Sunday, February 05, 2017
Sermon: James 2: 14-26 Faith in Action - Faith that works
Consider this headline from last October: ‘Labour “rank hypocrisy” - two more MPs against grammars sent children to private schools.’ The Labour MPs had been speaking out against plans to establish new grammar schools, arguing that every child should be educated together in comprehensive schools - but they were paying thousands of pounds to send their own children to private schools. The hypocrisy stands out - between what they claimed to believe, and how they actually behave.
Or consider another example. Imagine a football manager who works hard to train his team for the cup final. He makes motivational speeches, saying that he believes in the team, and that they’re going to bring home the cup. He might say that, but he then goes and bets on the other team to win. His beliefs and his behaviour are in opposition. Hypocrisy is rife, it seems.
James, the brother of the Lord Jesus, wants to make sure that we aren’t guilty of a similar form of hypocrisy - the inconsistency between our beliefs and our behaviour - our faith and our works. And, as we’re coming to see with James, he doesn’t beat around the bush. He comes straight out with whatever he’s thinking. And he confronts us in verse 14 with this question: ‘What good is it, brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?’
It can be easy to say that you have faith. After all, we’ve just stood up and recited the Nicene Creed, the statement of Christian belief. Or when census time comes around, you tick the box that says Church of Ireland. Or if you get one of those equal opportunities monitoring forms, you tick to say that you are a Protestant. James is asking if it’s enough to do that, to say you have faith, if you don’t do anything about it, if you don’t work at it. As he puts it, ‘What good is it?’ Or, as he goes on, ‘Can that faith save him?’
Now, the way James frames the question, you can tell that the answer he is driving towards is - no good at all. To help us get to the answer, he gives us two negative examples - ways in which it’s obvious that faith by itself isn’t enough.
The first is in verse 15. ‘If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled”, without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?’
So someone sitting near you in church, a brother or sister in the family of faith, and you become aware that they’re struggling - they haven’t got warm enough clothes for these cold winter days; they aren’t eating because they can’t afford to. You see their need, and you say to them ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled.’ Or in other words - hopefully God will sort you out and provide for you in your need. What good is that?
If you see a need, and you don’t do anything about it when you could do so, then what good are your pious words? Your blessing effectively becomes a curse to them! Such faith, by itself, without works, isn’t real faith at all.
Now, straight away, James expects a reaction. He jumps right in and says ‘But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.”’ As if there are different types of Christian - some are the faithy kind of thinking about things type of Christian; while others are the practical working kind of Christian. So how do you show your faith apart from works? How can you give any evidence that you really are believing, if it’s not affecting how you live - the choices you make, the things you do, the way you help others?
In verse 19, we see the second negative example of faith disconnected from works. James points to a person who affirms the true belief that God is one. It’s true, it’s right - but just believing that God is one gives you some strange company. As James continues: ‘Even the demons believe - and shudder!’ The devil and his demons (fallen angels) know that there is only one God, they have right belief, they believe in God, but it makes them shudder - because their belief in God isn’t enough. They know God, but they don’t produce deeds of love and service to them, because they have rebelled and fallen.
So the two negative examples show us that faith by itself isn’t enough. It’s not enough to issue pious words when we could work to help those in need. And just believing true things about God isn’t enough - it puts you in the same league as the demons.
In order to help us see how faith and works are meant to go together, James gives us two worked out examples from the Old Testament. The first one he turns to is Abraham. You might remember a few years ago we looked at the life of Abraham - or maybe you’ve been following the through the Bible reading plan and had a more recent reminder. Well in verses 21-23, James picks out a few different moments from Abraham’s life.
Verse 21 focuses on Genesis 22, where Abraham obeys the command to offer up his son Isaac to God. This was Abraham working out his faith in God, by obeying God’s command. You see, verse 23 quotes Genesis 15 (which was about 25 years before Genesis 22). God had promised Abraham not just a son, but offspring as many as the stars in the night sky. And Abraham believed God’s promise, and he was counted righteous before God.
Abraham believed God’s promise - and so he obeyed, he worked it out, by placing Isaac on the altar. As James puts it, ‘faith was completed by his works.’ He trusted that God would still fulfil his promise, and demonstrated his trust by his obedience. He was justified by his actions. In fact, more than that, he was called a friend of God.
Now sometimes people read verse 24 and think that this is contradicting what Paul says in Romans, that salvation is by faith alone. Indeed, in this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, when we’ll think more about faith alone, it seems that James is saying something different. ‘You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.’ But both Paul and James are saying that it is only by faith that we are saved. But the faith that is saving faith is never alone - it always produces works in us.
To make the case, James points to Rahab. It’s one thing if this applies to Abraham, but Rahab is completely different to Abraham. He was a patriarch (the father of the Jewish nation), Rahab was a prostitute. He was a Jew, she was a Gentile. Does the same faith expressed in works apply in her life? The answer is, yes!
We heard her story earlier. The people of Jericho had heard all about what God had done in bringing the people of Israel out of Egypt, through the wilderness, defeating kings and nations along the way. And now Jericho was next. Rahab trusted in the God of Israel, and so (at great danger to her life), she took in the two spies, hid them, and made sure they escaped to safety. She was kept safe, by the sign of the scarlet cord, when everyone else in Jericho perished. (And she became a great-great.....granny of the Lord Jesus in the process.) Her saving faith was demonstrated in the way she acted. Her faith was expressed in her works.
Can the same be said of us? We are saved by faith alone in Jesus alone (as the Reformation rediscovered) - but genuine saving faith will always be seen by the way we live. So how are we doing, as we work out our faith, as we straighten out the inconsistencies and hypocrisies that can continue to cling to us (maybe even without us noticing).
Perhaps some of us need to have that real faith in the first place. We're heard all about Jesus and what he has done for us in his cross-work - his death and resurrection, pictured in the bread and wine of the Holy Communion. But we've never really believed. If this is you, then this is the step you need to take today - believe in the Lord Jesus, receive his promise, and discover the faith that God gives.
Perhaps some of us need to move from pious, blessed thoughts to compassionate action. That we move from seeing needs around us to meeting those needs. Are there ways you could help, providing for others from the abundance God has given you? The Pantry is one way we can do so, but you could also dream up other ways of acting out your faith.
Perhaps some of us are really passionate about doctrinal orthodoxy, getting our beliefs right, and debating intricate points of theology until the cows come home. But sound theology isn’t enough - we need to be just as passionate about showing that faith in the truth in our lives.
Perhaps you see yourself in Abraham or Rahab - trusting God’s promise and stepping out in faith, living out your faith by word and deed. Keep going! Abraham waited for 25 years to see the promise fulfilled. Rahab could only imagine how God would bring her into his family and story of redemption.
Please don’t be disheartened as you hear God’s word to us today. While there is challenge in these words - for me as much as for everyone - there is also encouragement to keep doing what we are doing, as we express our faith in our actions. Thursday [and the funeral of the late Kirsty Clarke] stands out as an example of how the church family rallies together, serving in so many ways, as we demonstrated our faith by our works.
So let’s keep going - both believing and be-living in our great God.
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 5th February 2017.