Dead Faith (James 2:14-26)

We have been saying that the fundamental theme of the book of James has been “authentic faith leads to a transformed life”. The passage we will cover tonight provides the heartbeat of the theme. James has been striving to encourage the brothers and sisters in Christ that they can endure trials without lashing back in anger because of their faith in God’s sovereign control and love for them. He then explained that they must resist the temptation to treat others as more important than one another because of their faith in the nature by which God saved them – by grace alone. And now James is again making another appeal to his audience’s faith, this time in two different ways.

First, he is going to show that our faith should lead us to sacrificial love of our neighbor. Secondly, he is going to take a moment to look at the mechanics of what authentic faith is like. When I was younger, whenever my dad would work on our car he would always pull me out into the garage with him. He wanted to make sure I knew the basics of how take care of a vehicle – how to tighten belts, check fluids, change oil, replace cracking brake pads, find the correct socket wrench for the job, and be unafraid to get my knuckles greasy – but most of all he wanted me to get a general idea of how an engine works. If I had the big picture, he reasoned, I could figure out a lot of stuff without having to pay a mechanic to tell me what I already knew.

I wish that I could say that most of what my dad taught me stuck with me into adulthood, but sadly what I remember most was never being able to find whatever tool he was asking for while he was sprawled out under the car – blank stares at an overflowing toolbox while my dad cursed at the undercarriage, is what I remember most clearly. I’ve retained a few things my dad taught me, but I think the principle he explained to me in our garage was the most valuable thing I learned.

If you understand the mechanics of how something is supposed to work, then when it stops working, you can figure out what went wrong. This is kind of like what James is telling us here.

James is popping the hood on “faith”, showing us how it supposed to work, and what is happening when something goes wrong. What is faith supposed to produce? How does it work? What do we do when it goes wrong?

A Contradiction?

Growing up in my hometown in Washington state, I had several friends who were Mormon. When I was in high school I worked at a movie theater that was entirely owned and employed (except for me) by Mormons. This meant that I often would be talking with Mormons about the differences between our faiths and often the conversation would boil down to something like this: “You Christians believe in a lazy kind of faith that you don’t have to work for so you can just do whatever you want. Mormons believe that we need to work hard – in fact, the book of James says that “faith without works is dead” after all!”

And that is true – James does say that, and it does seem like James is directly contradicting the Apostle Paul on the issue of faith and works. Paul tells us, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested… through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Rom. 3:20-22). And James very bluntly says, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24).

It is made even more explicit when both James and Paul draw on the same example from the Old Testament to validate their points: Abraham. Paul says, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:2-3). But James says, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works” (James 2:21-22). Yikes! What do we do with that? Drop our Bibles and run away crying?

No, friends, we do not need to lose our faith in Scripture – Peter himself tells us that the simple minded often twist Paul’s words because he sometimes writes about complex matters (2 Pet. 3:16). Let’s look at two simple things to help us understand why James and Paul aren’t butting heads right now.

  1. The “works” that James and Paul are talking about are different. The works that are in Paul’s mind are “works” that are done to merit favor with God to earn salvation (read the whole context of Romans 3). The works that are in James’ mind are “works” that are done to display the already received salvation – remember, he already confirmed that the audience he is writing to are already Christians (James 1:18; he calls them “brothers” in 2:14).
  2. The audience that the works are being displayed for in James and Paul are different. For Paul, the works are being done before the audience of God (Rom. 3:20, ‘…justified in [God’s] sight.”). For James, the audience is other brothers and sisters (James 2:18, “…I will show you [other person] my faith by my works”). Only God can see our faith; other people cannot see what our heart’s believe – but other people can see our works. So, the only way our faith can be displayed to other people around us is through its manifestation in our good works. So for Paul, our good works will never earn our justification before God, but for James our good works should prove our justification to others around us.

James seems to understand this while he is describing Abraham, because he reckons back to God’s declaration of righteousness of Abraham, long before Abraham offers up Isaac, “You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed [lit. “fulfilled”] by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness'” (James 2:22-23). James sees that Abraham’s faith already had earned his justification in the sight of God, but that declaration from God consequently led to the good works of offering up Isaac. This good work flowed from his faith, and therefore is the fruition of his faith. Faith in Christ leads to good works – our righteousness isn’t built halfway on faith and halfway on good works. Our righteousness stands in faith and faith alone.

Perhaps an illustration would help: imagine one boy who has a cold, distant, angry father, and another boy who has a warm, loving father. One day the bad father, in a moment of rage, yells at the boy, “If you want to earn your place in this family then you better start doing your part around here!” The boy then may begin to rush around and start doing chores around the house, but what is motivating him? He is trying to earn his place. These are the kind of “works” that Paul is talking about should never be present in a Christian’s life. Now, imagine one day the good father picks his son up, gives him a big hug, and says, “Hey bud, think you could give me a hand around the house?” The boy will then follow his dad around, helping him out and doing chores, but what is motivating him? His love for his father. These are the kinds of works that James is talking about should be present in a Christian’s life. We have already received, by faith not by works, the declaration that we are in the family of God – so now, we obey motivated by a desire to please our father because we love Him. Dallas Willard sums it up wisely, “Grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning.”

