J. Gordon Duncan

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Family Devotion and Sermon Notes for James 2:14-17

Big Idea:  Faith without works is Dead

James 2:14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?

  • Should someone be concerned if they say they have faith in Jesus but they don’t have any desire to evidence of obeying?
  • How does Romans 6:17-18 encourage us to obedience?
  • Give an example of a place where you desire to obey and a place where you have seen God help you obey?

 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 

  •  Why do you think James uses the example of showing mercy as evidence of having a saving faith?
  • Why is just wishing people well not an act of genuine faith?
  • How did Jesus do more for us than just wish us well?

17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

  •  Pray with your parents for an assurance of faith and the opportunity to demonstrate to others in need.

This week, the Book of James is so blunt, it is scary.  He is so straightforward and his clarity is meant to cause each and every one of us to examine our hearts.  James is going to tell you and me that the faith we have in Jesus Christ is a guarantee that we will be changed.  Having faith in Jesus is so life-changing that you will be completely different after professing faith in Him.  You will become more Godly if you have faith in Jesus, and if you do not see that change in your life, you have a real reason to examine your heart to see if you actually have a life changing faith or not.

Now this kind of conversation is incredibly dangerous while simultaneously being incredibly true.  Let me explain the dangerous part.  Christians loves to beat up other Christians and we like to use language like, “Don’t be a fake Christian” or “Be the same Christian out that you are at home”.  And though I do encourage us all to be the same person out and about that we are at home, often that kind language is used by scared parents to control their kids or it used by the  self-righteous to make other people feel bad.  Instead, the truth that real faith causes real change should be a cause for hope.

Biblically, we see tons of examples of that change.  Moses from murderer to leader.  Paul from murderer to missionary.  Peter from arrogance to preacher.  And there are tons of other examples both biblically and there should be those around us in the day to day as well.

Your faith in Jesus’ goodness is a promise that He will gradually and continually conform your life to look like His.  That’s what salvation is.  It is not just, “forgive me.”  It is “change me.”  If we are struggling with a temptation or a sin, don’t think, “Oh no.  I’m not a Christian.”  Instead think, “There is a real, promised hope from God that I am going to grow in trusting Jesus and overcome this sin.  I have a real and lasting hope.”  Getting to that point though is hard.  And not struggling with or abusing people with self-righteousness ain’t easy either, so let’s walk gently, but trust God in great faith.  Towards that end, we are going to pursue this Big Idea this week.  Big Idea:  Faith without works is Dead

James 1:14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?  17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

As always, we need to be reminded of where these verses fall in the overall context of James teaching.  Last week, we looked at two commands that were circling around the idea of what pure, undefiled religion and worship look like.  James has been telling us that the religion that God accepts is demonstrating mercy in the midst of a sinful world and doing it without compromising Biblical convictions.

James reiterates the teaching of Jesus in that and tells us, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  And if we respond with a host of reasons why we don’t do that, reasons like, “I’m not a gifted evangelist” or “I’m an introvert” or “I’m focusing on my kids right now” or “I’ve pulled my time already”   James tells us this:  Mercy triumphs over judgment.  Mercy triumphed over judgment when you were forgiven and you should get over yourself and all the rationalizations that you give for not obeying God and show mercy to the people that you otherwise are judging with your silence and inactivity.  So that brings us to verse 14.

14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?

Well, what good is it?  Is your “faith” any good at all if you aren’t activiely transformed and obeying God?  James says, “Nope, it’s no good at all”.  You see, this is the point and the conversation that I have had a million times and I’m going to have it a million more in the town of Garner.  The scriptures tell us that apart from faith in Jesus Christ, we are dead in sin and a slave to to sin.

This is vividly demonstrated for us in the book of Romans:  Romans 7:5 For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.  6 But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.

Romans 6:17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.

The promise of scripture of the life that has faith in Jesus is that before faith, you and I were a slave to sin.  Our will was given over to our self and our desires and our desires were sinful.  But now through Jesus Christ, we serve in the power of the Spirit and are a slave to goodness, rightreousness and obddience.  Our will is to do the will of our father in heaven.

If you have faith in Jesus Christ, your will is to do the will of your father in heaven and a promised transformation is to take pace.  The Holy Spirit indwells, transforms, and enables the followers of Christ to obey.  If YOU have faith in Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit indwells, transforms, and enables the followers of Christ to obey.  If that work is not taking place, then the Holy Spirit is not indwelling, is not transforming, and not enabling you to obey.

