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
SERMON: The Taming of the Tongue (James 3:1-12)
I am constantly amazed at the stories that I hear. So much so that I wonder where some of them come from. I’ve heard stories of people which were apparently true, but were told to someone in confidence. I’ve heard stories which were only partially true, but the facts had been blown out of proportion. And I’ve heard stories that were totally untrue, and yet had been spread to the point where people actually believed them, and consequently they had taken on a whole new life of their own.
And in regard to things which are not true, or only partially true, I’ve heard a number of stories about myself, about things that I’ve supposed to have said or done, many of which are very far from the truth.
Now obviously some of the stories that we hear can be amusing. And we can laugh at some of the things that people say. However other stories can be quite damaging. And the truth is that mud sticks, and it sticks regardless of whether there is any truth in the stories or not.
Now, of course, the problem behind all of this . . . is our tongues. And to give just a few examples . . . Our tongues can get us into real trouble by the way that stories are spread. Our tongues can be used to be very critical of one another. And our tongues can be used to discourage one another too.
So if we are Christians, we need to be very careful about how we use our tongues. And in this regard, it can be helpful to recall the words of James, the brother of Jesus. Because although regarding the use of our tongues, James is really a prophet of doom and gloom. If we can get beyond that, there is much wise advice that we can have to share.
B. THE (NEGATIVE) POWER OF THE TONGUE
1. Positions of Authority (1)
And the first thing that James teaches relates to positions of authority and leadership.
Now James was writing to a situation where teachers were held in high esteem. A teacher was someone who was financially supported by the church. A teacher was the guardian and interpreter of tradition. And a teacher was someone whose role it was to guide and help people in all the aspects of life—intellectually, spiritually, liturgically, and morally. And because a teacher was honoured, people were seeking positions as teachers, particularly those who were not considered at the top of the tree.
Nevertheless, James’s message was clear . . . Those who sought such positions needed to realise the responsibility that went with those position. Indeed, anyone who aspired to be a teacher, who wanted to pursue a position of great responsibility, needed to realise that if they misused their position of trust, they would be judged even more harshly by God than any other person, because of the nature of the positions that they held.
So those who found it difficult to control their tongues, James suggested, should steer clear of such leadership roles. Because if they didn’t, their words would bring their position into disrepute. And then God would have to deal with them more harshly than he would have to deal with others.
According to James, anyone who is aspiring or considering a role which gives them great authority and honour, needs to consider their ability to tame the tongue, and their ability to maintain the respect that their position deserves.
2. Universal Failure (2a)
Now that’s not to say that James considered only those who could control their tongues perfectly, should offer themselves for a leadership role. Because he knew that that just wasn’t possible.
Because his second point about the taming of the tongue is that no matter who we are and how much we try, we all fail. We all have times when our tongues get us into trouble. We all have times when we spread a story we shouldn’t, and we all are the cause behind some people getting hurt.
Those in leadership may have special responsibilities. But whether we are leaders or not, James says, we all fail in the use of our tongues. And as a result we are surrounded by instability and disunity, because of the truths, half-truths, and bare faced lies that surround us.
Like it or not, for such a small organ like the tongue, we are all responsible for a lot of heartache and damage.
3. The Power of The Tongue (2-6)
Which is where James’s third point comes in. Because despite the tongue being so small, it exercises a lot of power—and all out of proportion with the rest of the body.
And to illustrate the extent of the power of the tongue compared to the rest of our bodies, James used a number of illustrations to make his point.
He likened the tongue to a horse with a bit (3). Because with a bit in a horse’s mouth, a rider (or charioteer) could steer a horse wherever he wanted. Illustrative of the amount of control our tongues have over the rest of our bodies.
He likened the tongue to a ship with a rudder (4), where the rudder controls the ship, even when the wind wants to blow it in a different direction. Illustrative of the amount of power the tongue has over the rest of the body.
And he likened the tongue to a fire in a woodpile or in a forest (5), where one small flame can spread so easily, and the consequences can be devastating. Illustrative of the destructive force of the tongue.
With one small part of the body, great power can be exercised, and out of all proportion with the rest of the body. Control over the tongue, then, is imperative, because for James, the tongue can be such a force for evil.
4. Lack of Total Control (7-12)
And that leads us to James’s fourth point. And that is, that having indicated its destructive potency, James is forced to admit that mankind is incapable of controlling the tongue. We may be able to control other things; we may be masters over the animal kingdom through either domestication or hunting; but James concludes, we cannot control the tongue.
As far as James is concerned the tongue is simply full of deadly poison. And he not only gives an example of what he means, but he also tries to illustrate our hopelessness as well.
Indeed, his example illustrates our inconsistency and double standards. That is, we bless God and we curse our fellow man. Which, according to James, effectively means we are blessing and cursing God. Because what we do to someone else, reflects on the person who created them.
