Faith Without Works Is Dead (Part 1)
Passage: James 2:14–2:17
Sermon from James 2:14-17 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Series: James: Living the Implanted Word
Delivered on June 5, 2016
Our Actions Must Match Our Words
Sometimes I listen to the news while driving. On Wednesday these two guys were discussing the recent scandal at Baylor University. There’s still much investigation that must happen to determine the innocent and the guilty, but it looks like another case where leadership didn’t abide by school policy in reporting sexual assault. But the news report ended this way. You had two news reporters who aren’t Christians. And they both noticed that the leadership often said in past interviews how much Christian values mattered to them. Then one of guys says this: “If you’re going to say that Christian values matters, then your actions better match your words.
Sometimes we run into similar contradictions, don’t we? We know people who profess to know Jesus, but their actions give no indication that they truly know Jesus. Perhaps they claim to have a good relationship with the Lord, but they can’t stand being around his people. Perhaps they claim to be Christian, but their priorities look just like the world’s priorities. Perhaps they attend church regularly, but the way they treat their fellow employees, the way they speak, contradicts the gospel message they hear.
James addresses this contradiction in the rest of chapter 2. The main thrust of his message is that faith without works is dead. Now, I should also mention that we’re entering a section that has challenged the church over the centuries, especially Protestants who rightly confess that justification is by faith alone.
And yet—at least at first glance—James seems to be asserting something else. He says in verse 24 that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Is he contradicting what Paul says elsewhere, that we cannot be saved by our works? Or, is James saying something that actually complements justification by faith alone? We’ll see that it is the latter—Paul and James are on the same page with justification. I plan to deal with some of these difficulties over the next two weeks. But today we’ll look only at verses 14-17. Let’s read those together starting in verse 14…
14What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
If we asked, what is the main point of this next section of Scripture? Verse 17 gives us the answer: “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” That’s the conclusion he draws from verses 14-17. It’s also the conclusion of the entire argument that runs until verse 26. He says there, “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” (cf. Jas 2:20, 24).
A “Faith” Not Producing Works Cannot Save
But what does James mean when he says that faith without works is dead? To begin answering that question, it’s helpful to zoom out and review chapters 1 and 2 in relation to faith. In 1:3 faith perseveres through trial and embraces trials in ways that conform us to Jesus’ character. Then in 1:6 faith is the opposite of wavering in loyalty to Jesus. Faith involves a single-minded devotion to Jesus. Then in 2:1 faith in Jesus excludes partiality, or favoritism, and works itself out in neighbor-love by showing mercy to others, because of the mercy we’ve been shown in Jesus.
So by the time we get to verse 14, James has already developed the nature of true and saving faith. True and saving faith is the absolute dependence of the whole person upon Jesus Christ. But that absolute dependence brings with it a transformative union with Jesus that compels us to act in accordance with his character and his will and his kingdom and with the way he has treated us. To use the words of 1:22, true faith in Jesus will not only hear the word; it will do the word.
Then James comes to verse 14 and says, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” Notice, there’s the actual possession of faith, and then there’s just the claim to have faith—“if someone says [or claims] to have faith but does not have works.” The contrast is between a real, substantive reliance upon Jesus that necessarily produces works (cf. Jas 1:6; 2:1), and a phony faith-claim that produces no works.
To put it another way, a faith in Jesus Christ without works doesn’t even exist in James’ mind. It’s really no faith-in-Jesus at all if it’s not producing works. It’s a faith that’s essentially dead. It lacks the obedience-enabling power of a spiritual union with Jesus Christ. That’s why it’s a kind of “faith” that cannot save—you’re not actually united to Jesus at all. You’re just saying that you are.
It doesn’t save, not because it hasn’t worked hard enough. It doesn’t save not because it hasn’t added works to it. James isn’t making a faith-plus-works-equals-salvation type of argument. Rather, this kind of so-called “faith” doesn’t save, because its lack of works proves that it’s not actively trusting in Jesus at all. A faith that saves you will necessarily produce works.
If your faith doesn’t result in works, then you will not be saved from the coming judgment. James just finished talking about final judgment in verse 13 and he’ll go on to mention our justification in verse 24. Being saved from God’s condemnation is in view. A faith that doesn’t have works cannot save from God’s condemnation. It’s altogether lacking the life-giving union with Jesus Christ. It’s proving itself dead.
