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“Living Faith”

James 2:14-26
Bob DeGray
June 7, 2009

Key Sentence

Faith is revealed in energy for good works and active trust in God.


I. Living faith reveals itself in good works. (James 2:14-19)
II. Living faith matures in active trust. (James 2:20-26)


How do you tell if someone is alive? Modern medicine defines death as “the cessation of all vital functions of the body including the heartbeat, brain activity, and breathing.” So if you hook a bunch of monitors and electrodes to someone you can pretty much tell by hard data whether the person is alive.

But before the advent of modern technology, it was harder. If someone wasn’t talking, wasn’t moving, wasn’t breathing, you had to assume they weren’t alive. And you know in way more than ninety nine cases out of a hundred, that’s enough. You’re surrounded by people who are alive and give evidence of it. But if they don’t there is a sight risk of presuming them dead when they’re actually alive.

Let me give just two examples of many, one centuries ago, one modern. Marjorie Erskine of Scotland, died in 1674 and was buried in a shallow grave by a sexton intent upon returning to steal her jewelry. While the light-fingered sexton was trying to retrieve a ring, she awoke. In her additional years of life after her first burial, she went on to give birth to and raise two sons.

Much more recently, in 1994, 86-year-old Mildred C. Clarke spent ninety minutes in the morgue at the Albany Medical Center before an attendant noticed the bag was breathing. She'd been found sprawled on her living room floor, cold and motionless, with no detectable heartbeat, breath, or other signs of life. She was also as stiff as a board. The coroner didn't have to think twice about declaring her dead. She apparently did not agree with his verdict.

These stories remind us that we usually tell if a person is alive by seeing signs of life. Very rarely will a person appear dead who isn’t. In the same way, it should be very rare for a person to be spiritually alive without exhibiting signs: good works and active faith. Our passage, James 2:14-26 teaches us that living faith is revealed in energy for good works and active trust in God.

I. Living faith reveals itself in good works. (James 2:14-19)

This text calls us to a living faith that reveals itself in good works. James 2:14-19: What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16If 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? 17In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. 18But 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. 19You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that--and shudder.

This is the second week of a series called ‘Faith Works.’ This summer we’ll look at some, by no means all, of the New Testament’s expectations of believers. Last week we studied Ephesians 2:1-10 and saw works do not come from us, but from God who graciously recreates in Christ for good works. But the passage we’re looking at this week is the classic text on faith and works, the text that is supposed to contradict Ephesians and teach that salvation is by faith and works. It actually doesn’t do that, but it does strongly motivate us to good works after salvation by faith.

Notice, before we look at verse 14, that James has already established a context of good works, warning his readers not to show favoritism to a rich man while neglecting a poor man. He says “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, "Love your neighbor as yourself," you are doing right.”

So the context is active good works. James says: “what good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?” The Greek grammar requires the answer ‘none’: it does a man no good to simply say he has faith. And ‘can such faith save him?’ Again the question presumes a negative answer.

James is not denying that salvation is through faith, or trust in Jesus. In chapter 2 he identifies his audience as people with faith: “My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don't show favoritism.” What James is denying is that the mere claim to faith can save anybody. If faith is only words, with no heart level trust and no impact on our lives, it is very likely not faith at all. It is faith that any reasonable observer would call dead – not a living faith, and therefore almost certainly not a saving faith.

The difference between this claim and real faith, James says, is the absence of deeds, of good works. Some will say this is the contradiction between James and Paul. But it’s more realistically a conflict between James and some who distorted Paul’s teaching to avoid good works and life change altogether.

It’s true that Paul teaches salvation by faith, apart from what he calls ‘works of the law.’ Paul opposes such works, because they don’t work. You can’t earn salvation by law-keeping; you can’t keep the law. Rather, as we saw last week, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- 9not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Yet Paul did, clearly, expect that believers would do good works. Ephesians 2:10 “For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” These are the kind of works James is talking about: good works which follow salvation. James sees these good works as evidence that living faith has taken hold of a person’s life.

It’s the end of winter. Two farmers go out and look at the fallow fields, they study the weather, and conclude that they believe God will bring a crop this year. Then one of them goes back in and sits by the window to smoke his pipe and watch the sunset. The other gets his plow and prepares the ground, gets his seed and sows it. Which one really has faith? The one who acts on it.

