Galatians, he says the same exact thing, but the situation is different. That's because the Galatian church was doing what was called Judaizing. You'd have Jewish converts that would tell Gentile converts, "Yes, true faith is required in Christ, but you also need to observe certain laws from the Old Testament. You need to be circumcised. You need to observe dietary restrictions. You need to follow the cleanliness laws and so on and so forth." Then in James, James is dealing with people that say they have true faith, and because they have true faith, they don't feel like they need to do anything at all. They say, "Hey, we believe so we're good to go."
So in each of these situations, the context is completely different. In all three cases, James and Paul are just simply trying to correct misunderstandings within those churches about what it is that saves us, primarily about faith in Christ. So in Galatians, Paul is just dealing with people who are legalistic. James is dealing with people who are lazy. In Romans, Paul is dealing with or trying to tell people that it's true faith that saves you. In James, James is trying to tell you what true faith actually looks like. So just to harmonize both James and Paul in all three of these contexts together, let's harmonize them in one sentence. There's nothing that you can do to earn faith, but once you have faith, that doesn't mean that there isn't anything to do. Follow me? There's nothing you can do to earn your faith, but that doesn't mean that once you have faith that there's nothing to do. That's the context.
So what does a dead faith look like? Well in verse 14, James starts this passage by entering into what's called a diatribe. A diatribe was an ancient form of argumentation that we actually use all the time and even Jesus used it. So what you will do in a diatribe is you will introduce in an argument or debate with someone when you're trying to make a point, you'll introduce an imaginary conversation partner. You see Jesus do this. He'll say "You've heard it said to you. All right? But I say ..." Then you have James. He does it here in verse 14. He says, "What good is it if someone says..." So just with this verse 14, he's entering into a hypothetical situation for the sake of argument where he introduces an imaginary voice. This imaginary voice is someone that claims to have faith but doesn't have any works that demonstrate their faith because they don't feel that it's necessary.
So we come to our first kind of buzzword which is works. So in Romans and in Galatians when Paul uses the word works, he's doing it with reference to the mosaic law which is why he uses works in a phrase. He says "works of the law" instead of just using the word works like James does here in this passage. So Paul is making the point that works of the law cannot save you, but that's not what James is talking about. He's not talking about any of that in the entire Book of James. All right? In his entire letter. In fact, essentially what he's doing is he's using works in the most generic sense which just means action, just means deeds, means the things that you do. Paul will actually use the word works in the same exact way all throughout his other letters, just two examples in Titus, and you can see if they disagree, if he disagrees with James.
Titus 1:16, Paul says, "They profess to know God, but they deny Him by their works." Titus 3:8, "The saying is trustworthy and I want you to insist on these things so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works." So in the first instance, sure, they profess to know God, but their actions tell a different story. They deny Him by their actions. Then he says this is trustworthy, that those who believe in God should devote themselves to good works. There is nothing but agreement between James and Paul. They were friends. They talked about these things. Acts tells us this. Their understanding of the gospel was the same, that faith requires good deeds, good works, because true faith motivates one into action.
Now, back to James. Remember, James is addressing someone that doesn't have any of these good works. They don't feel that they're necessary, but they still claim to have faith. So James goes further in his argument and James asks "Well if that's how you define faith, then do you really believe that that kind of faith can save you? That's how you want to define faith. Do you really think that that kind of faith can save you?" He illustrates his answer to that question in verses 15 and 16 to show what that faith really looks like. He says, "A brother or a sister in the community" – which is just a reference to someone in the church – "is poor and lacks daily food and someone says 'Go in peace. Be warmed and filled.'" They don't even lift a finger to help this person in need.
James just simply says, "What good is that? What good is it to see someone in their need and you just offer some religious jargon?" So he uses this illustration to say someone who claims to have faith and no works, this is exactly what their faith is like. It's empty, hollow well wishes. It's religious jargon. It's pious language that doesn't do anything for anybody. So a faith that's dead is filled with empty words and no action. James would say very simply "Why don't you have any good works like just simply loving and helping those who are in need? Well it's because your faith is dead. It's because something happened where your faith has died and you can't follow the simplest, most basic command that the Jesus you claim to have faith in gave to us to do amongst one another. So your faith is dead. It's a dead man because it does not move."