And our helplessness in this situation is illustrated by a series of questions, all designed to illustrate our impossible situation. His examples: “Does a spring pour out fresh and bitter water from the same opening? Can a fig tree produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Can salt water produce fresh?”
Now as I said, James really is a kind of prophet of doom and gloom when it comes to the tongue. And what makes it worse is that he makes no positive comments on the subject whatsoever. Furthermore, at this point in his letter he simply drops the subject. And one could easily conclude that if the tongue is that bad then why don’t we just cut it out. After all, didn’t Jesus say, “If your right eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it away. For it is better for you that one part of your body should perish than for your whole body to be cast into hell.”? (Mt 5:29)
However, I don’t believe it was James’s intention to finish the topic on such a negative note. And the reason I say that, is because I believe that James was much more encouraging than that. As a consequence, it’s more likely, that like the Apostle Paul so often did, at this point he simply got side-tracked and never got around to finishing his argument. He never got around to telling the positive side of the story.
Which is a shame. It is also an opportunity for us to speculate about what that would be.
Perhaps he could have started with the apostle Paul’s argument. The one that says that all parts of the body are necessary, and that there is a necessary interdependence of one part with another. Indeed Paul’s words were “God has placed the limbs, each one of them, in the body, just as he wished” (1 Cor 12:18). Perhaps he could then have continued with the idea of the tongue being used, but in a much more positive fashion.
After all, if we all considered our tongues so negatively that we cut them out to stop us from sinning, then it would be impossible to use our tongues in any positive manner either.
So perhaps he could have finished his debate by taking the negative points that he made so clearly and give them a much more positive twist.
D. THE (POSITIVE) POWER OF THE TONGUE
1. Positions of Authority
And if we do that, firstly, regarding positions of authority, it maybe that power brings greater responsibility, and a greater need to control the tongue. It may be that those in authority will be judged more harshly than those who aren’t. But having accepted that, shouldn’t we aspire to the positions that God calls us to? And shouldn’t those who are leaders use their tongues to improve people’s situations, to help people intellectually, spiritually, liturgically, and morally?
For sure even leaders make mistakes. And they say things that they shouldn’t, which (hopefully) they later regret. But to be called to a position of leadership is not something that should be ignored. It is only wanting to be a leader for other reasons that needs to be discouraged.
The tongue can be a trap for people in positions of authority. But if we can accept that, then the tongue can be a powerful tool for helping others as well.
2. Universal Failure
Secondly, it may be that it isn’t just leaders that fail, but we all fail. That we all say things that get ourselves and others into trouble. And we all say things from time to time that hurt others.
But being mindful of that, that is no reason for giving up on life. For sure what we say may sometimes cause some instability and disunity. But isn’t it possible, with God’s help, that we can use our tongues to build up and encourage others as well?
That may mean that we will need to use our tongues to apologise, to admit our weaknesses, and our failures. But it will also mean that we can use our tongues to help heal the rifts, and even go beyond just patching up the damage.
3. The Power of The Tongue
Thirdly, it maybe that the power of the tongue is all out of proportion with the rest of our bodies. And it maybe that the tongue is often used for bad reasons. But the tongue can also be used for good as well. And if it exerts power like the bit of a horse, like a rudder on a ship, and like the flame that starts the fire, think how much the tongue can be used for good.
The tongue may often be seen as a force for evil. But as Christians, with God’s help and guidance, it can also be a powerful tool for great good as well.
4. Lack of Total Control
And, fourthly, we may not have total control over our tongues. But being alert to the danger of loose lips, with God’s help, we may well get on our way to start learning how to control it.
James may have said there is a tendency to praise God and curse people, even amongst God’s people—effectively cursing their creator in their attitude towards others. But don’t we also praise God, through praising others too? And if we did that, wouldn’t we not only be taking God seriously but be building up our fellow believers at the same time?
As we live life from day to day, we are all in positions to hear some strange stories. We can hear stories that are perfectly true but are just not meant to be shared. We can hear stories that are based on truth but have been twisted and have taken on a whole new meaning. And we can hear stories that are not true at all but have been passed on as though every aspect of the story is true. Etc., etc., All evidence of the reality that our tongues are used in such destructive ways, in spreading rumours, in discouraging others, and in being critical. Nevertheless, our tongues can also be used in a far more positive way, to bridge gaps, to mend wounds, and to encourage and to build up others.
So even though James wrote in such a negative fashion—and the principles that James shared may well be true—I believe we can take those principles and apply them in a much more positive way.
Yes, our tongues can be instruments of harm. And yet, as Christians, think of the good we can do with them too. Not least of which is in encouraging and building up others, and in sharing with someone the good news of Jesus.
Posted: 9th January 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis