James 2:14-26: Faith Without Works is Dead

November 11, 2018

Ray Galea

We celebrate faithfulness and not just fruitfulness. I asked a couple who were on the verge of divorce at the beginning of this year to reflect on what God has shown them this year. The wife wrote: “Through much prayer, God has taught me to be more vulnerable. I am now much more connected to my husband. I am so thankful to God.” The husband wrote, “God has shown me how important my honesty and integrity is in my marriage. I’ve learnt to respect my wife’s feelings. By showing more empathy we are talking so much better. Without seeking help from the Lord and my mentor at MBM, it would not be possible.” Then he said, “Please don’t be afraid to ask for help.” Lives are being transformed through Jesus.

 

We also thank God that now $660,000 has been pledged for next year. We now have 42% of our proposed budget for 2019. A big thanks to God for each of you. We are praying for $900,000 to be pledged to cover the remaining amount in next year’s budget. Remember that MBM has no other income other than your pledge giving. I’m excited to see how God will work through his people at MBM. I also want to thank God for the nine interns who have given a day a week on top of their regular service at church. Five of our interns are involved with youth, three with kids, and one is involved in music.

 

As we look to 2019, I’m so excited about Christians in Schools. Mark my words: this is will transform ministry in school around Australia and the world. Led by Marcus Macdonald, 25 teens from MBM were trained in how to start and run a bible study group in their own school. Already there is fruit. Samantha who is in year 8 has 25 girls coming to her bible study group. Elijah who is in year 10 has 20 kids coming to his Bible study group. Nine new groups are planned to start in 2019. Seriously, I am so proud to be pastor of MBM and so thankful to God for blessing us with such willing and gifted servants.

 

The challenge of preaching is that I am not talking to the same kind of person. I preach the same word of God, but that word is doing a different work in each of us, because we are each at different places in our life. There are those who love Jesus, and those who are searching but not quite there. Then among Christians, there are those who have a tender conscience, who come to church with open wounds, so even a gentle challenge can feel like a Taser. Still others have come in on auto pilot: you carry the name of Christ in your mind but not your heart. You know the facts, but there is no repentance. You are happy to have Jesus as Saviour but not Lord.

 

Some days our walk and talk run parallel. Other days they are so far apart you can drive a semi-trailer through it. This word today will do one of three things. It will show up if you have a dead faith; it will warn you to not put your Christian life into neutral; or it will provide comfort to many who have a living faith.

 

There are some things that you can separate. You can’t make a pavlova without separating the egg yoke from the egg white. And there are some things you must never separate. James writes to those who think that you can divorce faith from good works, James 2:14:

 

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? (NIV)

 

James 2:18:

 

But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” (NIV)

 

These verses speak of a dividing of what must never be torn apart. The question before James is not a small one: it is “What is the kind of faith that saves us?” God’s word says that the faith that is divided from works is no good to you. Now for the example, James 2:15-16:

 

Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? (NIV)

 

Here is a faith in Jesus that only offers kind thoughts but no action. Here is a faith that feels warm wishes but doesn’t get off its backside. It is not hearing the word but doing the word that matters—it’s not just about listening but obeying. So the warning is that faith without works is not simply unhealthy, or dangerous, but it is dead. Even non-Christians get this.

 

Here is a song I love, “What Good Am I?”

 

What good am I

If I’m like all the rest,

If I just turn away when I see how you’re dressed,

If I shut myself off so I can’t hear you cry,

What good am I?

 

What good am I

If I know and don’t do,

If I see and don’t say,

If I look right through you,

If I turn a deaf ear to the thunderin’ sky,

What good am I?

 

What good am I

While you softly weep,

And I hear in my head what you say in your sleep,

And I freeze in the moment like the rest who don’t try,

What good am I?

 

What good am I

If I say foolish things,

And I laugh in the face of what sorrow brings,

And I just turn my back while you silently die,

What good am I?

 

Then James cites the case studies of two people in the Bible: Abraham the father of faith and Rahab the former prostitute. They are two very different people—a male and a female, a Jew and a gentile, the very best and the very worst—but the point is the same. In both cases, their faith resulted in or was fulfilled by good works. Abraham was willing to offer up his son. Rahab protected God spies. A faith that does not end up with works can’t save. Just like suffering was to produce maturity, so faith was to produce a ton of good works.

