Faith & Works
February 14, 2021
There’s an old article from Reader’s Digest long ago that described that when glass skyscrapers were first built and popularized in the 1950’s, a number of office workers at the time were scared of working in offices that were so far above the ground, as the idea of a glass barrier being the only thing between them and a deathly fall was simply too unfamiliar and just too close for comfort. In fact, as the story goes, for many employees the fear and worry was so great that people couldn’t concentrate or focus on their work. And so the employer called up the building manager and explained the situation to them, and so the building manager came up and told the employees about the design of the frame and thickness of the glass, he explained how it could hold so much stress and even gave an example. But yet, the employees were still nervous. And so, later on the building manager brought up a structural engineer who explained it all again – the frame and thickness of the glass, how much stress it could take, but yet even still, the employees did not feel comfortable looking down all that distance. And at this point the engineer had an idea. He called everyone to stand near the inside wall, far away from the glass. He stepped back, and then ran full speed toward the glass wall, hit it with all his weight, and bounced right off. He was fine! And once the employees saw that, that was all they needed to see. If the glass barrier was unphased by a man charging into it at full speed, and more importantly, if the engineer himself was so confident in the design and construction and glass’s ability to withstand him, so confident that he was willing to bet his whole life on its stability, then they too could trust in it too. And so all the employees went back to work and their concern was never mentioned again.
This morning we continue on in our sermon series on the New Testament book of James, and in our passage that was just read James wants to help us get a better understanding of the respective roles and importance of faith and works in the Christian life. That is, James wants us as his readers to gain a deeper understanding between the respective roles and importance of our faith (what we believe) and our works (what we do) for us as followers of Jesus.
Now, briefly here, consider once again the skyscraper story, and the two men central to the story, the building manager and the structural engineer. Which of the two men, would you say showed faith and which of the two men displayed works? On one hand, it might be easy to conclude that the building manager who tried to educate the employees was the one who had faith and the structural engineer was the one who had works. But in reality, that isn’t quite right. After all, why was the structural engineer willing to run full speed into the glass? Well, of course, it’s because he believed, he had faith that the glass would hold him. In other words, his works were a reflection of his faith. The structural engineer had an active and living faith in what was created that naturally led to the action he took.
And that is in many ways, the argument that James is making here in our passage today. Faith and works, as it pertains to the Christian life, are not an either/or but rather a both/and. One naturally leads to the other. Active, living faith ought to naturally produce good works from us.
And that just as the engineer was willing to throw his whole life against the glass wall, that we too would throw our whole lives into living out the truths and implications of our faith and what we believe. That our faith in Christ, wouldn’t be something we only believe in our minds and through words that we speak, but even more that it would be reflected in our actions and obedience and our everyday lives.
Now, when it comes to our passage today, James has a particular emphasis or point he wants to make when it comes the respective roles and importance of our faith (what we believe) and our works (what we do) for us as followers of Jesus. You’ll notice in the argument that he’s making that he particularly wants them to see the importance of works in the Christian life and to warn them about the dangers of a kind of false and counterfeit faith, one that claims to believe but does not naturally produce good works from it.
James begins by saying, 14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?
It’s a rhetorical question and the answer he’s driving towards is that a person who claims to have faith but does not have works has a false, counterfeit kind of faith.
Later on, he’ll say things like, 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead and later he’ll finish this passage by reiterating that same point by saying, 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.
James is putting things so strongly and bluntly because he’s speaking those who had a false sense of assurance and confidence in their faith in Christ. For James, his audience had a tendency to put too much emphasis on the importance of faith in the life of a Christian, which meant they often failed to produce good works, they often failed to meaningfully connect the dots or draw the proper implications between what they believed and how they lived, which gave them a false sense of assurance and confidence in their relationship with God. And so what they needed to hear was, faith alone, as an abstract concept is not enough, it must be accompanied by good works, it must express itself in everyday life, and that faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
Maybe the simplest way to make sense of the relationship between faith and works is to look back on something James previously said in chapter 1, when he said, welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
Notice what he’s saying here, that it’s when we welcome with meekness the Word of God, and therefore when we have faith in Christ, that’s what has the power to save our souls. Faith that is born from the Word of God has that power, but yet, notice, how he describes the Word of God as something that implanted within us. Here we get the word picture that brings this all together – that true faith is like a seed that is alive, and what does a healthy seed do? It grows, it flourishes and produces good fruit. Or in other words, it naturally produces and overflows into good works.
And that’s in part, how James can say that “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” Living, active faith naturally produces good works from within.
And to bring his point home, James makes 4 arguments, or maybe we could even say, uses 4 case studies to illustrate why true faith ought to naturally produce good works within us and in doing so, also highlighting the glaring problems and weaknesses of a false, counterfeit kind of faith that claims to have faith, but yet has no works. We’ll briefly look at the first two case studies and how they contribute to the central argument James is making.
In the first case study, James shows how faith without works is empty and useless when it comes to loving and serving our neighbors in need. Saying,
15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?