Some of the Reformers used to put it this way: we are saved by faith alone, but not by faith that remains alone. Martin Luther said this about faith at one point: “[faith is] a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith…it is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly. It never asks whether good works are to be done; it has done them before the question can be asked, and is always doing them. Whoever does not do such works is an unbeliever…Thus, it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire” (LW 35:370-71).
James would agree wholeheartedly. We’re not just a bunch of people with sins forgiven; we’re an altogether new humanity who cannot help but display the character of our Lord of glory. We cannot help it because the Lord of glory is living and present in us through that faith-union. When Jesus imputes his righteousness to us, it necessarily has an external embodiment in his people. People see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven (Matt 5:16).
And this is really the goal of the gospel spreading to all peoples on earth. We read Romans 16 earlier, but here’s Romans 1:5: “through [Jesus] we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations.” Not just conversion. Not just professions of faith. But faith that produces obedience to Christ among all peoples for the sake of God’s name—that’s God’s plan for the world and that’s our mission as a church.
Care for the Poor among Us Is a Crucial Mark of Saving Faith
So what does that mean for us? Yes, yes, we get the point that true and saving faith will produce works. And we get the opposite point that if there’s no works, then there’s no evidence of true and saving faith. But can we get even more concrete? Oh yes. James gets piercingly concrete in verses 15-17. He says this: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
Not all of you will need to hear what I’m about to say, because you’ve seen what I’m about to say all along. But there’s a tendency in our conservative, Protestant, Reformed, Baptist circles to read James 2 and immediately get caught up in the theological discussions surrounding faith and works and their relationship to justification and judgment. And while it’s right to navigate those theological discussions carefully, it’s wrong to lose sight of the very works of faith that James identifies in his argument.
That is to say, let’s not be a people who get so lost in theological discussion over works that we neglect to do the works identified here. According to verses 15-16 care for the poor among us is a crucial mark of saving faith.
That shouldn’t catch us off guard, considering where we’ve been with 1:27: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction.” True faith in Christ will be marked by care for the helpless. And the whole point of chapter 2 and all its doctrinal teaching is to motivate that care for the helpless among God’s people.
To see a fellow believer in need and neglect to meet those needs—to the extent that you’re able—is an example of this defective “faith” that he’s been addressing. In other words, it goes back to the point we saw last week in verse 13: the one who has truly received God’s mercy in Christ will inevitably show mercy to others, especially mercy to the poor. If we’re not moved to that kind of action, then someone has the right to question whether we’re even a Christian.
First John 3:17 says something very similar: “…if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” To neglect poverty-stricken believers when able to help them is a sign that someone does not truly have God’s love in them.
What’s even more sobering about this picture is the way that some of them are talking. They’re even using religious lingo: “Go in peace, be warmed and filled.” They’re giving a blessing: “I hope the Lord will give you some warm clothes;” “I hope the Lord will give you some food”—without any compassion, and with no awareness that he/she is the means by which God is choosing to warm and fill the poor brother or sister. Their religious lingo is just a pious cover-up, so they don’t have to deal with the needs. Someone has the right to question our salvation if we don’t care for the needs of our brothers and sisters.
Jesus taught the same thing in Matthew 25. When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and he sits on the throne for judgment, people will be accepted or condemned depending on how they treated their brothers and sisters who are hungry, homeless, lonely, naked, sick, and imprisoned. That’s what he says in Matthew 25:34…
…the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
So there’s such a union between Jesus and his people that the way we treat his people demonstrates our attitude toward Jesus himself.
41Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
Our attitude toward Jesus is exposed in our attitude toward our poor brothers and sisters, and we will be accepted or condemned accordingly.
Since we’ve been in James, a few of you have asked me, “What do works of faith actually look like?” Here’s one right here: meet the needs of your poor brothers and sisters. Look around you. Listen for needs. Open your eyes to what other believers may lack. What burdens are they carrying? Not everybody will make their needs known—you will have to ask. You will have to know each other, and be willing to know each other that well. Do you know a brother or sister with a chronic illness, and have you been overlooking her, or him?
Is there a single mother who may need help with the lawn, or children to be watched? What about the elderly who may need visiting or who get dropped off in a nursing home, sometimes never to be visited again by their own family members? Is there somebody you know who doesn’t have much, and likely won’t ever have much because of a mental or physical handicap? Perhaps some are suffering from medical conditions and hospital bills that you can help with.
