SERMON: The Faith Versus Works Debate (James 2:18-26)
Imagine you’re in an auditorium, and you’ve come to listen to a debate—a debate between two people who both claim to be Christians. And what you’re being asked to do is to decide which is the better Christian. The first person is someone who claims to have a “spiritual” understanding of the Christian faith. They take a very strong intellectual approach to their faith, and they spend all their time learning more and more about their “God”. And the second, is someone who claims to live by “Christian principles”. They are law abiding, they’re very active in the community. They’re always helping out someone else in need. And they generally do their best to make the world a better place.
Now, of course, you can envisage the content of the debate. The first person is very strong on the fact that God isn’t someone who is remote and unknowable and, therefore, they have concentrated their lives on getting to know God better. And, indeed, they have done so, to the exclusion of all else. On the other hand, the second person is very strong on the fact that they live according to the laws of the land. They pay their taxes, they never do any wrong (well not deliberately at least). And the amount of time they spend helping others demonstrates that they take seriously the need to contribute to the wellbeing of others. They also take seriously the need to care for God’s created world.
And the debate goes on for some time. However, at the end of the debate, it’s your turn. It’s up to you and your fellow members in the audience to decide which of the two has argued the better case. Now, both have claimed to be Christians. But who do you think is the better Christian? Is it the first person, the one who was pursuing a more “spiritual” line, dedicating themselves to getting to know God at the exclusion of all else? Or, is it the second person, the one who is actively involved in helping others, and trying to make the world a better place?
B. FAITH v WORKS (James 2:18-19, 26)
Well, something like that debate is what we have spelled out for us in the letter of James. Because in his letter there is a section where he wrote a kind of debate between two protagonists, each debating their own particular position. One is proclaiming the importance of intellectual faith, and the other is concentrating on the need to do good works. And each of them are proclaiming a superior position to the other.
Now, what’s interesting about this letter is its author. Because the author, James, was the eldest natural son of Mary and Joseph—a brother to Jesus (Mt 13:55). And we know that at first James didn’t believe in Jesus, because James misunderstood Jesus and even challenged his mission (John 7:2-5). However, all that changed, and after the resurrection, James was one of the select few that Jesus appeared to (1 Cor 15:7); he evidently had close ties with both Peter and Paul (Paul – Gal 1:19, Acts 21:18, Peter – Acts 12:17); he was a leader in the important council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:13); Paul considered him to be a “pillar” of the church (Gal 2:9); and history books tell us that in 62AD James was martyred for his faith.
From this background, then, James was eminently qualified to speak on the debate between faith and works. And, on an issue that was obviously just as relevant then as it is now, James easily recalled the two sides of the argument. Only, with James, he gave the argument a slight twist.
Because although he described the first protagonist just as I’ve described before—as someone very keen on learning and on developing their intellectual faith to the exclusion of all else. Regarding the second protagonist he didn’t just describe someone who went around doing good deeds and good deeds only. James tried to describe himself—and with the need to do those good deeds—but from the perspective of someone who had faith. As a consequence, James’ challenge was: “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” (18b).
Now, James had a very different way of expressing the argument between faith and works, than is elsewhere described in the New Testament. But then the context of what he was trying to teach was different too. However, behind James’ message the basic message is clear.
Firstly, you can spend as much time as you like learning about God and accepting him intellectually. However, if that intellectual belief does not manifest itself into action then it’s going to get you absolutely nowhere with God. At the end of the world you will have failed God’s test. Because as James said, “You believe that there is only one God; that is good. But even demons believe—and shudder.” (19).
Secondly, you can live however a good life that you wish. But if your good deeds don’t come from the background of faith—then as far as God is concerned—your good works will get you nowhere. At the end of the world – you will have failed God’s test too. And as James said, “the body without the spirit is dead.” (26a).
And, as a consequence of those two failures, thirdly, the real test of faith—how you can distinguish the genuine believer from someone who simply says they believe—is whether their faith manifests itself in doing good works.
