This sermon was preached at Peace Hill Christian Fellowship on October 14, 2012. To listen to the audio, just click on this link – James 2B.
This morning we are going to look at a passage of Scripture that is is often treated as if James had decided, out of the blue, to make a theological statement about faith. However, we need to continue to recognize that James was writing a letter to people who were struggling to live out their faith in specific situations. Here, James is confronting these Jewish believers about their attitudes and actions towards their neighbors. Read with this understanding, this passage becomes very pastoral.
Faith Creates Compassion Not Apathy.
Faith Creates Compassion Because God is Compassionate: 14 What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? 17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.
What good is it if we claim to believe that God has reconciled the world to himself through Jesus death and resurrection – if that fact does not create compassion in us? God has acted in compassion towards us. If we have responded to God’s compassion and believed and been rescued from our sins, and yet, if that compassion does not move us to act with compassion and grace towards our neighbor – then what good is our faith? Jesus said to his followers, “You are the salt of the earth.” In other words, we are the evidence – the manifestation of what God has done through Jesus Christ.
James uses a very pointed example of compassion in vs.15-16. If we believe that Christ clothes the nakedness of sinners with his righteousness and favor, and feeds us his own body (communion) – yet we say to the brother or sister in need – “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” – without showing compassion – what good has our belief done in the world?
Faith that is Apathetic and Unmerciful is a Fearful Thing: 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. 19 You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. 20 But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?”
In contrast, faith – a mere belief in the existence of God – that does not move us to respond with that compassion which God has shown us – is worthless. In fact, James is challenging whether such belief is really faith at all. Even demons believe that there is a God – (how could they not) – yet they shudder in terror at the fact.
James is, again, being very pointed here. If we claim to have faith and to believe in the God of compassion – and yet we do not respond at all in compassion to our neighbor in need – then we have reason to shudder. If after having been shown such great mercy – we ourselves are without mercy – then, as James says in vs. 13 – we will face judgment without mercy.
Faith is Supported By Conviction Not Emotion.
The Conviction of Abraham Supported Him: 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? 22 You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected;
The story of Abraham offering Isaac in Genesis 22 is a difficult one – but it does point to Abraham as a man of faith. Abraham believed the things that God had said to him – and therefore he acted out of conviction – his firmly held belief that God would do what he had promised to do.
This is the point that James is making to these early believers who do not want to engage with their new neighbors – who want to remain apart from Gentile unbelievers but to keep to themselves… Faith – Conviction – the belief that they are called to be the light of the world – that they have the Gospel of freedom that their neighbors need – and that they are called to live with and before their neighbors in compassion and wisdom – this should be moving them to be with their neighbors.
After all, Abraham was willing to offer up his own son, the son God had promised him, because he believed so firmly in the promises of God. Though Abraham did not understand why God asked this of him – he was willing to do what he was called to do.
Devotional Passion Cannot Support Faith: In our day, the conviction of faith has been replaced by devotional passion. While Abraham’s relationship to God was based on faith in the promises of God – conviction that what God said would come true – the modern focus of faith has shifted to something very vague – a feeling of faith.
We cultivate this feeling of faith – our devotional passion for God – by going to retreats, or services – by reading devotional books or the Scriptures in order to have an experience of the presence of God – by listening to music that helps us to feel devotional. We often do these things in order to bolster up a feeling of excitement and zeal which will then enable us to want to serve God and which will help us to feel like we love God.
This is a terrible trap because devotional passion is not something that human beings can sustain. Consequently many believers tend to talk about their experience of faith in emotional terms, (“I just don’t feel close to God” – “I feel like I can’t pray” – “I read Scripture this morning but didn’t get anything out of it”). We can become dependent on this emotional state for the practice of our faith so that we are always acting out of emotion rather than conviction. When we exchange devotional passion for conviction, we become less like Abraham, and more like the waves of the sea that James talks about in James 1:6 – up an down and erratic in our faith – double-minded and unstable.
Faith That Moves Us to Act is What Pleases God.
Our Actions Reveal Our Faith: 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. 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?
Abraham’s response of faith, his willingness not only to believe but to act with conviction and offer up Isaac, has become, for us, the evidence that he believed God. James tells us that this willingness to obey God on Abraham’s part, fulfilled the Scriptures – or, in other words, it completed the picture we have of Abraham’s faith.
This is what James is getting at… That the response, or lack of response, of faith reveals what is going on in our hearts. We do what we believe. We act out of the motives of our hearts. So God was pleased with Abraham and with Rahab the prostitute because both of them, in their actions showed what they believed.
This becomes, for us, the evidence of what our faith means to us – what we do. We can look at our actions and see exactly what we believe.
Our Imperfect Faith Pleases God: And often, when we begin to look at what we really believe in the light of our actions, our faith seems weak. We are people who believe and half believe – who do not always believe. We see that we often distrust God when we should trust him. Our faith, if we are honest, falters at times, is placed in the wrong things – people instead of God – achievements – what we own.
Fortunately God is gracious with weak faltering faith. Abraham faltered in his faith in major ways several times during his life. Yet God commends him for his faith. Rahab was a woman who valued self-preservation (probably her reason for being a prostitute), and was preserving herself and her family by making a deal with the spies – yet God took her faith, such as it was, and saved her.
Faith, responding to Christ in belief and obedience, even if it is often imperfect, is what pleases God. This morning, God is calling us to think about our faith and what it is producing in us.