We have been exploring the words of Jesus’ brother, James, through a letter James sent “to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” (James 1:1b). James’ letter referencing the “twelve tribes” suggests that the original readers of this letter were Jewish people, the twelve tribes, dispersed among the various nations of the Roman world who had come to believe in the message of hope that Jesus was the Messiah promised by God. This was a wonderful development in God’s plan; people coming to faith. And as wonderful as it was that people were coming to faith, James was concerned that these people were not saved. How can that be? Does not faith in Jesus as the Son of God mean that we are forgiven, made free, and saved? Why “Yes” it does and “No” it does not. Yes, having faith in Jesus as our Lord and Savior grants us salvation and eternal life. But James was concerned that the people had only accepted Jesus as an act of intellectual assent. James was concerned the people of these churches only thought about Jesus as a fulfilment of God’s promises in Scripture and had not received Jesus as Lord of their life. Let me offer an oversimplistic illustration. I can believe that 4 plus 4 equals 8. I know that in my mind but knowing that fact changes nothing about my character, my ethics, my relationships with other people, my desire to express compassion, my soul, or my destiny. I simply believe 4 plus 4 equals 8. If I treat my belief in Jesus in a similar manner, that is I only believe Jesus was a historical figure, even sent by God, to teach and perform miraculous signs as the Messiah until he was killed, then nothing changes about my character, my ethics, and my destiny. I have not believed in the Biblical sense of believing. The Biblical sense of believing encompasses and changes my mind, body, and spirit.
If I only ever mentally accept Jesus, or his teachings, then “No” that sort of belief, that sort of faith, does not lead to salvation. C. S. Lewis, a 20th century Christian writer once observed, “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him [Jesus]: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to” (Mere Christianity).
James was addressing the same issue C. S. Lewis talked about. James was concerned that some people in these congregations were living out their beliefs of mental acceptance of Jesus, an intellectual faith, which was in other words “practical atheism.” Practical atheism is a faith in Jesus that does not transform the person and thus they are not saved.
James offered a test of sorts for these people, his readers, to take so that they could gauge for themselves whether their faith in Jesus was just intellectual or genuine leading to salvation. He started at Chapter 2, verse 14. James wrote, “14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?” James offered that intellectual faith cannot save anyone. Only a genuine faith that encompassed the mind, body, and spirit could save someone and that there would be easily identifiable evidence of that faith expressed through deeds. An intellectual faith could be secretive and hidden but a genuine faith cannot be hidden. A genuine faith would be evident through the deeds and actions. And so, James asked, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?” This is a rhetorical question in which the answer is such faith is not going to save anyone.
Where did James acquire such thoughts? James’ source was, of course, his brother, Jesus. One day, crowds were coming toward Jesus. Jesus gathered his disciples and they, together with the crowds, moved up on the hillside. There Jesus sat down and began to teach. Among the things Jesus said were these words, “14 You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16). Jesus’ point was that genuine faith is like a light in the darkness. The darkness cannot hide the light and that everyone can see it. In the same way, our faith expressed through the performance of good deeds lets others know that God is part of us, and they see that God is glorified through our actions. In this sermon on the hillside, Jesus offered his disciples and the crowds a positive expression of how deeds reveals our faith.
We learn the same lesson about deeds in a completely opposite way at the scene of the crucifixion. Jesus was crucified with two criminals, one on each side of him. One of the criminals hurled insults at Jesus. “40 But the other criminal rebuked him [the insulter]. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’” This criminal was making clear that his deeds expressed an outworking of his beliefs and that his own deeds were deserving of death. The criminal saw that Jesus expressed an outworking of his beliefs and that Jesus’ deeds were deserving of life. Biblical belief in Jesus, that is believing in mind, body, and spirit will cause us to express an outworking of our beliefs with deeds that are deserving of life. With an active faith, we move from death to life, which is the very meaning of salvation.