This is both a proof and a promise.  Let me explain.  The promised trasnformation of faith is proof that you are saved and it is a promise that God is going to work in your life to make your more like Jesus.  Notice what James asks, “Can a faith that doesn’t show evidence of change in a person’s life actually be a real, genuine faith?”  Rhetorically, the answer is, “No it can’t”.  Now, I’m going to be really, really carefully here because this has been one of the most messed up, mis-abused passages in all of the Bible.  Before we move into applying this passage in our own lives, I want us to be careful to understand how not to use.

So when I say that James declaration that proof of faith is works, here is what this passage is not saying.  James is not saying that you and I are supposed to walk around trying to decide who is and who is not a Christian by people’s works.  We are not the judges of the human heart.  God alone is.  The absolutely wrong thing for you and me to do here is to take this verse and say, “Well, they aren’t obeying enough or they aren’t Godly enough or they aren’t generous enough, so they aren’t Christians.”

Or more specifically, you hear about someone doing something and then you make your judgment.  So and so moved in with his boyfriend?  I always knew he wasn’t a Christian.  He got drunk?  Yep, I always knew.  You voted for Obama?  Oh, now everything makes sense.

The only thing that is proved when you have thoughts like that is that you are incredibly good at being judgmental.  This is going to be one of the things that we get right at SK.  We are not going to be the church on the corner that owns the moral microscope and uses it to burn the immoral ants that we deem as being unworthy of God’s grace.

When we read a passage like this one that says that a genuine faith in Jesus Christ must evidence itself in faithful works, the only inspection that is going to take place is introspection.  No judgment, no trolling, no gossip, no, “Did you hear?”  When we say that this passage shows us proof of salvation, we look into our own heart because that is the only one that you can assuredly know anything about.

If you have faith in Jesus Christ, you can look into your heart and see whether Jesus Christ is there making any difference or not.  Why can we do this?  Because 2 Corinthians 5:17 echoes this verse in James.  It says:  Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.  The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.

With Jesus, the old you is gone and the new you is present.  Let me give you a few examples or evidences that you can look for in your life, and though there are literally dozens of passages that will speak to how you will see change in your life when you have faith in Jesus, let me just focus on what is called the Fruit of the Sprit.  The Fruit of the Spirit is the promised work of what will happen in your heart when you have faith in Jesus and are empowered by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Galatians 6:22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23  gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

Ask yourself these questions about this promise made in scripture:  Do you evidence the fruit of the indwelling Spirit of God from Galatians?  Do you see in a way that was not evident before you became a Christian, genuine displays of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?  Do you see those qualities not only present where they once weren’t before knowing Christ but do you also see them gradually growing in your life?  According to James, do you see mercy and a desire to help others in need as a reflection of gentleness and love?  Do you see that your life is a movement towards making peace and not conflict?  Are you becoming more kind or more judgmental?  Do you see your heart turning more and more away from selfish desires and becoming more faithful the work of God’s kingdom?  When you see people in need, do you help, do you walk away, or do you flippantly say, “Go in peace and filled; I’ll pray for you”?

If you don’t see those qualities glaringly or you know God is working but you are wanting to see them grow, don’t worry, Philippians 1 tells us this:  6 And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.

This is one of those verses that we got to go into a bit more depth in at Sunday School and if you are attending SS, I’m telling you that you are missing out on a real opportunity to grow together as a church family and to grow closer to your Savior.  But the point James and Paul and Jesus all make is this:  if you have a genuine faith in Jesus Christ, you will be changed.  It might be slow.  It might be gradual.  But you will be growing in Christ-likeness.

Now this teaching of James is also a promise in addition to a proof.  If you are struggling with a sin, let’s say its masturbation or gossip or laziness or being judgmental or whatever your struggle with sin is, the promised work here is that God is going to work in you to help you grow in obedience.  We see this promise made vividly for us in 2 Thessalonians 2

But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. 14 To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.  16 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, 17 comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word

God has chosen you to be saved, has promised to sanctify you, which means God will make you more like Jesus, and those promises are intended to comfort your heart and establish you in every good work that God commanded.  The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all play a part in making sure that God’s children are transformed and enabled to obey.

That means when you begin to lose hope that you are ever going to change or when you lose hope that someone you love is ever going to change, the hope you have is only this:  Jesus in your promises to change you.  I would love for us to grow as a community in sharing this hope with others.  I would love for people we work with or our neighbors or anyone that we have contact with to think, “You know, I don’t have my questions answered about this whole Jesus think, but I see real change, a real difference in _______ and I want to know more about it.  In that, you are not offering self-righteousness or your goodness or your witness, none of that junk.  You are offering the hope that comes from knowing Jesus.  You can say, “I was this and now I’m that.  I was harsh judgmental B but I confess my sins to Jesus and he softened me.  I was an arrogant SOB, and Jesus is humbling me.  I had no hope but now I have hope.

As we move back to the text in James, he also gives us an example to what that promised transformation should look like.

15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?

