Doing is believing - James 2:14-26

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the morning service on 9th June 2002.

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A few years ago, Olympic gold medallist, Darrel Pace, gave an archery exhibition in New York City's Central Park, and the event received coverage by all the news programmes. Pace was able to fire at a target using steel-tipped hunting arrows and hit the bulls-eye every time without missing. Then he called for a volunteer. 'All you have to do,' said Pace, 'Is hold this apple in your hand, waist-high, and one under your chin.' Well one TV news reporter, a man called Josh Howell, took a bold step forward. He stood there, a small apple in his hand, a larger one in his throat. Pace took aim from 30 yards away as all the onlookers held their breath and the TV cameras rolled. All of sudden there was a fizz through the air and a loud crack. The arrow went through the apple, disintegrating it, and stuck in the target behind it. Everybody applauded and Josh Howell, the gutsy reporter was overjoyed- Until, that is, his cameraman came up to him, looking very sheepish and said: 'I'm sorry, Josh. I had a problem with my viewfinder and I didn't get it on tape. Could you do it again?'

Now if you have been with us over the last month or so, you'll remember that James' aim is to show us what authentic Christianity is like. He does not want us to be deceived, but rather to be clear and sure that we have a faith that will save us on judgement day. And we've seen that the key verse in James is chapter 1 verse 22: 'Do not merely listen to the word and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.' The true Christian not only says they are a Christian. Their belief is seen in action. That is true faith, according to James. It's actually what Josh Howell had when faced by Darrell Pace's arrows. That TV reporter not only believed Pace could shoot the apple accurately; he got up and was willing to put his money where his mouth was. His faith in the archer was seen in his actions and his willingness to step forward.

And throughout this letter James is showing us how that faith will be seen in action. It will be seen in our acts of mercy to the helpless, which we looked at last week; in our use of our tongues, which we'll see next week; and in our willingness not to be tainted by the world, which comes in chapters 4-5. And in this passage before us today, chapter 2 vv 14-26, James issues us with a direct challenge. He asks you and me: Is your faith dead or alive? Are you authentic or a phoney? Is your faith going to survive that judgement of God that James talks abut in 2 v 12? That's the link between these two passages. James is showing us what kind of faith is real faith, what kind of faith survives on judgement day. You see it is not enough just to say we're Christians, nor is it enough just to tack on a few good deeds to our profession of Christianity. No real faith bears fruit in actions. And James tells us that it is possible to talk a very good game, and yet to have a faith that is as dead as a dodo. And if we have that sort of faith, we'll find ourselves facing God's judgment on our own two feet. So James wants us to be clear, not to scare us, but to help us to be certain, sure that we really are on the right track.

But before we look in detail at the chapter, it is worth us saying that James is in no way contradicting the apostle Paul here. You see some people read James 2 v 24: 'You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone,' and then they read Paul in Romans 3 v 28: 'A person is justified by faith apart from observing the law' and they conclude that the two writers are contradicting each other. James appears to say you get saved by works. Paul says you cannot get saved by works. But we need to read both authors for what they are saying in their own situations. Paul was writing to people who were thinking they could work their way to heaven. So Paul says: 'The only way you can be saved is by trusting what Jesus has done for you. You cannot get to heaven by the good things you do.' James writes for people who say: 'Yes, I'm going to heaven. I have faith, I trust in what Jesus has done. I can just put my feet up and enjoy the journey.' To them James says: 'If you really believe, then your belief will be seen in the way you act. You cannot be saved by simply saying you believe.' That's the emphases of the two writers. There is no contradiction between James and Paul. In fact, Paul says in Romans that faith leads to obedience, in other words, real faith acts. And James in his letter tells us chapter 1 v 18 that God chose to give us new birth. Salvation is not something we can earn. It is a gift of God. So they do agree, but they are addressing two different problems. So let's look at James in his own right, and we'll find that he has some very potent lessons to teach us about true faith. He begins by giving us two examples of dead faith, a faith which is all mouth and no action and a faith which is all mind and no action. And then he looks at living faith and gives us two examples showing us that faith is about costly sacrifice and courageous service.

1) Dead Faith is All Mouth but No Action (Vv 14-17)

So let's see first what James says about dead faith. And he says that dead faith is all mouth but no action. Verse 14: 'What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such a faith save him?' The implication is no, such a faith cannot save him! In fact, such 'faith' is no faith at all. It's certainly not faith as the Bible understands it. Real, saving faith is seen in action. If you truly follow Jesus as Lord and Saviour then you will live his way. To make his point James gives an example of dead faith, the sort of belief which does not act and shows itself to be false. Verse 15: 'Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If 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? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.' Now James here is talking about the arm chair Christian, the Christian who talks a very good game but is never willing to leave the comfort zone or get their hands dirty. It's a bit like the many armchair sports fans that spend their time in front of the TV but never graduate to playing the sport. Think of the armchair cricketer who knows all the rules, and criticizes the umpire when he's made a bad decision, or berates the batsman for getting caught out, and yet put this armchair fan on a cricket pitch and they'd be hopeless. They talk a very good game. They sound very impressive, and yet they are all mouth and no action. And James says in the world of faith, it is very dangerous to be an armchair Christian.

