Teaching series from James

Faith that Works

James 2:14-26

Teaching t22014


James is writing to a group of people who value spirituality, and believe they are spiritual—but who are self-deceived.  So out of love, he writes to wake them up by describing what genuine spirituality looks like in real life.

One key feature of genuine spirituality is faith in Jesus.  James has already referred to faith in “our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” (2:1), and affirmed that it is through faith in Jesus that we gain entry into God’s kingdom (2:5).  But it is possible to agree that faith in Jesus is important, to think that you have faith in Jesus—and yet not have it.  This is James’ point in this passage (read 2:14-26).  He describes true faith as a faith that works.  We need to apply this passage, but first we must first deal with a problem...

The problem: Doesn’t James contradict Paul?

If you are at all familiar with the New Testament, you know that this passage (particularly 2:24) appears to contradict what Paul teaches (particularly Gal.2:16).  You’ve heard the claim: “The Bible is full of contradictions.”  Maybe (like many) you’ve said this yourself without actually knowing where any of these contradictions are.  Well, here’s one—a contradiction over the most important issue of all—how we get God’s acceptance!  What do we do with this? 

Actually, it’s not that difficult to harmonize these two passages.  The key is realizing that all words have a range of meaning, and the situation of the original audience determines their exact meaning. 

For example, just last week I said “You need to defend yourself” to someone in one setting (e.g., LEADER FALSELY ACCUSED, FOR THE BENEFIT OF THOSE WHO FOLLOW THEM), but I said “You should not defend yourself” to a different person in a different setting (e.g., FRIEND WHO HAS A “LOG” IN A CONFLICT).  If you lift these two sentences out of their contexts, it sounds like I contradicted myself.  But if you understand their contexts, there is no contradiction.

This is the case with these two passages.  Paul and James are addressing two different situations.  They use the same words in different ways to make different points.

Paul and James are addressing two different falsehoods:

Paul is addressing the falsehood of legalism—that we must earn God’s acceptance by our works (moral achievement & religious observance), instead of receiving God’s acceptance as a gift through faith in Jesus.

James is addressing the falsehood of dead orthodoxy—that mere mental agreement with correct doctrines (e.g., RECITING THE APOSTLES’ CREED) is sufficient to get God’s acceptance (2:19).

Paul and James are using “works” in different ways:

Paul uses “works” to refer to deeds done to earn God’s acceptance—in place of faith.

James uses “works” to refer to actions that demonstrate living faith (2:18b)—the natural result of faith.

Paul and James are answering different questions about justification:

Paul is answering the question: “How do I get justified/accepted before God?”  The answer is: “Only by faith in Jesus’ work for me—not by my works for God.”

James is answering the question: “How can it be shown to others that I have been justified/accepted by God?”  The answer is: “Only by actions that demonstrate a living faith in God (2:21-23,25).”  Thus, 2:24 means “A person is shown to be justified by what he does and not by faith alone.”

Finally, Paul and James are teaching different lessons about true faith:

Paul is teaching that true faith trusts in God’s promise instead of human merit.

James is teaching that true faith reveals itself in actions that are consistent with God’s promises.  Paul agrees with this (see Titus 1:16; Acts 26:20).

Application: “What kind of faith do I have?”

Now we’re ready to apply this passage by asking the question James wants us each to ask: “What kind of faith do I have?”  I want to ask this question to two different groups of people:

The first application is to people who agree with what the Bible teaches about God, and about Jesus (God’s unique Son/the Messiah), and about his death on the cross for our sins.  You may have been brought up in a Bible-believing church/family so that you have always agreed with this, or you may have begun reading the Bible and/or coming to Bible teachings and came to agree with this.  James is saying: “You can believe all of this—and still not be a true Christian.”  He challenges you to ask yourself how your faith in Jesus has changed your life.  Ask yourself:

“Has my faith in Jesus freed me from fear of death/God’s judgment?”  Mere mental agreement cannot do this (2:19).  John Wesley grew up in a Christian home, believed all of the above, started a “Holy Club” in college, and was on his way to be a missionary—but was not a true Christian.  He realized this when a severe storm hit his ship.  He was terrified to die because he lacked personal assurance of God’s forgiveness, but a group of true Christians exhibited a quiet calm that exposed his lack of true faith.  This experience ultimately led Wesley to admit this to God and cast himself on Jesus in a personal way.  This living faith gave him assurance of God’s love and forgiveness—and led to profound changes in his life.