Now, there are a hosts of evidences to show that the Holy Spirit is working in the heart of a believer.  I mean, James could talk about how you now obey scripture in a host of ways now that you know Jesus Christ.  He could tell us how you quit getting drunk every weekend.  He could tell us how you quit looking at porn.  He could tell us how you quit gossiping.  He could tell us how you now read your Bible, pray, and teach your children about your faith.  And all of those would be good proofs to show that the Holy Spirit is working in your heart and changing you and transforming you.

But that is not the evidence that James uses.  As has been his theme for the past few verses, James uses mercy as proof that the Holy Spirit is working in your life.  And if you wonder why, like I do that James chose this example, I can only speculate but here is my two cents.  Showing mercy is harder than stopping gossip, quitting porn, and quitting getting drunk.

If God can change you to actually love others, then God can do anything and that is exactly what God has promised to do in you.  He says, Listen, if you know of a brother or sister in need and you just wish them well but don’t actually do anything to help them, what good is that?  Now notice, he says “Poorly clothed and lacking food” – if they don’t have a coat for the winter or their kids don’t have the clothes they need or if they are hurting trying to feed everyone.  If you just wish them well, what good is your faith?   Will that faith save?  Nope.

You see, James just got done telling us that it is a sin if we show favoritism or partiality to the wealthy.  Ignoring the physical needs of others is by default showing favoritism to the wealthy.  Ignoring the physical needs of others is by default saying to the needy “buck up little camper improve your lot in life and be like me or be like them”

And what James really can’t stand is superficial Christian responses to those in need.  Oh go and be well or in our vernacular “Ok I’ll be praying for you”  Forgive my cynicism but I bet more words are uttered in promising to pray than actual words of prayer are offered to God.  What James is telling us is this:  If you know Jesus, if you have faith in Jesus, you are going to move that faith into action to those in need.

This kind of teaching typically illicits a couple of responses and what I mean is this:  when a person hears this kind of teaching, one of two things typically happens.  You can either go to a church where nothing like this is demanded of you.  Actively caring for those in need is only talked about but not really expected.  And there a million churches just like that on pretty much every corner of Garner and the world.  That is not nor will it be this church btw.  The scriptures command that our faith be expressed in obedience, specifically in areas of showing mercy to those in need and that has been the expectation here, it is now, and it is going to be going forward.  Another response is you can just check out and say “I don’t want anything to do with that at all.”  If that is what expected of me, forget it.  I work hard for my money, I’ve made good decisions, and I’m not going to go munk in the life of people who are a mess.  Make better decisions like I did.   And to be honest, that response, checking out, shows more integrity than just pretending to be Godly while not being merciful.

What we pray for is that when we hear James telling us that genuine faith must result in obedience, specifically to those in need, we pray that God would help us respond with hearts that know mercy and grace and therefore want to show mercy and grace.  You know why?  You know why we pray for the response of mercy and grace?  Verse 17 tells us

17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

James is telling you that you are saved by faith alone but that faith will never be alone.  Your faith in Jesus will transform you and as a result you will obey and do good works.  Remember, faith in Jesus is not just crying “Forgive me.”  Faith in Jesus is crying out, “Change me.”  “Get in the middle of life, messed it up and make it what you will.”  And one of the things that God promises to do is to move you towards good works that are beyond self-serving and are an extending of grace and mercy to those in need just like when grace and mercy were extended to you when you were in need.

Gang, when confess faith in Christ, some things become instantly clear.  We are convicted of sin like we have never been before.   We begin to see that our lying and our gossiping and our lusting are wrong.

By God’s grace and his indwelling Spirit, God is going to make us like Jesus.  He might do it through a wonderful succession of what looks like worldly blessings but more than likely the process by which we walk away from our sin and move towards obedience is going to be painful.  I mean think about it.  If you are going to start helping folks as they walk through poverty and need, and you are not just handing out a dollar to make yourself feel good but you are actually trying to help people get jobs, take care of their family and basically re-orient themselves towards a life that is full of work and family and worship and service, you are going to find yourself inconvenienced.

You are going to give people access to your time, your money, your talents, and your wisdom.  And for some of us, that will be the tearing away of what is probably the biggest idol in all of our lives:  comfort and ease.  And you might say, “Gordon, that sounds awful.  I just want to go to work and raise my family in Godliness or I just want to go home and chill.”  And I would say, “That is not a Biblical life; not according to James it’s not.”

Living out these commands, really doing this, is about simplicity and recognizing our continual need on Jesus.  The simplicity portion is this:  Mercy shown is evidence of mercy known.  If you know God’s mercy then you are going to show God’s mercy.  The extent to which you outwardly and purposefully show mercy is in direct proportion to how your understanding of how God outwardly and purposefully showed mercy to you.