We know what this is like. Everybody knows what it's like to have empty words. I think we'd all raise our hand if we said "Have you told someone that you'd pray for them?" You sit and listen to their situation. You're like "Hey, I'll pray for you this week." Then we don't even think about them the rest of the week. Or we say "I'd really love to give more." So we saw something go on sale that we really wanted. Or saying "I'd really love to go to India, but there's another event that came up in November" or saying "Oh, I'd really love to devote myself to bible study this year, but cultivate group just doesn't really fit into my schedule" or "If Rockwall Pres ever does Community Groups, I'm all in. I want to dive into community because community is important," and yet we don't.
Our faith can be more words than action. That's the proof James says or that's the moment in which you can recognize that perhaps faith is dead because dead faith talks, but a living faith acts. In verse 18, James anticipates an objection from somebody. So someone would say "Well James, I have faith and you have works. Sure. I don't have good deeds to show, but I don't believe any less than you do." So James is simply anticipating the argument where someone would kind of be poked by what James has said thus far, and then they would say "Well yeah, but faith and action, faith and deeds, those things don't go hand in hand. You can separate those two things. You have your faith; I have works. Right? Potato, potato. What works for you may not work for me. To each their own."
James would say "No, it doesn't work that way." At the end of verse 18, or the second half of verse 18, he lays down a challenge. He says, "Well I tell you what. Show me your faith apart from your works, and I'll show you my faith by my works." So he's saying "If what you do doesn't matter, then prove to me that you have faith in Christ. Don't talk about anything that you've done, nothing you do. Just talk to me about your faith and prove it." What he's done is he's taken someone who says "I have faith," but doesn't feel that works are necessary and he's effectively argued them into a corner because the only thing that they can respond is to say "Well I just know I have faith. I just know that I believe."
I've heard that so many times throughout the years especially in this context where everybody's got some sort of church story. We say "Oh, I believe or I kind of answer the altar call when I was kid. I don't really go to church now, but I don't feel like you need to be a part of a church to be a Christian." So part of that is that we separate faith and what we do. It's not really required that I really follow the teaching of Jesus. All I got to do is believe in Him. I still have faith. I don't go to church, but that doesn't mean that I don't have faith. I think James would disagree. He certainly does in Verse 19 because he goes on and he says "Okay. So you believe that God is one. You do well, but even the demons believe and they shudder."
So what's he doing? Well when he says, "You believe that God is one," he's referencing what's called the Shema. The Shema is Deuteronomy 6:4 and it says, "Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one." That phrase, that statement was the basis of the Jewish profession of faith, that it begins with recognizing that God is God, there is no other. It was the Jewish monotheistic profession in a polytheistic world. That's where their faith began as recognizing who and what God is, and that's what separated them from the rest of the world. So notice that James, he says "Sure, you believe that God is one. You believe that there's one true God. You believe right ideas about God, but if that's all that faith requires, how can that be enough to save you when even the demons believe in the exact same thing?" They know exactly who God is. They are orthodox in their understanding of who God is. They're not worshiping all these other gods.
Take the Gerasene demoniac. Jesus just walks, gets out of the Sea Galilee, walks up over a hill to the demon-possessed man. He doesn't say a word and the demon-possessed man says "Oh, son of God, have you come to torment us before the time?" He immediately recognizes. Actually, his name is Legion. All of them recognize exactly who Jesus is. It's because they know exactly who God is. So the Shama, yes, it's a profession that Yahweh alone is God, but he's challenging them to say that if it's only a profession that never shapes your life, then there's no difference between you and the demons that believe the exact same thing. So believing right ideas and principles about God is only one aspect of faith. It does not encompass faith. It is not faith itself just to believe right facts about God.
So this is where we have to recognize how do James and Paul understand what true faith really is. Well they would say that biblical faith is more. At least James is making it very clear in this passage that biblical faith is more than just saying "I believe these theological principles about God." They would also say "Yes, that's good, but faith is also a commitment to a relationship to a person." It's both faith and faithfulness. We see this in what comes right after the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:5. So you see the Shema and it says, "Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might."
This is what true faith meant for James and Paul. Yes, you have to believe right things about God, about who God is and what God is, but faith is also endeavoring to love Him, to honor Him with your entire being. Faith is a call to action. It's a commitment. It's an absolute devotion to fidelity to God alone and to love Him, to honor Him, and to do what He commands. It's faith in who He is and also an ongoing faithfulness to Him.
So often in our culture, we just stop with the first part of what that faithfulness. Our culture's so shaped by the enlightenment that I don't even think we really even understand it. Why? Because the enlightenment came along and said "I think, therefore I am." The real center of the human person is in the mind. So as long ... The way that's filtered into the church is we say "As long as I think right thoughts about God, then I'm good to go." That's all that's required. Faith is just something that goes on inside the head. Faith just happens on the playground of the intellect which means that Christianity has been boiled down to just simply professing a few basic facts on a questionnaire. Do you believe Jesus is God? Yes, check. Do you believe Jesus died for your sins? Yes, check. We call that Christian. We completely divorce what we profess from the way that we live. Professing facts is not faith. There has to be more. There has to more than just simply an acknowledgement of things that we say are true.
Think about it this way. What if someone said "I believe in Jesus because I looked at the evidence and the historical accounts and I considered the eyewitness testimonies, and I just came to the conclusion I just believed that Jesus is real, that Jesus was true about what he said. Now, I don't follow Him in my life the way that I should, but I believe in Him." As long as somebody says those words, we just call that Christian. We just call that Christianity in our context, but quite honestly, how is that any different than believing in Bigfoot? To say "I just considered the historical accounts, I considered the eyewitness testimonies on YouTube, and I just have to say I believe that he exists." Yet the outcome is the exact same. Sure. You believe that something is true, but it doesn't change anything about the way that you live your life. You can believe in Bigfoot all day long, but that doesn't mean that you love it. Are we not called to love the Lord our God with all our heart, our soul, our mind, and our strength?
Jesus would say, again, "There would be those that say to me 'Lord, Lord,' but they will not enter into the kingdom of Heaven." Did you see what He did? He took people that actually recognized Jesus for who He is. They say "Lord, Lord." They know who He is. They know what He is. They recognize His authority, but they never lived by it. It's because they believed in a Sasquatch Jesus, one that existed out there somewhere but was otherwise no more worthy of their heart, their soul, and their strength than Bigfoot was.
So just to beat a dead horse just for clarity's sake, why is that professing facts and truth about Jesus isn't enough to save you? Well we profess truth all the time that we don't live by. Do we not?
Wouldn't we profess that too much screen time is bad and just makes your mind go numb? Sure. Well what's your screen time app say?
Wouldn't you say that eating and dieting and exercise are good things? What's in your pantry?
Take materialism. We would all profess materialism is bad and it will never satisfy.
What's your bank statement say? What about your credit? It's good to save money, but do you?
We profess things all the time that are true, but we don't live by them. When we do that same thing in our faith and we can say, "Yes, Jesus is all of these things," and you can have all of the names of Jesus completely memorized and it can still be just as empty and hollow as anything else you might believe because there's no action that follows it up.
So in all of this, James is trying to urge you to consider what real faith is, that real faith ... That you believe in Jesus, great, but do you also believe in His teaching? Do you believe in His words? Do you love Him? How would anybody know? Because Jesus says very clearly "If you love me, then you will keep my commands." We cannot keep His commands if our lives are devoted to a La-Z-Boy. So what does true faith really look like? Well, James gives us two examples in Abraham and Rahab in verses 21-25. Abraham was justified by works when he offered up Isaac on the altar to God, and Rahab was justified by works when she received the spies. So two great examples, two great characters in the Old Testament. One, Abraham, the father of the faith, but here we get to kind of our last buzzword which is justification.
Now, this word has five different uses in the New Testament. Paul will use it to say that someone ... When he uses justified, he's referring it to say that someone is made to stand in the right. It's something that happens to you. Okay? That's not how James is using it. James is using it in a different way which is someone is justified which means that they are proven to be right. They are vindicated. Something is proven to be true. So the all ... And that's how James is using it. So all he's saying is that the faith of Abraham and Rahab was vindicated, it was proven true by their actions. Verse 22, it says "Their faith was alive because it was demonstrated by their deeds, by their works.” What they did was evidence of the faith they had in God.
Now, there's more I think that James is trying to show us here and to show this his audience. Consider Abraham and how James talks about Abraham. God comes ... If you remember the story, God comes to Abraham and says "I'm going to make you a great nation. I'm going to give you the promised land, and even in your old age beyond your child-bearing years, I am going to give you a son and an heir. I am going to bless you." James refers to the outcome of that. Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness. I think this was the moment where true faith crept into Abraham's heart. It was that moment where his belief or where he actually had faith for the first time.
Now, we know that he had faith. Why? Well because James would say based on what he did. All right? Now, if you just think about these promises that God gave to Abraham and the nature of these promises, how were these promises going to get started? Well Abraham had to do something, right? God said "You're going to have a son." So Abraham's faith in that promise was vindicated when he went to Sarah and he said "God told us we're going to have a son. I don't know how, but there's only one way, sweetie, that can happen. I just want to be faithful, that's all I'm saying, to Jesus, to God." Now, there are far worse tests of faith that exist, are there not? But it required Abraham's action.
Now, what if Abraham said "No, I'm too old. That's not going to happen," and he never goes to Sarah. Would you say that he had faith? No. Our inaction tells a story, but that's not what Abraham did. He did go to Sarah because he did trust in the those promises, but notice that James doesn't actually bring that up as what vindicates Abraham's faith. James doesn't mention this moment because yes, by going to Sarah, it does represent that he did have faith in God's promises, but what he points out was that Abraham's faith was vindicated years later after Isaac was born and Isaac is a young man, if not a grown man, and God comes to him and says "That son I promised you, I want you to sacrifice him to me. I want you to kill him on an altar and devote him to me." Abraham said "Okay. I trust you. I trust you that even though it doesn't make sense why you would do that, that you will still fulfill your promises despite these appearances."
So what is James doing? James is saying that Abraham's moment of faith all those years ago withstood the test of time by his willingness to offer the second-most precious thing in his life to the most precious thing in his life because Abraham didn't just believe in a god. He loved Him and he followed Him and was faithful all the way to the end. James said that faith at the beginning was brought to fruition. It was brought to completion over time.
Now, what is James really trying to get at as he challenges his audience? Well I think it's something they were doing and it's something that we can do all the time, how we can use a moment of past faithfulness as an excuse for our present laziness. That's what his audience was doing. "We don't need to do anything now. We believed when the Gospel was given to us. We trusted. We have faith. We don't really feel like we need to do anything now." James is saying "No, you don't understand. Faith follows God in the present. It doesn't point to something in the past." James is showing them that Abraham's faith was not ultimately vindicated just because Abraham can point to some moment of faith way back when or an altar call they answer or a youth rally some two decades ago or because there's a season in their life where they were really on fire for God and really devoted to their faith but not anymore.
Or they could say, "I was vindicated because I went to India," or, "I'm vindicated because of any number of things. I took someone a meal in 2013." Abraham did not say to God, "Well God, I was faithful to you in the past so I'm going to bow out of this one. Surely I've done enough to show you that I believe." But that's not what he does. Abraham's faith was vindicated when he said, "I will do what you ask of me now. I will do what you ask of me now in the moment, in the present" because a living faith is one that follows God in the present and doesn't use a moment of past faithfulness as an excuse to be lazy in the present.
All James is doing is simply pushing back on our inclination to simply coast, to say "I believe" and then we just gloss over our inaction with pious language, shiny new books, more facts, and no action. We want to call that faith, but instead James would call you to action. He would call you to live out your faith by recognizing that you're called to love a God that did not withhold His most precious son from you. That's a God worth loving. That's a God of knowing what type of blessing comes to one who seeks to follow after Him and one who does instead of the emptiness of one who doesn't because the cost of our inaction is very expensive, because the price is friendship with God. In the end, are not all of our lives going to come down to one very simple question? "Have you been a good and faithful servant?"
Let's pray. Lord Jesus, we thank you for your word. We thank you for James, your brother. We thank you that he would challenge us and that you would challenge us through him. We recognize that there's all sorts of ways that we, that there's an emptiness to our faith. Perhaps we think of ourselves as better than we are. We think that we've been faithful just because we say we want to do things that are righteous and good, but we don't do them. Would you forgive us? Would you remind us that there is blessing for those who are doers of the word and not just hearers only? Would you meet us at your table this morning because there's no possible way that we can be faithful to you apart from your grace at work within us, empowering us to do so? You invite us to your table so that we might be strengthened for the work, the good works that you have prepared beforehand for those who truly have been given the gift of faith. We ask all these things in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And everybody said, “Amen.”