 

You may be thinking, “Ray haven’t you been banging on that we are saved by grace alone through faith and not by works?” Yes, I have. You are correct. Ephesians 2:8-9:

 

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. (NIV)

 

Notice the three negatives in Ephesians 2:8-9. First, we have been saved “not from yourselves”, because heaven is a gift. Second, we have been saved “not by works”, because salvation is unearned and undeserved. Third, “no one can boast”, because we only contribute our sin to the problem, and only Jesus provides the solution. Jesus paid it all.

 

Earlier this year we looked at Galatians. We read in Galatians 2:16:

 

[We] know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. (NIV)

 

So how do we make peace between Paul and James? James seems to be saying the opposite of what Paul is saying, James 2:24:

 

You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone. (NIV)

 

Houston, we have a problem! So which is it? Are we saved by faith alone, or by faith and works?

 

We have three options. First, we could say that James was wrong, and rip it out of the bible. Second, we can say that it’s a mystery, and put our heads in the sand. Or third, we can look further into it, because all the Bible is God’s perfect word, and he never contradicts himself.

 

When we look further, we learn at least two things that help us.

 

The first thing is that James and Paul are using the word ‘faith’ differently. For Paul, ‘faith’ is about personal trust in the promises of God, but for James, ‘faith’ can be reduced to information about God. James 2:19:

 

You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that— and shudder. (NIV)

 

James uses the example of the devil, who believes, or “has faith” in God. That is, the demons have information that God is one. In this example, ‘faith’ is knowing, not trusting. And James is saying that this kind of faith—only knowing things—will not bring you to heaven. It’s like when a person says, “I believe in aliens”. They don’t mean that they have a personal relationship with martians. What they mean is that they think there are life forms on other planets. ‘Faith’ for Paul is more than knowing—it’s trusting. You can know your chair will support you, but you only believe it when you sit on it.

 

The point is that, for both James and Paul, knowledge is important, but on its own, it can’t save you. You can recite the Lord’s Prayer as you step into the jaws of death, you can know the Bible backwards, you can even know the fact that Jesus died for your sins, and you can still wind up in hell. You need to trust the one you know—that is saving faith.

 

The second reason for the difference between James and Paul is that they are speaking to two different situations. They are answering two different questions. Paul is answering the question, “Which saves—faith or works?” Paul’s answer is faith and not works. James is answering the question, “Can I have a real faith which does not produce works?” James’ answer is “No way Jose!”: faith without works is dead.

 

Let me use an object lesson. [Ray stands behind two open boxes, placed side by side, and the boxes are attached to one another at the top. One of the boxes is labeled ‘faith’, the other ‘works’.] The two boxes represent faith and works. Notice that each box does not have the same things inside it. The faith box only has one thing inside it: Jesus Christ. We trust in him alone. But inside the works box are many things—love, church, Bible, money. Good works don’t have to be perfect before they please our Father. Notice that two boxes are connected. Faith and works are connected. You can separate them in two different ways. Either you can think that you can be saved by doing good works without faith in Jesus, but Paul says that won’t save. Or you can have a faith in Jesus but produce no good works, and James says that won’t save you. Faith and works are not the same but they must not be separated. James is writing to those who were doing this: they were sawing faith from works. Do that, and faith is dead and works are useless. You separate them, and they break and are destroyed.

 

Martin Luther said, “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.” Faith is dead and so are you!

 

As a pastor, I spend half my time persuading people that they are saved by grace alone through faith alone, and I spend the other half of my time persuading the same people that they are saved to do good works.

 

My friend is a scripture teacher. He tells the story of how in his scripture class he asked the question, “If you were to die tonight and stand before Jesus and he was to say to you, ‘Why should I let you into heaven?’, what would you say?” And a boy came up after class to talk. He got his pen out and a small card from his wallet, and he asked, “Sir can you tell me the answer again. I believe that you Jesus died for my sins …” The teacher then watched him put the card back is his wallet, thank him, and walk out. As he was walking away, the teacher asked the boy, “What are you doing?” The boy said, “I wanted to get the answer right. When I die, I’m ready for the answer.” He thought the day of judgment was a quiz show: you have the right answer, you get eternal life. He knows the answers. He just didn’t know the saviour and didn’t want him to be his Lord.

