The Gospel for the Rest of Us: Help for Hypocrites

Sermon by Gabe Fluhrer on December 31, 2016

James 2:20-26

Download Audio


As you’re being seated please turn with me in your Bibles to the book of James. We continue our study of this wonderful New Testament book this evening. You’ll find our passage on page 1012 if you’re using a pew Bible. We’ll be studying verses 20 to 26 of James chapter 2. James 2:20-26. Before we listen to God’s Word, let’s pray together.


Father, our great need this evening only You can meet. We need that wonderful ministry of the Holy Spirit to illuminate the Word He inspired. Please do so now, and may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, You who are our Rock and our Redeemer. For we ask it all in Jesus’ name, amen.


James 2, beginning at verse 20. This is God’s Word:


“Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’ – and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.”


The grass withers, the flowers fall, but the Word of the living God shall stand forever and ever.


One of the great actors of the last generation that many of you will know is Robert Redford. He was one of those heart-throbs. Everybody loved him. And when he was at the peak of his success, he was noticed by a woman in a hotel lobby – and he was one of those guys who was voted “Best Looking Man Alive” like twenty-six times or something like that – and she saw him and kind of breathlessly lost herself and ran over to him and startled, asked him, “Are you the real Robert Redford?” And his answer was simple but so profoundly insightful. He said a few simple words to her. He said, “Only when I am alone.” “Are you the real Robert Redford?” He said, “Only when I am alone.”


All of us struggle to put into words what Robert Redford gave voice to, and that is this – there’s the real “us.” The “us” when we are alone, and there’s the “us” that everybody sees, and between those two there is usually a wide gap. And that is especially true when it comes to our faith – who we are before God versus who we are before a watching world. There’s usually a large gap. We have a word for that in our language. It’s called hypocrisy. And James offers us help for hypocrites tonight. Help for those of us who struggle with that gap of who we are really before God, what we are truly, and what we profess to believe outwardly.


The “Supposed” Contradiction Between James and Paul

Now we’re here in James 2 and we’re finishing it up tonight. This is the center of this book and two words summarize the message of the book of James – genuine faith. James usually gets a bad rap, we’ve talked about this, for being the New Testament book that’s all about works. Well, he has a lot to say to us about works, but his primary emphasis is faith. “What is genuine faith? What does it look like?” This is the very center of his message that we have before us tonight. And off the bat, we need to deal with the supposed contradiction between James and Paul. If you know anything about church history, the battle cry of the Reformation was “justification by faith alone.” That we are declared righteous; that’s what that word “justification” means. It means God declares us righteous apart from anything we do, by faith and faith alone, in Jesus. And the Catholic opponents of the Reformation were quick to point out James 2:24. They said, “We have a simple, irrefutable answer to your battle cry of justification by faith alone. James 2:24 says, ‘You see a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.’ And there seems to be a clear contradiction.” And if you pick up any book that critiques Christianity and they want to point out all the errors in the Bible, this will be on the Top-Ten Greatest Hits of supposed errors in the Bible.


The Word “Justified” Used in Two Different Senses

I want to give you three reasons why James and Paul do not contradict each other, right off the bat, so we can really get into the text here in a moment. First, James and Paul are using the word “justified” in two different senses. James is using it in the sense of “demonstrate or show.” Jesus uses it the same way in Matthew’s gospel. He says, “Wisdom is justified by her children.” Now Jesus doesn’t mean wisdom is declared righteous by her children. He simply means that wisdom is proved by her fruits. That’s the way James is using the term. Paul is using the term “justification” in the sense that I mentioned before – “to declare righteous.” It’s a courtroom term. So, Paul, it’s, “declare righteous;” for James it’s, “to show or demonstrate one is righteous” or one’s faith.


Two Totally Different Audiences

The second reason is this. Paul and James wrote to two totally different audiences. Paul was largely dealing with pagan people who had no idea about the Jewish God. James by contrast, as we saw at the beginning of our studies in chapter 1, is writing to a predominately Jewish audience who had all the right knowledge about God and there was a big disconnect; that hypocrisy gap we talked about.


