Holiness, Me and the Church – Part 5

Faith and Deed – James 2:14-26

Based on a sermon from 22nd May 2022

Here’s an age-old question:  Can faith with no works save you?  Works and faith have often been at the centre of debate in the church.  So, what exactly is necessary for salvation?

Some groups have gone the legalistic route, trusting in their good works to save them, believing that by strict adherence to rules they can earn favour with God.  Others have said the mind is most important and physical actions aren’t. Therefore, just believe and you will be okay.

It’s a fundamental issue and one that James covers in detail here.  Remember James is a practical book so it is natural he will emphasise the practical side.  Is faith without works of any use?  Can that faith save him?

James gives an illustration to prove his main point (that faith without works is dead).  The example is this.  A person in need comes to you for help.  With smooth words you bless the person and wish them well, sending them on their way.  Judging only by your words it would appear that you have great love, compassion, and mercy for this person.  However, you do nothing tangible to help this person.  They go away exactly the same as they came, – in need.  Your beautiful words did nothing to satisfy their need.

Here’s a rhetorical question: What use is that?  The obvious answer; it is no use.

The response to the situation above is hypocritical.  It would be better to just truthfully say “I won’t help you.  I don’t want to help you.”  The implication is that words are not as important as actions.  Empty words are useless.

So, James is saying that faith without works is dead (17).  This is the point of his previous illustration, and is a major theme of his epistle; Christianity has to be lived out practically in everyday life.

In chapter one, he showed that trials test true faith.  Perseverance in trials is an indicator that a person’s faith is real and that they are truly saved.  Thus, response to trials is test number one.

Test number two is works.  The point is similar to the one at the end of chapter 1 about hearing and doing.  Knowing a lot of things is pointless unless that knowledge changes how you live.

Simply put, this means that a person with real faith will live a changed life.  A person who is genuinely saved will bear fruit.  Jesus taught the same thing.  In Matthew 7:17 Jesus says; “So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.”

We are to evaluate our own spiritual condition by examining our fruit.  Are you zealous for the Lord?  Are the fruit of the Spirit evidenced in your life?  Do you love sharing the gospel?  Do you delight in studying God’s Word and prayer?  Do you sacrifice things in your own life in order to pursue God?

Those things are evidence that you are a good tree.  On the other hand, going to church, being baptised, joining the choir, praying a prayer, owning a Bible, calling yourself a Christian are not very good indicators of salvation.

Warning!  Not all belief is saving faith (19).  There are some kinds of belief that don’t save.  The demons believe God.  Satan and demons have mostly orthodox doctrine.  They know personally the Father, Son, and Spirit.  That is, they believe in His existence and power.  They certainly know God created the world.  We know they believe in the judgement to come (Luke 8:31).  But they hate God with all of their hearts and fight against Him with every breath even though they know He is real and the Judge.

Demons believe God, but they do not submit to Him; neither do they rest in Him.  So, although they believe God, they do not believe in God, that He is worthy of their adoration and praise.  This verse shows us very clearly that head knowledge doesn’t save.  Even acceptance of the fact that God is true doesn’t save.  One must place their faith in Jesus and submit to Him as Lord in order to be saved.  So, agreement to a list of facts about God is not enough, (Acts 16:31).

As we look at these verses it appears that James may be contradicting Paul’s teachings of justification by faith.  How can we reconcile James’ teaching with Paul’s?  Is he contradicting Paul?  It’s not a necessary disagreement, as this passage actually complements the message of Paul very consistently.  The reason for confusion involves a mistaken view of the biblical definition of “faith.”  Saving faith is not merely agreement; it is trust.  James makes it clear that the “faith” which he says cannot save is mere intellectual belief.  True faith saves, but it also results in works.

James readily acknowledges that salvation is a gift from God (see James 1:17-18) and quotes Genesis 15:6, which says that “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”  So, it is clear that James does not believe in salvation by works alone and this passage as part of Scripture cannot be teaching that.

So what then is the point?

We know that James is a book stressing practical living and showing us some tests we can apply to see if we are genuinely saved.  In this passage James is emphasising the action that must come out of genuine, living faith.

So which came first, Abraham’s faith or his offering of Isaac?

His faith came first.  He first demonstrated faith many years earlier by obeying God’s call to “go to the country I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1).  Even when God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac he first left his place and travelled to the location to be used for sacrifice.  From the beginning, he believed that God would raise up Isaac from the dead (Hebrews 11:19).  His steadfast belief in God led him to obedience.  So we are saved by faith alone.  But practically speaking, this faith must show itself through action or it is dead.

Then we have another example of Rahab, who demonstrates faith in action, because her works proved that her faith was genuine.

Joshua 2:9-11 tells us:

9 and (Rahab) said to them, ‘I know that the Lord has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. 10 We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. 11 When we heard of it, our hearts sank and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.’

This is Rahab’s statement of faith.  It shows very clearly that she believed God is the real God of heaven and earth.  She followed this statement with actions that proved that she meant what she said.  She risked her life in order to save the lives of the spies.  In essence she betrayed her own country, people, and idols, because of her faith in the real God.

If Rahab had spoken these words to the spies and then reported them to Jericho’s authority, it would have proved that she still was loyal to her own idols.  It would have proved that her faith in God was not genuine, certainly not strong enough to change her lifestyle or affect her choices.

James said that Rahab was “justified by works.”  These works proved to Israel that she was loyal to Jehovah.  It was on the basis of these works (saving the spies) that she and her family were saved.

Faith and works are two sides of the same coin.  Without faith, Rahab never would have risked her life for strangers.  And without her deeds of protection, her professed faith would have been empty.  As James says in verse 26, “faith without deeds is dead.”

This is a stark warning of the need for personal examination.  Your faith should change how you live your daily life.  Would a neutral party observing your life find any evidence that what you believe is changing how you live life on a day to day basis? 

Living thoughts

This is your opportunity to spend time alone with God.  The more time you spend with Him the more you will get to know Him as He reveals more of who He is to your heart, soul and spirit.  This time will be personal and wholly unique to your faith journey with Him.

Read again the sermon and the two passages from Scripture: James 2:14-26 and John 14:23-29, and let them speak to you afresh in light of remaining steadfast to the Gospel.  As God speaks to you why not write down (in your journal) what you sense God is saying to you.

The benefit of writing down your thoughts helps you to check them against Scripture, and then plants them more firmly in your heart and mind than just simply thinking on things.

Digging into God’s Word

Go into a quiet place and invite God to show you how He wants you to respond these questions.

As you ponder on them why not write down your thoughts and share any reflections with others.

  • Ask God to show you two ways your faith has changed how you live on a day to day basis.
  • Now ask God to show you two more ways that your faith needs to be reflected in your daily life.  Again, give thanks to God for what He shows you and ask Him to give you strength and courage to believe and do, so you live both with faith in Christ and deeds for Christ.

Prayer Response

God, I pray for a softening of my heart, an openness to your Word, and for spiritual awakening in my soul and spirit.  I pray that your fruit, planted in me by your Word, will yield a harvest hundred-fold more than was sown, for your glory’s sake.

God, I pray for your word to bear fruit in the lives of all families, all churches and all communities, and among the nations that we will witness revival in your name. Through Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.