James: Faith Always Bears Fruit

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on September 1, 2002

James 2:14-26

James 2:14-26
Faith Always Bears Fruit

If you
have your Bibles I would invite you to turn with me to James, chapter two, as
we continue our way through this great little book together. The first week we
were in James we looked at the first verse and the words of greetings and we
said, even then, that the very language that James used in his greetings,
language which recalls the Old Testament pilgrimage of Israel in the
wilderness, prepared us to think about the trials of the Christian life. And
sure enough, as we studied James:1, verses 2 through 18, we saw his focus on
how the Christian ought to respond to trials.

Then in James, chapter 1, verses 19 through 27,
James seemed to change the topic a bit. He expressed concern about the
possibility that a person could profess faith in Christ, could claim to be a
Christian and yet not, in fact, be a Christian; to outwardly look like a
Christian, at least in the manner of one’s profession, but not to look like a
Christian in one’s living. And so, he spoke about ‘hearers’ of the word and
‘doers’ of the word, those who claim to hear the word of God and follow it, but
who do not, in fact, do the word of God, and those who are both hearers and
doers – those who hear the word of God and obey it. And we said, when we
studied James 1:19 through 27, that this is a theme that continues at least to
the end of James, chapter two. And indeed, as we studied James, chapter 2,
verses 1 through 13 last week, we saw James give us a tangible example of how
people can make a profession of Christ, and yet in the way they live, in
relation with their neighbors, they contradict that relationship.

And, it was
the issue of favoritism that James deals with in James 2, verse 1 through 13.
We are the assembly of the unworthy in the Christian Church. Nobody has earned
his way into the assembly of the Lord. By grace we are brought into this
assembly. By the mercy of God, we, though we are unworthy, are invited into
this assembly. And so James is saying to show favoritism or bias from the
assembly of the unworthy is like saying to someone “you are unworthy to be a
member of the assembly of the unworthy.” that’s right. It doesn’t make any
sense. It’s a contradiction of God’s grace to us. Showing no mercy to people in
the assembly of mercy is a contradiction in terms. Despising some in the
assembly of grace is a contradiction of the profession. And so in James 2,
verses 1 through 13, he gives a practical, tangible example about how we can
deny the faith without ever standing up and renouncing it in words. We can deny
it in our actions by showing favoritism towards some or against others. And so,
James continues that theme in the passage that we study today. Let’s hear God’s
holy, inspired and inerrant word in James, chapter 2, verse 14:

“What use is it,
my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith
save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food,
and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled” and yet you do
not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so
faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. 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.” You believe that God is one. You do well;
the demons also believe and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you
foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham, our
father, justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You
see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works faith
was perfected; 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.
You see that man is justified by works, and not by faith alone. And in the
same way was not Rahab, the harlot, also justified by works when she received
the messengers and sent them out by another way? For just as the body without
the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.”

Amen. And thus
ends this reading of God’s holy word. May He add His blessing to it. Let’s pray.

Lord, and our God, we ask that by the Spirit You would teach us from Your word,
that You would help us to understand a passage which is hard, not because it is
difficult to understand, but because it reveals to us something that is
difficult to do, and easy not to do. O Lord, teach us, then. In Jesus’ name,

James is
very concerned that someone may profess to be a disciple of the Lord Jesus
without actually being a disciple of the Lord Jesus. And so he is very concerned
in this book, and especially from chapter 1, verse 19 all the way down to
chapter 2, verse 26, though he will continue on in this, he is very concerned to
diagnose that problem, to diagnose that malady, and to give you tools to see it
in yourself, if its there; and then to correct or remedy it.

But before
we get to James’ concern, we have got to deal with a problem. There’s a
pressing matter that we need to deal with, and it is the alleged contradiction
between what James says here, and what Paul says in Romans, chapter three. Now,
keep your finger on James, chapter 2, verse 24, and then turn back to Romans,
chapter 3, verse 28. We often hear it asserted that Paul, and James, are
contradictory in their teaching about justification. And at first glance that
may seem to be so. Paul says, in Romans 3:28, “For we maintain that a man is
justified by faith, apart from works of the law.” And then, James says, in
James 2:24, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

Now, how do
we explain that? Well, you explain it by the context. Paul is talking about how
a man is accepted before God. He is attempting to establish the universal need
of the gospel. Both Jews and Gentiles need the gospel of grace because they do
not measure up to the standards of God’s holiness. And Paul argues that the way
the gospel is received rules out any kind of boasting on our part. And in that
context he speaks of justification as God’s act of declaring us righteousness
because of Christ, because of what He has done. And so justification, as Paul
uses it, is a judicial pronouncement about your standing before God. It is God
declaring you to be accepted and to be right with Him.