Only One Relationship Between Faith and Works

So two different audiences, two different senses of the word, and finally it’s important to note that James and Paul teach precisely the same relationship between faith and works. The other epistle besides the book of Romans is the book of Ephesians that we turn to when we want to talk about Paul and his doctrine of grace. And when you come to one of the best-loved Bible verses on salvation, Ephesians 2:8, the whole verses, verses 8 through 10, read like this. “For by grace, you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship in Christ Jesus, created to walk in good works which he prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” So both Paul and James teach that good works are not the basis for our relationship with God. They are the necessary result of a relationship with God, of a right relationship with God. They are not the basis for it; they are the necessary result of it. So they teach precisely the same thing. So there are three reasons why James and Paul do not contradict each other.


Let’s get back to James 2 here. The main point of our text this evening is this – James offers help for hypocrites like us by showing us what a faith without hypocrisy before God and others looks like. He offers help for hypocrites like us by showing us what genuine faith without hypocrisy towards God and others looks like. And we’ll look at this text under two headings. Genuine faith toward God, verses 20 to 24, and then genuine faith lived out before others, verses 25 and 26. Genuine faith toward God, 20 to 24; genuine faith lived out before others, 25 to 26.


Genuine Faith Toward God


Now James begins here in verse 20 with a play-on-words. Literally, it reads, “Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works doesn’t work?” That’s how he reads it. And he answers his question this way, with an example that would have been familiar to his audience. He goes back to Abraham, the father of the Jewish people. He says that if you’ve got all of this orthodox theology and you think that’s enough and you think that’s genuine faith, let’s go back and look at the father of our religion. And let’s think about that for just one second. Remember what happens in Genesis 15. It tells us so clearly. “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness.” Paul uses the same example in Romans chapter 4 when he wants to teach us about that doctrine of justification by faith alone. James goes to the same place. Now between Genesis 15 and Genesis 22 where James is going to make a big deal about Abraham offering up Isaac, between those seven chapters is forty years; forty years from the time that Abraham is declared righteous by faith and by faith alone and given that great promise that he would be the father of a multitude of nations. Forty years, four long decades, when there was not a single hint of a fulfillment of that promise. By faith, for four decades, Abraham had to walk childless. And his name meant, “father of a multitude.”


The Faith of Abraham

Imagine being Abraham going down to the local middle eastern bizarre to buy your groceries and, “What’s your name, my friend?” “Abraham.” “Oh, father of multitude! Where are your kids?” He had none. For forty years he walked by faith and not by sight. And then he’s given the child of promise, Isaac. And then that awful command where God says to him, “Take your only son, Isaac, bind him, go up on the mountain, offer him.” And Abraham obeys. And it’s so important to note how he obeys. He says to the servants, “We,” not I, “We will return.” And the author of Hebrews picks up on that in Hebrews 11 and verse 19 and says that Abraham believed God could even bring Isaac back from the dead. And if you’re familiar with the story, you know what happens. He takes the knife; God says, “It never entered my mind to have you sacrifice your son. I was testing you. You’ve proven yourself faithful. Your faith is real.” But the point James is making is that real faith receives and acts on God’s Word, even when it’s all that it has to go on.


And that’s so unpopular today, isn’t it? We live in an age of doubt and skepticism. It is the chief virtue today to doubt any claim to authority. And let me make two simple, quick points about doubt; if that’s where you are tonight. Maybe you doubt these things. You doubt God’s Word. You say, “It’s just not true; it’s not for me.” When you doubt God’s Word, you are simultaneously believing something else to be rock solid and true without a doubt. You cannot be a total skeptic. Nobody can live consistently with that! Believe me, it’s been tried in the history of philosophy. To doubt one thing, you have to be certain about something else. So whatever you’re doubting – if it’s God’s Word tonight, if it’s Jesus’ truthfulness – you are 100% certain about something else. And my simple question to you would be “Why trust that instead of Jesus?”


