The Faith that Justifies

July 9, 2017 sermon
By John Ulrich, Lead Pastor

James 2:14-26

I. The Gospel: We are justified by faith.
Our most precious doctrine at Perry Creek Church is the Gospel: that we are saved by faith, totally forgiven and justified before God in this life and eternally. James 2:14-26, probably the most controversial passage in the Bible, at first seems to contradict this belief (James 2:14-16), but in fact, James is clarifying more of what it means to be made right with God by faith.

Fundamentally, our faith is a gift of God, apart from any works of law (Jn.3:16, Acts 16:31, Rom.3:28). As broken sinners we fall short of the glory of God (Rom.3:23). We cannot fix ourselves, and we must, with God’s help, reach out in faith to God who will exchange our flawed lives for the life of Jesus, full of innocence and glory. We are forgiven, accepted in God’s presence, and loved as God’s own children.

II. James’ clarification….that we are justified by a faith that works.
Once we are saved, James clarifies to us that the transforming power of the Gospel changes us, within and without, to obey God and do good works in the overflow of His love. Real faith will inevitably grow into works. James uses five different arguments (logical & Biblical) to prove that faith that doesn’t work is dead (James 2:26). In James 2, the author argues by analogy (vv.14-17) , by objection (v.18), by demons (v.19), by actions of Abraham (vv.20-24), and the actions a prostitute named Rahab (v.25).

III. Our response: Look for a faith that works.
For assurance of your faith, look for a faith that is a relationship with God, ebbing and flowing daily in our feelings of closeness with our Heavenly Father. Yet God is also constant, working in and through us, and gives us confidence when we see that we have a faith that works, changing our lives and those around us for good here on earth and eternally. As maturing believers, we need reminding that faith means growth in understanding and trust of God. We believe first and then live out that trust. Our behavior will always betray our belief.

Prayer: Open our hearts and lower our defenses to the Gospel, the Good News. May we continually trust You, Triune God, so that we will have a faith that works, changing our lives as we bear fruit for the Kingdom.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is the only basis of being saved? Why?
  2. If we are saved by a faith that works, according to James, what exactly are examples of the deeds and works that we should see in our lives?
  3. For a faith that works, how much do we have to believe, and how much do we have to do? Are we set up for failure?
  4. Have you felt the transforming power of God in your own life as a result of your faith? What in your own life proves that your faith is alive?
  5. How have you seen “faith that works” at Perry Creek or in the lives of other Christians? (See Matt.25:31-40)
  6. As a follower of Jesus by faith, what kinds of works do you see or hope to see in your own small group?

Introduction

Let me invite you to turn in your Bibles to James 2:14-26. We are continuing today in our study of the book of James called “Unwavering: Living out a Single-minded faith.” We’re about half-way through the book, and we’ve learned a lot – about trials, and temptation, and doing the word, and helping those who can’t help you back and favoritism. We’ve learned a lot.

One thing that we’ve seen again and again in this short book is James’ tendency to tie every topic he has dealt with back to faith. James pointed out that trials must be responded to with single-minded faith. He points out that the temptations we face tempt us and become powerful because of we lack faith. James points out that what he calls “pure religion” is pure. It helps those who can’t help it back, because it acts on faith. James has shown us that favoritism and discrimination in the church is actually an expression of a lack of faith. James ties everything back to faith.

Well today, James is going to discuss what in some ways is the most basic question about faith which is the question: What kind of faith saves us? What is the nature of basic saving faith? What kind of faith justifies us what kind releases us from God’s judgment and brings us eternal life. What kind of faith saves us? James is going to talk about that issue today.

True to his nature, he’s going to do it in a very provoking way! What we are going to look at today is probably the most controversial passage in the entire Bible, Because some people feel that in this passage James got it wrong. That he is teaching salvation by works (that we earn our way to heaven by what we do). This passage is the main reason that Martin Luther, the guy that started the reformation and founded the Lutheran church, called the book of James “an epistle of straw.” Luther felt that James came way too close in this passage to teaching salvation by works. It’s controversial.

