On one of our vacations we went up to Pike’s Peak in Colorado, just outside Colorado Springs. Pike’s Peak is 14,115 feet in altitude. The air was so thin that I immediately got dizzy and had a headache and Grace started turning purple. On the way back down, there is a place where they do a brake check. The road is so steep they want to make sure that people have not rode their brakes all the way down the hill so as to fail the rest of the way down. So about halfway down some authorities take a laser temperature of your brakes to see if they are hot and apt to fail. If you have, you are required to stop for a half hour to let the brakes cool. Everyone thinks their brakes are fine. But you would be surprised how many people were pulled over to the side to let the brakes cool down. They were saved from a catastrophe by having their brakes checked.
Do you have faith? I think nearly everyone in this room will answer this question with a "yes." We think we have faith. But it is important to let God do a check to make sure that you truly have faith. This is what James is doing in James 2:14-26. Do you have the faith that is acceptable to God? It is not enough to think we have faith. We need to test to determine if we have valid, real faith. The thesis of James’s discussion begins in verse 14.
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? (James 2:14 ESV)
James presents a person who claims to have faith. But does he really? This person has faith but he does not have any activity corresponding to that faith. James asks a very important question: can that faith save him? Can this kind of faith be saving faith? James will use four cases to answer this question. Can faith without any corresponding activity save?
Case #1: Faith Without Works Is Dead (2:15-17)
The first case James uses is to illustrate a situation where a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food. I think it is worth pointing out that the scriptures describe this as a situation of true need. True destitution in the scriptures is not that we cannot make a car payment, pay the electric bill, or do not have a job. Carefully examine the scriptures and you will note that poverty and people in true need were those who lacked clothing and lacked food. This brother or sister is in true need. But rather than do something, one of us says to be warmed and filled. James asks the question, "What good is that?"
This is an example of empty, worthless faith. Verbal statements are not faith. Only speaking words is not faith. James makes the point that you can say whatever you like but that is not faith. This is certainly important for us to understand today. You can say that you love Jesus all you want, but your words are not faith. Real faith, James says, leads to action. Real faith does not merely say some words. In verse 17 James concludes his first case with the point that faith without any action is dead. Faith that does not lead to action is of no benefit. That kind of faith is not saving faith, but dead faith.
How many of us have this kind of false faith! We say all the right things to people, but we do not lift a finger to show our faith. We look like good, faithful Christians by the words that we say. But our lack of action reveals something completely different. What are we doing that shows we have saving faith? What can we point to in our lives that clearly reveals the faith that God demands? False faith offers no service to others.
Case #2: Belief Alone Is Useless (2:18-20)
James establishes his second case to answer the question if faith without activity can save. One person says he has faith. Another person says he has works. But here is the challenge: show me your faith apart from your works. Show me faith with any activity. How can anyone know that you have faith if you do not act upon it or show it? I will show you faith by my actions. Faith is proved by a way of life. "I will show you my faith." Do we think of faith in these terms? Do we think about "showing our faith" to the world? Faith is something that can be seen. If faith cannot be seen then it is not the saving faith God calls for.
James proves this point with an observation about demons. You believe that there is a God. Guess what? The demons also believe that there is one God also. Even demons have some proper beliefs. Even demons believe in the basic doctrines of God. James points out the foolishness of a faith that does not act because even the demons believe and shudder. Their belief causes them to at least shudder.
James points out how foolish it is to think that belief alone has some sort of saving value. James calls us foolish people if we think that faith without activity is useful. It is not useful to others and it is not useful to God. I think it is fair to say that there are millions of people who have useless faith. How many people believe that Jesus is the Son of God, but do nothing with that belief! How many people believe that there is one God but do nothing with that belief! The vast majority of this country claims to be Christian. They believe in God and believe in Jesus. But where is the action that shows that faith? It does not exist and that faith is dead and useless. That faith does not bring eternal life to the soul. It is dead faith. The same is true for ourselves. If all that your faith consists of is sitting in the church building, you have dead faith. You have useless faith. You do not have real faith if all that your belief does for you is gets you to the building once a week. This faith does not save.
Case #3: Abraham Was Justified By His Works (2:21-24)
The third case presented is the example of Abraham. Did Abraham have actions behind his faith? The answer is that he absolutely did. He showed his faith through the activity of offering up his son Isaac on the altar. We do not have the time to retell the complete story to which James is referring. I encourage you to read Genesis 22 and see the amazing faith of Abraham that is recorded. To simplify the story, Abraham is told to offer his only son on the altar to God. Of course this command does not make any sense, but Abraham goes to obey this command without questioning or hesitation. As Abraham is about to kill his son to offer him on the altar, God, through the angel of the Lord, calls out to Abraham to stop and not kill his son. Abraham’s faith was revealed through his actions. He was going to offer Isaac, believing that God could raise his son from the dead. Therefore, he did not simply believe. His faith led him to act and obey.
Abraham is an example of faith that saves. Abraham’s faith is contrasted with the person who says he has faith apart from activity. Abraham was not saved apart from activity. Notice this point in verse 22. "You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works." Faith must be active. Faith must be doing something or it is not faith that saves. Faith is completed by our works. Our faith is carried out and revealed by what we do. Works cannot be separated from faith. Activity cannot be removed from belief. Faith and works were cooperating together.
Not only this, but it is faith working by which the scripture was fulfilled, "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness." Abraham was acquitted because he believed God and that belief acted daily. The final words in verse 23 have always sent a chill down my spine. Abraham is described with an amazing title. Abraham was called a friend of God. Could there be a better description that God could give us? Would their be anything better than to hear from the Lord that we are his friend? Faith that works brings us to that point. Saving faith obeys what God commands, no matter how inconvenient or difficult. Abraham casts a strong light in our dark lives. We often think we have saving faith but we are unwilling to obey the commands that we find difficult, inconvenient, or do not like. That is not the faith of Abraham. James describes saving faith as a very special faith that obeys God.
p>Thus, James concludes his third case that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. This is the only place in the scriptures where the words "faith" and "alone" are joined together. We are saved by faith alone if we mean the faith that James is describing. James is describing saving faith. He is describing faith that is not merely belief or confession, but acts in obedience to God. But we are not saved by faith alone if we think that faith is simply believing in God. Even the demons believe but they are not saved.
Case #4: Rahab Was Justified By Works
The final case James presents to show that faith without action does not save is the example of Rahab. Rahab was also justified because her faith caused her to act. She hid the spies, in threat to her own well being, because it was the right thing to do. True faith does good to others, which ties back into James 2:15-17.
Therefore, just as when the spirit leaves the body, the body is dead, so also when works leaves faith, faith is dead. It is not saving faith. It is dead, useless faith.
- False faith offers no service to others. In the first illustration James revealed that false, non-saving faith does not act on behalf of others. It says all the right things but does not help others.
- False faith offers no obedience to God. In the second illustration James showed us that demons believe but they do not have saving faith. So also for us that our belief is not enough. Faith must lead to action in obedience to God.
- True faith offers costly obedience. The third illustration showed us the faith of Abraham. We learn from Abraham that true faith offers obedience of great sacrifice. Saving faith will make great sacrifices to serve and obey the Lord.
- True faith offers costly service to others. In the final illustration James used Rahab to show that saving faith acts godly toward others. Saving faith acts in the best interests of others, even at a detrimental cost to one’s self.