Doubt Leads to Disobedience

And the second thing to note about doubt, more specifically to this text, is this – when we doubt, doubt leads to disobedience. It leads to inaction. Abraham is the polar opposite of that. He had nothing, nothing but God’s Word to go on, and he obeys immediately. And that’s why he’s commended here before us. And his act is what James holds up. He says he offers up Isaac. You see that “his faith was active along with his works,” verse 22, and his faith was “completed by his works.” That word for “completed” there comes from the Greek word James has used already in this epistle when he talked about being complete, being mature in chapter 1. And James is so focused on us being whole people. He wants us to be people who lead integrated, not fractured lives. He wants us to bridge that hypocrisy gap. He’s going to tell us how, and we’ll get back to that at the end. And what his main point here for his Jewish audience is, and for us, is this – simple, orthodox theology, if it never leads to a life of doxology, which is shown in good works, is really no right theology at all.


And isn’t that the case so oftentimes in our circles? I remember not being a Christian and saying, “I don’t want any part with Christians because they’re a bunch of hypocrites.” Haven’t we heard that critique? Now here’s the thing I say on the other side of things when I hear that. If I hear somebody say, “Well I don’t want to be around Christians. They’re nothing but a bunch of hypocrites,” I’ll say, “Well come on, we need one more!” There’s a bit of self-righteousness there, isn’t there, when we say, “Everybody else is a hypocrite but me.” No, all of us are! And James is saying if you profess all the right beliefs, if you’ve read every R. C. Sproul book, if you know all the catechism by heart, if you’ve sat under the sound preaching and teaching of the Word for decades and it has led to zero change in your life and you are a Christian simply with your lips and not in your heart and not by your actions, he says that faith cannot and will not save you. It’s no good. It’s faith without works that doesn’t work. It’s a faith that leads to a life that isn’t whole; that isn’t complete. That’s what he tells us.


Not by Our Works

And that’s why he ends there in verse 24 in this section. He says, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” And here’s his point! His point is not, “You get a right relationship with God by working really hard.” That’s not it! He’s saying that when we have real faith – and the faith he’s told us that is real faith comes from God. Remember in chapter 1 he says, “Receive with meekness the implanted word which is able to save your souls. Of his own will,” talking about God, “he brought us forth.” It’s totally God’s sovereign action; it’s not our works. But if that has happened to you, it will change you. It will not fail to produce good works in your life. It’s so vital, my friends, for us to understand this correct relationship between faith and works. The Gospel hangs on this. If we misunderstand this relationship, if we get it out of balance, we will lose the Gospel. And the simple teaching of James is this – if you have trusted in Jesus alone and you are born again by the Holy Spirit, it will not fail to produce good works in your life, no matter how small. Notice he doesn’t give us a measuring stick here and say, “If you’ve got X-number of good works then you’re justified.” He just says, “Here’s the natural result of being born again.”

And so the urgent question for us tonight is – “Do our lives show what we profess to believe? Is there any evidence that when we say, ‘I’m a Christian,’ that that claim is true? Is all our right theology leading to a life of doxology, of praise, of good works, of love towards God, of a deeper relationship with Him? Or are we Christians in name and by profession only?” That is a hard question to ask ourselves. That is a stinging question; it’s a penetrating question. It’s the question James asks us.


Genuine Faith is Lived Out Before Others


The second thing, and finally, genuine faith is lived out before others. Look at verse 25. “And in the same way, was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body apart from the Spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” See what James is saying? Genuine faith not only is focused on God, it not only has this God-ward element, it is lived out before others. And he uses this amazing example of a Gentile prostitute and says, “In the same way.” Now think about that. “In the same way” as what, James? In the same way as Abraham’s faith! Wait a minute, the founder of our people has the same kind of faith as a Gentile prostitute? Yes! And even more amazingly, Rahab had none of the theological knowledge that James’ audience had. She simply knew, if you go back to Joshua chapter 2 when she’s in the city of Jericho, she knew and had heard about this great God who had delivered these people who were coming and by faith, she said, “Come and stay with me; just spare my household. Spare my household when you come to take this city.”


The Example of Rahab

And here’s the point that James is making. That genuine faith that Rahab had acted on partial knowledge. She had no Ph.D. in theology. She couldn’t have probably made it through some of our catechism classes, friends. And all she had she acted on. That’s the point. Never underestimate what a small act of obedience, done with whatever knowledge you have, can produce. Look at what happened with Rahab. Her actions affected her family and through her family, we’ll talk about this more in a second, the lineage of Jesus! Her obedience has ramifications for us today as those who profess the name of Christ! Never underestimate what a small, simple act of obedience done in faith to Jesus can produce. That’s why James gives us the example of Rahab.