If you were here last week and you heard Tim Branagan’s sermon on Grace, you’re going to feel the dissonance the difference between Tim’s sermon and what James is going to say today. By the way, wasn’t that a great, freeing Grace-filled sermon? Yeah, I’m going to take that all away today. You’ve had your week of feeling good about yourselves back to judgment and legalism. OK? Just kidding! We actually planned for Tim to preach on grace knowing that it would lay a useful foundation for the passage we are looking at this week.

James sounds here a lot like he’s saying we are saved by our good works. But I’m going to argue today that James is not teaching that we are saved by works, that he is not teaching that we are saved by faith plus works, rather that James is teaching that we are saved by a faith that works. Today I don’t want us to just resolve the controversy. I want us to go beyond that and understand James’ message, because James has something important to teach us. So today we will look at three things today:

  1. We will look at the Gospel we preach
  2. We will look at James’ clarification of that Gospel
  3. And we will look at what our response should be to James’ message

Let’s just read through this passage together James says this:

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that and shudder.
You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 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. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.
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? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
– James 2:14-26

We are going to look at three things today. The first is the Gospel.

The Gospel: We are justified by faith

The gospel is that we are justified (made right with God) by faith. This is the gospel we preach at Perry Creek and that is proclaimed around the world. It is the most precious doctrine in all of Christianity. It’s what makes Christianity more than just a moral code. The gospel is that we are justified by faith. This is not a foreign concept to James even though it might seem like it from some of the things he says in this passage. In reality, this is the backdrop to James’ entire discussion here:

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?
– James 2:14

“Can such faith him?” The very fact that James is asking that question shows us that he has a clear understanding that we are justified by faith. That would be like me asking you “does your car run on that kind of gasoline” The question itself shows that I understand that your car runs on gasoline. I just want to know what kind. Likewise with James. James knows that the gospel is that we are justified by faith. In a minute, he’s going to clarify what faith is. But before we look at that, let’s make sure that we have a clear understanding of how the gospel works.

The gospel is that we are justified – we are saved – by faith. All of us here today are sinners that need a Savior. We all need to be forgiven justified, pronounced innocent, starting with me. We’ve all done things that we know are wrong. We’ve all disobeyed God. You may be a nice person, in general. You may be better than the next guy, but that’s not enough. We’re all sinners. The Bible says this about us:

For all have sinned, and are falling short of the glory of God
– Romans 3:23

That means that I’ve got two problems:

  1. “All have sinned.” I have sins, wrong choices and bad deeds in my past. No amount of good things I do can erase my past. I have sinned.
  2. In the present, “all are falling short of the glory of God.” I have a present lack of glory. I lack the glory the excellence the worship the goodness and innocence that God made me to have. I am unable to be what he made me to be. Again, no amount of good works can change my lack of glory. Trying to cover that up with good works is like putting lipstick on a pig. It’s like me putting on one of Kelley’s dresses and saying “don’t I make a beautiful woman?” NO, I don’t! I can add earrings and makeup. It still won’t work, because it’s still me! Sorry, you didn’t need that image, but that’s our condition. We’re flawed!

This is a big problem for us. Our past sin renders us guilty and judgable before God. Our present lack of glory makes us unable to enter heaven, because heaven is a sinless, perfect, glory-filled place. We were made for heaven, but we’re no longer suited for heaven.

There’s nothing we can do to fix it. In fact, the harder we try to fix it on our own the more aware we will become that we are fundamentally broken. If you were here last week, do you remember the room of good intentions? We can’t fix this. So what on earth are we going to do? How can we rectify the situation? Only one way: through a complete exchange of our life for the life of Jesus. A complete exchange.

It reminds me of an old fishing rod I used to have. When I was in seminary, I was going to fish in a certain area. I didn’t have the right fishing rod to do that, so one of my professors loaned me his rod: a really nice 8’ Browning surf-rod. I took that rod out and started catching fish with it, so everything was great. Then I went to set the hook on a small fish, and it broke! Just snapped in two! I couldn’t fix it! I took it home and tried to repair it, but it couldn’t be repaired. I didn’t have the money to replace it. It was an $80 rod, and I had $0!