“Has my faith in Jesus produced changes in my desires and lifestyle?”  Rahab’s faith in God moved her to hide the two Jewish spies at the risk of her own life.  Abraham’s faith in God moved him to obey God’s command to offer up his son.  You may not be able to relate to these specific examples, but they represent something you should be able to relate to.  At our baptism last month, every person shared how they made a personal decision to entrust themselves to Jesus and how Jesus had changed their lives since then (CONVICTION OF SINFUL BEHAVIORS & DESIRE TO LOVE & WITNESS).

Don’t hear these questions through a perfectionistic grid.  True Christians still struggle at times with fear of death/God’s judgment—but they have experienced a peace with God in this area.  True Christians still waver in their new way of life and fall back into old behaviors—but they can’t be comfortable here, and they have a new inner desire that fights with these old ways (Gal.5:17).

If you can’t answer “yes” to these questions, it is very likely that you do not have living faith in Jesus.  Jesus warns that there will be people at judgment day who are surprised that they are denied entry into his kingdom (Lk.13:24-17).  Don’t try to remedy this by changing your behaviors.  Call out to Jesus, tell him that you don’t have true faith in him—and ask him to help you to give yourself to him.  Then keep exposing yourself to his Word until this happens.  Give this same advice to family members and friends!

The second application is to true believers in Jesus who currently lack spiritual vitality.  You have experienced his forgiveness freeing you from fear of death/God’s judgment.  You have experienced him changing your desires and lifestyle.  But this is mostly a distant memory rather than a present reality.  You remember being excited about pondering God’s word and sharing and praying with God’s people—but now you merely have a “Christian routine” of Bible studies, social circle, etc.  You remember what it was like to have may have fresh conviction of sin, experience of forgiveness, and desire to give God’s love to others—but now you merely have a superficial “Christian niceness.”  You have had true faith in Jesus in the past (which makes you a child of God)—but you are currently operating mainly by mental agreement.  Consequently, your faith is like an atrophied muscle (PICTURE).  Every true Christian has this tendency.

What can you do if this describes you?  Nourishment through God’s Word (especially his promises) is crucial—but nourishment is not enough.  Read 2:22.  James says that faith is designed to work with actions, and faith is matured through actions.  So we have to put our faith to work!

That’s why it’s so important to ask yourself: “What scary steps of faith have I taken lately?” 

I say “lately” because faith (like muscle) atrophies quickly without exercise.  Studies show that muscle atrophy begins within 4 hours after the start of bed rest.  We can’t “coast” on yesterday’s faith—we must trust God afresh today!

I say “scary” because it always feels “scary” to trust God instead of myself.  But taking this step will be well worth it because you will experience God’s love and power and faithfulness afresh—the pulse-beat of spiritual health.  When I feel spiritually dry and weak, I usually think that I need more rest and entertainment—but what I usually need is more of this kind of exercise!

What scary step is God asking you to take?  I don’t know—but he does.  Like a loving tutor/trainer, he knows exactly what step will stretch and grow your faith, and he delights to show this to those who ask him this question. 



REMEMBER: The God who calls you to take steps like these has already taken them himself—for you.  Jesus offered himself up—for your sins.  Jesus served at the cost of his own life—for you.  He took those steps for you so that he can take these steps with you.

“What scary steps of faith are we urging one another to take?”  I fear that many of us are in a silent conspiracy with one another to not do this.  I need to have friends that will urge me to take the next step, and it is my responsibility in love to urge them to do the same thing (Heb.10:24).  This is a key feature of healthy Christian community!