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James (2011)

Faith and Works

James 2:14-25

Lesson audio

Readers of a certain antiquity will recall the comic strip Peanuts. In particular, you will recall a series of cartoons involving the Great Pumpkin. Poor Linus; he was convinced that the Great Pumpkin would arrive in the most sincere pumpkin patch. It did not matter what you believed; just as long as you were sincere. Today's Scripture talks about that:

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and be filled," and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. But someone may well say, "You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works." You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, "AND ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS," and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.

(James 2:14-26 NASB)

It doesn't matter what you do

It doesn't matter what you do as long as your belief system is right. Most of us would not subscribe to this position, if it were put so explicitly. It's something however that we often wind up doing because we don't think about. It is, of course, completely true that they're asked that the Christian performs which are not acts of service to mankind. In particular:

·         An act of devotion[1]. This is an act which brings glory to God from the devoted Christian. The world may view it as something extravagant, of little use in the world as a whole, and rather hard to understand. Worship is like that.

·         Similarly, an act of praise may seem somewhat strange. What practical good does it do to sing hymns? There is an argument that there is such a good, but the world itself is not going to see it that way.

·         Acts of charity, however, are universally seen as being significant indicators of what a person believes. Human beings reason that you would not perform an act of charity unless you are motivated by love – or pride. One way or the other, an act of charity is reconciled with your beliefs. So it does matter what you believe, but it also matters what you do.

That's why James asks us here, "what use is that?" If the situation calls for an act of charity, and you don't provide, what should the average human being conclude about that? That being the case, we can now take a look at some of the excuses and supposedly reasons we have for doing nothing.

"God will provide"

This is a fairly common one. It also means we, personally, don't happen to have the time or money or will to provide, but we have certain faith that God will do so. The fact that he might want to do so through us seems to be somewhat elusive. In fact, there is excellent reason for avoiding this excuse:

·         This is a form of testing God — which is forbidden.[2]

·         The truth is that God will provide. There are some spectacular examples of this in the Bible.[3] But it is also true that God expects us to be willing to provide.

·         We don't often see it this way, but God's method is to work through us. We are to work as if everything depended on us, and to pray as if everything depended upon him.[4]

"Not Right Now"

My wife and I usually carry gift cards to a local fast food restaurant. We do this so that we will be ready to give. Often, Christians are not ready to give. This should not be

·         This is a form of laziness. You know you should be charitable, but to do so means that you'll have to take the time and trouble to go and purchase some gift cards – before you need them. It is simply prudent to be prepared to give; it is laziness to omit such prudence.

·         Such lack of readiness causes hardness of heart.[5] We get used to not giving away anything, and it soon becomes habit.

·         Most deadly of all, assuring yourself that you will do it later runs the risk that later will not come. You do not know the day or hour of your Lord's return — but you do know that you should be ready.[6]

"I'm a specialist"

Some of us get the idea that we're perfectly prepared to be charitable, but only to certain selected few people. We specialize in a particular type of charity, so to speak. Are we specialize in doing something, or doing nothing? Remember the story of the starfish.

It Doesn't Matter What You Believe

Sincerity As Excuse

Most of us are pretty well aware that our sincerity about what we believe is not really a good excuse for believing stupid things. In fact, this is usually a simple cover for hypocrisy. But there are some sincerely believed items which we should look at. First, have you ever had someone tell you that they sincerely believe that the Bible would have said something had it been written a little later? It's just that Paul didn't know about online pornography, you see(pun intended). In fact this is not hypocrisy, but blasphemy. It is quite literally taking the Lord's name in vain, saying that he would have pronounced thus and such had he but lived a little later.

This is not usually used to permit something, but deny it. It is a cover for legalism. As you most likely know, legalism is a form of mental laziness; it substitutes rules and regulations for the understanding of the Spirit. Curiously, we have come to accept the idea that legalism is just fine as long as we are sincere about it.

Heresy and Error

There is a serious question behind this, however. There are any number of different positions held by serious Christians in one or another denomination which conflict with positions held by other denominations. Let's take an example: how often should you serve communion? The authors church services every week, citing the example given in the book of Acts. Other churches do it as seldom as once a year. Does this make them heretics? Or are they simply mistaken?

If you're going to answer this question, you will soon have to ask what's important in the faith and what is not. What is essential? We can look to the history of the church for this answer. How so? Simple; we look at all the things that have been called heresies so far and see whether common characteristics are. They generally fall into one of two categories:

·         Items concerning the atonement.

·         Items concerning either the divinity or humanity of Jesus.

These are the things that genuinely divide the church. The rest we may simply write off as simple errors. How did I get this dividing line? Simple enough; heresy is that which divides the church. How often you serve communion can be settled by a compromise at a committee meeting. Whether or not Jesus is fully divine will split the church — and has.

Why is this important? We're trying to determine whether or not it matters what you believe; when it does and when it doesn't.

Do Good Moslems Go to Heaven?

Here's an example of a question that does need an answer, and the answer is important. It also shows us the connection between whether or not our doctrine is correct (and what we do about it) and very important results. If Christianity is true, Moslems go to hell. If you believe that to be the case does your example matter? Does the small bit of charity you perform in the sight of a Moslem make a difference? Does your attitude about the major issues of the day (for example, the role of women in society) make a difference? Does what you believe make a difference?

Intellect and the Will

We Are What We Train to Be

Presuming that you now agree that your beliefs are important and should be correct as far as possible, there comes the question of how do we achieve this goal. The first step is in training the mind. This is fairly obvious; it's the reason we have sermons. The problem with it of course is that there is always less transfer of will than you think. In short, sermons are easily forgotten unless put in practice. It is also true however that well-trained Christians have an impact far beyond their numbers; ask any Catholic about the Jesuits. It's a part of Christian maturity; we train up a child in the way in which we should go. It applies to new Christian adults as well.

We Are What We Practice

Of course, we need to put what we have learned into practice. Paul put it to Timothy this way:

You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.

(2 Timothy 3:14-15 NASB)

(You might take a look at the next two verses as well, to see the context in which he said it.) This is the spiritual equivalent of physical exercise; by analogy, the church (and its classrooms) is the gymnasium of the spirit. Practice completes training. But the Christian has an additional resource of great power.

We Are What the Spirit Makes Us

One of the functions of the Holy Spirit is to reveal the things of God.[7] This is how it is the questions can often surprise the world with what they can do. In the 19th century, in Great Britain, the smart money was on the establishment to retain slavery. After all, the Bible doesn't say you're supposed to abolish it. So the Christians will probably have nothing to say about it. But by the power of the Spirit, there arose John Newton, his story of the slave trader reformed by the Holy Spirit, and his writing of the great hymn, Amazing Grace.

Here is the genuine difference of the Christian. Therefore do not quench the Holy Spirit, but rather pray that you might accept as much as possible of his power, knowledge and wisdom.

It is the secret of the Christian life: the imitation of Christ. It is not particularly complicated; often enough it is not particularly difficult. But the world — and its ruler — will always oppose this.


[1] See, for example, John 12:1-8.

[2] Matthew 4: 5-7

[3] Genesis 22:1-14

[4] Philippians 2:12-13

[5] Hebrews 3:13

[6] Matthew 24:48-51

[7] 1st Corinthians 2:11-16

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