Now, we have to be careful here, because, getting the order right is vitally important. Doing good works will not necessarily result in a person having faith. However, a person who has genuine faith should demonstrate that in doing good deeds. Because as James said, “faith without works is dead” (26b).
And, on that basis let’s getting back to our original scenario: that imaginary debate between two modern day protagonists, where as members of the audience we have to decide who is the better “Christian”. Now, remember, the first person was the one who claimed to have a superior “spiritual” understanding of God, and was pursuing an intellectual knowledge of God at all costs. And the second, was a person who went around simply doing good works, and good works only. And the question for us as an audience is: Who is the better Christian?
Well, according to James, the answer is neither. Both may call themselves Christians, but neither are really Christians at all. And the reasons? Well, the first person who was pursuing a more intellectual approach was unable to demonstrate that they had any real faith. They may have intellectually acknowledged who God was, but they were unable to demonstrate that what they intellectually believed made any difference to their lives. And as James said, “Even the demons do that.”
And the second person may have been going around leading a good life. But that’s all, the person had not demonstrated that they had any faith. They may have had a concern for others, but their efforts were not rooted in even the basics of the Christian faith.
Because, according to James, it is only faith in God that will get someone into God’s kingdom. Consequently, it is only faith that gives anybody the legitimate right to call themselves a “Christian”. People without faith shouldn’t call themselves Christians at all. Having faith should be demonstrated by good works. And if it doesn’t? Then maybe it reflects that the person doesn’t have any genuine faith at all.
D. FAITH V WORKS
1. Our Dilemma (1)
Now to me, James’s teaching leaves us, as members of God’s church, with a major problem. Because, there are many people who associate themselves with God’s church and the Christian faith who believe that they are something they are not—and even call themselves something they are not. And that’s particularly true amongst people who live in western style nations.
Because, many people call themselves Christians or identify themselves with the Christian faith who either have an intellectual faith or who only do good deeds. And they think that’s enough. (And that is evidenced in the census we have every 5 years, and in the number of people who nominally affiliate themselves with a particular church.) But are their lives based on faith, which is then evidenced by the good works that they do? Or, according to James, are they just deceiving themselves?
Indeed, many people do not have a genuine relationship with God at all. As a consequence, they may not be prepared for the eternal consequences of their misunderstanding. And come judgement day, they may be in for quite a shock.
And for us—that belief that either intellectual faith is enough or that simply doing good deeds is enough—puts quite a task in the hands of the church. Because it’s part of any Christian’s responsibilities to unravel the misunderstandings in regard to the faith. But, with the intention not of focussing in on people’s faults, but on pointing people in the right direction.
2. New Testament Teaching
Now, of course, the simple solution, for us, would be if James had got it all wrong. Because it would be so much easier if his teaching was inconsistent with other New Testament writers. And if that was the case, we could simply dismiss his very different ways of expressing Christian truths.
Unfortunately, the Apostle John in his first letter also questioned the integrity of a believer who had no compassion on a fellow believer. Johns’ words: “Suppose someone has worldly means, sees his brother in need, and closes his heart to him. How can the love of God be in him? Little children, let us not love with words or tongue, but with works and truth.” (1 John 3:17-18).
The Apostle Paul may have been strong on the argument that a believer is justified by faith alone (Romans 3:21-31)—as in the one-off initial basis of becoming a Christian. However, he didn’t believe that exempted the Christian from caring either. Indeed, he was strong on the need to not only acknowledge who God was, but to obey his rules too. Paul’s words: “Those who hear the law are not righteous in God’s sight; it is those who do the law who will be considered righteous.” (Romans 2:13).
And what about Jesus himself? Well apart from telling his disciples that there was only way to God, and that was through faith in him (John 14:6), didn’t Jesus also tell a story about judgement day? A story of dividing the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46). And what made the two groups different? Well the issue wasn’t whether people intellectually assented to a faith in God, but rather on whether they cared, or not, for the hungry, the thirsty, for strangers, for the needy and for the sick.
And add up the teaching of the Apostle John, the Apostle Paul, and Jesus himself, we find that they didn’t say anything different to that which James wrote about in his letter at all.
