What would you say about a person who claimed to have faith in God but did not have works? Do they have saving faith? James asks this question in James 2:14 and spends the rest of chapter 2 answering it. We are not unfamiliar with this question. This is a question we may have asked of nominal Christians many times. But let’s not talk about everyone else. Let’s talk about you and me tonight. James is putting the question to us. We have declared our faith many times. We have declared faith through comments in class, in thoughtful prayers before the congregation, in personal conversations, and even before we committed our life to Christ. But do we have saving faith? Let’s notice how James answers this question through four illustrations in James 2:14-26.
Dead Faith Avoids Service (14-17)
James first asks if faith without works is saving faith. James answers with two negative illustrations in verses 14-20. The first is in verses 14-17. A brother or sister needs clothing and daily food. Maybe they need a place to stay. Does it do any good to see their need and merely wish them well? “I hope you find warmth! I hope you find food!” Our words accomplish nothing. Notice verse 17. “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” What a powerful statement! Dead faith avoids service.
In our world that emphasizes the need to simply ask Christ into our hearts, this statement is significant. One’s belief is dead without works. But so many times I have only read this passage focusing on how many don’t teach this truth. Does it do any good for us to simply have the right teaching on the matter? Does it mean anything for us to declare we believe, “Faith without works is dead” and blast others who do not believe this? Without action, our teaching means nothing. Without action, our faith is dead.
Let’s consider how we fall into this trap of having dead faith that avoids service. A brother, sister, or family has needs. We can apply this physically and spiritually. We might notice that a brother or sister may need food. They are unable to cook for themselves very often. A family may need our service in other ways. We may notice that we have new visitors that haven’t been taught. We may notice that some are not connected relationally to the congregation. We may notice that someone is struggling spiritually or has a lack of understanding.
How does dead faith respond? One with dead faith may notice these situations. We may think compassionate thoughts about people in these situations. We may even wish these struggling brothers and sisters good luck. “I hope you figure that out!” If we consistently stop there, it is a sign of dead faith. Consider, dead faith can even pray about a situation. Sometimes I’ve caught myself praying, “Lord, will you please send someone to do something about this person’s situation?” Sometimes we really can’t do anything about a situation in someone’s life. But when we recognize someone’s need, we are the person God is sending to do something. And if we aren’t even recognizing how people have all these needs in the congregation, we should be frightened. These needs do exist and our faith is cold if we do not even notice what other people are going through.
Useless Faith Disobeys (18-20)
James continues with a second negative illustration by describing faith without obedience to God. James creates a hypothetical situation that separates works and faith. One person has faith and another person has works. Imagine being given this task: “Show me your faith apart from your works…” Imagine trying to prove you have faith to people who don’t know you, but you cannot do anything. There would be a lot of empty words. “I believe in God! I love God a lot! He means more to me than my own life! I trust him through trials and persecution. I have a lot of faith!” I love how James continues in verse 19-20. Bravo! You believe God is one! Great job! “Even the demons believe – and shudder!” In verse 20 James moves from calling faith dead to useless. Faith that does not obey is completely useless.
Notice the second option in verse 18. “I will show you my faith by my works.” This task is much easier. Show your faith to a group of people that don’t know you by your actions. This actually works because we can show them the evidence of our faith. You cannot separate obedience from saving faith. Faith without works is useless because our works expose the quality of our faith. Works – service and obedience – are the evidence and outpouring of the faith in our hearts.
Saving Faith Obeys and Serves (21-25)
After declaring that faith without service and obedience are not saving faith, James continues to describe how saving faith both serves and obeys through two positive illustrations. James first uses Abraham as an example in verses 21-24. Abraham was promised a son by God when he was 75. Twenty-five years later Abraham was blessed with Isaac. Just years later God told Abraham to offer his son up on the altar. Hebrews 11:19 tells us Abraham believed God would raise Isaac from the dead. But how do we know Abraham really believed that? We know Hebrews 11:19 is true because Abraham obeyed. Abraham was seconds away from killing his son before an angel stopped him. Abraham’s obedience in this situation displays what saving faith looks like. James makes an important conclusion about this in verse 22. “Faith was active along with his works and faith was completed by his works.” This teaches us that faith is not a quality someone merely possesses in their heart. Faith is defined by its works. Faith is an action.