So, What is He Saying?

Now that we see what James isn’t saying (that we are saved by our works), then what is he saying? James is telling us that faith always leads to a changed life. If we see no change in our life, then we have no comfort that our faith is actually genuine. “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (Ja. 2:17). James is saying that if our conversion experience has not led to a transformation, then our conversion was most likely largely imaginary. James pushes this even further, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (Ja. 2:19). That verse has always shook me – demons have a clearer understanding of God than we do; they have no doubt in their mind that God exists, but no one would be looking to a demon for a spiritual model to emulate. There is a cheap, imitation faith that knows all the right answers, but loves everything the world loves. If you had some really fancy car, with shiny paint, sparkly rims and Italian leather seats – it wouldn’t matter if the car had no engine in it. The car will never do what is made to do – no matter how slick it looks. Our “faith” isn’t really faith if it doesn’t actually motivate us to change, just like a “car” isn’t really a car if it doesn’t have a motor in it – its just a hollow shell.

Remember friends, we are not saved by our good works, we are saved for good works. This is Paul’s inseparable logic if Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:8-10).

What Does it Look Like?

If “dead faith” is a life of no good works, then what does authentic faith look like? Here is my definition, faith in action is a struggle to live out the implications of our new identity. I’m not getting all of that from our section in James here, but a grouping of other passages. For James, he spends his entire letter showing that “authentic faith” leads to patience in suffering, fighting for equality in the church, taking care of one another’s needs, restricting our tongue from wicked speech, prayerfulness, humility, and generosity. But you could quickly sum it all up with saying that James believes that “authentic faith” always leads to “loving your neighbor as yourself”. James summarizes the law in 2:8 as “love your neighbor as yourself.”

So where am I getting my definition? Why didn’t I just say, faith in action is loving your neighbor as yourself? Well, because it is a little more complex than that. We never want to turn a blind eye to the rest of Scripture as we are studying one individual part of Scripture – that is what leads to twisting and manipulating that Peter was warning us about earlier. Here are two reasons why my explanation is different:

  1. “Struggle” If we just said that faith in action is loving your neighbor as yourself, we might lose sight of the incredible difficulty of that command. It is a struggle – I get that word from Jesus, “Strive to enter through the narrow door” (Luke 13:24). The Christian life is a life of effort, striving and work – this language is all over the Bible (Phil. 2:13; Rom. 8:13; Matt. 5:30). I particularly like the word “struggle” because it implies that we may not always get it perfect. But the point is not perfection; the point is that there is a fight – we may not win every battle, but we will never make peace with our sin.
  2. “Live out the implications of our new identity’”. I get this from Ephesians, “Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:22-24). We have been given a new identity – child of God. So we now live in light of that identity, “created after the likeness of God.” So the grounds for why we want to love our neighbors as ourselves? Because that is precisely how God loved us – and our new identity is centered on us reflecting the image of God at its core. Notice how it mentions the struggle of fighting off the “old self” with its desires by being “renewed in the spirit of your minds”. Paul is saying that a fundamental part of being in the “new man” is to have a renewed spirit and a renewed way of thinking.

An illustration might be helpful: imagine there is a clear, fresh river running through a forest. But after a storm one night, a deluge of dirt, sticks, and rocks plug up a part of the river, so that the river is diverted away and there is now a portion of the river that is cut off from the rest of it. So, there is a pool of water sitting below the dam, no longer connected to the river and no longer flowing. What will happen to it? It will become stagnant. Slowly, moss will begin to creep in around the rocks that lined the once-rushing river. In big gooey blobs, algae will begin to blot the surface of the water. Snakes, toads, mosquitoes and flies will begin to congregate, and, maybe worst of all, it will begin to stink. That is a good illustration of the human predicament. We were cut off from God by the dam of sin, leaving us to fester in its effects.

Now, when Jesus saves us and gives us faith, it is like a piece of that dam crumbles, and out spills fresh, cold, clean water into our stagnant souls. Now, the stinky pond still has a long way to go, but in time there will be considerable changes – the algae won’t be so thick, the smell will start to go away, and the sickly hue of the water will gradually become clearer and clearer. When we meet Christ, He pours His presence into us in the form of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit begins to fundamentally change us – and in time, our lives begin to look different. We begin to love and care for others in ways that we never did before. We begin seeing the beauty of Christ in a depth that we never knew possible before. And out of the overflow of this new heart, our outward actions follow suit. Not perfectly, but repentantly.

So, friends, James has two things for you to take away from this today. First, be encouraged: our heavenly Father is a good Father – He has already declared we are in the family of God, by the work of His Son. Our works and effort are not needed to earn anything at all – God is not your boss, He is your father. Secondly, be convicted – if your heart loves and cherishes everything that the world loves, and your life looks exactly like the rest of the world, then perhaps your faith is dead. Perhaps you have never actually surrendered to the Lord – if there is no struggle against sin in your life, than dear friend, you have no assurance that you have saving faith. So come now, come to Him, surrender yourself – ask that the dam of sin would crack open and that He would change your swamp-like heart. He will be there, in an instant, by your side with arms wide open, ready to take you into His loving arms.

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