On the other
hand, James is talking about a very different thing; James is writing in the
context of dealing with hypocrisy in the church. There are some people who
claim to believe, but their lives do not bear out what they are claiming with
their lips. How do you sort that out? How do you tell the difference between
real faith and false faith, living faith, and dead faith? That’s the issue that
James is getting at. How do you know whether a person really believes? What
demonstrates their Christianity? Faith with holiness, he says. For James, to be
justified means to be vindicated in your faith; to demonstrate the reality of
your faith.

And if you
look at James, chapter 2 – and I’d invite you to focus your attention on verse
14 for a moment, we will look at some other verses as well – you will actually
notice that James uses terminology differently. And he does several things
that clue you into the fact that he is not contradicting Paul. First of all,
just in passing, James uses the word “justification” differently than Paul uses
it. James’ use of the word “works” is not to be equated with Paul’s use of the
phrase “works of the law”. And James even lets you know that he is not talking
in this passage about real faith. His concern is not about a real faith, which
has no work attached to it. He is concerned about – and he uses the term twice
– a “dead faith”.

Now, having
said that as background, let’s look at four things that tip you off that Paul is
not contradicting James and James is not contradicting Paul. First, James is
dealing with the sin of hypocrisy. He is not dealing with the issue of how you
are made right before God. And he tips you off in verse 14: “What use is it, my
brethren, if someone says he has faith and has no works.” He’s talking about a
claimed faith which shows no reality. He’s dealing with the sin of hypocrisy.

James does not ask the question, “Can faith save you?” He doesn’t ask the
question, “Can real faith save you?” Look at what he asks; in verse 14: “Can
that faith save you?” What’s the “that” for? He’s just described the kind of
faith he’s talking about in the previous sentence. What does he say? “Says he
has faith”. Ah! James is asking the question, can “Says you have faith” save
you? Can claimed faith save you? Can a profession of faith that has no
substance or reality save you? James isn’t asking the question, “Can real faith
save?” He’s asking, “Can claimed faith, apart from the evidence of holiness,
save you?” And he tips you off on this, both with the phrase “Says he has
faith” and “Can that kind of faith”, in verse 14.

James is clearly concerned in this passage, not about real faith that is
unaccompanied by works, James doesn’t think that that exists, and by the way,
it doesn’t; James is concerned about dead faith masquerading as real faith which
is not accompanied by works. Let me prove it to you. Look at verse 17 and verse
26. Twice he speaks of dead faith; that is, claimed faith that is empty. It is
hollow. It is without living reality. So, James and Paul present us a little
bit of apples and oranges here. They are not talking about the same subject,
even using the same language, in some cases.

One last
thing. James’ argument from the life of Abraham actually, definitively, proves
that he does not contradict Paul. One of Paul’s favorite verses about Abraham is
Genesis 15:6. It is a passage which says, “And Abraham
believed God, and He (God) reckoned it to him as righteousness.” That is the
passage, above all other passages, that Paul will base his doctrine of
justification on. He says Abraham was justified. He was reckoned righteous. He
was declared righteous by faith. Well, isn’t it interesting that James quotes
that very verse in chapter 2, verse 23. But, look at what he does. He says that
that Scripture in Genesis 15:6 was fulfilled when? Look at the previous verse,
verse 21: “Was not Abraham our father justified by
works when he offered up Isaac, his son, on the altar?” Now, when did that
happen? It didn’t happen in Genesis 15. It didn’t happen before Genesis 15. It
happened seven chapters, and many years, after Genesis 15:6. Now, James is no
dummy. He knows his Bible. He knows that Genesis 15 comes before Genesis 22. I
know they didn’t have the chapters then, but he knew that passage came before
the other passage. And he also knows that his readers are no dummies either, and
they know that the Genesis 15 passage comes before that passage about Isaac,

So why does
he say it? Because the story of Isaac demonstrates the trueness of the faith
that Abraham had expressed so many years before and had been reckoned righteous
according to. So, James and Paul are not contradicting themselves. Now, if you
are still struggling with that issue,and it’s an
important one, please see me. See one of the other ministers. See one of our
elders, and talk that through until you are comfortable in understanding that
James and Paul are not contradicting one another. In fact, I’m going to show you
another passage in just a few moments right out of the mouth of the apostle Paul
that will show you again that they don’t contradict. But if you are still
struggling with that, speak with someone.

