As we continue our James series, This Is the Life, I invite you to open your Bible to James 2:14-26.
Did you see this obituary in the paper this week?
Faux Faith died Wednesday, October 11, 2017, at the age of 68. Faux was stillborn on September 15, 1949, during a fall revival service at First Baptist Church, Hot Springs, Arkansas. According to his testimony, “It was an exciting service. The evangelist preached on hell and scared us all to death. Several of my friends went forward at the invitation. I didn’t want to be left out.”
Faux will be remembered by his friends for his capacity to say the kindest words to people in need. He will also be remembered for his keen knowledge of Christian doctrine. “Nobody knew the Bible like Faux,” said a longtime friend and fellow church member. Faux rarely missed church. He still holds the church record for consecutive Sundays in Sunday School: 27 years, 3 months, 2 weeks. When asked for a list of the ways Faux served in the church or community, the pastor fumbled for words, and finally said, “Well, he was here a lot and knew his Bible pretty well.”
Funeral services will be held for Faux Faith on Sunday, October 15, at the church. The pastor’s eulogy is entitled “Faith Without Works Is Dead.”
Welcome to my life. I do a lot of funerals, read a lot of obituaries. And what am I to do with a person like Faux Faith—the person who claimed to be Christian but who bore no fruit to suggest the commitment was real? I wish I could just assume anybody who ever prayed the sinner’s prayer was a genuine believer. You know that prayer:
Lord Jesus, I know I’m a sinner. Forgive me for my sin. Please come into my life and be my Savior and Lord. Thank you for dying for me. Now help me to live for you.
We call that or anything like that “the sinner’s prayer.” We tell people if you’ll pray that prayer, God will save you on the spot. But here’s the deal: what about those people who pray a sinner’s prayer and that’s about it. They may come to church now and then. They may learn some doctrine and believe the right things. But they bear no fruit. They continue to live a self-directed life with nary a thought of what Jesus might want them to do. They sin without seeking forgiveness or turning in repentance. And when they die, and I ask the family about their faith, about all the family has to fall back on is: “Well, he believed in God and made a commitment to Jesus years ago.” I ask, “How did he live his faith?” And they answer: “He believed in God and made a commitment to Jesus years ago.” They may add: “He came to church now and then. I think he read his Bible some and prayed a little.” And if I ask, “What kind of fruit did he bear for Christ? What did he have to show for his Christian life?” The answer is the same, “He believed in God and made a commitment to Jesus years ago.” And then they stick something like this in the obituary: “He is now dancing and singing with the angels,” or “She went home to be with her Lord.” Her Lord? Really? From everything I’ve learned, Jesus wasn’t her Lord, she was.
I wish I could just read the obituaries of these very nominal (and I’ll put this in quotes) “Christians” and think nothing about it. But every time I do, I see James out of the corner of my eye looking at me with raised eye-brows and one of those “really?” looks on his face. Then he pulls out his New Testament letter and reads me this … (read the text).
If we’ve learned anything as we’ve studied James it’s this: James is not a textbook for the lecture hall; it’s a handbook for the lab. It’s not a notebook either; it’s a playbook. We huddle up in worship. James calls the play. We break the huddle, and execute the play in church and world. If all we get from James is a bunch of notes in the margin, James would shake his head in disappointment and say, “You’re not paying attention.” Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit he drops another one of those texts on us today. Here’s the gist of it: faith without works is dead.
He’s not arguing with Paul who stressed that salvation is by grace through faith rather than by our works. Our works can’t save us. Only Jesus’ work in the cross and resurrection can save us. That’s the gospel. James is not arguing that point. James is not trying to teach Christians how to be saved. He’s providing a way for a Christian to determine if he really is saved. And here’s the test: if your salvation is genuine, you’ll produce good works. Paul would agree. In Ephesians 2:8-10, after declaring we are saved by grace through faith and not by works, Paul immediately adds that God created us to do good works he prepared in advance for us to do. That’s the gospel too. God saves you for good works. If you claim saving faith in Jesus and produce no good works, your faith is phony, faux, dead. Pretty simple.
James introduces us to a couple of imposters that masquerade as saving faith.
We meet one of them in vv. 14-17. This impostor’s name is Big Talk-Little Do. James speaks of so called Christians who see their own Christian brothers and sisters in dire need for the simple basics of life like food and clothes. But instead of giving these people what they need, Big Talk-Little Do gives them only a verbal blessing: “Go, I wish you well, keep warm and well fed.” He talks, but he doesn’t lift one finger or expend one ounce of energy to help. Big Talk-Little Do. “Some faith,” James says. That faith is phony. That faith is dead.
If we’re paying attention, this is where James would invite us to look in the mirror. He wants us to ask ourselves: “Am I Big Talk-Little Do?” Saving faith is more than saying a few words, even nice words. Saving faith shows up in how we treat the poor and those in need. Saving faith puts clothes on their backs and food in their bellies. Saving faith serves the Lord and one’s brothers and sisters in Christ.
Here’s another way of thinking about this: if we were to pack up all the good works you’ve offered the poor and those in need would you require a trunk, an overnight bag, a brief case, or could we just put them in your pocket? A little “God bless you” and “Good luck to you” without any works to back it up is not true faith. It’s Big Talk-Little Do.
And here’s still another way to think about this: if you do nothing more than look at the needs in the church and the needs in the community that the church is trying to address and declare: “Somebody ought to do something about that,” then unless you’re that somebody, you’re Big Talk-Little Do. And your faith is dead. That’s one imposter.
Here’s the other. In vv. 18-19, James introduces us to another impostor who masquerades as saving faith. Her name is Right Theology-Wrong Behavior. In v. 19 James highlights the faith of demons—pretty good theologians those demons. Israel’s cornerstone confession of faith is Deuteronomy 6:4 — “Listen, Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” And every demon shouts, “Amen!” And if a demon visits church and hears a pastor say, “Jesus died on the cross for our sins. Jesus was raised from the dead on the third day. Jesus is Lord and the only way to salvation,” that demon would shout, “Amen!” Good theologians those demons. Demons could make straight A’s in seminary.
And even more than having good theology, demons get all emotional when they think about God. James says that “demons believe—and they shudder.” The word for “shudder” in v. 19 is a word that is used only here in the New Testament. It is akin to the horror that causes one’s hair to stand on end—like footsteps behind you in a dark deserted parking lot, like the sound of shattered glass in the middle of the night. Terrifying! A demon’s belief in God is a terrifying emotional experience for that demon. He shivers and shudders at the name of God.
Demons have good theology. They get emotional about God. But demons never lift a finger to do a good work for anybody. Demons bear no fruit of good works. In fact, their behavior is deplorable, destructive, deadly. They’ve come to steal, kill, and destroy (Jn. 10:9), but man, their theology is solid! Nobody would argue that a demon’s faith can save him. So please don’t argue that your Right Theology-Wrong Behavior can save you. A demon’s faith touches his emotions but not enough to lead to a change in behavior. It doesn’t provoke good works. And saving faith can’t help but show itself in good works. Right Theology-Wrong Behavior is found wanting. It does not lead to salvation because it does not lead to good works.
James holds up the mirror for us again. You may be the kind of person whose theology is all in order. You know what you believe about everything from the doctrine of God to the doctrine of eschatology, but if such beliefs do not issue forth in good works, then you are lost as a goose. Doctrinal knowledge is important for a Christian. But if it doesn’t produce good works, then the faith you have is dead.
And the same goes for those who get real emotional about God. Maybe talk of the Lord makes you shudder. Maybe it gives you chills and thrills, warm fuzzies and goose bumps. Maybe you come to worship, sing with gusto, sway to the music, raise your hands in praise. But unless that kind of emotion translates into good works that help others and bring glory to God, then your faith is dead. Right Theology-Wrong Behavior is an impostor and will not cut it when it comes to saving faith.
Words alone and right beliefs can’t save you. If you practice the faith of one of these imposters, then you will be left holding the bill for the wages of your sin. People carry faux and phony faith into hell every day. Hear the words of our Lord Jesus: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 7:21). Forsake faith’s impostors—they’re no good. They do you no good. Embrace the saving faith that can’t help but produce good works.
James shows us what that looks like. In vv. 20-25, James introduces us to two persons in Israel’s history that illustrate the faith that works.
The first is Abraham. In Genesis 22, God told Abraham to take his only son Isaac—the son through whom God would give Abraham descendants that outnumber the stars—and sacrifice the boy on Mount Moriah. Abraham didn’t balk. Abraham didn’t say to God:
Lord, you know I believe in you. It’s makes me all warm inside to think that you would ask me to give you my son in sacrifice. And I believe that even if I take his life, you could raise him to life again. I know all this. So let’s forget the long trip and all the drama, and just take my word for it.
Nope. Abraham said nothing of the sort. Abraham obeyed God. This was no easy obedience either. But Abraham did in faith what God asked him to do. Abraham believed God, and as James says in v. 23, that belief was what was credited to Abraham as righteousness. But the proof of that belief was this: Abraham took his boy up that mountain. As James writes in v. 22, Abraham’s faith and actions were working together (literally, Abraham’s faith worked with his works). Abraham’s faith produced good works. Saving faith always does. Abraham is one example.
Rahab is the other. Rahab, that Jericho prostitute and madam, watched out for Israel’s spies who were doing a recon mission before they entered the Promised Land to conquer it. Rahab hid them and got them out of Jericho safely. But it was not just her work of hiding the spies that made her righteous, it was her faith. In Joshua 2:9 Rahab said to the spies, “I know that the Lord has given you this land and that the terror of you has fallen on us ….” In faith, she believed that God was giving the Israelites the land, and so her actions grew out of that faith conviction. That’s the way saving faith works.
Rahab and Abraham are the examples that James gives, but if you want more examples to prove this point, you just need to look back at Hebrews 11 where over and over the author of Hebrews writes in his faith hall of fame: “By faith, Noah did …; By faith, Abraham did …; By faith, Moses did …; By faith, the people did …; By faith, Gideon did …” Faith … did. Faith … did. Faith … did. Faith always does. Faith in the New Testament is more than a noun—it is a verb. It is not passive—it is active. One doesn’t so much have faith; one does faith. Faith is not so much something we possess; it’s something we live. Faith does.
James makes his point: a faith that saves produces good works that help others and glorify God. If you have a faith that doesn’t produce good works, you have a false faith that will not save you. If you plant a corn seed in the ground, it will grow corn. If God plants saving faith in your heart, it will grow good works. If the “faith” you have is not growing good works in your life, then your faith is as dead as a doornail. It is as lifeless as a corpse (v. 26). It stinks to high heaven and draws maggots and flies. Such “faith” is useless … worthless … dead! I like the way Eugene Peterson translates v. 26 in The Message: “The very moment you separate body and spirit, you end up with a corpse. Separate faith and works and you get the same.”
Last year, America was introduced to Desmond Doss, an army medic who served in the South Pacific during World War II. We met Doss in the film Hacksaw Ridge. As Marine and Army forced tried to take Okinawa, the Japanese defended it like cornered tigers. Hacksaw Ridge was at the top of a sharp, steep rock escarpment. The army’s job was to clear the ridge of Japanese. Easier said the done. It appeared to be in hand until a vicious Japanese counterattack forced the army down the cliff and off the ridge in full retreat. One man stayed. The medic Desmond Doss. On a ridge crawling with the enemy, Doss searched in the darkness for the wounded, and he rigged a method to get them down the cliff. In spite of numerous close calls, Doss was able to save the lives of as many as 75 men. And do you know what drove Doss to do this incredible thing? It wasn’t military discipline. It wasn’t patriotism. It wasn’t even heroic bravery.
It was his faith. Doss was a devout believer. He believed God put him in the war and on that ridge for one purpose: to save lives—including the lives of some of his platoon who treated him like dirt for his Christian convictions. Doss described that long horrifying night and both his motivation and his strength and courage: “I was praying the whole time. I just kept praying, ‘Lord, please help me get one more.'”
And he got 75 more. He was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Desmond Doss wasn’t around when James wrote his epistle. And Doss would never make claim to be an Abraham or a Rahab in the history of the Christian faith. But Doss is just as much an illustration of a faith that works.
- Doss’ faith wouldn’t let him become Big Talk-Little Do. Doss didn’t pause at the top of the cliff before he made a retreat to save his own life, and shout He across the ridge to the wounded: “Good luck, boys, hope you live through your wounds and get well.”
- Nor did Doss retreat to safety at the bottom of the cliff and become Right Theology-Wrong Behavior: “God feels deeply for those wounded soldiers and I do too. I shudder to think of what they’re going through on that ridge.”
Nope. Doss’ faith moved him to act—to produce good works that helped people and glorified God. There were a lot of casualties on Hacksaw Ridge, but Doss’ faith wasn’t one of them. His faith in God was very much alive. And because he practiced a living faith, a faith that works, a faith that does, at least 75 people who would have died on that ridge, lived to tell the story.
Doss’ example is extreme. But most of us work out our faith in simpler things: caring for the poor, helping out the needy, showing kindness to a neighbor, giving somebody a ride, buying a hungry man a sandwich, fostering a child, holding the hand of the grieving, teaching children, sharing Jesus in word and deed. Simple things: serving church and world to the glory of God. James is clear. Faith without works is dead. Please live your life so that when it comes your time to die, people who know you best won’t have to wonder if the faith you professed was the saving kind. Faith works. Faith does. Does yours?
Preached: October 15, 2017
First Baptist Church, Hot Springs, AR
John Scott McCallum II