3. Our Dilemma (2)
So, as I said, that leaves us with quite a dilemma. Because, not only do we need to make sure that we have our lives in order, that we are people of faith and that we take seriously the need to put our faith into action. But, as part of that, we have the responsibility to try to correct some very widespread misconceptions too.
And those misconceptions, again: Firstly, that to be a Christian all a person needs to do, is to have an intellectual faith. That it’s enough to know who God is without getting one’s hands dirty. And, secondly, that going around doing good deeds automatically makes one acceptable to God, that it makes one good enough to enter into God’s Kingdom.
Now, trying to combat those misconceptions is not easy, because those ideas are so widespread. But, then, what it means for us to put our faith into action, is not an easy thing either.
4. James’ Examples (James 2:20-25)
And lest there be no misunderstanding, James provided two examples of what it means to put faith into action.
a). Abraham (Genesis 22:1-19)
And James’s first example was Abraham—a man sorely tested by God to put his faith into action.
Now, Abraham was a man of deep conviction. And it was only when he was well advanced in years that God blessed him with a son, Isaac. Indeed it was only through a miracle that Isaac was born at all. Consider, then, that Abraham was asked by God to take Isaac to the region of Moriah, and there he was to sacrifice him on a mountain top.
But, as the story goes, Abraham didn’t object. He didn’t complain. He just went and did what God commanded. To the point where he’d even tied up Isaac on the altar, before God intervened with an alternative sacrifice.
b). Rahab (Joshua 2)
And James’ second example was a prostitute named Rahab. Now, she lived in Jericho at the time that the Israelites had completed their journey from Egypt and were only a couple of days away from entering the Promised Land. And even though her occupation may have been questionable, what God asked Rahab to do was to hide two Israelites who had been given the job of spying out the land—to provide them with food and shelter.
Now you can imagine what that meant. God was asking her to betray her own people., with the likely consequence of the destruction of the city that she lived in, with everyone in it. What’s more, as things turned out, the authorities found out about the two spies, and they found out something of her role in the endeavour. But regardless, even though her actions left her at risk from her own people, she did as God required. She kept the spies safe. And later aided their escape from the city.
Two shining examples, then, of being tested to the limit. Where the faith of two believers was well and truly required to be put into action.
5. Our Dilemma (3)
Now we may not be asked to do such things as required of Abraham and Rahab. But when we consider what is expected of us in regard to the need to have faith and the need to put our faith into practice, we have two wonderful examples of people who have been asked to express their faith in very dynamic ways.
But whatever sort of thing God asks of us. We need to remember both the “faith” and the “works” components of our lives. And, sad to say, the need for us to be active in trying to correct the widespread misunderstandings of the Christian faith that are so prevalent in our society today.
Now, we started with an imaginary debate—about faith and works. About two people who claimed to be Christians. One whose emphasis was on an intellectual faith, and the other whose focus was on doing good works. And it was the audience’s task to decide who was the better Christian.
The reality, however, is that neither of them were Christians at all. Because, James quite clearly teaches, firstly, that it doesn’t matter how much time we spend learning about God and accepting him intellectually (and I don’t want to denigrate such study), but if that intellectual belief does not translate itself into action then we have missed the point. Indeed, at the end of the world we will have failed God’s test.
But, secondly, that it doesn’t matter how good a life we lead, it doesn’t matter how many good deeds that we do, as far as God is concerned if that is all we do, and it’s not based on faith, it will get us nowhere. So, on judgement day, we will have failed God’s test too.
The real test of faith is whether a person genuinely believes in God and, whether that is translated into doing good works. Because, whilst good works on their own will not result in a person having faith. A person who has genuine faith will involve themselves in doing good works.
The challenge of James is for us to show that not only do we profess faith, but that is translated into actions too. Because only faith accompanied by action, gives anyone the legitimate right to call themselves a “Christian”. And that is a challenge not only for us, but one with which we need to confront the world with too.
Posted 21st February 2019
© 2019, Brian A Curtis