Maybe you know someone who’d like to work their way out of poverty, but has been dealt an unjust distribution of opportunity and resources all their lives. Coming up very soon is our VBS, which we’re hoping to do in two different apartment complexes this year. Pray for two things: one, pray that the Lord would save people through it; two, pray for the Lord to prepare us as a church to care for some of those in serious need. It’s very likely that someone with great material and relational needs could become a Christian and then need our assistance. Will we be ready to help them?
Helping the poor among us is often a lengthy process that will involve time—they need rides, they need counseling, they need education. It will involve actually listening to them, and then discerning the cause of their impoverished state.
If we define poverty merely in terms of material things, we’ll likely not provide the help that people truly need. Andy and I had a couple come by the church on Thursday who claimed to be Christians. The lady needed cash to refill her insulin prescription. We wanted to help, especially if she’s a sister in Christ. Now, it’s never wise in a situation like that to just hand out cash to the poor. But Andy said that he’d take them to Wal-Mart and get the prescription filled for them. At that point, the couple left.
You see, there was more going on than just a lack of material things. If they truly needed the insulin and Andy agreed to go buy it for them, why drive away? There were relational things that were wrong—perhaps in their relationship with God; perhaps in their relationship with themselves and the shame involved in asking for help; perhaps in relationship with us who were offering them real help. Those things take time to work through.
It will take time to truly love poverty-stricken brothers and sisters. It will take resources to actually sit down with them and work hard to equip them where they need to be equipped, to train them where they need to be trained, to help them see what it means to worship God through integrity at work and faithfulness at home and contentment in Christ before spending money. But true faith will do these works…
Care for the Poor Because God First Cared for Us in Christ
Now, please hear me: don’t meet the needs of your brothers and sisters to win favor with God. Don’t meet their needs to escape judgment. Don’t meet their needs in order to be saved. If that’s how you do it, you won’t last and you’ll still perish. Our works never save us. Rather, meet their needs because of the favor God has already shown you in Jesus. We don’t love others to win God’s love. We love because he first loved us. We minister to others in their need, because God ministered to us in our need.
He came to our aid when we were dead in our sins without hope. We had no power to change our desperate predicament. We were helpless beneath his wrath. And he loved us still. He sent his only Son to die for us. Jesus set aside his riches in heaven; he became poor, smitten by God, and afflicted. He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. We are made rich with God because of the work of Jesus.
And if we have come to share in these spiritual blessings, then we ought also to be of service to our brothers and sisters in material blessings (cf. Rom 15:27). That’s how faith compels good works toward the poor. True faith sees the beauty of God’s generosity in Jesus when we were still helpless, and through that treasuring of Jesus the Holy Spirit makes us more and more like Jesus in the way we treat the poor and in the way we seek their benefit and in the way we do them justice.
Not Saved? Trust in the Lord Jesus Christ
Now, perhaps you’re someone who realizes that while you’ve professed to have faith in Jesus, the truth is that all the evidence in your life proves otherwise. You realize that you don’t have any works that evidence a saving union with Jesus. You realize that you haven’t had any compassion for the helpless around you…
Don’t ignore the Spirit of God this morning speaking through this word. Don’t resist the kindness of God in showing you the true state of your soul. I don’t care if you’ve been a member here for as long as this church has existed. If the Spirit through the word has exposed that what you thought was faith wasn’t really faith all along, then “Today is the day of salvation.”
Listen to the voice of your Savior who is speaking in his word. Repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. It’s not too late. Jesus hasn’t returned. And this church won’t look down on you for admitting your need of Christ. We need Christ too! We will rejoice over the Lord’s salvation. None of us deserved to have our eyes opened. But God did it; and God still does it. Jesus stands ready to save you this morning. Trust in him and let us know how we can serve you in baptism and discipleship and even serving those in need around us. We’re still learning how to serve them.
Dismissive? Look Again to the Gospel
Or, perhaps you’ve even attempted to reach out to the poor. But you’ve just been burned too many times. Or perhaps your political opinions on poverty have led you to back off caring for the poor. George Marsden even narrates this movement by evangelicals in his book, Fundamentalism and American Culture. There was a large shift where evangelicals rightly distanced themselves from the social gospel movement, but at the same time wrongly “retreated from the front lines of poverty alleviation.”