And James' illustration is very biting. Because he's not talking about people who live on the streets who we see in the centre of Hull. He's not talking about whether or not we help them. He's talking about people in the church who are in great trouble- these people are spiritual brothers or sisters. This armchair Christian simply sees this person in trouble and says: 'Oh well. Don't worry. I'll pray for you.' And then he sends them on their way, with not a hint of willingness of getting involved. They don't want to be troubled. That's dead faith. Such faith talks a good game and looks good on paper, and yet does nothing to help when someone is in need.

Now it would be very easy for us to feel guilty at this point. We've all done it haven't we? We've all listened to someone's difficult trouble, and then done nothing to help. James is not saying that if we do that from time to time, we have a dead faith. None of us can help everyone. No, what he is saying is examine yourselves. If all you ever do is mouth platitudes and never get stuck in with brothers and sisters in need, then you are all mouth and no action, according to James. Maybe there is a fellow Christian in financial difficulty, or a person who never seems to fit in, someone who needs befriending, an elderly brother or sister who needs friendship. Whatever it is, says James, don't be someone who is all mouth and no action. Don't be someone who is never willing to leave the comfort zone, or put themselves in the firing line. Don't be someone who stays in the armchair. Get stuck in. Otherwise you're heading for the first mark of dead faith. You're someone who is all mouth but no action.

2) Dead Faith is All Mind But No Action (Vv 18-19)

But there is a second mark of dead faith that James draws to our attention and that is that dead faith is all mind but no action. Verse 18: 'But 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. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that- and shudder!' You see this person who buts in to James' argument claims that he's more of a deeds man. He's a good person and doesn't go in for all this belief business. 'You have faith, I have deeds. Let's leave it at that and both stay happy.' And some people claim just that don't they, to be Christians just because they are good people. This is what the writer Iris Murdock once said: 'I think I'm a Christian. I don't believe in God, I don't believe in the resurrection, I don't believe that Christ was a divine figure, I don't believe in the afterlife, all the paraphernalia of Christianity.' Well that is simply wrong. No, a Christian believes certain things. But belief in itself is not enough. Belief which is not translated into action is not true saving faith. Such faith is just mental assent. He does not truly acknowledge Jesus as Lord and go his way.

James gives us an illustration. He says: 'Do you believe there is one God?' Well you might well subscribe to this belief, but remember even the demons believe that. Do you know that the devil and his demons are very orthodox in their beliefs? It's possible for them to put their name to virtually everything that the creeds say. They believe that God is the creator. They believe Jesus is the Son of God. They believe Jesus will come again and judge the world. Who is it that understands first who Jesus is in the gospels? It's the demons. They get it way before the disciples. Because they know the truth. Yes, all the knowledge is in their minds. But all they can do is shudder. They fear God. They don't worship him as Lord. There is no devotion and service. Theirs is not saving faith. And, says James, if you say you believe and there is no evidence in your life to back it up, if your faith is not seen in actions, then you are deceiving yourself. Your faith is dead faith. It's not that by doing good things you show you are a Christian. Rather James is arguing that those who have genuinely bowed the knee to Jesus Christ, who acknowledge him as Saviour and Lord, those people will show their allegiance by the lives they lead. James isn't being novel. Jesus said exactly the same thing. 'Not everyone, he said in the Sermon on the Mount, who says to me Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my father in heaven.' James says 'show your faith by your deeds'.

The story is told of how Blondin, the great tightrope expert, once crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope. Everyone was astonished. And when he came back across the Falls he said to the waiting crowd: 'Do you believe I can walk across the Falls pushing a wheel barrow?' 'Yes, we believe,' said the crowd. So off he went, and Blondin pushed the wheel barrow across the Falls and back. On his return, he asked: 'Do you believe that I can carry someone across the Falls in this wheelbarrow?' And the crowd said: 'Yes, we believe, we believe it!' So Blondin said: 'Well which of you will get in the wheel barrow?' And there was a long silence. No-one was willing to show they truly had faith in Blondin.

So is yours just a mental assent? Do you have all the knowledge, and yet lack the relationship? Do you believe it all, and yet not live it out. Well, says James, if that's you, then your only company is the demons. Be warned. Dead faith is all mind and no action. And it is possible that even if you have been coming to church for years, there is no genuine relationship with God. If so, today is a great day to start. Dead faith can become living faith if you acknowledge your sins and come back to the Saviour.

3) Living Faith is about Costly Sacrifice (Vv 20-24)

But having told us about dead faith that it is all mouth and no action and all mind and no action, James goes on to tell us about living faith, and first that living faith is about costly sacrifice. Verse 20: 'You foolish man! Do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?' James doesn't mince his words does he? And for an example he gives us Abraham, the great man of faith from the OT, the one whom the Jews revered as their ancestral father. James takes us back to the event in Genesis 22, when Abraham was told by God to offer his only son, Isaac, as a sacrifice to God. Now if you remember, this son was Abraham's only hope of descendants, and God had promised, back in Genesis 15, about 15 years before these events, that through Isaac God would build Abraham a great nation. And in Genesis 15 v 6, the verse James quotes, we read that 'Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.' Abraham was declared right with God because he trusted in God's promise. He had faith. Now Abraham had done nothing at this stage to impress God. There was no catalogue of good deeds to wow God with. No, Abraham simply trusted that God would keep his promise. And on that basis, God declared Abraham right with God. He was forgiven and in God's kingdom- it was a free gift of God.