 

You can’t separate faith and works. You can’t have the gift without the giver, James 2:17:

 

In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (NIV)

 

It’s like those conjoined twins from Bhutan, whom Australian doctors in Melbourne recently separated. The two girls were joined together. It was a six-hour operation and it appears to have been successful. But you can’t separate conjoined twins who share the same heart. Faith and works share the heart of Jesus. The same Jesus that requires faith is the same Jesus that requires works to follow. Put another way: if he is saviour we must trust him; if he is Lord we must obey him. You separate those two things and you will die, James 2:26:

 

As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead. (NIV)

 

Let me first say that it is clear that many of you have a living faith. You not only believe in Jesus and you serve, you love, you give. You are consistently generous with your time, your talents, and your treasures for the kingdom. Yours is a real and saving faith.

 

Because we are in pledging season I want to apply this word to the area that Jesus spoke more about than any other topic: your money. From the anonymous survey you filled out earlier this year, you will see on the screen that 32% of you said you give 10% or more of your income, and 26% of you give 5-9 % of your income. I want to say that yours is a real faith. God’s generosity to you has made you generous to others. Just like your prayers, your love for others, your witness to Jesus, you are showing that your faith in Jesus is real by your good works of generosity. It doesn’t save you, but it confirms that your trust in Christ is real.

 

To those who are on a journey where your best days are behind you, who feel like you have given enough in the past and not anymore, watch the trajectory. Repentance is life long. Take heed that you don’t become lukewarm. And to those who give nothing or near nothing, you don’t need me to say anything. God has already said it. You say you believe in Jesus: prove it. Don’t reduce Jesus to only a Saviour when he must be your Lord. What reasons are holding you back from the good work of generosity? Know this: everyone who gives has had the same experiences—and we have decided not to use them as excuses. We give for many reason, and here are four. First, we give because it all belongs to God. It was never our money. He gets the first portion. Second, we give to invest in God’s kingdom and partner in his work. It’s not about me, but our good works will echo into all eternity. Third, we also give for the many the blessings we receive in the ministry of MBM, as seen by Kylie’s interview. I loved how she was so matter of fact. Fourth, we give as it is one of the good works we do to confirm that we have a living faith. In a culture where we are urged to take and take and take, the more generous I am, the less money has a hold on me. I’m freed from the idol of money and the virus of greed and the curse of discontent. It is in my giving that I express my trust in God in a concrete way.

 

You may have heard Sandy and I have moved out of the church house and the Lee family has moved in. Sandy and I have moved to a two bedroom unit in Parramatta. Relax, I’m still a Dragons fan and I’m staying put. The reason is that Dan Lee’s house is being sold and the church house was too big for just Sandy and I. And the Lee kids go to school across the road. That made sense. Why Parramatta? Both Sandy and I have felt the weight of nearly 30 years of ministry. The last year has been particularly hard. Both our psychologists said that we need to separate church work and home life—although I do want to say thank you for respecting our privacy. We want the next 6 to 8 years at MBM to be our best years in leadership. For that to happen we need a way of staying refreshed. Like many of you, we will travel 20 minutes to get to church, which means we will have time to start an argument and resolve it by the time we get to church. I tell you it was hard living so close to church!

 

In choosing a unit we would have preferred three bedrooms, but we knew it would have reduced our giving to church. And we didn’t want that. That was our first priority. I want you to know that even the move and the size of the mortgage is driven by one thing: we are committed to MBM, to give our best years in service of you and his kingdom, to see lives transformed, to make new disciples, to help MBM be a faithful and fruitful church, to plant another four new congregations in the west of Sydney.

 

Will your best days be before you or behind you? Will you confirm your faith by producing a flurry of good works? Will you invest in God kingdom in MBM and pledge generously for 2019? For we have but one short life on this earth to make a difference. God is looking for action—doers of the word and not just hearers. So I’m going to give you a few minutes to take out the pledge card and fill it out. Confirm that your faith is alive. And for the rest who have already handed it in, quietly pray that God will unleash a generous spirit and we will exceed the $900,000 we need pledged this Sunday. And ask God concerning what other good works God wants you to do.