In verses 15 and16 James illustrates the impact of merely claiming faith. He shows how someone might verbally respond to a poverty stricken brother or sister, who lacks both clothing and food: “Go, I wish you well; be warm and well fed.” A faith that is just words is no more life-giving than ‘Be warm and well fed’ to a starving man. Can these words feed him? No. Can mere verbal affirmation of belief, or even mental agreement with doctrine save us? No.

Verse 17: “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” James is speaking in very practical terms, the same terms a medical examiner would use: is there any action in this body? Any breathing, any movement, a heart beat, a fluttering of the eye-lids. No? Well then there is probably no life here. I could be wrong – there could yet be life inside, but all the external evidence says this person is dead.

So also with believers. On rare occasions there may be someone who has really been saved by faith but goes a long time without evidence. But these are not the norm. God’s expectation of you and me is that we will show our faith by plowing and sowing in confidence that he will bring a crop, that living faith will change us within and show itself in behaviors, actions and compassion.

Verse 18: Someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ James replies “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” If you live your life without actively trusting God in specific circumstances, no one, not even you, can know if you have faith. Verse 19 is sarcastic and clear: “You believe that there is one God” - a cornerstone of the faith - “Well, good for you! Even the demons believe that, and they at least have the good sense to tremble in fear.” But do they have saving faith? No. They know the facts about God but will not submit to him in trust and obedience.

And don’t forget the context: James is concerned about practical needs. He’s saying, to his readers and us that talking about faith without acting out faith will not meet those needs. In the same way as we at Trinity see needs, physical, emotional or spiritual, an active living faith will do something. There are people among us who need financial help. There are people who need compassion and care, encouragement, prayer, teaching and coaching. Living faith will be involved in a community that meets those needs.

This is the really fun and practical aspect of James’ teaching. Faith is invisible. ‘Show me your faith,’ he says, ‘bring it out; put it on the table.’ You can’t. ‘But I’ll show you my faith by my works.’ Faith is seen when our lives begin to change from selfishness to selflessness. You can’t say for sure that faith doesn’t exist if no works are visible, but like the doctor who examines the body, you can certainly suspect that truth. When you see a farmer who is not plowing or sowing, you suspect he doesn’t really believe in the crop.

So the question to ask yourself is, is my faith becoming visible? Am I changing within and becoming a person who is meeting needs, serving. The purpose of this series is to challenge each of us in several widely diverse areas of the Christian life to put our faith into action. James calls us to this living faith.

II. Living faith matures in active trust. (James 2:20-26)

And this living faith goes beyond traditional good works. It is active trust in God in difficult circumstances. Verses 20-26: You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23And the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness," and he was called God's friend. 24You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. 25In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? 26As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

James addresses the one who wants to separate faith and works as ‘you empty man.’ He asks this imaginary opponent if he would like to be shown that faith without works is barren - literally that ‘faith that has no works does not work.’ James uses Abraham as his example, possibly because people were already abusing Paul’s use of Abraham to show the primacy of faith. James uses the same historical situations to show the ‘works’ by which Abraham was ‘justified’.

Again, this seems to contradict Paul, who teaches that Abraham was justified by faith and not works. The difference is in the way the term ‘justified’ is used. Paul makes ‘justification by faith’ the center of his argument in Galatians and Romans. He focus on one important meaning: Justification is the initial transfer of a person from the realm of sin and death to the realm of holiness and life, a sovereign act of God in which apart from any human ‘work’, He declares the sinner to be innocent before him. This free gift is received by faith and the sinner is declared righteous.

James uses the same word, but focuses on the subsequent life of the believer. He sees justification as the demonstration of the righteousness a believer has already been given. In our usage when I justify something, I prove it’s true or useful. That’s James: justification demonstrates or proves saving faith.

In verse 23 James quotes Genesis 15:6. “Abram believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” By Genesis 15 Abraham knows God’s promises to him won’t be fulfilled unless he has a son, which hasn’t happened. Abraham prays and God promises “a son coming from your own body.” God tells him to look at the heavens “and count the stars: so shall your offspring be.” Then “Abraham believed the Lord and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

This believing faith, Paul emphasizes, isn’t the result of works, but is simply trust in the promise of God. But James sees Genesis 15:6 as demonstrated or fulfilled thirty years later when Abraham offers his son Isaac on the altar. is Abraham demonstrated the righteousness he’d already received from God.

And notice the nature of this work: he had to actively live out his trust in God. He was told to do something that from a human view was nonsensical. When he trusted God with the life of his only son, he showed real faith. When we actively trust God in difficult circumstances, we demonstrate living faith.

