Jesus called His followers “the salt of the earth” (Matt 5:13) and “the light of the world“ (Matt 5:14). The effectiveness of salt is demonstrated in its ability to improve the taste of food and slow the decay of food. Bad salt is worthless. The effectiveness of light is demonstrated in its ability to give light. Bad light fails to brighten. Jesus used these two illustrations to show His followers that they are to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to our Father in heaven” (Matt 5:16). In our sermon today we shall discuss the relationship between faith and works and learn that faith without works is dead. Consider:
- False Faith Fails (14-20). In verse 14, James asks a question, “What good is it…if someone says he has faith but does not have works?” Remembering Jesus’ words in Matthew 5, the correct answer is: “It is not good because genuine faith produces good works that glorify God.” He then asks, “Can that faith save him?” The answer is: “No. Since genuine faith produces good works, a faith that does not produce good works is not genuine.” Notice that James is not asking if “faith” can save, but can “that faith” (a faith without works) save. Faith without works is not genuine faith. Peter Davids adds, “works are not an ‘added extra’ to faith, but are an essential expression of it.” In other words, if someone is “without clothes and lacks daily food” we should not just tell them “be warmed and filled”, but we should “give them what the body needs.” This is faith working in mercy.
In verse 18, James preempts a common argument. Some would argue that faith and works may exist separately. In other words, someone may have faith and someone else may have works. James argues that this is false. He makes it clear that faith and works work together. Faith produces works and works reveal faith. He writes, “I will show you my faith by my works.” Anybody can say they have faith, but actions speak louder than words. James writes that even the demons believe God is one. The problem is that their belief does not lead to repentance. Does your belief in God lead to repentance? Does your faith produce good works? False faith fails but genuine faith produces loving care for others.
- Two Examples of Faith (21-25). To further illustrate his point that “faith apart from works is useless”, James reminds us about Abraham and Rahab. It is very important that we pay very close attention to this section because some have mistakenly believed that Christians are justified by works and not by faith alone. What is justification? Justification is the one-time declaration by God that someone is not guilty of their sin. This is accomplished by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and is received by grace through faith (Eph 2:8). When James says that Abraham and Rahab were “justified by works” (21, 25), he is not arguing with Paul or any other New Testament writer. James and Paul are making the same point with different opponents. Paul is arguing against those who seek to earn God’s favor through their works (see Eph 2:8-9). James is arguing against those who claim to have faith without any works. Paul says that we are saved by faith alone apart from works (lest anyone boast) and James says that genuine faith is revealed in our works. Now, let us consider Abraham and Rahab:
- Abraham’s Faithful Work. In verse 21, James mentions Abraham’s faithful obedience in “offering Isaac his son on the altar.” Abraham was willing to offer Isaac as a sacrifice (see Gen 22) because he believed God and trusted Him. Hebrew 11:17 tells us “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac…” Imagine what it would take to even consider such a thing. Abraham was understandably distraught over this, but trusted the goodness of God. Abraham’s willingness to offer Isaac was a demonstration of his faith. This fulfilled what was said about him, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6). Abraham’s faith “was completed by his works” in that his faith was shown by his works.
- Rahab’s Faithful Work. In verse 25, James mentions Rahab’s faithful obedience in “receiving the messengers and sending them out by a different route.” Hebrews 11:31 tells us “By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.” Rahab believed that the Lord was the true God and she chose to follow Him. It is for this reason she hid the prisoners and requested that the Israelites spare her and her family (see Joshua 2). Like Abraham, she believed God and demonstrated her faith in her good works.
- Saving Faith Works (26). James concludes this section by saying, “as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead.” James is restating what he said earlier in verse 17, “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” A body without breath is a corpse. Likewise, faith without works is dead. A workless faith is dead and useless because it is not genuine. Let us examine ourselves in light of this section of Scripture. Do I believe what the Bible teaches about God? Do I believe that Jesus is the Son of God? Do I believe the Bible is true and trustworthy? Do I have faith? If so, great! Now, does your faith work?
- Does my faith affect how I think? Are my thoughts consumed by self-interest and self-preservation? Are my thoughts focused on Christ and the needs of others?
- Does my faith affect how I speak? Do I have self-control over my tongue? Do I gossip about others and/or slander them? Slander is making false statements about someone in order to damage their reputation. Proverbs 10:18 says that the person who “spreads slander is a fool.” Gossip is idle talk about someone about something that may or may not be true. Both are evil because they are unloving. Do we speak to lift up or tear down?
- Does my faith affect how I live? Everyone has 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. How do we use those hours and days? How much time do we spend showing love and mercy to others? How much time do we spend selfishly? These are questions we all must take to God in prayer and ask for help and wisdom.
Genuine faith fuels a Christian’s good works. These works are important because they glorify God and lead others to do so as well. Paul cautions us, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Eph 5:15-16).