James2v14to25: FAITH AND WORKS.

(A) Introduction (Read the reference.)

This passage is about the nature of faith. Faith could hardly be more important as it is through faith that the gift of salvation is obtained. Paul writes to the Ephesians: For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith. Eph2v8. Salvation is God's gift and so it cannot be earned. Paul stresses that it is not by works; so no-one can boast. Eph2v9. So can we conclude that works do not matter? It is a pity that some Christians overlook what Paul goes on to write in v10: For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. This is the position taken by James. He argues that faith is active and this means deeds are it's essential ingredient.

James makes three points:

(1) Wishful thinking is not faith. Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? v15and16.

James teaches that wishful thinking is useless. It is easy, agreeable but completely useless. It may be comforting for an elderly, lonely, love-starved bachelor to imagine that God will introduce him to an attractive, jolly, rich widow but it is wholly unproductive. I should know! It would be far, far better for the discontented bachelor to join a lonely hearts club. Nothing comes to he who waits - only to he who makes some effort. There are others who adopt much the same strategy when they get the toothache. Such is a sufferer's fear of dentists that he will convince himself that the pain will ease and the tooth will right itself. Eventually it becomes clear that no amount of wishful thinking is going to bring relief and action has to be taken.

God is the object of much wishful thinking! One pious hope is that none will be lost because God is love. Everyone will go to heaven whether they like it or not. Nothing could be more delightful than this belief especially as it releases us from all responsibility. Unfortunately it is false. God has gone to extraordinary lengths to leave us free. He has granted us the ultimate freedom of rejecting Jesus and saying, "No thank you," to heaven. All our choices must carry consequences if we are to be free. Jesus never said, "It doesn't matter what you do because God will save you anyway." This is what he said: "A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

Another pious hope, shared by very many, is that you only have to live a decent life to go to heaven. Now this obviously reassures lots of folk because it is such a widely held view. They are content with themselves as they are and assume that God will be of the same opinion. But none of us have a right to life after death. We are wholly dependent upon God for eternal life. He has the absolute right to establish the criteria by which we are given that life. The condition is clearly stated over and over again in John's gospel: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John3v16. God sent Jesus into the world to save us because our lives do not satisfy him. We must believe in Jesus for life everlasting.

A third example of wishful thinking goes something like this: I'm happy to accept that Jesus died on the cross to save sinners if that will insure me a place in heaven. There is great ignorance of the Bible in Britain. Very few schoolchildren know anything about the ethical teaching of Jesus. However, if you asked them why Jesus died on the cross - they would know. He died that they might be forgiven. It is probably reassuring to believe that, if the worst comes to the worst and there really is a righteous Judge up there, Jesus died to make us good.

Saving faith is not passive. It involves action. Faith without action is not faith at all but merely wishful thinking. Sinners need to commit to Jesus in his entirety to be saved and given eternal life. Jesus said, "I am the bread of life." John6v48. He went on to say: "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread he will live for ever. v50. The greatest commitment a hungry man can make to a steak and kidney pudding is to eat it. Jesus calls for this total, abandoned, unreserved commitment to himself in all his offices when he says, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. v53.

The active ingredient of saving faith is displayed at the very beginning of the Christian life. Luke reports the reaction of the crowd to Peter's sermon on the day of Pentecost so: When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said .... "Brothers, what shall we do." Acts2v37. They were told to repent and be baptised. The Jews had to change their attitude to Jesus and identify with him in baptism. After that they joined the church. They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Acts2v42.

The active ingredient of saving faith must also be evident during the Christian life. Profession without practice is useless and it will not save us. Nothing could be further from the truth than these words of R.T. Kendall in his book, 'Once saved, always saved': Whoever once truly believes that Jesus was raised from the dead and confesses that Jesus is Lord will go to heaven when he dies. Such a person will go to heaven when he dies no matter what work, or lack of work, may accompany such faith. This is a ridiculous thing to write because true belief must produce works that please God. Absence of works proves absence of faith. Of course anyone who truly believes in Jesus will receive eternal life but anyone who truly believes will bear fruit. Lack of fruit is a denial of faith.

This fact is stressed over and over again by Jesus. He says: "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognise them.