You know the rod still had some pretty good parts to it. The guides were good. The rings that hold the reel on were in good shape. It looked pretty. But it was broken. It was fundamentally unable to do what it was made to do, no matter how pretty it was. Kind of like us.

I didn’t know what I was going to do. I remember I was scared to death to tell Dr. Lawson I had ruined his rod. I wrote to the manufacturer and said “Look it was an older rod, but I wasn’t mistreating it when it broke is there any way you can fix it?” In the mail a few days later, I got two things: The first was a big catalog of every fancy, expensive, fully-functioning fishing rod that Browning sold at the time. The second was a letter saying “pick one. Give us your broken rod and pick any rod we make. We’ll exchange the one for the other – no charge. Well, let me say my professor was a happy man, because he got a $200 rod out of it. I became a Browning customer for life. That’s kind of what God did for us in the gospel. He exchanged.

Just when it seemed like we had no recourse, He sent his one and only Son to live the life that we should have lived, a life of excellence and innocence, a life of perfect obedience to the Father, and perfect love for his neighbor. The Bible says Jesus was full of the glory that we were supposed to have. Then the Bible says God looked at my broken life with it’s pretty good parts but it’s complete inability to be what he made me to be , and he said “How about an exchange?” “My Son will give you his life – his innocence – for your sin and his glory for your brokenness. He will take your broken life and your sin and pay the penalty for them on the cross. Let’s exchange.”

Listen that’s the gospel. That’s the exchange we celebrate here at Perry Creek! The Bible says there is only one basis on which this exchange can take place, and that is faith. The Bible says this again and again:

  • God so loved the world, that he sent his one and only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life – John 3:16
  • Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved – Acts 16:31
  • Truly, truly I say to you whoever hears my words and believes on him that sent me will never die – John 5:24
  • We maintain that a person is justified by faith, apart from works of the law – Romans 3:28

Again and again over 150 times, the Bible says that the way a person is justified the way a person is pronounced innocent and forgiven for their sin and saved from God’s wrath is by believing in Jesus. We believe this at Perry Creek. It is our most precious doctrine. We believe it so strongly that we agree with the Apostle Paul who said: “If anyone even an angel from heaven should preach a different gospel than this one of salvation by faith that was preached to you let him be accursed.”

The gospel is that we are justified by faith. You can see why it is very upsetting to people when they read James 2:14-26, and they hear James say things like:

  •  “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead”
  • “Abraham, our father, was justified by works”
  • “A person is justified by what he does, and not by faith alone”

These are direct quotes from this passage, and they seem to fly in the face of the Gospel.

It’s easy to see why this is the most controversial passage in the Bible. James seems to contradict what we hold to be true about the Gospel. I think we’ll see that James is not so much contradicting as he is clarifying. This is his clarification:

  • The Gospel is that we are justified by faith
  • James’ clarification is that we are justified by a faith that works.

We are justified by a faith that works

Now because of the way this passage is structured, we’re going to look at it all at once. Because there’s really not a lot of development in the thought, James is going to state his premise: Faith that doesn’t work is dead. Then he’s going to give five different arguments to prove it. He’ll give three logical proofs and two biblical proofs. Let’s just walk through these together. James is going to start with three logical proofs, and the first one is

1. Proof by analogy

James says:

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
– James 2:14-17

James is drawing an analogy, and the analogy is this: What good is it if we say we have faith but never do anything about it? As much good as wishing someone well, but not doing anything about it.

One of my former Pastors in Kansas was originally from Texas. One time we were helping someone in Kansas with a home project, and he said “you know what the difference between Kansans and Texans are?” He said “in Texas, if I said I had a bunch of work to do everyone would tell me how sorry they felt for me. In Kansas, they just show up and help.” The point is that Kansans are more useful than Texans! That’s what James is saying: “A claim of faith with no action to back it up is as useless as a Texan when there’s work to be done.” OK, just kidding, but you get the point Proof by analogy.

2. Proof by Objection.

But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.
– James 2:18

“You have faith, I have deeds” What is James saying? I think the Good News Bible probably puts it best. It says: But someone will say “one person has faith and another has actions”. My response is “show me how anyone can have faith without actions. I will show you my faith by my actions.”