James says in verse 22 that his faith and his actions were working together and his faith was made complete, perfect or mature by the works. His faith culminated in active trust. As R. Kent Hughes points out "Abraham's works in offering Isaac gave convincing testimony to the reality of the faith and righteousness which had infused his life for over thirty years.” When active trust is added to our initial gift of faith, that faith is matured, made complete.

James would say we are saved by faith alone; but that faith is demonstrated, justified in it’s daily outworking. Verse 24:”You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” James has already shown that by ‘faith alone’ he means faith that claims to be faith but without evidence.

James does not by any means exclude faith from the process of salvation. But he is concerned about so-called faith that has no consequences for life. So he stresses the active nature of faith, asserting that actions matter in the long run. Paul had a different problem: his legalistic opponents thought work done in obedience to God was sufficient to claim their place in God's covenant. Against them, Paul asserted that faith in Christ was the only way one could be made right with God.

Today both emphases are needed. Where people rely on their religious activities for salvation, Paul's powerful plea that it is by grace we have been saved is central. Let me be blunt and say that we can see this at times with those from Catholic backgrounds. On the other hand, when "faith" appears to be nothing more than verbal agreement with certain truths, we must ask why faith is not working itself out in life. As long as I’m being blunt, I think we can see this at times among some Baptists. We need to embrace both James and Paul.

James’ second example also shows the effect of active faith. He cites Rahab, the prostitute who helped the spies in the promised land. Why? Because she’d heard of, and come to fear and trust the God of Israel. Joshua 2:9 “I know 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. . . for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.”

So Rahab diverted the soldiers of Jericho, lowered the spies from the wall, and gave advice for their safe escape. James contends that Rahab demonstrated righteousness in what she did. The works were evidence of an active faith: she put her trust in God and served him rather than the false gods she had grown up with. She chose to trust to God when all those around her were trusting in the might and power of Jericho. It was this active faith in difficult circumstances which demonstrated her inward saving faith.

James concludes by restating his central theme: “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” A body without its invigorating spirit, or "breath" of life is nothing more than a corpse. In the same way faith without active expression in trust and good works is either non-existent, and thus dead, or at the very least invisible and immature, benefitting no one.

You may know that Martin Luther, the great reformer, didn’t think much of James. In his concern to bring salvation by grace through faith back to the church, he was troubled by James’ emphasis on works. But he understood James: no one has expressed James 2 better than Luther in his preface to Romans: “O it is a living, busy, active thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done: it does them. Whoever does not do such works is an unbeliever. He gropes and looks around for faith, but knows neither what faith is nor good works.”

The movie “Faith Like Potatoes” is based on the true story of a Scottish farmer in South Africa. He becomes an outspoken believer, growing in faith. Late in the story he plants potatoes, by faith, during a drought. He expects the drought to break, but instead God grows beautiful potatoes with no rain.

That’s active, maturing faith. The principal, that living faith matures is nowhere better illustrated than Hebrews chapter 11, where we see men and women living out their faith in real life. Hebrews 11 has been called the roll call of faith, but it is also the roll call of works, for by their works we see their faith.

“By faith Abel offered a better sacrifice. By faith Noah built the ark to save his family. By faith Isaac blessed Jacob. By faith Joseph spoke. By faith Moses chose. By faith the people passed through the sea. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after the people had marched around them for seven days. By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.

And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies.”

Theirs was a living faith. And the next question is obvious. I’ve avoided asking it up to now, because it is so obvious: Do you have a living faith that reveals itself in good works and displays active trust in difficult circumstances? Or are you guilty of merely agreeing with what is right? Is your faith merely words, or has it resulted in change, within and without? Like Abraham, like Rahab, like the witnesses of Hebrews 11, has your belief so touched your life that others can see your trust of God demonstrated?

Remember, some huge percentage of the time you can tell when someone is alive because of their heartbeat, because of their motion. There may be a rare case among us where someone appears to show no signs of life but really has saving faith. But you and I have to assume that if we’re spiritually alive we will actively trust. That trust will waver at time, I recognize, but there should be a root of utter dependence growing in our lives. And we will engage in good works – we’ll fall short at times, but we should grow in consistency.

If you don’t have a living faith the needs of those around you may never be met. If you don’t have a living faith, the faith you do have, or may have, will remain invisible, even to you. If you don’t have a living faith you will never have a faith that has been matured through difficult times.