And so sometimes we can tend to be dismissive of James’ words—or at least want to qualify things a hundred times over till there’s practically nothing left of this passage. The words of Robert Murray M’Cheyne are super helpful here, as he points us to the gospel of Jesus in caring for the poor. He says this…
Now dear Christians, some of you pray night and day to be branches of the true Vine; you pray to be made all over in the image of Christ. If so, you must be like him in giving…“though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor”…[But perhaps you have your objections like…] Objection 1: “My money is my own.” Answer: Christ might have said, “my blood is my own, my life is my own”…then where should we have been? Objection 2: “The poor are undeserving.” Answer: Christ might have said, “They are wicked rebels…shall I lay down my life for these? I will give to the good angels.” But no, he left the ninety-nine, and came after the lost. He gave his blood for the undeserving. Objection 3: “The poor may abuse it.” Answer: Christ might have said the same; yea, with far greater truth. Christ knew that thousands would trample his blood under their feet; that most would despise it; that many would make it an excuse for sinning more; yet he gave his own blood. Oh my dear Christians! If you would be like Christ, give much, give often, give freely, to the vile and poor, the thankless and the undeserving. Christ is glorious and happy, and so will you be. It is not your money I want, but your happiness. Remember his own word, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
If your attitude is more dismissive, look again at your Savior. Look again at the Bible. The Bible’s storyline has been building to this point where the poor would be cared for in a new community. It was anticipated in Israel (Deut 15:4, 7, 9, 11). The law taught Israel to show mercy to the poor among them and do them justice (Lev 19:10, 15; Zech 7:9-10). Since God had rescued them when they were helpless in slavery, the people were to reflect that redemption in their care for those who were helpless (Exod 22:21-22; Deut 10:18-19). Of course, Israel failed to be that community (Isa 1:17, 23; 58:1-14).
But then Jesus comes. He fulfills all of Israel’s obligations to the poor. Indeed, the Spirit anoints him to preach good news to the poor in particular (Matt 11:5; Luke 4:18). And when he starts saving oppressive, rich people like Zacchaeus, it’s the natural outworking of that salvation to want to give half his goods to the poor (Luke 19:8). Jesus then dies for all our stingy attitudes toward the poor and rises from the dead to fill the church with his Spirit.
And what do we find them doing in the book of Acts? Fulfilling what the law had envisioned for God’s community: “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:34-35). In other words, Jesus not only is what Israel should have been, but he creates a new humanity that also treats the poor as he treats them—with generosity. That’s the Bible’s storyline. And by placing you in Christ, it’s your storyline. We are the new humanity that shows mercy to the poor among us and does them justice.
Burdened? Remember your generous Father & the church
Finally, perhaps you’re someone who feels burdened by a message like this. You’ve got kids to take care of, so they don’t become orphans. You’ve got an illness that leaves you without the physical resources to reach out like others can reach out. You’re living hand to mouth already, and what kind of help can you actually be? Maybe you’re even reaching out to the poor already and sometimes you feel in-over-your-head by the amount of needs they have that you can’t envision meeting. Two things for you:
One, remember your generous Father. You’re right. You don’t have the resources to live this way. But Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” Why? Because we have a Father in heaven who knows how to give good things to those who ask him! True love demands so much from us. But the Lord never leaves us without the resources to love, since we have him. And he promises never to leave us or forsake us, and he will meet all of our needs according to his riches in Christ Jesus.
Two, remember the church he gave you. Each of us are in different places financially (2 Cor 8:13). Our physical bodies are each effected by the Fall differently, and for some of us, that will limit the kinds of help we’re able to give (Rom 8). Each of us have different margins for time because of other responsibilities God has called us to at home or at work (Eph 4:28; 6:4; 1 Tim 5:8). Each of us have different skills and abilities to contribute—and God set it up this way for his glory and our unity, our interdependence on each other (Rom 12; 1 Cor 12; 1 Pet 4:9-11).
James isn’t saying that every person has to do everything. Caring for the helpless among us is a community effort. Find your place alongside other brothers and sisters. Remember that you’re God’s means of caring for others around you. And then simply be faithful at your post. As you learn of needs, seek to meet them. Jesus is building the church, and he’s set it up this way. Let’s trust his wisdom in doing so.
More in James: Living the Implanted Word
October 9, 2016Gospel Truth & the Church's Role in the Saint's Perseverance
October 2, 2016A Church Filled with Righteous Words: Praise, Prayer, Confession
August 28, 2016The Need for Patient Endurance