If you have genuinely experienced the life-changing power of God’s grace, if you have been radically changed and transformed, if you have the nature of Christ and the Spirit of Christ within you, how can that not make you a generous person? Is it possible that even though you know the right answers to the questions, you’ve actually never experienced true saving faith? And a faith that isn’t a saving faith is a faith that is useless. That’s the argument that James makes in James chapter 2.
Now James is a very practical book, perhaps the most straight-up practical book in the New Testament. The author James is not the Peter, James, and John; it’s James, the half-brother of Jesus. This book’s written less than twenty years after the resurrection of Christ, so a very early book. He’s writing to dispersed Jews—Jews that consider themselves to be Christians, but because of the persecution in Jerusalem they have fled and been dispersed around the Mediterranean. But James has a concern that even though they consider themselves to be Christians, for many of them there’s simply no evidence that they have experienced a life-changing encounter with Jesus. They say the right things but there are no works that seem consistent with a life that has been changed by Jesus.
Just because you say you are a Christian, just because you may know the right answer to some quiz questions, doesn’t mean you’ve actually experienced true life change.
So in Chapter 1, James talks about the need to be “doers of the word and not merely hearers only.” The Bible’s not an encyclopedia. The deal is not that someday when you die God gives a quiz and if you get eighty percent, you’re in. It’s not all about information; it’s about: This is how life is to be lived, and it begins with a powerful encounter with the resurrected Christ. He ends chapter 1 by saying, “For example, it should affect the way you talk. It should affect a compassion for orphans and widows in need.” In a 1st Century culture, those were the two most vulnerable categories of people. You should genuinely care about those in need, and number three: to remain unstained from the world—in other words to pursue a lifestyle of holiness. So that’s being a doer of the word, not merely a hearer.
Chapter 2 moves into a discussion about partiality, that if you treat someone with money differently than someone who is poor, you’re guilty of partiality, which is completely contrary to the message of grace. He doesn’t say that’s bad behavior; he says that’s sin. As a matter of fact he says, “It’s every bit as much sin as murder or adultery.” That then creates the context for the discussion that we want to have starting in verse 14:
What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? (*NASB, James 2:14)
Now it’s very important to understand the question is not whether salvation is by faith alone. The discussion is not: Is it faith alone? Is it works alone? Or is it faith and works? That’s not the discussion. As a matter of fact, that is a settled issue. The New Testament could not be clearer that it is faith alone, not by works. The issue James is discussing is the nature of saving faith. There’s no question it’s by faith alone, but the faith that saves is a faith that works. The Bible does not teach that salvation is basically an intellectual assent of three or four bullet points and, on the basis of my assent to that, I get my ticket to heaven and slip it in my back pocket. The New Testament teaching is that salvation is a radical transformation. It is rebirth. You are a new creation in Christ. You actually have a new nature and it’s the nature of Christ. You actually have the very Spirit of Jesus dwelling within you. It is complete and it is radical. If that’s true, then it’s far more than an intellectual assent. It is life changing and there should be evidence of a changed life. If all there is that twenty years ago I said a prayer, put my ticket to heaven in my back pocket, and “I’m good,” and other than that you live no differently than the rest of the world, you have reason to question whether you have actually experienced a saving faith. That’s why James says, “Can that faith save him? Can a faith that has no works save?” That’s the question at hand.
If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? (Vs. 15-16)
So there’s our illustration: Somebody is in need of food. Somebody is in need of shelter. Rather than having a heart of generosity, there’s merely pious language. Go in peace, be warmed and be filled. But the question is, “What use is that?” And the answer is, “It is no use.” It does nothing to meet the needs of these people. A true, radical transformation produces a heart of generosity. There is within us the compassion for people in need just like Jesus demonstrated when He walked on the earth. Verse 17:
Even so…verse 16 is the illustration…faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself…
In other words faith that demonstrates no real life change.
To experience the resurrected Christ, something deep within me changes. I have a new conviction of sin; I have a passion for righteousness and holiness; I have a desire to be generous. I want to know God; I want to know God’s Word; I want to know God’s people; I want to give my life to the things that matter. If there’s simply no life change, that is a faith that is dead, and it is not a saving faith. James anticipates an objection and he records that in verse 18:
But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works”; (Vs. 18a)
Now verse 18 is much debated. The debate is about where the quotation marks go. In the Greek text there are no quotation marks, and so it’s up to the interpreter to decide how much of that verse is the voice of the objector. I believe only the opening line is the objector. All the scholars agree that it’s the voice of the objector saying, “Now wait a minute”, (and by the way this is perfect for our 21st century post-modern crowd). The objection is, “Now wait a minute, you have your deal; I have mine. You do it your way; I’ll do it mine. Some have faith; some have works; it all works itself out.” That’s basically what the objector is saying. So then James is responding:
“…show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” (Vs. 18b)
How do you demonstrate that you have truly experienced a saving faith if there are no works? James is saying, “You have no reason to believe that you have experienced a life-changing encounter with Jesus if there are no works. You simply have no evidence of that.” But James is also saying, “I’ll show you I’ve been radically changed; it’s evident in the way I live my life.”
Now the purpose of this text is not for everyone to walk back out the doors thoroughly insecure, now wondering, “Am I really saved?” It isn’t that complicated. Look at your life: If you can demonstrate, “I have been radically changed,” “I have a passion for holiness,” “I have a heart of compassion,” “I want to know God,” “I want to know what God says,” “I want to be generous,” “I want to walk in holiness,” “I have conviction of sin,” there’s evidence that I have been radically changed by the power of Jesus. But if you were to be completely honest and say, “You know when I look at my life, I know the right answers to the quiz questions, but other than that I see no real difference between my life and the unsaved people around me,” you have reason to believe perhaps you haven’t really experienced saving faith. Verse 19:
You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.
In referring that God is One, remember these are dispersed Jews and at the core of Judaism was the belief of one God. It’s a reference to the Shema from Deuteronomy that says, “Our God is One God.” All of the religions of the ancient world were polytheistic—had multiple gods. There was one religion and that was Judaism where there is one and only one God. So this is at the core of their belief system and James is saying, “You believe that. Good for you! So do the demons!” They get it! There is one God and this God is powerful and it makes them tremble. So let’s put this in 21st Century America language. Most of the people who identify themselves as Christians would say, “Well, I believe like the Christmas story; I believe that, you know, God became flesh; Jesus was born in a manger from a Virgin Mary.” Well, good for you! The demons believe that too! “Well, but I believe the Easter story. I believe that Jesus died on a cross. I believe that He was buried. I believe He rose again.” Good for you! The demons believe that too! I would suggest there’s not a demon out there that denies the Christmas story or the Easter story; they know that’s what happened. They get it. They believe it and they tremble! But clearly that doesn’t make them Christian.
You have to move from intellectual assent to what the Bible would call believing or trusting. It’s a step of faith—that I actually trust that Jesus did this for me. It includes repentance: I’m no longer pursuing self-righteousness but trusting in what Jesus did for me. And it is a faith that results in a radical transformation, and that radical transformation should be evident in changes in your life, your purpose, your mission, your conviction of sin. You are a new creation in Christ, and at the center of that should be a heart of generosity. That’s who Jesus is and, if we now have the nature of Christ, it should be evident in our desire to help those in need.
But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “AND ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? (Vs. 20-25)
Two illustrations: If you were to take those verses, pull them out of context and isolate them, it’s very confusing. That seems completely contrary to what Paul teaches in Romans. But this is a reminder why we do not take verses out of context and isolate them. They are very much given in a context and that’s where they have to be understood. So to start with, let’s remind ourselves that when Paul was making an argument that salvation is by faith alone, who did he use as the poster child to make his point? Romans chapter 4: Abraham. He quotes Genesis 15:6: “Abraham believed and it was reckoned as righteousness.” He wasn’t circumcised until two chapters later. The discussion here in James is thirty years later when Abraham offered Isaac. The argument that James is making is not that Abraham was justified on the basis of works, but rather that the Bible states he was justified on the basis of faith. But to demonstrate that faith was a saving faith, it was followed by works. Specifically thirty years later, in his greatest moment of faith, he was willing to offer Isaac, his only son, on an altar in obedience to God. So the question would be: “Okay, the text says that Abraham was justified by faith. How do we know that’s a true statement?” Answer: “His works demonstrated that he was truly, radically changed, justified by the power of God.”
It’s the same argument with Rahab. Somewhere along the way, Rahab the prostitute believed. We don’t know when that was. We only know that when the spies went in to Jericho, she risked her own life to protect them, to care for them, and to deliver them. What we know is that Rahab did not just have an intellectual assent. She believed; she was radically changed; the evidence is that she actually risked her life in order to act on that faith and to deliver the spies. The story of Rahab is a fascinating one. Her faith was so great that she would live among the Jewish people and she would actually be a woman through whom the seed of the Messiah would travel. If you look in Matthew chapter 1 in the genealogy of Christ, there listed is Rahab the harlot—a radical transformation. His point is true: saving faith works. He closes the chapter with verse 26:
For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.
It’s a rather graphic illustration, but if you’ve been to a funeral, there’s a body in a casket. Without the spirit there is no life; it has no potential to do anything. Faith without works is like a body without spirit; it is simply dead.
So what do we do with this text? First of all, this is not a text by which we judge everyone else’s salvation. That’s always the danger in a text like that. Perhaps you’re sitting there thinking, “Well, I’m thinking about Joe,”—“Joe’s out”—“and Sally”—“Sally’s out.” Or even my spouse. That’s a very dangerous thing to do. You don’t know that. What you do know is yourself and your own heart, and that is the point of the text. Okay, good for you. You know the right answers: You know the right answers on the quiz; you know what to say when God asks you the Kennedy question. That doesn’t mean you’ve experienced a saving faith. A faith that saves is a faith that works (not faith plus works). If you’ve truly experienced a radical transformation by the power of Jesus, Paul says to the Corinthians that salvation is on the basis of God’s grace and that grace is so radical that if you’ve truly experienced God’s grace, it will make you a generous person. Specifically he says, “Jesus, who was rich for your sake, He became poor in order that through His poverty you might become rich.”
Adapted with the permission of the author: http://www.lincolnberean.org/sermons/lincoln-berean/useless-faith