And then in verse 26, both Paul and James like to use the metaphor of a body for our lives as Christians. Paul tells us that prior to conversion we’re dead in our trespasses and sins, Ephesians 2:1. James says if we profess after conversion, after we claim to be converted to be Christians and there are no good works, we’re like a corpse. He says it’s that simple. We’re like a dead body if we say we have faith and there are no works to produce evidence. Put another way, here’s what James is saying. Do not treat Jesus like an extra activity in an already full schedule. If that’s how you look at Jesus, as something else to get checked off – to make sure we have the right beliefs, that we’ve said the right things, we’ve professed the right things – if He is a nice addition to your life then He is not your life. And it’s only when Jesus is our lives, the very center of them, that this verse will be null and void for us. And that’s why James is always dealing with our hearts. If we have Jesus at the center of our lives, everything else falls into orbit; everything else falls into place. We will begin to live out what we profess to believe.


We are Justified by the Works of Jesus Christ

So there’s a real urgency here. The urgency is this – you and I both have to admit tonight we are, all of us, hypocrites. We have said, “I am a Christian,” and we have betrayed that profession of faith. Guilty, guilty, guilty, all of us. And so the question becomes the title of our sermon. Is there help for us in this urgent situation? Here’s the help. Here’s what Jesus offers us. At the heart of this passage and of the whole Bible is the teaching that, to be sure, we are justified, we are declared righteous in God’s sight by works and by works alone. We are justified by works alone. The works of Jesus Christ, not ours. It is His works; they are what save us. That is what brings us into right standing with God – His perfect law-keeping in our place; His perfect covering of our hypocrisy. He is the one who led a whole life and never had any hypocrisy in anything He did. His works save us. To put it as compactly as I can, we are justified by the works of Jesus and we justify the work of Jesus in us by our good works. That’s the relationship James is after. We are justified, declared righteous in God’s sight by what Jesus has done, and that perfect law keeping is given to us. We are justified by the works of Jesus and we show, we demonstrate that we are His by the good works that we perform. That’s the relationship between faith and works.


And notice that the two examples here in this text give us the Gospel so clearly. Abraham is called to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah where the temple would be built, where for generations sacrifice after sacrifice would smoke on those altars declaring the holiness of God, the inexorable holiness of God; the holiness of God that made no errors, that admitted no curves on the grading scale, and at every point saying, “By faith in a substitute that is coming, you can be saved and freed from your sin.” At that exact place where Abraham was to offer Isaac and God stayed his hand, my friends later, all that the temple pointed to the outside of the city walls, Jesus, the innocent Son of God, was killed. God did not stay His hand. Unlike Abraham, God did offer up His only Son, the Son of promise. And He has been raised again in resurrection power so that by faith in Him and by faith in His finished work and in the works He performed in His lifetime sinners and hypocrites like us can become whole people.


And then the example of Rahab. Aren’t you so glad she’s in the Bible? A Gentile prostitute – two strikes against her – in the lineage of the Messiah. Do you know how different that is from every other world religion? Do you realize that that would have been scratched out from the Quran? That would have been scratched out from the Bhagavad Gita? That would have been done away with in all these other ancient records because it was such an embarrassment and it’s celebrated in the gospels! And it tells us that if she can make it there’s hope for any of us! Those examples that James draws upon picture the work of Jesus for us.


What Keeps us From the Kind of Obedient Faith That James Commends?

So our deepest need tonight is for whole, integrated lives. And here’s the question – what keeps us from the kind of obedient faith James commends to us tonight, this kind of “full of good works faith,” that if you’re a Christian you want that? If you’re a Christian you say, “I’m so tired of being a hypocrite.” It’s a new year and we’ve made our resolutions and we already know, “I’m going to break them tomorrow!” What’s the biggest thing that keeps us from this kind of obedience? And the answer is fear. It is so hard to obey a God you can’t see, isn’t it? It’s so hard to do what Abraham did – to believe and act upon God’s Word. Or like Rahab did – to live out this faith when we’ve got nothing to go on except God’s Word. And it’s so much easier to stick to our habits of half-hearted discipleship, of following Jesus partially, of not being – and as a South Carolina fan I’m going to use this phrase – to be “all in,” to use the good Clemson phrase. What keeps us from being all in? Fear.


