The Standard July 15, 2021
It is uncanny how often the biblical text for a sermon ends up being the same as the focus of a Bible Study or devotional from the previous week. For me last Sunday it was a Sunday School lesson from the Epistle of James and a sermon by our daughter’s pastor. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their 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 my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” (James 2:14-19)
Genuine faith must spark some kind of action. It has to be more than simply an intellectual assent. James points out that even the demons acknowledge the fact that God is one. More than that, this truth causes them to shudder or tremble. Shouldn’t those who profess belief in Christ react more than demons do? Believing correct doctrine but failing to act according to it is useless for that believer. The product of having an empty, barren faith is the same as having no faith at all.
Does this letter of James stand at odds with the letters of Paul? Is James suggesting, contrary to what Paul writes repeatedly, that justification is not by faith? Absolutely not. James gives us one of the most practical letters for everyday Christian living. In a down-to-earth and direct way, he describes commonplace situations and how to live like Jesus in them, because of our vibrant, living faith.
Pastor Brian Hedges preached, “The gospel is implicit in James. James believed the gospel. He’d been changed because he’d seen his brother, Jesus of Nazareth, who’d been crucified. He had seen him raised from the dead, and it had utterly changed him. It had utterly transformed his life. Throughout this letter the gospel is assumed. The gospel is implicit, and there are times where it just kind of bleeds out of James. James talks about God’s grace. He reminds us that God gives more grace and he gives grace to the humble. He talks about God who is the Father of lights and how every good and perfect gift comes down from him and how we’ve been brought into new life through the word of truth, through the gospel. So, it’s there. The gospel is there. The grace is there, but it’s not the primary focus in James. James is a practical writer, and he writes with something of an in-your-face, kind of proverbial in-your-face approach, where he’s constantly just pressing home to our hearts the implications of genuine faith, and he wants us to have a real faith. He wants us to have a whole faith.”
As followers of our Lord Jesus Christ, we understand this tension between knowing that we are made right with God by grace through faith alone yet being compelled to act on this faith. God does not accept us because of our good works. We live out our faith, but not in an effort to earn God’s love. Pastor Brian Hedges pointed out in a 2018 sermon how Martin Luther used to say the church was like a drunken peasant, continually climbing up on a donkey, only to fall off on one side, get back up and fall off on the other side. This back-and-forth is the tug between legalism or worldliness—self-righteousness or unrighteousness. The church father Tertullian said that just as Christ was crucified between two thieves, so the gospel was. He referred to the thieves of legalism and license.
An impotent faith in effect is no faith at all. We Christians need constant reminders that true, life-giving faith is what brings us into communion with God because of his grace and mercy. What naturally follows is us serving and obeying God as an outgrowth of that faith.