14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.
25 In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? 26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
There once was a Canadian man who was gaining quite a reputation for his ability to walk across a tightrope, even in the most dangerous of situations and at dizzying heights, while wearing a blindfold. Word got around to a man living in the United States that this tightrope walker was looking for a new challenge, so the American wrote him a letter. The American said, “I bet you cannot walk from the Canadian side of Niagara Falls to the U.S. side and back while blindfolded and pushing a wheelbarrow.”
Never one to back down from a challenge, the tightrope walker accepted the challenge and a date was set for the great death-defying feat.
On that day the tightrope walker climbed up onto the wet cable, donned his blindfold, and pushed his wheelbarrow from Canada to the United States without any trouble whatsoever. He was met on the American side by many cheering fans, including the man who had originally issued the challenge.
When they met, the Canadian man said to the American, “Do you have faith that I can make it back safely?” To which the American said, “I just saw you come this way without any problem.”
This wasn’t enough for the Canadian, so he asked again, “But do you really have faith that I can make it back safely?” The American, a little put off by the question said, “Yes, of course I have faith that you can make it back. I’ve seen you make half the journey and I have no reason to think that you can’t finish the round trip.”
The Canadian replied, “Good. Get in the wheelbarrow.”
Today we continue our sermon series on the book of James as we compare the theology of James with that of Paul, two great titans of the early church going head-to-head! Okay, maybe it isn’t that extreme, but today’s passage is one of those that really seems to pit Paul versus James. Faith versus deeds. Right belief versus right action.
Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-9, “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.” Yes! Score one for team grace! Then James comes back with phrases like, “Even the demons believe that—and shudder,” (vs. 19) and “faith without deeds is dead” (vs. 26).
Today we are going to settle this argument once and for all…maybe not. But hopefully we will be able to better understand the power of grace and the importance of deeds or works by the end of our time together this morning.
Let’s look a bit closer at today’s passage to discern what James wants us to know. Verse 14 is pivotal: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?”
Don’t misunderstand what James is saying. He is criticizing faith without works or deeds and he asks “Can such faith save them?” Never does James say that salvation is by anything but faith. He does not offer the other option and say that salvation is by works. So when I pit faith versus works in my introduction, I was misleading you a bit by introducing something that really isn’t in the text. What James is criticizing isn’t faith, but the kind of faith that does not lead to action.
This cannot be emphasized enough. James is not presenting the antithesis of what Paul has said. Paul clearly says that salvation is by grace through faith. James is not coming back and saying, “No, it is not. Salvation is by works and deeds!” What James is saying is that if you have a true faith in Jesus it will necessarily lead you to do good works and deeds. And if we read more of what Paul wrote on the subject, it is clear that Paul expected faith to lead to some kind of good deeds as well.
I think that we would do well today to differentiate between two understandings of the word “faith.” One way we use this word is as a synonym for belief. Sometimes we talk about having faith as believing something to be true even though you can’t prove it to be true. For instance, I might say that I have faith that it will rain today. I cannot prove that it will rain today. If I could prove it, like if it was actually raining right then, I wouldn’t need faith. I would have proof. I would have a wet head or we could see rain drops on the windows. We use the words “faith” and “belief” as synonyms.
The Bible also uses the word faith in this way. In Hebrews 11:1 we find this: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” The author of Hebrews then tells the stories of these great heroes from the Bible who had faith. They believed in God, even when they had no proof. They couldn’t see God with their eyes or touch him with their hands. But Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and so many others believed in the one God of the heavens and earth.
Belief is a part of biblical faith…but only a part. What James is criticizing in today’s passage is stopping at the belief part of faith. He writes in verse 19, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.”
A more complete understanding of biblical faith includes not only believing, but acting upon your belief. I like to say that biblical faith is not just faith but also faithfulness.
What does the word “faithful” mean? When I hear someone talk about a marriage that has lasted 50 years, they might use the word faithful to describe the couple’s commitment to one another. They might say, “He has been faithful to her for all these years.” To be faithful in this situation means that a person has stayed strong in their commitment to another. They have kept their wedding vows to have and to hold, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, as long as they both shall live, forsaking all others.
I don’t do a lot of weddings, but I have done more than a few in my days. And before I marry a couple I require that they sit down with me for a few premarital counseling sessions. As everyone who has ever been married can tell you, it isn’t necessarily an easy endeavor. But there are things that you can do to make it easier. Communication is huge. Learning how to disagree or even fight in a healthy way is important.
Imagine that I am sitting down with a couple in their late twenties and they are so much in love. They are giggling, holding hands, and all around making me sick. Now what if I ask the young woman, “Just how many times will you allow Bob to be unfaithful? How often can he sleep with someone else and you’ll stay married to him? 1-2 times a year? Per month? Really, give me a number. What’s the max?”
What would be even more awkward is if they gave me a number. Nobody goes into a marriage asking how often they can be unfaithful. If they do, they shouldn’t! Run the other way.
