This is part 5 in a 7-part series on the book of James. Below is a modified transcript of the audio lesson.
Let me just back up and review for a few minutes what we have done. The theme if you remember of the book of James is to be a doer of the word. That real faith will result in real actions. In other words we won’t be phonies. We won’t be hypocrites. We will live what we proclaim or profess to believe. The James who wrote this was the half brother of Jesus. He wrote this early on in Christian history. It was probably one of the first books written in the New Testament. He wrote this book to persecuted Christians throughout the Roman Empire. Remember the Roman Empire was not originally friendly to Christians. They were under a great deal of persecution as they scattered from Jerusalem out. James wrote this letter to them. That’s why this letter is so intense. It’s a very intense book and has some things in it that are hard to hear because it was written in a hard time.
I think there are a lot of parallels today. Do you not? We live in a hard time. Whenever is it not a hard time? You know life is always full of difficulties and we live in a culture and time that challenges us when it comes to living out our faith. Not just saying we’re Christians and we’re followers of Christ but living it out, walking it out. Showing by the choices and the things that we do that we are truly believers and followers of Christ.
The first week we talked about trials and temptations in James 1. James talks about when you go through various trials and temptation to count it all joy. We talked about what that meant. We know that as we go through things in life that are difficult that if we turn to God and ask Him to give us the wisdom to walk through those trials and temptations He will produce endurance, patience and character in us that is pleasing to Him.
We talked about real faith showing up in our actions.
Last time we talked about the sin of favoritism and prejudice. That it is wrong. James came on so strong about the sin of showing favoritism, of being biased toward certain people as opposed to others, rich opposed to poor, racial prejudices, all of this and how totally unacceptable that is in God’s kingdom.
Now he turns a corner in chapter 2 starting with verse 14 and this is where we are going to be. Because he leaves the subject of favoritism which is really about unconditional love, learning to love and accept others unconditionally, and he turns it into a related subject which is really broader than that and it is the subject of faith versus works. Now a lot of people have felt that the book of James contradicts the whole bible! In our first little church, my husband, O.S., mentioned that he was going to be preaching on James. This woman came up to him and I’d just met her, her name was George, and I remember her shaking his hand and saying, “ Oh preacher, are you sure you want to do that?” People think this because of this passage but if you look at it closely you find, as is usual, the bible is in complete harmony. Nothing is said in this book that doesn’t fit and harmonize with the rest of scripture. Now remember this, as we talked about in here frequently, when you look at a passage of scripture, you have to look at the context of the times. What were things like when this was written? What was the setting? What was the historical condition? The Jews up until this time had lived by the law. The law was written and these were the things they were supposed to do to carry out the law. Now God gave His law and remember the Jewish leaders had added numerous other laws to it. This is what Jesus and the Pharisees had so much disagreement over. The law was given and the Jews, the followers of the Lord Jehovah, were to follow the law. Now when Jesus came, He said I am now instituting a new covenant and it’s the covenant of grace. The law, Paul said, came to show us we can never be good enough for God. Anyone in here ever obey just say all of the Ten Commandments? Of course not! If so, you will get up here and teach immediately and I will sit down because I certainly haven’t! None of us, none of us can obey all of the Ten Commandments. It’s not possible to obey the law and not have broken any of the commandments throughout our lives. The law was given to show us that we can never be good enough for God. Christ came and said now He is giving a new covenant. That’s what He said at the last supper, the Passover. He said the old covenant is gone. It doesn’t mean the law isn’t to be obeyed anymore. It means that it was for a time past and now the new covenant, which is grace, is here. It means believing in Christ, giving your heart and life to Him and receiving God’s grace. It’s interesting that when your heart changes you suddenly want to obey the law. Obeying, following and living in obedience to God is no longer a burden but it’s something you want to do.
The idea about the conflict between faith and works is very old. I think it’s important to understand it especially since more than half of a chapter in this short little book is given to understanding the difference. Today there is kind of a theological discussion on this. Some people say all you have to do to be a Christian is pray the sinner’s prayer. You know the sinner’s prayer where you pray to ask Christ to come into your heart and believe and that’s it. Others will say, no, that’s not it. You have to pray the prayer and invite Christ into your heart and all of that but there has to be works that follow to show that your salvation is real. Easy believism is what one is called and works salvation is what the other is called.
