Can faith save?

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We’ve reached a really crucial section – perhaps the central section – of what James wants us to understand and know. One commentator has said “This paragraph is the most theologically significant, as well as the most controversial, in the Letter of James”. He’s right, but it shouldn’t really be like that. It’s certainly theologically significant. But controversial? It’s only controversial if you haven’t understood it.

James has been teaching us how we should live as Christians. In the first 12 verses of chapter 1 he told us that even trials are good for us. They’re good for us because even though it’s possible that things could get worse, not better, there is always hope that he would become better, and therefore more able to deal with the trials he was facing.

Then in verses 12 through 18, he taught us the other side of the coin, that trials can become temptations. Sometimes, he said, trials don’t build us up, trials drag us down. This is because “each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed”. Your biggest problem, James says, is you.

Then in verses 19 through 27, he starts to show us how these things can work out in practice. When we’re tested, he says, whether we pass the test will depend on whether our deeds match our words. The true Christian, who passes the test, will be consistent in words and actions.

Then in chapter two and verses 1 to 13, he taught us about the folly of favouritism. There is no place for favouritism within the church of God. The Christian faith is incompatible with partiality, and he shows us why through example (v1), through principle (verse 2-4), by exposing both the underlying errors (verses 5-7), and the consequences of such a view (verses 8-13).

Last time around, we then took a little digression from James’ central point, by examining verses 8-13 in more detail, to see how we what James meant when he said we should fulfil the royal law.

But if we’re to properly understand why the verses we’re looking at this morning are so central to James’ argument, we need to look again at everything we’ve learned so far, and see the big theme that James has been slowly unfolding to us.

So get your Bibles out, and look again at all those sections, and see what you notice.

Firstly, in verses one to twelve, James is showing us how we should behave – in particular, how we should behave when we’re persecuted. We’re to count it all joy (verse 2), let patience work in us (verse 4), and ask God when we’re in need (verse 5). And he also tells us why we should behave in this way. Verses 3 and 4 tells us that it will lead to maturity. Verse 5 tells us that God will give generously to us. Verses 9 to 11 tells us that our time is short, and verse 12 tells us that God has promised a crown of life to those who love Him.

All that we’ve covered before. But this is what I want you to notice. In these opening 12 verses, there are several things that James wants us to do. And there are several reasons why we should do them, all of which can be traced, directly or indirectly back to God. But what is important is that all of the reasons why we should do things, is to some extent future. Look again, and you’ll see what I mean: verse 4: “you may be”, verse 5: “it will be”, verse 10: “he will pass away”, verse 11: “will fade away”, verse 12: “he will receive the crown of life”. So clearly in verses 1-12, James wants us to do things now, because of what we believe will happen in the future. Just hold that thought, and we’ll now turn to verses 12-18.

Here again, you’ll notice that James wants us to behave in a certain way – he wants us never to say “I am tempted by God”, verse 13. Then he gives us the reasons, which again can be traced back to God. There are several reasons, God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone, verse 13. Further reasons are that good gifts are from God, and he doesn’t change v17. The other reason, given in verses 14-15 is that our temptations can be traced to another source, ourselves. So let’s realise what James is doing. He wants us to change our behaviour (what we say), as a result of what we have understood about God and ourselves.

Hopefully you’re starting to see the pattern now. Let’s see it again in the next section, verses 19 through 27. Here again it’s clear that James wants us to change our behaviour. Verse 19: we should be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath. Verse 21: We should lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word. Verse 22: we should be doers of the word. And so it goes on. But why should we behave in these ways. James gives us many answers. Let me highlight just two. In verse 21 he tells us that the word is able to save us. And in verse 25 he tells us that doers of the word will be blessed. Again it’s clear what James is doing. We should behave in a certain way because of what we believe will happen in the future, and as a result of what we’ve understood about God and ourselves.

We’ll just quickly run through the first 13 verses of chapter 2, and we’ll see exactly the same things there. James wants us to change our behaviour. In particular, verse 1, we’re to be impartial. Why? Several reasons are given. Verse 5 gives a reason on the basis of what God has already done. And verse 12 gives a reason on the basis of what God will do (he will judge us). So again, we should behave in a certain way because of what we believe will happen in the future, and as a result of what we’ve understood about God and ourselves.

Now I’m sorry for labouring the point, but it’s absolutely crucial we’ve understood this correctly. Christianity has an awful lot to say about what we should do. But it always says it in the context of what we believe. I’m going to say that again. Christianity has an awful lot to say about what we should do. But it always says it in the context of what we believe.

We should count persecution as joy, because we believe God will use it to make us better people. We should not say God tempted me, because we believe God cannot tempt anyone. We should be doers of the word, because we believe God will bless those who do. We should not show partiality, because we believe that God has chosen the poor of this world to be rich.

True Christianity is always a combination: what we believe comes first, and that then changes how we live. There is no other option. If we don’t believe in Christianity, then we cannot live as Christians. If we do believe in Christianity, then we must live as Christians. Whenever Christianity removes what we believe, and leaves only what we do, we’re left with legalism. And if we remove what we do, and leave only what we believe, we’re left with antinomianism. Both are false gospels.

So now we can turn to James chapter 2 and verse 14 to 26. How does James’ argument flow in these verses?

If you look at the verses you’ll see that James immediately asks a very pointed question in verse 14.  He then goes onto give four very different examples that answers the question. James then finishes with a one-sentence summary of how his own question should be answered in verse 26.

So we’ll split the passage into three parts. The challenging riddle (v14), the clear reasons (vv15–25), and the concluding reply (v26). Obviously that middle section of 11 verses is going to consume the most of our time, so when we get there, we’ll split that middle section up a bit, too.

Firstly then,

The challenging riddle (v14)

What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?

Now I’ve said already that James’ point should not surprise us if we’ve been listening properly to everything he’s said so far. But unless we’re half asleep, v14 should really make us sit up and pay attention, shouldn’t it? That’s even more the case if we give the verse a literal translation. In Greek, just like English, there are lots of different ways of asking questions. One way makes it clear that the answer expected is ‘no’. And that’s the form James uses here. So perhaps it would be better to translate the last part of the verse like this: Faith can’t save him, can it?

It’s quite striking, isn’t it? Alec Motyer has said,

We can just see his hearers sit bolt upright (if, indeed, it might be true that his ‘letter’ first saw the light of day as a sermon). We can (or ought to) feel the shock waves of disbelief running through his first readers: can his faith save him? What next! James, of course, knows that he is being impish and provocative. This is what he intends.

The reason it makes his hearers sit up, is because it sounds in total opposition to almost everything that biblical Christianity teaches. Maybe you know that one of the mottos during the Reformation was Sola Fides. That’s Latin for faith alone. And here James is saying that faith won’t save you!

But let’s stop and think. One of the books that I read in preparing for this message gave two stories which I think can be very helpful here. Here’s the first one:

I went to college in the 1970s, when students still hitch-hiked from time to time. One day I caught a long ride with a truck driver. As an enthusiastic new Christian, I hoped to guide our conversation towards the faith. After about two hours the driver declared his problem: “I understand that Jesus is the Son of God. I know that I’m a sinner and I believe that Jesus died on the cross for my sins. But I’m a married man and a cross-country driver; I have girl friends in several cities, and I don’t want to give them up.

So here’s James’ point. That man’s faith can’t save him, can it?

And here’s the second story:

When I was a young pastor, I spoke to a young lawyer who had visited my church several times. He was very interested in obtaining eternal life. Like the truck driver, he admitted that he was a sinner and needed a saviour. He believed Jesus is the Son of God and that Jesus endured crucifixion then rose from death to win life for all who believe. Then, although we were not talking about money at all, he added: “But there is one idea I can’t stand – tithing. I don’t make that much money now, so it’s not a big issue yet, but in a few years I’m going to be making a lot of money, and there’s no way I’m going to give away 10 percent of it. I could never give away that much money.

And here’s James point again. That man’s faith can’t save him, can it?

And the answer he expects us to give is ‘No, the faith of those men cannot save them’.

I don’t want to give you the impression that James doesn’t value faith. He uses the word 16 times in just five chapters. And look what he says. In chapter one verse 3, persecution is described as “the testing of your faith”. In chapter 2 verse 1 calls all Christians to never “hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality”. In verse 5, he says that even poor Christians are “rich in faith”. And in chapter 5 verse 15 he even says that “the prayer of faith will save the sick”. So faith is really, really important to James.

So that’s why verse 14 is a bit of a riddle. Faith is really important to James. Every Christian has faith. But faith alone, can’t save, can it?

What does James mean? That’s what the next four illustrations will tell us. So we’ve seen a challenging riddle (v14), and we move to

The clear reasons (vv15–25)

Here James gives more real-life examples both from his own day and from the Old Testament that prove his point and make everything clear. He gives two negative examples, and then two positive examples. These examples show dead faith (vv15-17), demonic faith (vv18-19), demonstrated faith (vv20-24) and daring faith (v25). Firstly then,

Dead faith (vv 15-17)

If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

Imagine the scene. Here’s someone in desperate need. They’re destitute, dressed in rags, and don’t even have the food they need just to get through the day. They bump into an apparent Christian, who shows no compassion, gives them nothing, but simply says “be warmed and filled”. The ‘Christian’, apparently believes that will happen. He believes that they will be warmed, and they will be filled. But he does nothing. His words are empty and meaningless. And therefore, James says, his faith is empty and meaningless too. As he puts it: faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. It’s hard to disagree, isn’t it?

But as well as dead faith, James wants to show us

Demonic faith (vv18-19)

But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!

Now James is imagining someone arguing with him. His imaginary opponent wants to argue that different people are gifted in different ways. Some are gifted by having faith, some are gifted by having works. In other words, they are arguing that it’s possible to have faith without works, and works without faith.

Maybe that’s what you think too. Perhaps you say that you believe all the things that are in the church’s statement of faith. This is the first part of the summary version of our statement of faith:

We believe in the Bible as the infallible word of God. It is the true, reliable, authoritative revelation of God and all his purpose for humanity. We believe in one true and living God, the holy Trinity of the divine persons in perfect unity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We believe in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. We believe in His virgin birth, his perfect life and teaching, in His substitutionary, atoning death on the cross. We believe in His bodily resurrection and ascension into heaven. We believe He will one day return as Judge of all. We believe in the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps you believe in all those things. But you know that really you don’t have works. On the odd occasion when you’re actually honest with yourself, you know that really you’re someone who is frequently grumbling. You’re often proud and self-centred. Anger frequently wells up inside you, yet you find your judgemental to others who are no worse than yourself. Envy and jealousy are never far off, and your words – well you’re rarely in control of your tongue. In short, despite your church attendance and your prayers, you have to admit that they is little in your life to set you apart from your godless neighbours who would never dream of setting foot in this place.

But you believe! You believe everything we’ve just said about the Bible, about God, and Jesus, heaven and the Holy Spirit. Doesn’t that count for something?

So how does James respond? Verse 19 is clear. Yes, it is quite possible to believe without works as you do. But that’s what the demons do as well. They believe. They’d agree with every word from our Statement of Faith. They’d have to, because they know it’s true. So you can believe without works. But that’s demonic faith.

Those then, are the two negative examples. That’s the wrong type of faith. But now here comes two positive examples, both from the Old Testament, the first from Abraham, the second from Rahab. Thirdly then:

Demonstrated faith (vv20-24)

But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.

James is pointing to a very famous and unique story from Genesis 22. In verse 2 of Genesis 22, God says to Abraham something quite shocking: “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering”. So that’s what Abram sets out to do. Verse 9: “Abraham built an altar there and placed the wood in order; and he bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. And Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.”

Now you need to know that Abraham is a very, very old man, and Isaac is his only legitimate son. And you also need to understand that God had promised to bless Abraham and Isaac, and make them into a great nation.

The story then tells us exactly what happened. At just the point where Abraham was about to kill his son, God intervenes. This is what He says: “Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.”

Can you see why James holds this up as a great example of faith? In the story, what was Abraham’s faith? What did he actually believe? The story tells us that as he left his servants that morning, he told them that he and Isaac would come back to them. And the writer to the Hebrews tells us that Abraham concluded “that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead”.

Now remember, at that time, that had never, ever happened. No-one had ever died, then come back to life. This was before the widow of Zarephath’s son. It was before Tabitha. It was before Lazarus. It was before the boy who fell out of the window as Paul was preaching. And it was before Jesus Christ. The universal experience of every man, woman, boy and girl, without any exception at all, was that once you were dead, you stayed dead.

Yet despite those odds, Abraham knew that God had promised that this little child Isaac would grow up have many children, dozens of grand children, hundreds of great-grandchildren, and become a great nation. So his logic is as compelling as it is simple. God has said this little boy will grow up into a man. God has asked me to sacrifice this little boy. So therefore God must be planning to raise him from the dead. Despite everything, Abraham simply believed, and demonstrated that belief through what he did. That, according to James, is real faith.

So: dead faith, demonic faith, demonstrated faith. Now, fourthly:

Daring faith (v25)

Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?

James here picks up another Old Testament story, and one you’ll be familiar with if you’ve been coming to the evening services. It’s the story of Rahab. Now Rahab was the exact opposite of Abraham, which is why I think James includes her here. There is a danger when we talk about the great heroes of the Bible, that we think their examples are unique and non-repeatable. So by taking someone who was the exact opposite of Abraham, James wants us to understand that the principle he sees really is applicable to all.

What do I mean when I say that Abraham was the exact opposite of Rahab? Well, rather obviously, he was a man, she was a woman. He was incredibly rich, she very poor. He was well-respected, a leader of his people. She was a prostitute. He was a man of God. She a pagan. He was the father of God’s people. She was a foreigner. So if what was true of Abraham was true of her, it must be truly universal.

So what happened to Rahab? Joshua 2 tells us. Two enemy spies came from God’s people to her city Jericho. Yet instead of attacking them, or handing them over to the authorities, she protected them. Why? Joshua 2 tells us it was because she believed that God really was God, and that the only way she and her family could be protected from the impending assault on her city, was by trusting that the spies would protect her, because she believe that her own city would be unable to protect her. And that’s exactly what happened. She exercised wonderful, daring faith.

So here then are James’ four examples, all under the heading “Clear Reasons”. These are the clear reasons why faith without actions is not enough. We’ve seen the challenging riddle and the clear reasons. Now it’s time for

Concluding Remarks (v26)

For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

Actually, that’s not the only verse I want to consider in this section, because James has lots of intermediate concluding remarks, and I want to consider them all. Here they are:

Verse 17: Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

Verse 22: Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?

Verse 24: You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.

By now it should be clear what James is saying. Each of these concluding remarks talks about faith, and about works. And the point of each one is to say that faith by itself is worthless, it’s dead. It is only faith, together with works that has any value.

Now all this seems very straightforward. It’s hard to argue with anything that James is saying. And perhaps some of you are thinking: “why is he labouring the point? What’s the big deal?”.

But perhaps some of you are thinking that I’m sailing very close to the wind, and I’m very close to stepping over into heresy.

Those of you who know the rest of the New Testament, and who know church history, will know what the big deal is. Let me read again one of James’ statements, and then read two from the Apostle Paul, and then perhaps we’ll be clearer why James’ verses have become so controversial:

James 2:24: You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.

Romans 3:28: Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.

Galatians 2:16: a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.

Now, do you see the problem? James says a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. Paul says we’re justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.

Before we look at that, let me just remind you what ‘justified’ means. To be justified means that we are made righteous, and declared righteous by God. I might try and justify my actions. That means I declare that my actions were indeed the right thing. But God justifies us. He declares us to be right! And because God can’t lie, he can only do that because he has made us right.

But how can we explain the difference between Paul and James?