How Fear Leads to Hypocrisy

And how does fear lead to hypocrisy? Fear, instead of obedient faith, allows us to admire Jesus without really following Him. Isn’t that a problem in your life? It sure is in mine. I find myself so often more an admirer than a follower of Jesus. But remember His words, “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord,’ and do not do the things I say?” He says, “Fear not.” Fear not. That’s His favorite injunction. “Don’t do this.” His favorite, “Don’t do this” phrase is, “Do not fear.” Here’s what Jesus offers for hypocrites like us. The deep assurance that no matter where you start on the joyful road of obedience, He will meet you where you are. That is better than any New Year’s resolution. When you get up tomorrow and – no sugar, no carbs – for me, that’s going to last until noon! When you do those resolutions and they fall flat on their face, the one thing that will never fail is if you say, “Lord, I don’t know much and I have been a hypocrite, but I want to start following You right now where I am,” you have the deepest assurance from pastor James here that Jesus will meet you right where you are. That’s the greatest news about obedience.


And that goes back to our deep need for integrated lives. We want to be whole people. We want that gap bridged, but hypocrites can’t help hypocrites. Only Jesus can do that. Only the fully integrated God-Man can make us whole people. And it’s only by faith in His Gospel and in His work that we become the kind of people who wholly trust Him and wholly follow Him and He’s at work right now to make us do that.


Is it Worth it?

Final question – is it worth it? Is it worth it? What are the stakes here? And if you go back to the opening of this section, back there in verse 13, “For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy” – what are the stakes here? Judgment. God’s judgment upon all those who don’t really belong to Jesus. Obedience costs us. That’s what James is saying. Anytime we obey it costs. It cost Abraham; it cost Rahab. It costs us. Is it worth it? Friends, here’s one thing to think about as a new year begins – this may be your last year. Not to be doom and gloom; not trying to cast a pall over 2017, but here is real life set before us this evening. This may be your last year here and then you have to face the Judge of all the earth and He is not going to care how much you made, what you drove, where you lived, where you vacationed, what your kids did. All that’s going to matter is was your trust in Jesus and did that show itself in your life. The stakes could not be higher. And on a personal level for 2017, aren’t you tired of being a hypocrite? I am. I’m tired of having to look in the mirror and see the biggest hypocrite I know. And Jesus offers help for people like us tonight to make us whole people.


It reminds me of a story that I read recently about Yanez-Ruiz who was a shoemaker in Nazi Germany. And in order to try to work his way up and gain more business and gain a reputation for himself he attended all the pro-Nazi rallies, a vocal supporter of the party, a vocal supporter of the Final Solution. And when the regime fell, when Nazi Germany fell, he became paralyzed with fear. He fled to Slovenia to his sister’s barn where he lived for the next thirty-two years only seeing his sister and her immediate family. He wouldn’t even attend his own mother’s funeral. He was so ashamed of what he had done and so afraid of war crime accusations that would be brought against him that he hid in a barn for thirty-two years with very minimal contact. And one day there was a shipment delivered to the barn and a number of local townspeople caught him and he was overcome with grief and shame and loneliness. And here’s what he said to the reporters who were astonished that he had been living in isolation for thirty-two years. He said, “If I had not been discovered I would have remained in hiding, so I am happy that this happened.”

Do not let the fear, my friends, of the real you, who you and I are before God, do not let the fear of the real you being found out keep you hiding from Jesus. Instead, tonight be the kind of person, become the kind of person God made you to be. Admit your hypocrisy with me, trust totally in Jesus, come out of hiding, and rest in Him and let Him make your life whole.


Let’s pray together!


Father, tonight we are ashamed of our hypocrisy. We need more obedience. We need more good works. Would You prosper them in our lives this coming year and every year? Help us to come out of hiding. Help us to see that Your perfect love casts out all the fears we hypocrites have. Close that gap. In fact, erase us, erase that gap. Make the real “us” the “us” everyone else sees, in union with our resurrected Savior. We pray in His name. Amen.

© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.

To view recordings of our entire services, visit our Facebook page.

Print This Post