James makes an important conclusion about Abraham in verses 23-24. When Abraham displayed his faith through his works that offered up Isaac in Genesis 22, he fulfilled the statement made about his faith in Genesis 15 after the Lord promised him numerous offspring. “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” When Abraham’s heart and actions were combined into an active faith, the Lord counted him as righteous. Abraham’s obedience to God showed that he had saving faith. Saving faith obeys God.
Do you want to know if you have saving faith? Put yourself in Abraham’s shoes for a moment and see if you complete the first test. What if God told you to offer up your child? Do you believe God raises the dead? Don’t answer too quickly. James teaches here that unless we obey we don’t have saving faith. Would you do it? The test is evident. The only way we start to bring down that knife is if we having saving faith that knows God can cure any wound and raise the dead. Do we have saving faith that trusts and follows God anywhere?
James says Rahab the prostitute was saved in the same way. Rahab risked her life for the Israelite spies in Jericho and saved their lives. This service towards the spies proved her faith in the Lord. Rahab was saved by her working faith. Saving faith obey’s God’s bidding and looks at what others need and does something about it.
This brings us back to James’ original question. If a person has faith but does not have works, can their faith save them? No. Salvation is accomplished by active faith.
Let’s make sure we don’t misunderstand this. If we believe, “My own actions and righteousness saves me,” we are wrong. We will fail. We will especially get ourselves in trouble if we simply and bluntly say to others, “I’m saved by my works.” Consider, this can’t be James’ point because Rahab could have never been saved this way. Rahab was a prostitute. The only thing Rahab’s actions made her worthy of was damnation. We are in the same situation. None can deserve or earn their salvation. We are only forgiven because of our active faith in God’s grace.
When James says that active and working faith saves, he is not denying salvation by faith. Faith is the victory. Faith does save (cf. Romans 5:1). But like we have seen so many times in our study of John, James is questioning the quality of our faith. There is a fake faith that simply acknowledges who Jesus is. There is a fake faith that has an abundance of academic knowledge and “doctrinal correctness.” Belief does not save. Are demons saved because they believe that God is one? Is someone saved simply because they academically believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God? No. But then there is a faith that passionately pursues and obeys Jesus in action. James is teaching that God saves the one who has faith that produces real activity.
Understanding these things, how can we move towards saving faith?
Faith that serves others.Since this is a faith problem, the answer is to not merely set a New Year’s Resolution to serve people more, though that isn’t a bad idea. James is clueing us into a problem in our hearts. We do not truly love our brothers and sisters if our works do not declare it. Love overcomes obstacles to serve others. We cannot solve dead faith by simply adding good works to it. Learn compassion and love for others in the congregation by recognizing what God has done for you. Learn love by thinking about what it would have been like for Christ to simply hope someone did something about our physical hunger or our spiritual death. What a miserable existence this world would be! We would not be alive without him. He didn’t hope someone would do something. His loving faithfulness caused him to lay his life down to save us. Others need our faith to work in their lives. Dwelling on this will produce the correct faith in our heart that will certainly react with action.
Faith that obeys God.Don’t simply think about whether we have followed the New Testament example of coming together on the first day of the week to participate in the Lord’s Supper. Don’t think about whether or not we say we have faith. What do your actions say? Is there active service towards the Lord? What are our works outside of this building? Are we making sacrifices for the spread of the gospel? Are we making sacrifices to obey the Lord and eradicate sin from our lives? Do we have the active faith that fights for a tumultuous marriage because God has commanded so? Do we have the faith to trust the Lord in the midst of economic struggles and actively put our hope in heavenly treasures? If we do not, we must remember again that the problem is our faith. If we do not have this obedience through difficulty, we don’t have real faith in the Lord. If we don’t have faith in the Lord we don’t know personally know the Lord’s power. Solve this lack of faith by getting to know the Lord in his Scriptures. Solve this lack of faith by entrusting him with your darkest struggles.
Do we have dead faith? What do your works declare about your faith? If we can only think of excuses, James’ warning is to us. Our faith is not saving faith. Our works declare that our faith is dead and that we are lost in our sins. Real saving faith works. Is your faith working? Do you have saving faith?