It’s very simple. Do you remember in my very first sermon on James I told you about the Ropes and Ladders activity course? It’s a climbing centre where they have a variety of obstacles you have to negotiate your way around, 30 feet in the air. And of course, there’s all sorts of safety harnesses, and instructors and the like. We took the children from our camp there. But do you remember what I told you we were shouting to them?

I said that most of the children on the course had to be encouraged. “Look it’s OK!” we would say. “You’re perfectly safe. You just keep going and you’ll be fine”. On the other hand, there were one or two hot-heads to which we said the complete opposite. “Be careful!”, we would shout, “You’re going to break your neck! Slow down a bit!”.

So, one the one hand we’re saying, “You’re perfectly safe”. And on the other hand we’re saying “You’re going to break your neck!”. Which of those statements were true? They both were.

So on the one hand the Bible is saying, “a man is justified by works, and not by faith only”. And on the other hand it’s saying we’re “justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law”. Which of those statements are true? They both are.

Back to Ropes and Ladders. Why were we saying two different things? Was the obstacle different? No. Were the safety harness different? No. Had we changed our minds? No. Were the children different? Yes. Was the error different? Yes.

Back to the Bible. Why is it saying two different things? Does the Bible contradict itself? No. Are the authors in disagreement? No. Had they changed their minds? No. Were the people different? Yes. Was the error the people making different? Yes.

You see at Ropes and Ladders, most children weren’t thinking about the safety equipment, and only about the drop. So we had to tell them that the safety equipment would save them. And so it would, wouldn’t it?

But a few children weren’t thinking at all! They just charged around without thinking at all how they should behave. So we had to tell them that they were in great danger. And they were, weren’t they?

Paul is speaking to Christians who had forgotten about what Jesus had done, and were only thinking of what they had done. They were self-righteous. So Paul has to tell them that it is only Jesus who will save them. And so He is, isn’t He?

James is speaking to Christians who didn’t think at all about what they should do! So James had to tell them that they were in great danger. And they were, weren’t they?

There is no contradiction.

It’s time we drew to a close. I want to finish with some obvious application.

James’ point in this section is that faith is only faith when it’s exercised.

Many of you will have heard of Blondin. Blondin was born in 1824, and incredibly he lived until 1897. I say incredibly, because Blondin was a tightrope walker, and his speciality was walking across the Niagara falls on a tightrope. He did so on 17 separate occasions. And he didn’t just walk across. He once walked across blindfolded. Once he walked cross with his feet chained together. Once he took a stove across, and stopped to cook and omelette at the midway point! Sometimes he cycled across. And sometimes he pushed a wheelbarrow.

The story is told that one of those occasions, Blondin successfully walked across the Niagara gorge pushing his wheelbarrow. When he landed on the Canadian side, he asked the crowd: “Do you think I can do it again?”. “Yes!”, they all cheered. “Are you sure?”. “Yes!”, they cheered again. “So who wants to get into the wheelbarrow?”. There was no “yes”, this time.

James is reminding us that there is a difference between claimed faith and real faith. Those people at Niagara all claimed faith. I think they did so sincerely. As they all shouted and cheered, and expressed their faith in Blondin, I don’t think any one of us you have doubted their sincerity. They really did look as though they all believed.

But none of them did.

So what about you? If there are someone there who did get across to the other side of Niagara falls, how would it have happened?

It wouldn’t have happened just because they said they believed that Blondin could take them there, would it? Saying you believe but doing nothing won’t save you. That’s James’ point.

But neither would it have happened if they’d jumped up and tried to get across by themselves. They’d have died trying. No indeed, if they’d tried to ‘help’ Blondin by jumping out halfway, and walking for a bit so Blondin did a bit, and they did a bit. Saying you believe but doing it yourself won’t save you. That’s Paul’s point.

The only way it could have happened is if they exercised their faith by trusting entirely, only in Blondin. That’s the only faith that is real. Faith that trusts completely. Faith that adds nothing, but changes everything. Faith that says, “In Him alone”. And that’s Jesus’ point.

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