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Monday, September 5, 2011

"Show Me What You've Got" - (09/04/11)

James 2:18-26 (Message #6 in James Series)
September 4, 2011

            When someone truly believes in a cause, that belief will change the way that person thinks and lives.  For example, if I truly believe in our Second Amendment right to “keep and bear arms”, then I’m not about to vote for any politician who is doing his dead-level best to take that right away from me.  If I am truly pro-life and believe that abortion is a terrible sin, then I am not going to send any money to Planned Parenthood.  If I truly believe that it is morally wrong to steal, then I am not going to go out and hold up a liquor store just because our finances happen to be a little tight this month.  My deeply and sincerely held beliefs will always translate into actions that are in keeping with those beliefs.  Actions always follow beliefs.

            In the same way, genuine saving-faith will naturally produce God-honoring good works; the two always walk hand-in-hand and complement each other.  When a person comes to truly believe in Christ as Savior and Lord, good works follow as the attesting marks that the conversion was genuine.  This is the point that James is wanting to make in our text for today.  He is defending the premise that faith, if it is genuine, never travels alone—it is always accompanied by good works that declare and model God’s greatness, love, and compassion and bring glory to Christ’s name.
            He was emphasizing this point in response to some in the Early Church who were saying that all you had to do was believe the right stuff and say the magic words and you were automatically saved, regardless whether or not there was any observable evidence of a changed life.
            But lest you think that this was just a problem way back then, I would point to the millions of people in this country who claim to be “born again Christians” because they said a prayer, or walked an aisle, or got baptized as a baby, or went through confirmation class.  Yet their lives give off no sign or signal of a person who really knows Jesus.  It’s all just talk and deception.

Verse 18: But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
  • Here James anticipates what his critics might say about what he has just written in the preceding verses.  But rather than running away from the debate like some others do, he charges right in.
  • Now before we can move on you need to know that the ancient Greek manuscripts had neither punctuation nor quotation marks.  Therefore, scholars have long argued about where we should place the quotation marks in this verse.  The KJV, NIV, RSV and others close the quote at the end of the phrase, “You have faith and I have works” (closed quote), treating this as a complete sentence.  Whereas, the NASV and a few others run the quote all the way to the end of the verse.  While in general I like the NASV better than the others, in this particular case I have to go along with the rendering in the KJV.  I believe that the phrase that follows in the second part of the verse is James’ challenge and rebuttal.
  • In other words, the objector might say in his own defense, “So you have your faith and I have my good works.  I think that one is about as good as the other.”  But James has a bone to pick with anyone who would make such a claim.
  • He says, “OK, show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.  Let’s have some show-and-tell here.”  He’s confident to call them on this because he knows that there is no such thing as genuine faith that is barren of good works.  He knows that they cannot show him such a thing because it doesn’t exist.

Verse 19: You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.
  • Here James refers to the doctrine of the unity of God, which was a fundamental article of faith in Judaism.  (Remember the Shema of Israel in Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel!  The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!”)  He says, “You do well if you believe that.”  However, his point is that unless their belief produces real spiritual fruit then their faith is no greater than that of Satan and the demons who are also monotheists.  The demons tremble when they hear the name of God but not out of love and respect.  Their kind of belief does not lead to reverence, submission, and obedience but rather to rebellion, hatred, and disobedience.  They know He is One but they still hate Him!

Verse 20: But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless [barren]?
  • James is talking about dead orthodoxy.  A person can know the truth and believe in it intellectually.  He can give mental assent to everything that Jesus ever taught, and tragically, still go straight to hell when he dies, because salvation is not based on merely knowing the facts, but also acting on the facts.
  • James calls the person who separates faith and works a “foolish fellow,” which means empty-headed.
  • This verse functions as a hinge, a lead-in to the textual support that James is now going to use to prove his point.  Like a lawyer building his case, the first piece of evidence he introduces is the example of Abraham.

Verse 21: Was not Abraham, our father, justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?
  • “Abraham, our father…”  Abraham was considered to be the father of the Jewish people, who were the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’s sons.  The apostle Paul, in Galatians 3:6-29 goes one to say that Abraham was also the father of all true Christians because Abraham staked his life on God’s promise of a Savior, Jesus, who was yet to come.
  • This verse has sent many for a loop because it sounds on the surface like James is preaching salvation by works.  But we know that isn’t true because of what he says down in verse 23 where he connects Abraham’s salvation, not with his works, but with his belief in God’s promise of a coming Savior.  To put it another way, Abraham really got “saved” up in Genesis 12:1-9 when he believed God’s promises about a Savior, a land, and a nation that would come from his loins.  Then later on, recorded in Genesis 15:1-6, this faith in God was solidified even more so that we read in verse 6: “Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  In Romans 4:1-5 Paul speaks at length about this very text.  He brings in the example of Abraham to prove that salvation by faith is clearly taught in the Old Testament:  1What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found?  2For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.  3For what does the Scripture say? “ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.”  4Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due.  5But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness…” 
  • But observe, here in verse 21 James is referring to an event that took place many years after Abraham got saved, recorded in Genesis 22:1-19, when in obedience to the Lord’s command Abraham took his son, Isaac, up to mountain and prepared to offer him as a sacrifice to Jehovah.  You’ll note that James here is using the word justification in the sense of “proved” or “verified.”  He’s not using it in the judicial sense of being declared “not guilty” the way Paul uses it.  To paraphrase, James is saying: “Was not Abraham’s faith proven/verified by his actions when he offered up Isaac?”  In other words, his act of unquestioning obedience was the verification and attestation of his absolute faith in God.  His willingness to do such a thing was proof of the reality of his previous salvation experience.  Or to put it yet another way, Abraham’s sacrifice of his son was the “justification” (i.e. proof, validation—by James’ use of the word) of his previous genuine “justification” (i.e. declared innocent of sin in God’s sight—Paul’s use of the word).