James is saying, there are real people out there, with real, tangible needs, who need more than simply your kind words of faith and saying things like “Go in peace” they need things like a cup of soup and a warm place to sleep at night. What is the good or benefit of our faith, James is saying, if our faith does not lead us towards loving and serving a brother or sister in Christ or a neighbor in need if it doesn’t compel us or motivate us to meet their physical, tangible needs?
In this first case study, James shows us that faith without works is empty and useless when it comes to loving and serving our neighbors in need.
In the second, James shows us the limitations of another kind of counterfeit faith, one that is simply about believing the right things. He says this,
19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder.
Here’s James highlights the importance of believing the right things, for example the truth that God is one – or as we describe the Trinity today, that we believe that there is one God who exists as three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And James says, that if we believe that, good! But yet simply believing the right things is not enough. In fact, James makes this point by insinuating that if our faith in God is simply believing true things about him, then that puts us in good company with yes, demons. That even the demons, who’s hearts are far from God, believe true things about God. Here again, James point is that this counterfeit kind of faith that is not enough. And it’s a stark reminder, that for you and me our faith has to be more than just what we believe. It has to go deeper than, “I believe in God, I believe in Jesus, I believe in the bible.” Rather, it must naturally produce good works from within.
Now, all that said, let’s drive towards some more specific application. How might you and I better connect the dots between faith and works in our daily lives and what might this look like for our faith in Christ to naturally produce good works in our everyday lives?
Pastors Tim Chester and Jeff Vanderstelt, through their writings, have been incredibly helpful for me in connecting the dots between our faith and our works.
For example, if we truly believe that God is great, then we don’t have to be in control. If we believe that God is great, that he is in control, then we can trust him and be free from the need to take control or manipulate situations. On the other hand, if we feel anxious or have an urge to take control, it is likely because we have believed the lie that God is not great – that he’s not really powerful and in control – so that we have to be instead.
Or take for example how we respond to criticism. If we truly believe that we are right with God through faith alone and what Jesus did for us on the cross, and therefore if we have an unshakeable identity, where we are loved and cherished by God the Father no matter what, then we can respond to criticism charitably, not as an affront to our very identity or character, but simply for what it often is, direction on how we can grow as individuals.
Here’s a story from everyday life:
One of the first stories I shared with you roughly a couple years ago was about a church small group, a group of Christian families from a church I knew of in the Seattle area, and as a group, they were seeking for a way in which they could live out their faith, a way in which they could be a blessing to their community, and bring Jesus’s light and love to those around them. And so they decided to make their local middle school football team their mission field of sorts, the people they wanted to prioritize serving. After all, many of these families had sons who were a a part of the team and they thought it would be a natural place to build relationships and serve their community. After practice one week their small group decided to provide a meal for the whole team – coaches, players and their families – a simple way to serve families who are on the go. Any parent and family can see the value of this, with families racing from school to sports practice to wherever else, providing a meal was a simple way to bless these families. And as they were providing dinner, one of the moms came up to one the dads, who was a part of this small group and asked him, “Why are you doing this? Like, why go to all this effort, like who does this?” And though she didn’t have the language for it, using the lens of our passage from James this morning, you can see what she’s asking, that is, “What’s the reason, what are your beliefs, your convictions, your motives, your faith, that’s driving your actions? This good work you’re doing, what’s the faith behind it.”
And this dad said, “We believe that God wants to bring rest to weary people and feed hungry people and so we wanted to give you a taste, a glimpse of what this God is like.”
That is, a faith in God that naturally produces, that overflows itself, into good works.
As James says, I by my works will show you my faith.
I’ll finish with this, James concludes this section on faith and works, by reminding us of two positive examples using key figures from the Old Testament. Two people whose faith was lived out and through their lives and actions naturally produced good works.
And these two people James chooses to highlight could not have been more different. Where on one hand, he points us to Abraham, the father of the Jews, one of the central characters in Israel’s history. And yet, in addition, he also points us to Rahab, a foreigner, a woman, and a prostitute as James reminds us.
But yet both had a living and active and abiding faith, one that naturally produces good works.
With Abraham, as we’re told believed God that he would one day have a son, and then years later God asked Abraham to sacrifice his one and only son whom he loved, because he had a deep and abiding faith and trust in God, one that compelled him to obey God, trusting that God was good, even when it didn’t make sense to him.
With Rahab, when Israelites came to her hometown in Caanan, she hid them in their home, protecting them from the king of the Caananites who sought to see them killed. Rahab risked her own life and sided with the people of Israel rather than her own to protect the spies from their likely death.
Both Abraham and Rahab, two people with very little in common, had a living and active and abiding faith, one that naturally produces good works.
It’s a reminder that anyone and everyone can come to a living and active faith in Jesus Christ, one that naturally produces good works.
So friends, welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
Yet never forget, God wants to use his word and your faith to bear good fruit and spring forth good works through you.