In other words, someone might object that different people have different gifts. One person has the gift of faith. Another has the gift of works. “So James, get off my back about your works that’s not my gift!”

James response is that faith can only be seen through actions There’s no other way to know what someone truly believes. Let me give you the example I’ve given you before: Does Ricky believe that chair can hold him up? How do you know? Simple – he’s sitting in it! In the end, that’s really the only way we know. Behavior always follows belief. Always! Ricky can talk about that chair all he wants, but the only time we really find out what he believes is when it’s time to sit down. I think that’s James’ point. It’s not so much that faith without action is invisible, it’s that it doesn’t exist.

3. Proof by Demons

There’s a sermon point you don’t hear every day:

You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that and shudder.
– James 2:19

James is writing to a Jewish audience, so he picks up the most important doctrine of Judaism which is called the Shema: “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one.” There is one God – not many. So James quotes that, but he reminds them of something even Demons know that. Demons know there is one God. They know what he’s like. In fact if you read the gospels, demons are often the first ones to acknowledge that Jesus is God’s son. So demons have the objective facts down. They have a mental assent to the truth, but they don’t trust God. The reason that they are fallen angels is because they refused to trust God. To quote from the New Testament book of Hebrews: demons believe that God is, but they don’t believe that he is a rewarder of those who seek him. They thought they could do better if they rebelled against him.

Mental acceptance of the facts of a creed as accurate as it may be is inadequate for salvation. Real faith demands that we trust God with our life. we must believe that he is a rewarder of those who seek Him. So those are James’ three logical proofs.

  1. Proof by analogy
  2. Proof by objection
  3. Proof by demons

Now James will give us two biblical proofs, and he’s going to start with:

1. Proof from Abraham

This is where it gets confusing:

You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did (ESV “justified by works”) when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 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. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.
– James 2:20-26

OK here’s the tricky part, and here’s why it’s tricky: James says that Abraham was “justified by works” (Bible’s English Standard Version) when he offered Isaac. Elsewhere in the New Testament, Paul seems to say the exact opposite. In Romans 4:3, Paul clearly says that Abraham was justified by faith when he believed God’s promise (before Isaac was born). So which is it? When did it happen? Was he justified when he offered Isaac? Or was it when he believed God?

Well the word “justify” has two different meanings in Scripture:

  1. To pronounce someone righteous, like a verdict handed down by a court. When that verdict of “not guilty” comes down, it changes your status then and there whether you did it or not. You become “not guilty” so it can mean to pronounce righteous.
  2. It can mean to “show to be righteous” to reveal the righteousness that is already there. When this happens it doesn’t change your status. It just shows the righteous status that was already there

Let me give you a Bible example. In Psalm 51, King David is confessing his sin of adultery with Bathsheba, and he says to God: “I confess my sin that you may be justified when you speak, and prevail when you judge.” What is he saying? He’s not making God righteous. He is simply pointing out that God is already righteous. When I confess my sin, I am justifying God by saying that He was right and I was wrong. So it can mean:

  1. To declare someone righteous, or
  2. To show the righteousness that’s already there

Now in the story of Abraham we see both meanings. In Genesis 15:6, Abraham believes God’s promise that he is going to have a child. It says “it was credited to him as righteousness.” In other words, he was declared righteous God pronounced that verdict on him meaning number one. When God pronounces you righteous, you are righteous. So Abraham’s standing with God became right at that time.

Some 20 years later in Genesis 21, Abraham offers Isaac. When he does that something interesting happens: He goes to sacrifice Isaac, and the Angel stops him. The angel says: “Now I know that you fear God.” In other words, Abraham at that moment is shown to be righteous. He is justified by definition #2. Now could we say that Abraham believed if he had refused to offer his son? No, so Abraham’s offering of Isaac justified him.