And this is the promise of James:  you don’t have a choice in the matter.  If you have faith in Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins, you will evidence obedience and you will grow in obedience, and specifically one of the areas in which you will show that obedience is you will show mercy to other folks in need.  Now, listen, it is not salvation by faith alone plus showing mercy to others, however it is if you have salvation by faith alone you will be changed to such an extent that you show mercy to others.  You and I have to wrestle with the depth and nature of the forgiveness that we have received if we are ever going to be merciful to others.  In fact, in manner of obedience as James put forward here finds its motivation and depths in understanding the nature of our forgiveness.

Let me shape this story for you in a way that I hope will bring these things home for us.  I was talking to a local pastor the other day.  He was telling me that he had to preach a sermon on forgiveness.  So I asked him how he was going to approach it.  He said that in his sermon, he was planning on walking the congregation through three stages:  forgiving people who have offended them, asking for forgiveness from people they have offended, and then he said came the hard part:  forgiving self.   Now I don’t tell this story to demean this pastor or to speak ill of his church.  I tell it because it is going to demonstrate a few things for us.

My pastor friends point in walking his congregation through this sermon is that the hardest forgiveness is forgiving self.  He was saying that we really don’t move forward in love and service until we forgive ourselves.  And I won’t argue that it is difficult to walk away from guilt and condemnation that we heap upon ourselves for things that we have done or should have done.  But that is not the point of the gospel.  The problem with my friend’s exercise is that Christ wasn’t necessary for anything that he asked congregation to do.  It might as well have been a self-help seminary or the counsel of a local psychiatrist.

James is offering this to us.  There is not forgiveness for your sin apart from Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection on your behalf.  The nature of our sin is not a mixup in our character or a slip up in our self-discipline.  It is foolish, rebellion that desires our will to be God and desire God to step down from His throne.

And as we see how deep and nasty and pervasive our sin is and how rich and beautiful and thorough the love of God is in forgiving us, we become mesmerized, awed by the grace of God and we reflect that in obedience to God.  We are so awed by the mercy of God that we then have no choice but to desire to show God’s mercy to others so that they might know it as well.  It is not that we just need to muster up forgiveness of our selves so we can forgive and love others, it is that God Himself has forgiveness us and shown us mercy and we just don’t have any choice but to do the same.  Let me demonstrate this biblically.

Titus 3: 3 For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. 4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

What were we before we came to know Jesus Christ according to Titus?  Foolish, disobedient, led astray, we were a slave to our sin, and spent our days in malice, envious of others, and hating God and hating others.  But look what happened?  The goodness and loving kindness of Jesus, our God and Savior appeared.  Jesus saved us, not because you did anything good or righteous.  He saved us simply because He wanted to show us His mercy.  He did it by regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.  That means it was all God.  Regeneration is making something alive that was once dead.  We can’t do that.  Dead people don’t regenerate themselves.  But God being rich in mercy wanted to show His mercy by forgiving and transforming you.

Now, as you are made alive and profess faith in Jesus you are justified or made right by God by one reason:  the grace of God.   You go from rebellions sinner to an heir with Jesus inheriting all the glories of heaven because of Jesus alone.  Okay, that is the Gospel.  Now what happens in light of all of God doing all of that?  Listen to verse 8 of Titus 3.

8 The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people.

The work that God has saved you, forgiven you, made you alive and gifted you with heaven is trustworthy.  You can count on it.  And light of those things you can now devote yourself to obedience and good work.  Mercy known becomes mercy shown.   And demonstrating that mercy is excellent and profitable for you.  The greater degree to which you embrace the depths of forgiveness and transformation that God has done on your part, the greater degree you will show mercy to others.  You will be willing to endure people’s ridiculous stupid decisions, their judgmentalism, their poor financial situations, even their judgment, because you know that Christ forgave you of those very things.  And when you start showing mercy to people and you find it really, really hard to keep going because they frustrate you so badly, you’re probably getting pretty close to understanding the depths of your sin and you’ll be thankful and obedient.

Now, as I close up here, some of you might start to get worried.  You might start thinking, “I believe in Jesus but I’m not where near obedient as I should be and I don’t really want to get out of my house and show mercy to folks.  Am I really a believer?  And I would offer this hope to you.

When you say, “Yes I believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of my sins and I want to obey, I really do,” I would offer that is the cry of a Christian.   People who don’t know Christ don’t have pricked consciences about obeying and glorifying Jesus.  If you have that conscience, then that is an evidence of faith.  But let me end with this verse to give you hope.  This is what God promises to His children when they fail:

2 Timothy 2:13:“If we are faithless, he remains faithful- for he cannot deny himself.”

March 11, 2012 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , ,

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