Verse 22: You see that [saving] faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected;
  • Saving faith co-labors with good works, not for the good works to provide salvation, but for the salvation to empower the good works.
  • Notice that James says that the works “perfect” the faith.  The word he uses means “to bring to completion, to fill in any gaps”.  Thus he says the good works serve as the completion of the salvation process, in the same way that the sweet, juicy apples are the completion/perfecting of the apple-growing process.
  • I know of no better scripture to use to show this than Ephesians 2:8-10.  In the NASV it reads, 8For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.  10For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” 
  • Now listen to it in the New Living Translation: 8God saved you by His grace when you believed.  And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God.  9 Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.  10 For we are God’s masterpiece.  He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things He planned for us long ago.” 

Verse 23: …and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “AND ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS,” and he was called “the friend of God.”
  • Here James cites Genesis 15:6 to show that Abraham’s belief/faith in God resulted not only in his leaving his homeland looking for the place that God had promised to him, but also later in his willingness to trust God with regard to his son, Isaac.  In both instances he acted on his faith, thus proving its genuineness, and God put this act of faith to his righteousness account.
  • By the way, there are three places in the Scriptures where Abraham is referred to as “the friend of God” (cf. Isa. 41:8; II Chron. 20:7; and here).  I can think of no higher complement to pay to any human being.

Verse 24: You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. 
  • This verse is really the answer to James’ question that he posed up in verse 14: “What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works?  Can that [kind of] faith save him?” 
  • Here I’m quoting from the Wycliffe Bible Commentary in their note about this verse: “Bare, unproductive faith, cannot save a man.  True faith will demonstrate itself in works, and only such a faith brings justification.”
  • But I would warn you not to read too much into this verse.  James is not building a case for a doctrine of salvation by works.  He is not speaking here about justification in the salvation sense, but rather, the vindication and verification of Abraham’s faith by his willingness to act upon it.

Verse 25: And in the same way was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?
  • As another illustration James pulls a story out of Joshua 2 to show that real faith will result in good deeds.  However, this second scriptural example stands in stark contrast to Abraham.  Rahab was a woman, a Gentile, and a prostitute.  Yet James chose her to show that his argument covers the widest range of possibilities.  His point is that she, like Abraham, evidenced her saving faith in God by action.
  • Rahab’s story is found in Joshua 2:1-21.  There we learn that despite her evil past she came to believe in the God of Israel, and she committed her faith and trust to Him for her salvation.  Then when the opportunity arose she hid and protected the Israeli spies that had been sent to spy out Jericho, saying to them: “The LORD your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath.”  Her faith in the true God led her to act upon that faith and perform a deed of kindness that resulted in the saving of her whole family when the city was later destroyed.

Verse 26: For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.
  • James points out that the relation between faith and works is just as close as that between the body and the spirit.  The two things are inseparably linked.  Life is the result of the union in both cases.  When the two elements are separated, death results.
  • This verse sort of encapsulates James’ whole argument from verses   14-26: namely, that genuine faith will always be evidenced by genuine God-motivated good works.  In the absence of those attesting works we can rightly conclude that the faith is not genuine, but rather a counterfeit faith, dead as a doornail.  Dead faith produces dead works.  Living faith produces living works.  You can judge a tree by its fruit.  It’s as simple as that!

            I want to close this study by reading an explanatory note found in the Nelson Study Bible.  It is a short essay entitled, “Faith and Works.”
            The great reformer Martin Luther, champion of the doctrine of salvation through faith alone, never felt good about the Epistle of James.  He called it an “epistle of straw” in the preface to his 1522 edition of the New Testament, and he put the book in the appendix.  He preferred Paul’s wording of the faith-works equation: “A man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law” (Rom. 3:28).
            In a sense, Luther had little choice.  He was surrounded by men who said that good works could save you.  He knew that God alone could save through faith alone, and his mission was to tell them.
            But Luther went too far when he put James in the appendix to the New Testament.  Neither faith nor works can be cut off and thrown away.  James was taking aim at freeloaders, those who claimed to have no need for good deeds since they had faith.  The reality is that if you have faith, works will naturally be a product.  You cannot get rid of works just because they do not save you.  You cannot sever the effect from the cause.  Just as an apple tree will bear apples, so faith will produce good works (see Luke 6:43-44).
            Paul had the opposite problem in view when he wrote Romans.  His letter targeted those who placed their faith in the Law of Moses.  Their trust was in their own good works, and not in God.  That is why Paul wrote a defense of faith, and that is why Luther preferred it to James’s defense of works.
            Faith and works are not enemies.  True faith and righteous works go hand in hand.  They are two parts of God’s work in us.  Faith brings a person to salvation, and works bring that person to faithfulness.  Faith is the cause; works are the effect.  James believed it, and so did Paul.

            So what do we take away from all this?  How will this text change our lives this week?  Why is this teaching so important for “Christian” people today?  Do you know anyone who claims to be a believer yet shows no evidence of the presence of Christ in his or her life?

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About Me

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Since 1994 I have been the pastor of Sellwood Baptist Church in Portland, OR. Before that I was a missionary in South Brazil for many years. Until just recently I have also served as a police chaplain with the Portland Police Bureau. Now, however, God has a new assignment for us. My wife and I have been appointed with WorldVenture and are preparing to move to Ireland to help plant a new church in Sligo, a small city in NW Ireland. I'm married to Ramel, a crazy, beautiful redhead that I love more than life itself. We have three great kids, Jonathan, Chris, and Simoni who have given us ten wonderful grandchildren. We are truly blessed.

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