In biblical days, keeping the historical context in mind, people often assume that James disagrees with Paul who talks a lot about salvation by grace. Let’s remember this, James was speaking to people who had just discovered the grace of God. They, as so often happens, had swung to one side and they felt because they were saved and going to heaven, they no longer had to obey the law. You might call them Libertines. They wanted to be free from the constraints of the law. Paul on the other hand was speaking about this issue of salvation and grace to primarily the Judaizers. We talked about them before. These were Jewish Christians who believed that before a Gentile could become a Christian they had to become an observer of the Jewish law. So yes, you could become a Christian but you also had to be circumcised, eat kosher food and follow all of the Jewish laws. This then meant that you were a follower of Christ. Of course Paul’s whole message was that’s crazy. You don’t have a bunch of other works to do.
This has been for a long time a kind of conflict but for our purpose today I want to stick to one thing and it is this. We want our lives, as followers of Jesus, to exhibit fruit or works that show that our faith is genuine. Right? I am sure everyone in this room can think of some body in your life that has been a screaming hypocrite. Right? Any of you, if you’re in a church, I bet you know a few of those! I certainly have and I thought of them this week getting ready for this! I wish them well! If they weren’t in church and didn’t profess to be Christians, I sure would’ve been fooled! The world is full of those kinds of people. It’s very easy to become judgmental and point to them and say what about them? But you know our focus, as usual, as we try to do in here, is not worry about those people today. God has to take care of them. I cannot see a person’s heart nor can you. I better spend a little time looking at my own heart. How about you? I want to make sure my faith is genuine, true and real and that I am willing to let God work through my life in the same way. It’s interesting and depressing that the statistics in the church are the same as the world when it comes to divorce, child abuse, alcoholism, and all of these various negative things in our society. This is very depressing. This is very sad that there’s not that much difference. That tells us that there is a problem. Right? Maybe a lot of these people who profess to be Christians aren’t or there’s a breakdown between what we say we believe and what we do. I remember a few years ago Christianity Today, a leading magazine on current trends in Christianity, had a whole issue on Dallas, Texas. They called it the headquarters for the new evangelical world. They went through all the schools and seminaries that were here and the large worldwide ministries and the interaction between them. I was not the only person that was thinking when I read the editorials, if this is true and we have such a huge Christian population here and we have all these ministries, why do we have just as many problems as anybody else? Why do we have a huge rate of divorce? Why do we have poverty? Why do we have racism? Why do we have all these things everybody else has if we have so many Christians here? The answer is I have no idea! I don’t know! All I can surmise is to go back to our original statement that somewhere there is a breakdown between what we say we believe and how we act.
Let’s talk first of all about the nature of our salvation. Just a few more points as we move into this. Let’s talk about what James is saying here as we think about our own salvation, when Christ comes into our lives, changes our heart and we become a new creature and give our lives to Him. Now first of all, salvation is an act by which we give our hearts and lives to Christ. Sometimes it is through prayer. You may have been led in what they call the sinner’s prayer and you genuinely and sincerely meant it. I believe there are plenty of people who have prayed a prayer and had no idea what they were saying and never meant it and never thought about it again. So just saying some kind of prayer isn’t going to do it. It has to be a change of heart. Salvation is not a process. It’s not a journey. It’s not an I’ll do this and this and this and then some day I’ll get there. No. It’s an instantaneous act. Jesus said if you’re going to enter the kingdom of heaven and receive eternal life you must be born again. Just like a physical birth is an instantaneous act, so is the second birth or our salvation. It’s not a process where you do so many good works and then you reach a certain level where you can say, whew, I made it! It is not like that. It is not a process or a journey. Our Christian walk is a journey and that begins once we get on the road. We get on the road by accepting Christ into our life and giving our heart to Him. Now some how in our world Christianity has sent out the opposite message hasn’t it? If you were to ask most people on the street or in your case a person in the tunnel, I’m sure most of you came here today through the tunnel, what do you have to do to get to heaven? What would most people say? Well, if my good works outweigh my bad works, you know, if I’m a good person and all of that then I will get to heaven. Now some how we have not been very clear about the message because the bible tells us that if God wants to see good works in us we must first come to Christ and then we do these good works. They are an outflow of our faith and that is what James is going to talk about. Now let’s just explain this a bit further. Let’s say you do get to heaven by works. How are you going to know when you have enough? How are you going to know when your good ones outweigh your bad ones? In fact, do you think a person’s good works can outweigh their bad ones? Where are these scales? This is often what the Muslims believe. Allah weighs the good works and the bad works. It puts a heavy burden on a person.
I often go back to my favorite musical, Les Miserables, where Jean Valjean, the protagonist, stole a loaf of bread, broke the law, to feed his starving sister’s child. Now he was punished and sent to prison for breaking the law. Well, in God’s eyes which was more important? Was it to follow the law, which he did break, or to feed a starving child? Well now we would say of course to feed a starving child. But how would you know? That’s the dilemma. You’re thinking that’s what I would do so surely God would do the same thing. That’s not a good way to think! No, don’t do that! Rarely does that happen! I’ve been on that road and it does not work! Works salvation is very nebulous. It’s very vague. You know, maybe you’ll make it and maybe you won’t.
The bible is very clear and it tells us that good works are the result of a changed heart. No matter how much we do it can never be good enough when it comes to God’s standard of righteousness. We have all failed and fallen short of the glory of God. Good works are the result of a changed heart and when that happens we come to Christ, give our life to Him and then we begin to obey Him. We find our desires have changed. We want to read the bible. I look at all of you who left a desk probably in chaos in your office to come here on a Monday morning to hear a word of scripture and to have some Christian fellowship. This is a good work. You chose to be here. There’s something in you that said I want to hear something from God’s word. That’s the Holy Spirit working in you- working out good works.
This is what Jesus went round and round about with the Pharisees. We don’t have time to read all the verses on that but one of the illustrations Jesus uses is of a cup. Remember the Pharisees were the religious rulers of that day and they were filled with pride and arrogance about their righteousness. They obeyed every little tiny thing of the law. But Jesus said they were like a beautiful china cup. They looked so pretty and shiny and fine on the outside but when you looked at the inside it was a different story. The cup was filmy, gross and moldy (OK, Jesus didn’t say moldy but that’s what he meant!). Have you ever had a coffee cup that you had forgotten about and then after two weeks you find it? It’s contents look pretty disgusting! That’s what this word picture reminds me of. He told them inside their hearts were dirty. That’s what Jesus meant when the Pharisees were accusing the disciples of not keeping all of the laws and He told them, don’t you know it’s not the outward things that defile a man. It’s the inward things that defile- the condition of the heart. That is where sin originates. It’s very clear through scripture that our heart is the seat of everything. Everything flows from there.
The bible tells us that we have been made right with God be cause of what Christ has done for us. Galatians 3:26- “You are all children of God through faith in Jesus Christ’. Ephesians 2:8-9 says it perfectly- “For by grace you have been saved through faith and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God not of works so that no one can boast”. Who would receive the glory if we went to heaven because of our good works? We would. For we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works. So God first works in our hearts to change them and to make us new creatures and then our works flow out of that.
Now James is asking a question in chapter 2:14-29 “ My dear brothers and sisters, what is the use of saying you have faith if you don’t prove it by your actions? That kind of faith can’t save anyone. Suppose you see a brother or a sister who needs food or clothing, and you say, “Well, good-bye and God bless you; stay warm and eat well”- but don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?
So you see, it isn’t enough just to have faith. Faith that doesn’t show its self by good deeds is no faith at all-it is dead and useless.
Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith: others have good deeds.” I say “I can’t see your faith if you don’t have good deeds, but I will show you my faith through my good deeds.”
Do you think it’s enough just to believe that there is one God? Well, even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror! Fool! When will you ever learn that faith that does not result in good deeds is useless?
Don’t you remember that our ancestor Abraham was declared right with God because of what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see, he was trusting God so much that he was willing to do whatever God told him to do. His faith was made complete by what he did-by his actions. And so it happened just as the Scriptures say: “Abraham believed God, so God declared him to be righteous.” He was even called “the friend of God.” So you see, we are made right with God by what we do, not faith alone.
Rahab the prostitute is another example of this. She was made right with God by her actions- when she hid those messengers and sent them safely away by a different road. Just as the body is dead without a spirit, so also faith is dead without good deeds.” He is asking the question concerning what is the use of saying you have faith and you don’t prove it by your actions. That kind of faith can’t save anyone. He’s not saying faith doesn’t save. He’s saying that kind of faith, the kind of faith that says, “Oh, I’m a Christian but there’s nothing in my life that shows it. I don’t care about the things of God. I don’t do anything to work out my salvation as Paul talks about.” Nothing shows your faith. He is saying is that kind of faith really saving faith? That’s his question. That’s his challenge to his readers.
He gives a practical example of the person who is poor on the street. I just saw this happen the other day. We were with somebody and there was poor guy standing by a tree and he looked like he was about to fall over and our friend asked him if he was okay. The man said, “Yes”. My friend asked if he was hungry and did he need some money. The man said, “ No. I just left California Pizza Kitchen. Do I look like a bum?” I wanted to say, “Excuse me! Yes you do! At least wear a clean shirt to California Pizza Kitchen!” But I thought that was so nice of our friend to do that. What was I going to do? I was going to walk by and say, what a poor looking guy, he looks pitiful. The real Christian in our group stopped and asked if he could help. He wasn’t appreciated for that but that’s the point – to do something about it.
James is saying if you are really a follower of Christ you will want to do something that shows and proves and justifies your faith. It’s interesting here, he says in James 3:19-“Do you think it’s enough just to believe that there is one God? Well, even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror!” This is a very succinct statement. He is saying it is not just an intellectual assent. Most people believe in God, some don’t but most do. That’s the starting point. You have to believe in God to walk down the path to eventually follow Christ. But he’s saying even the demons believe. Remember the gospels when Jesus would cast out a demon and the demon would speak to Him and say, I know You, You’re the Son of God. I just read through the book of Acts, some followers of Paul were trying to cast out demons and the demons said they knew Jesus and they knew Paul but who are you? So yes, they ‘re very involved in what is going on in this world but obviously they haven’t turned their life over to Christ. Here we see also the difference between just believing, giving intellectual assent to something, and turning your heart and life over to Christ as we have done.
Now two examples that James uses and it’s very, very interesting that he uses these when he talks about being justified by faith and turning our hearts and our lives over to Christ. I like the way Oswald Chambers says it in My Utmost For His Highest a great devotional book that I am sure many of you have read. He talks about when you come to Christ and you give your life over to Him, he says what you’re really doing is giving up your right to yourself. I love that. I think that says it so good. That yes, when we are born, God gives us the choice to chose Him or reject Him. We have the right to chose ourselves and go our own way just like Adam and Eve did in the garden, the very same thing. We can do that if we want to. But by turning our lives over to Christ means we give up our right to ourselves and we say, “Lord, it’s no longer what I want to do and what I want for my life but I want it to be what You want from me. I want to give my life to You and to do what You want”. James uses an example of two people whose faith was justified or shown by their actions. He uses Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, and Rahab who was a prostitute. Could you pick two more different people? I don’t know! I think it’s kind of funny that he chose Rahab because when I was studying this, I wondered if he did that in reference to his little lesson he’d given them before on favoritism and not showing prejudice. He was talking to the Jews of the Jews and to them he uses the example of a Gentile prostitute! Well, welcome to the family of God! Everyone is on equal ground there.
We don’t have time to read all of Genesis 15 where God is speaking to Abraham but you may want to read it on your own. God tells Abraham that if he will follow Him, He would make him the father of many nations. God put His call on Abraham’s life and Abraham, the bible says, believed and it was credited to him as righteousness. Now that means he came to Christ in salvation. Old Testament people were saved the same as we are. They looked forward to Christ. We look back. They came by believing the same way we do. That simply means, some of these words sound really theological and complicated like justified and all that, but it’s really very simple. Justification means just as if I never sinned. In Genesis 15 where it says that it was credited to Abraham, God credited- it’s an accounting word. Let’s say you and I have a bank account and it’s totally deleted. Can anyone relate to that? Totally depleted! Suddenly we find out that someone has credited our account with this money. It was a gift to us. We didn’t earn it. We didn’t deserve it. Somebody just gave it to us. It’s the same way. Imagine or pretend I have a Macy’s bill that’s really high from buying outfits for babies. I dread opening the bill and seeing how much it is and I saw that someone had paid for all of that. Lord, send me that person! I didn’t ask them to. They just did it. It was credited to me. That’s what this word means. God’s righteousness was credited to Abraham. You know why? Because Abraham believed God and he said he would follow Him.
Now James goes on to the next part of the story that’s in Genesis 22. This is the story when God told Abraham to take his only son Isaac up on Mt. Mariah and sacrifice him. There’s all kind of symbolism in this story. We know it’s a type of Christ. God would provide the sacrifice as the story says and they went to the mountain. Abraham truly believed that God wanted him to sacrifice his own son. If you remember, he was prepared to do that. He turned around and there was a ram in the thicket. God provided the sacrifice, a picture of Christ, so that Isaac would not have to die. As you know there are multiple sermons and bible studies, lessons on that story. The bible tells us that Abraham was willing to do that. The book of Hebrews tells us that because he believed God’s promises are so true that if Isaac did die on the altar, God would raise him up. God uses Abraham’s faith. Abraham was declared right with God when he offered his son Isaac on the altar. He was trusting God so much that he was willing to do whatever God told him to do. His faith was made complete by what he did- by his actions. Abraham believed God and so God declared him to be righteous.