Paul is referring to definition 1. James is referring to definition 2. But, and this is important, neither of them are saying that Abraham earned his righteousness. If you read Genesis during that 20 years, Abraham did a lot of bad things. He slept with his servant, Hagar He laughed at God. He lied to Abimalech. Abraham did not earn his righteousness. He believed that God is and that he is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him. His actions betrayed his belief. Abraham proves that we are saved by a faith that works. Finally, James gives us:

2. Proof from a Prostitute

Sorry to use that term, but I don’t want us to miss James’ point:

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? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
– James 2:25-26

Now you may remember the story from the Old Testament. God sent Israelite spies into the enemy city of Jericho to check its fortifications. The King of Jericho caught wind of it that these spies were there. Te spies asked a Canaanite prostitute named Rahab to hide them. Because she believed that the God of Israel was real, she did it. When the soldiers came, she said the spies left when they were actually hiding on her roof. Because of that, God spared her.

Question: How is lying while you are a prostitute a work that justifies you? This is the kind of thing that should bother you! Listen once again: the point is not that Rahab was good enough to earn her salvation. The point is that Rahab acted on her faith. She believed that God is and that he’s a rewarder of those that seek Him. So she feared God more than she feared the King of Jericho. She acted in line with that faith and risked her life. She was shown to be righteous not because she was good, but because she had a faith that works.

That’s James’ point proven in five different ways. His point Is that we are saved by faith, but we are saved by a faith that works. If my faith is real, it will inevitably grow into works. If I don’t have real faith, no amount of works will help.

It’s like a tree. If a tree is real, I don’t have to tell it to grow it will grow on its own. If it’s a fruit tree, it will grow fruit on its own. I have a plastic Christmas tree at home. That tree is not real. I can do all the wishful thinking I want: I can fertilize, I water it, I can even tape fruit to the branches, but that won’t make it real. Real faith works.

We are justified by faith, but we are justified by a faith that works. Now how do we respond to this?

Our Response: Look for a faith that works

Let me talk to two groups here.

  1. To those of you who struggle with assurance of your salvation: Any time we have a group of this size, there are bound to be people who struggle to know for sure that they are going to heaven. I want you to know that it is common to wrestle with assurance of your salvation. This is especially true if you haven’t had a dramatic conversion. I struggled with that for years. I also want you to know that your relationship to God is just that a relationship. Just like any other relationship, there’s an ebb and flow to it. Like a marriage, there are times when you feel really close and it’s no work. And times when you feel more distant. I say this because sometimes we feel like our walk with God should always be white-hot, like we should always be walking in victory. That’s just not what I’ve experienced. So there’s an ebb and flow. Don’t be afraid of that. Don’t feel like that says your faith isn’t real. I want you to know that. But I also want you to know this: If you need to be confident of your salvation, you should be asking yourself if you have a faith that works. Your faith should be making a difference in the way you live your life. You can recite all the creeds you want. You can go forward at a revival. You can write a date on the inside cover of your Bible. But if your faith is not bearing fruit in your life – if your life is untouched unchanged by God, you should ask yourself if you are really a believer in Jesus Christ. Your faith should be working in your life and, if it’s not, I don’t think you are supposed to feel assured. What would you say to me if I told you: “I really want to feel like a married man.” “But I don’t really want to go home at night and I want to sleep around I don’t really want to communicate with my wife.” “But I want to feel like I’m happily married.” Wouldn’t you tell me that’s ridiculous? But many Christians want that. They want to ignore God in their lives and feel like they are justified. Assurance doesn’t work that way. If you’re looking for assurance know that there’s an ebb and flow but look for a faith that works.
  2. If you are already assured of your salvation, I think James would also say to us: Look for a faith that works. James has drawn a connection between our faith and our works. Sometimes when we don’t see the works in an area of our lives, we tend to focus on the work side of the equation – tell ourselves we need to be more disciplined to work harder. In reality, it’s often the faith that actually needs our attention. Sometimes in an area of our life the real problem is not that we aren’t trying hard enough, it’s in our faith – either we don’t understand something God wants us to believe or we don’t really trust God to reward us if we live it out. So we try harder, but it’s like we’re taping fruit to a plastic tree. Let me encourage you: God wants you to believe first and then live out of that faith. That’s why we serve here at Perry Creek, that’s why we help those who can’t help us back and invite people to join us. It’s not that we’re trying to earn God’s favor, it’s that we are acting out the favor we have already received from him through faith. James’ message to us today is that our behavior betrays our belief. We are saved by faith, but we are saved by a faith that works.