But this is how some people enter into a marriage with God. One of my favorite metaphors in the Bible for the relationship between Jesus and the church is that the church is the bride of Christ. I think that when we consider our relationship to Jesus as a marriage vow and think of faith as faithfulness, it seems to me that the whole question of how much you can cheat and get away with seems utterly silly. Jesus, how much can I cheat on you and still be a part of your church? You want to love, honor, cherish the bridegroom!
When we understand faith not only as belief, but also as faithfulness, we begin to realize that this kind of faith requires something of us. Again, it isn’t our works or deeds that save us, but this is the kind of faith that leads to action.
James continues by giving us some examples. He starts by going to one of the pillars of the Hebrew tradition, Abraham himself. He writes in verses 21-22, “Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.”
Now if you ask me, the whole story of Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac is a little bit strange. But what James is trying to say here is that because Abraham believed so strongly in God and because he wanted to be faithful to what God was calling him to do, Abraham almost did the unthinkable! James then tells us that Abraham’s faithfulness is what led to his righteousness.
But Abraham, as I said, was a great person in the history of Israel. How could I ever have the kind of faith that Abraham had? James then lifts out the story of a less reputable person to show the same effect. He mentions Rahab the prostitute. She too was faithful and as a result was considered righteousness. I think that there is some intentional shock value in this! The one who was known as a prostitute is now given a new identity. She is one of the faithful.
Both the story of Abraham and Rahab reveal the kind of belief that leads to action. Theirs’ is a faith that results in faithfulness.
It is going to be helpful to look at other passages of scripture to better understand what is going on here, and to better understand James and to show that they really aren’t talking about two different ideas I want to look at something written by Paul. Romans 9:9 says, “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.”
That is justification by grace through faith. Say that you believe in Jesus and you will be saved. But what does Paul say we are to believe about Jesus? Paul doesn’t say that you have to have the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all nailed down. He doesn’t say that you have to be able to fully comprehend the incarnation of Jesus. You don’t need to be able to understand Jesus’ relationship with God at all. What you need to say with your mouth is that Jesus is Lord. And to say that Jesus is Lord means that Jesus is our king, Jesus is our leader, our ruler, or as I like to say in a way that I think is more easily comprehendible in our 21st-century context is to say that Jesus is my boss.
Now I will readily admit that I have not had many “real jobs” in my life. For one summer I worked a normal 8-5 job and I thought that was for the birds. When I consider the job that I had through my coming-up years right into my earlier married years, it is crystal clear who my boss was.
My father inherited the family farm before his 30th birthday when both of his parents had passed away far too young. My father had no siblings, so he became the sole proprietor of the family farm. From the time I was old enough to milk a cow or throw a hay bale, I knew who the boss was. The bills came in my father’s name and his name was the only name on the checks that we received when we sold livestock or milk. He made the decision when to bale hay, when to feed the animals, and how much to feed them. My father, as the sole proprietor of the family farm, was the boss.
Since I have grown and moved away my little brother has taken on more and more responsibility. He works his 60-80 hours a week on the farm. He manages the dairy herd and is responsible for their diet. He is the one that works for the nutritionist and when the feed bill comes, it has both my father and brother’s name on it. My brother has been slowly “buying into” the farm. The loans that have been taken out over the last few years have been in his name so if one day the family farm wasn’t able to make a loan payment, the lender would come to my brother, not my father–thankfully that hasn’t had to happen! My brother has more and more responsibility while my father has less responsibility, both financially and work wise.
Our family farm employs one non-family member. His name is Angel. Angel is a non-native English speaker, which means that sometimes he misses some of the subtle nuances that are a part of many conversations.
Even if you have never been a part of a family business, you can assume that family members don’t always see eye-to-eye on decisions that need to be made. Thankfully my brother and father get along well. But they do have different ideas and different priorities. So it is very possible that they could both ask Angel to do something different at the same time. My father might see that the heifers are getting a little bit messy, so he would ask Angel to bed the pens down good with straw before calling it a night. But my brother might think that the milking parlor was looking a little dirty, so he might ask Angel to finish his day’s work by scrubbing down the milking equipment.
Remember that Angel doesn’t speak English well. He may not fully understand the business relationship between my father and brother. He occasionally sees the bills and the checks, but he is not a part of every business deal or decision that is made. Angel knows that they are father and son, but does he really know who is the boss, who is in charge?
So what is Angel to do when my father asks him to do one thing and my brother asks him to do another? He is going to do the thing that the person he believes to be in charge asked him. If Angel believes that my father is the boss, he will bed the heifers. If Angel believes my brother is in charge, he will be cleaning the milking equipment.
When the Bible talks about believing in Jesus, it isn’t just talking about believing that Jesus exists. When Paul writes that we are saved by our faith in Jesus, this isn’t just faith that 2,000 years ago there was a man named Jesus that walked the face of the earth. Paul says that we must believe something specific: that Jesus is Lord. That means he is the King of kings, Leader of leaders, Ruler of rulers, and the Boss of all bosses. If you have faith that Jesus is the Boss of all other bosses, you will follow him and your good works will be evidence of his Lordship.
Faith without works is only half of what the Bible calls us to. We are called to believe in Jesus, that he is the Boss. And if we believe that Jesus is the Boss, we will act accordingly. Not because we are saved by our actions, but because we believe who he is.