But after that point, Abraham's life was a life of faith shown in his deeds. Abraham showed his trust in God by living God's way and obeying him, and Genesis 22, the sacrifice of Isaac his only son, or the near sacrifice, as God stopped Abraham just as the knife was falling, is the highpoint of Abraham's walk of faith. He trusted in God and was willing to sacrifice Isaac, because he knew, as Hebrews tells us, that God could raise Isaac from the dead. It was faith in action. Abraham didn't just say he trusted God. He showed it by his willingness to kill Isaac. It's an extraordinary example of faith in action. So, says James, in verse 22: 'You see that his faith and his actions were working together and his faith was made complete by what he did.' Abraham's faith was seen in all it's fullness as he lived it out. So James concludes in verse 24: 'You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.' His point is that faith in God, trusting in God's promises is always accompanied by a new life. Mere mental assent is not enough. In that way, a Christian who acts is seen to be the genuine article and not a fraud.

And once again, James lays before us a challenge. Are we willing to show the quality of our faith in costly sacrifice? Some of us may well have done so in the past, or may be enduring costly sacrifice at the moment. Maybe a family which refuses to acknowledge our new found Christian faith, a peer group at college or work which is opposed to us as a Christian, a career path we cannot take because it compromises with our Christian beliefs. But that's the life of faith according to the Bible. Not a bed of roses, but a life of sacrifice which is often costly. And if we're not willing to go that way, then we're back to the armchair Christianity that James warned us about before, the cosy warmth of our own comfort zones. But if we are going through costly sacrifice at the moment, then take encouragement from verse 22. There James says that faith is made complete by what Abraham did, his costly sacrifice. In other words, sacrificial Christian living is the way to maturity, and God will use such difficult times for bringing us to maturity, just as he told us in chapter 1. And he delights in those children of his who are willing to trust him in those difficult times. For that is a mark of living faith- costly sacrifice.

4) Living Faith is about Courageous Service (Vv 25-26)

But then finally, James tells us another mark of living faith in verses 25-26 and that is courageous service. Verse 25: 'In the same way, was not the prostitute Rahab considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction?' Now of course we might be tempted to think why on earth has James chosen Rahab as an example of faith. After all, you cannot get a lower example- she was a prostitute and she was a pagan, not a Jew, in fact someone who lived in an enemy town, Jericho. Why not go for Moses as an example or David. Why a pagan prostitute? Well I think it is precisely for that reason that James chooses her. I guess we might be tempted to think that we will never get to Abraham's heights. We could never have his faith, we say, even though he too like us was a mere mortal. But we cannot say that about Rahab. She was just an ordinary girl in an ordinary town living an ordinary 15th century BC life. If she can have faith in God which is seen in action, then anybody can. Now if you're not clear on who Rahab was, let me explain. You'll find the whole story in Joshua 2. Rahab lived in a town called Jericho, and God told the people of Israel to capture and destroy this town. The people of Israel were at this stage in their history wandering in the desert, having been led out of Egypt by God. And they were in the process of getting into the Promised Land. But Jericho stood in their way. So Moses sent spies into Jericho to check the place out. And these spies take refuge in Rahab's house. She takes them in and hides them from the Jericho police who are intent on capturing them. She takes a huge risk. And when the police come knocking on her door she says that they have gone and she sends the police off. Now why on earth should she do that? Why take this huge risk? She could be killed for treason. Well the reason becomes apparent as she says to the spies in Joshua 2 v 9: 'I know that the Lord has give you this landShe had heard what God had done for the Israelites, and she too, a non Jew, a pagan prostitute, believed in God. And how did she show it? She was willing to put her life on the line and hide the spies. And when Jericho fell she was spared. Her faith in God was seen to be sure.

Now that is an example of faith in action. And so James concludes this passage in verse 26: 'As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.' Rahab showed her faith by courageous service. Is that what marks you as a Christian? Someone whose Christian life is one of courageous service, who is willing to put reputation, money and even life on the line for the sake of the faith you believe in? It may sound a tall order, but as Rahab discovered there is only one God worth serving. Let Rahab be an example to us today- the pagan prostitute who put her money where her mouth was, spiritually speaking. For that is the mark of living faith- courageous service.

Well I'm not sure whether I would have stepped in front of even an Olympic archer firing steel tipped hunting arrows. And yet spiritually speaking, the true Christian puts his faith into action. Once again this morning James has given us a serious challenge. He's presented us with a very pressing question: Is your faith dead or alive? If it's characterised by all mouth and no action or all mind and no action, then it's dead. And we need to repent and come back to God for forgiveness and new life. Or is your faith a living faith, a belief which is seen in action, in costly sacrifice and courageous service. Above all let's remember today that we should not simply hear the word, and so deceive ourselves, we should do what it says.


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