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. Mt7v19to21.

Leaves alone could not save the barren fig tree. The trees only hope was to bear figs otherwise it would be cut down. So it is with us - profession without practice is worse than useless and it will not save us.

(2) Orthodoxy without sympathy is not faith. But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds."
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that - and shudder.

James introduces an objector who says, "You have faith; I have deeds;" the implication being, it is not necessary to have both. Some Christians adhere to a series of accurate statements about God whereas others practice good works. Both are genuine followers of Jesus in their different ways.

This argument cuts no ice with James. Fallen angels believe there is one God. They know that idolatory is a delusion. However, the orthodox beliefs of demons give them no joy - they shudder in terror at their knowledge. It shows that they are out of sympathy with God.

I suppose most children in secondary schools in Britain would agree that education is good for them. This belief is not always born out by their behaviour. Whenever it snows there is a yearning for conditions to so deteriorate that they get sent home early. The pupils get enormous pleasure from missing their lessons. They are not completely in sympathy with the education system.

The Pharisees were orthodox at the time of Jesus. They believed in God, the verbal inspiration of the Law, the promises made to Abraham, prayer, fasting, tithing, angels and the resurrection of the dead. Yet they were totally out of sympathy with God. Jesus instructed his listeners: "The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practise what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not wiling to lift a finger to move them. Mt23v3and4. He goes on to say: "Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices - mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law - justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel." Mt23v23and24. The Pharisees practised a narrow legalism because they were out of sympathy with God. Their belief in God was shown to be defective by their deeds.

I have nearly finished reading Philip Yancey's, 'What's So Amazing About Grace?' He is of the opinion that those religious groups that make much of God's grace in their literature are those that lack grace in their conduct. I agree with him. Many Calvinistic denominations, who believe salvation is all of grace and that even faith is God's gift, are remarkably legalistic. In John Calvin's Geneva the following were forbidden: feasting, dancing, singing, pictures, statues, relics, church bells, organs, altar candles; 'indecent or irreligious' songs, staging or attending theatrical plays; wearing rouge, jewellery, lace, or 'immodest' dress; speaking disrespectfully of your betters; extravagant entertainment, swearing, gambling, playing cards, hunting, drunkenness; naming children after anyone but figures in the Old Testament; reading 'immoral or irreligious' books. A man who christened his son Claude was put in jail for 4 days!! I would have hated to live under this regime!

If we believe in Jesus we shall be in sympathy with his teaching. He outlined what he expected of his followers in the eight Beatitudes. There is nothing legalistic or narrow about being poor in spirit, doing good, showing mercy, making peace or taking the blame. There is nothing unlovely about the fruit of the Spirit: joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Gal5v22.

We need to live near to the heart of God.

            There is a place of quiet rest
            Near to the heart of God;
            A place where sin cannot molest,
            Near to the heart of God.

Even the disciples of Jesus were not at all times in sympathy with Jesus. They found it difficult to believe in his teaching on wealth, divorce and forgiveness.

Jesus told his disciples, "I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, "Who then can be saved?" Mt19v23to25.

The disciples did not seem keen on the idea of being married for life to one woman! Jesus said to the Pharisees: "I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery."
The disciples said to him, "If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry."

I don't think Peter was very impressed with Jesus' teaching on forgiveness recorded in Matt18v21and22. Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? up to seven times?
Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times."

Jesus was telling his followers to have a forgiving spirit. It is impossible to be legalistic about forgiveness. Grace is not calculating.

If our faith in Jesus is genuine we will not desire to be wealthy; we will remain faithful to one wife; our forgiveness will be generous and not grudging. Belief in Jesus is not just intellectual assent to a list of propositions about him. It means we have the warmest regard for him, we admire him, we are in sympathy with him and obey him.

Playing safe is not faith. See verses20to26.

There is always an element of risk when we exercise faith. If a pupil offered me a sweet my faith in his goodwill and generosity was put to the test. Faith involved putting the sweet in my mouth. Sometimes the sweet was designed to make a fool of the teacher. It tasted awful or stained the tongue blue! I invariably showed faith in my students and took the risk. Some years ago my gas boiler broke down. A friend told me that one of my old pupils, Martin, would install a new boiler at a very reasonable price. To show faith in Martin I had to take a risk and entrust him with the work. He did not let me down.