I. A claimed faith
without tangible love for the brethren is useless.

Now, we’re going to set that aside, and we’re going to get back to James’
main point. And James’ main point is very simple. It is vital to see that
James’ point is not “faith plus works equals justification”. That is not James’
point in James, chapter two. His point is not “faith plus holiness equals
salvation”, in James, chapter two. His point is that real faith always
manifests itself in active, practical, Christian love in relationships. Real
faith always manifests itself in active, practical Christian
love in relationships. And he gives it – that one point, that one issue, that
one proposition – three ways in this passage. Let me show you those ways.

First, if
you look at verses 14 through 17, James deals with the situation of someone who
claims to have faith, but who does not have practical love. Then, in verses 18
through 20, he deals with the situation of someone who has right notions about
God, but does not have practical love. And then, in verse 21 through 26, he
gives you three illustrations, two of them positive, one of them negative, all
of them designed to press home this point – that those who truly believe live as
if they believe what they say they believe.

Let’s look
at each of these three things. First, verses 14 through 17. Here is a situation
of a claimed faith without practical love. And James is elaborating on the
problem that he had already mentioned in chapter 1, verse 19 through 27. The
difference between hearers of the word, and hearers and doers of the word on
the other hand. And James is teaching us in verses 14 through 17 that a claimed
faith, without tangible love for the brethren, is useless. His concern is for a
merely ‘claimed’ faith. Look at his language: “if someone says he has faith, but
he has no works…”. James doesn’t say, “What if a person has faith but
doesn’t have works”. He doesn’t even raise the issue. What if he says, “He has
faith, but he has no works”? James is concerned about people who claim to be
Christians, but who are not. James is concerned about people who have made a
decision, or prayed a prayer, or signed a card, or walked an aisle, or gone
through a communicant’s class, or joined a church, or answered the questions of
membership, or declared themselves to be Christians, but whose lives do not
show the marks of real faith. He looks at the life; he says, “I see no
consistent, visible evidence of an outflow of the life of faith in this person.”
And as far as James is concerned that person is not a Christian. James bluntly
questions that person’s salvation.

And then he
gives a concrete example. Look at verses 15 and 16. It’s a concrete example
about showing tangible love and care and concern for a Christian brother or
sister in distress, in need. Let’s say your brother or sister comes along, and
he’s distressed, he’s in need, he’s in need of food and clothing, and you say,
“I’ll pray for you, brother,” and you do nothing to help him. He says, “You know
what that is? “It’s useless.” he says, “That’s just like a claimer which
doesn’t live as if you really believe the faith is true.” It’s useless. Faith
must be lived out. It must be acted out. It must be embodied. It must not be
merely talked about, or asserted or professed. It must be lived out.

A friend of
mine sent me an article in the last couple of days, from Reuter’s News Service.
It has a provocative title to the article; it’s, “Adult Bad Behavior May
Encourage Teen Sex”. Its a study done by some sociologists and psychologists
about the effect of parents who engage in risky behavior themselves, and then
tell their children not to behave in bad ways, and their children go ahead and
do those things anyway. And one of the most provocative sentences in this study
is this one: “Experts have long told parents that children will act on what they
see their parents do, not what they are told, when their parents’ actions
contradict their words.” Well, as Gomer Pyle would say, “Surprise, surprise,
surprise”! Of course! Because, what our children see us do is they know is
really real to us. We do what we believe, and so if we say one thing and do
another, you know what they’ll do? They’ll follow what we do and not what we
say. That’s just what James is getting at here. You see, the reality of what a
person believes by what they do. A lived out faith is what he’s after, not a
claimed faith; a lived out faith.

An orthodox faith without works is just demonic.

Here’s the second thing I want you to see. In verses 18 through 20,
he deals with the situation of right thinking without practical love. Practical
love is the invariable fruit of real faith. And he is saying to us in verses 18
through 20 that an orthodox faith, a correct belief system, without works, is
just demonic. James handles an objection here. In verse 18, someone says to
him, “I have faith, James; I really do”. I really do believe, James. I
believe the truth. I believe the claims. I believe Christ is Lord. And James,
in response, says in effect, “Show me. Don’t tell me.” Show me that you believe
that Christ is Lord. And in verse 19, he teaches us that you can know some true
things, and you can believe some true things, and you can even know and believe
some important and true things, and you can even know and believe some important
and true things about God and the Bible and salvation, and still not be a
Christian. Because, there is a difference between knowing notions and knowing
God. There’s a difference between assenting to those truths and embracing those
truths. We do what we believe. We act on what we believe. Jesus said that our
actions are a reflection of our hearts. And so, if our lives do not manifest the
faith that we claim, then the faith is not there.