So James had a good foundation from which to open this topic of faith and deeds when he wrote, “14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:14-17). James gave us this painful example of dead faith. He supposed an encounter with another believer in Christ who is without clothes and without food. And the response is, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed.” This is a response empty of heart. It is shocking and cruel. James minces no words. Faith expressed in such a manner is dead. When we think of something as dead, we think of it as no longer having life. The sense James was conveying is slightly different. Faith without action was dead in that it was “never alive.” It is not that the light has gone out, it is that the light was never lit. We might think to ourselves, “I would never be so cold and heartless to a member of my church who is without food or clothing. I would give them something to wear and something to eat.” But what about the member whose love one dies, do we do more than send a card or offer a “I’m sorry?” What about the member who cares for a sick family member at home and is now rarely seen? Do we bring a meal to make to burden lighter? My point is not to compile a long list of things we could be doing for one another. My point is that we should not assume James’ specific illustration of a heatless response to the needs of another does not more generally apply to us.
The Apostle John expressed this idea in this manner, “6 If we claim to have fellowship with him [If we claim to believe in Jesus] and yet walk in the darkness [without his light within us], we lie and do not live out the truth” (1 John 1:6). John’s point was that faith in Jesus, genuine belief in Jesus, must be lived out in a manner like Jesus not because we are obligated to do so but because we must. We must because John could not imagine a life lived in another way. Moreover, John and James wanted their readers to know that consistent Christian living has the power to draw others towards the kingdom of God and that an inconsistent Christian life repels people from the kingdom. We become a stumbling block to others.
As we return to James, we see that James was no one’s fool. He knew his words would spark some disagreement. Beginning in verse 18, James dealt with the disagreement. “18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder. 20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?” James then offers two examples of faith and deeds together as a unity. James’ first example is that of Abraham, the founder of the Hebrew people and for the Jews a man of unquestioned and unquestionable character. James asked, “21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions [deeds] were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.” For the Jewish people, now believers in Jesus, at least intellectually, seeing the example of Abraham combining faith and actions would be compelling. Jews would welcome having their life favorable comparison to the likes of Abraham.
For James’ second example, James goes a completely different direction from the faith of Abraham. James selected a woman named Rahab. When we first meet Rehab (Joshua 2:1) in the Bible, we see she is a woman of questionable reputation because she was a prostitute. Rahab was living in the city of Jericho, a city under the control of the Canaanites. Rahab was not Hebrew. Yet, she offered comfort, protection, mercy, hospitality, and faith to Hebrew spies sent to Jericho in advance of an attack by the Hebrew armies. Rahab gave testimony to the goodness and greatness of God with her words and the strength of her faith through her actions to safeguard the Hebrew spies. James used Rahab in his second example of the unity of faith and deeds. He wrote, “25 In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction?” James 2:25). Rahab was faithful in her words and actions. And so, James offered two seemingly unmatched bookends with Abraham and Rahab as model examples of the unity of faith and action. Yet, as different as Abraham and Rahab appeared, they were similar because their faith informed their actions and they demonstrated their faith. In using unmatched bookends for his examples, James made clear that we can all find ourselves somewhere in that spectrum between prostitute and patriarch. Thus, James’ message of faith applies to us.
James then concluded, “26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” The spirit, the very breath giving life, must be present to energize and show evidence the body is alive. No breath, no life. So too, are deeds the evidence of a body alive in Christ. No deeds, no life.
What then do we do with James’ teaching? James’ words should make us free and make us alive. James’ words should reinforce to us that Jesus did not say to us, “Pick up your cross and sit right there!” Jesus said, “Follow me!” To be in Christ, to be saved by Christ is to be free, alive, and as active in following him as our mind, body, and spirit are capable. If you are a believer in Jesus, then you want to be obedient to Him. If you are obedient to Him, then you are a believer. Belief and obedience are two sides of the same coin. As far as I know, there is no one sided coin. Obedience precedes faith and obedience is a consequence of faith. Each of us should examine our lives in view of James’ words and immediately look for those opportunities to express our faith in action and service in the name of Jesus, our Savior and giver of life. Amen and Amen.