Rahab the harlot took a risk when she threw in her lot with the Children of Israel. She hid them on the roof of her house, lied to the agents of the King of Jericho and engineered their escape. Rahab said to Joshua's men: "For the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below. Now then, please swear to me by the LORD that you will show kindness to my family, because I have shown kindness to you." Joshua2v11and12. Rahab was told how to save herself and her family. The day the Israelites attacked Jericho they all had to be in the house with a scarlet cord in the window. They were! Deeds were integral to Rahab's faith. See exposition on Rahab's faith.

In the same way a sinner needs to take a risk to become a Christian. People resist the call of faith by saying to themselves: "I won't be able to keep it up. I'll make a fool of myself. I shan't be any different to how I am now." Peter urged his hearers to repent, to be baptised and to join the fellowship - to take the risk and get started on the Christian life.

Not long ago I heard a very moving testimony on Songs of Praise from a Japanese prisoner of war whom I will call Bob. For many, many years he hated the Japanese for what they did to him. Eventually he longed to be free of the destructive bitterness that consumed him. So Bob joined a peace mission to Japan with a group of other men who shared his terrible experiences. The former POW's were placed with Japanese families as part of the reconciliation process. One morning Bob's hostess suggested that he take her two little daughters down to the local river to feed the fish. Bob didn't want to go. He would much rather have met with the other Brits for a glass or two of sake. However, Bob agreed. He was in a bit of a huff and so he strode out in front of the two small girls. Then he felt a little hand in his. He looked down and there, by his side, was a tiny Japanese girl holding his hand. It was a small trusting hand. They went on together to feed the fish. Bob said to himself, "God I cannot hate these people any more ... ." Peace replaced his anger. Bob ended his testimony with the tears rolling down his craggy cheeks, saying, "I just love that little girl."

The point I wish to emphasise is that Bob's anger would never have been replaced by peace if he had not taken a risk and gone to Japan and if he had not agreed to take the girls to feed the fish. He didn't know how healing could come to his bitter heart but he took the necessary first steps in faith. Peter on the day of Pentecost urged his hearers to take those first steps of faith with the promise: "And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

There are times we need to take risks and exercise faith during the Christian life. Abraham was an old man when God required him to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, on one of the mountains of Moriah. When Isaac asked his father: "The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" Abraham showed his faith by saying: "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering." Abraham did not know how it was all going to work out but his actions exemplified the faith that is sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. Heb11v1. A faith that is certain of what we do not see must inevitably involve taking a risk.

I can recall Pastor Simon Ladd describing his lack of faith in his father's generosity. He requested a bicycle for Christmas. He was not certain of what he could not see and spent the days before Christmas searching every possible hiding place for a bicycle. Only when he found it could he rest content.

Obedience to Jesus commands entails taking a risk. Just consider a representative selection:

"But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well." Mt6v33.
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not break in and steal." Mt6v19and20.
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Mt5v3.
"Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." Mt5v11and12.

We do not show belief in Jesus by just assenting to these statements. By no means! We have to act upon them otherwise our faith is dead. James writes: You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. v24. The thing is - faith alone is not faith at all.

In Bunyan's, 'Pilgrim's Progress,' Christian meets Formalist and Hypocrisy on his journey to the Celestial City. They had not been through the narrow gate but come tumbling into the way over a wall. Formalist and Hypocrisy reckoned that they were no different from Christian because, when all was said and done, they were in the way. All went well until they came to the hill called Difficulty. The narrow way led up the hill but there were two paths around the hill - one to the right and the other to the left. Hypocrisy turned left into the way called Destruction and ended up in a wide field full of mountains where he tumbled and fell. Formalist turned right into the way called Danger and got lost in a wood.

The hill called Difficulty found out the false professors. Christian, meanwhile, showed faith by toiling up the hill - upward and onward to the Celestial City.

True believers overcome difficulties by faith. They endure hardness as good soldiers of Jesus Christ. They risk all to gain the crown of righteousness that awaits those that run the race and keep the faith. As the body without the spirit is dead so faith without deeds is dead. v26.

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