You see,
James is not saying we need to add works to our faith if we want to get saved.
He’s saying that true faith is the engine of life, and life reflects whether or
not we really have that true faith. In our choices, in our priorities, in our
actions, in our relationships, and especially our relationships in the
Christian community, will we show whether or not we really do have true faith.
You see, you can believe right things about God and still be a pagan, because
saving faith involves more than just correct notions about God.

Abraham and Rahab are examples of how real faith and tangible works go together.

Now, James illustrates his point. In verses 21 through 26, he
gives you three illustrations. Two of them are positive. Interestingly, one of
them is about a Jew and one is about a Gentile. Both of them are held up as
examples to us of what James wants us to do. Then, there’s a negative
illustration, a warning, and its a story about a corpse. And in this passage,
James basically shows us that Abraham and Rahab are examples of how real faith
and tangible works, go together.

In verses 21
through 23, he gives the first illustration. This is the story of Abraham
showing how real faith acts and works – and lives. Abraham had trusted in God.
He believed when God told him, “I will make you a great nation. I will make you
a father of nations. You will have as many descendants as the stars in the sky,
and the sand on the sea shore.” Abraham really believed that, and God reckoned
it to him as righteousness. And then there came a day, in Genesis 22, when God
told him, “Now, Abraham, take the heir that I have identified to you as the heir
of the promise, and sacrifice him to Me.” And Abraham
said, “Yes, Lord.” And the author of Hebrews tells us that Abraham so believed
the promise of God that he believed that God would have raised Isaac from the
dead, if necessary, to fulfill his promise to him.

What had
happened? His faith had acted. His life reflected the reality of the faith that
he had in God. His actions flowed from the realness of the faith which he had in
God. In fact, we could render verse 21 of James, chapter two this way: “Our
father, Abraham’s faith in God was vindicated by his loving obedience to God
when he offered up Isaac.” You see, its not that Abraham was made righteous by
doing a work of sacrificing Isaac. It is not that Abraham was made righteous by
joining his faith to the work of offering Isaac. It is that Abraham had been
declared to be righteous by God, by faith, and that he had been shown to be,
proven to be, demonstrated to be, vindicated as a man after God’s own heart, as
a friend of God, as a believer of God, by acting on that faith.

Then in
verse 25, James tells the story of Rahab, a Gentile prostitute. She gives us a
picture of a woman whose actions were in accordance with her faith. She believed
the spies’ promise. The spies said “Shelter us, protect us, and we will spare
you and your family.” She believed that and what did she do? She acted on it.
She risked her life based on what she believed. And James says, “That’s what
faith does.” “It acts on what we believe.”

And then
there is the negative illustration, in verse 26. It’s the illustration of a
body. You look around in the pews and there is a breathing body, I hope! But
without that life force that body is dead and lifeless, a corpse, a cadaver.
James says that is what worthless faith is like. It shows you that there is no
life force to it. There is really no faith.

What is
James’ point? Saving faith is always accompanied by a life that acts in
accordance with saving faith. Our life must show that we mean what we say when
we say we believe. Our life must show that we mean what we say when we say we
believe. Do you love and live the word of God? Do you act in light of the fear
of God? Does your mercy to others reflect the grace of God to you? Do your
relationships reflect the love of God to you? Does your life reflect the desires
of God? James says, “Christian, your life must show that you mean what you say
when you say you believe.”

May God grant that to be true of every Christian here; and for those who
are not Christian, may He open their eyes to run to Him for newness of life.
Let’s pray.

Our Lord and our God. There is nothing hard to understand about this
passage, but when one is in denial, when one is self-deluded, when one has
fooled oneself into thinking that one is a Christian, and yet there are no
signs of life, it is easy to ignore, and even to misunderstand, the clear
teaching of this passage. Shake us awake from the sleep of death, to see the
truth. For those here today who are professing Christians, and yet do not truly
love and follow and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, use this word to bring
them to saving faith in Jesus. For those Christians here today who are in
significant quadrants of their lives, not living in accordance with the
standards of this calling, shake them; shake them, and cause them to pursue
after growth in grace by Your Holy Spirit as they have never done so before. And
in all these things, glorify Yourself. Amen

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