The Ninth Sunday After Trinity August 17, 2003
1, 374, 411, 416
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe; and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
In the name of Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith, dear fellow redeemed:
Last year, when a court in California ruled that the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance were unconstitutional, there was a great uproar in our nation. The members of the U.S Senate, who are normally not around for the opening of their session which includes the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, all made a point of piously and faithfully reciting the Pledge including the words “under God.” With cameras clicking and tape running they acknowledged God with their mouths. Yet, this seems to be a great contradiction for many of the senators who at the same time vote in favor of murdering children including a most hideous procedure called partial-birth abortion. There was a contradiction between their words and actions.
In this week’s sermon text we are warned through the Apostle James of just such a contradiction in ourselves. We emphasize that we are saved through faith rather than works and rightly so. However, we dare not forget what faith is. Faith is intimately connected to works. Indeed, FAITH WITHOUT WORKS IS DEAD. I. Faith that is just words is really not faith at all. II. True faith brings forth fruit.
Hebrews 11 gives a definition of faith which can be summed up as “trusting what we cannot see.” Faith is a belief in God. More specifically the Christian faith is a belief and trust that Jesus Christ is the Son of God your Savior. Through faith we are connected to Jesus. Through faith we receive the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.
In this letter from James, the definition of faith is expanded. James encountered a problem with the people to whom he was writing. In their thinking faith was merely a head knowledge of God and being able to say the right words with your mouth. This is a problem that continually crops up in Christianity. It can be a particular problem for those who have been Christians from their youth , and it seems also to plague confessional Lutherans.
The illusion of faith being just words is shattered in verse 19 of our text. “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!” So what if you can pay lip service to God?! Even the demons can do that. In the Gospel accounts, it is recorded that demons recognized Jesus as the Son of God, but they did not have faith. Faith is living and active.
Another example is found in the first verses of our text. If you saw someone who needed food and clothing and merely said, “Be warmed and filled,” that doesn’t do much good for that individual. Mouth mercy is not really mercy. Faith that exists only in the head and mouth is not truly faith.
In verse 14 the question is asked, “Can faith save him?” Better translated the verse would read, “Can this faith, or can such a faith, save him?” The answer is no because faith that is just words is really no faith at all.
The Devil likes to push in a direction that someone is already going. It’s as if you were in a tug-of-war and instead of pulling you let go of the rope to let the other team’s momentum carry them. Confessional Lutherans have been trained from little on to know that we are not saved by works. As humans we always like to give ourselves credit. So this is a constant battle. The problem occurs when we begin to view good works disdainfully, or begin to think that what we do doesn’t really matter since salvation comes through faith. When the recitation of “I believe” overshadows the living of “I believe,” then there is a problem with the heart.
True faith is accompanied by works. It can’t be helped. When somebody is a new parent you can see the joy in their faces. They can’t hide it or hold it in. When God made us His children our lives were changed in an even more spectacular way, and we begin to think about what joy and peace there is in Him. Zacchaeus, for example, had an immediate change in his lifestyle after his encounter with Jesus.
If we don’t care whether or not we’re obeying God, or if we suppose that God will simply forgive us later so it doesn’t hurt to sin, is such a faith a matter of the heart? That is a way to walk farther and farther away from God. That is a way that makes hearts hard. That is a path on which faith is lost.
It has been said that faith is like calories. You can’t see either one, but you see the results. Faith begins with the hearing of the Word of God, then it goes to heart, and it finds expression in your hands. In Romans 6 this question is posed, “How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?” (Romans 6:2). In Galatians 5 there is a list of the works of the flesh and the fruits of the Spirit and they are directly opposite from each other (cf. Galatians 5:19ff). It is true that there are different strengths and weaknesses of faith. In addition, we all still produce works of the flesh due to our sinful flesh. But it is also true that a faith empty and devoid of fruit is really no faith at all. As it is written in verse 17 of the text, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works is dead.”
When you look at a tree you can easily tell whether it is alive or dead. If you see green, if you see fruit you would rightly assume that it’s alive. If those signs are not present, then you may rightly assume that it’s dead. This is why there is cause for concern when someone confesses to be a Christian and there appears to be no life and no fruit. In verse 18 of the text we read, “Someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
It is troublesome and contradictory when someone says, “I believe in God,” but at the same time is living with someone outside of marriage, or slandering another person, or maybe hasn’t seen the inside of a church for years and years. I read an interview with an actress in Reader’s Digest who was asked if her family ever went to church. “No,” she replied, “but we are a spiritual family.” It simply does not add up.
Let us read verse 22. [In speaking of Abraham] “Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect (faith was completed)?” An apple tree is completed when it produces what God intended, namely, apples. A Christian’s faith is completed as he produces what God has intended. Ephesians 2:10 reads, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” Such fruits are love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness.
This section of James is well summed up by the maxim: “Faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is never alone.” We dare not forget how we are saved. It is only by the grace and mercy of our Lord that we are going to heaven. Even our best works are tainted and our righteousnesses are like filthy rags. We could not cleanse ourselves from sin. That cleansing can only come by being washed in the blood of Christ. The Scriptures are absolutely clear that Christ is responsible for our salvation, and we have nothing to do with it.
It is also true that you are new creatures in Christ. Along with faith comes a new man to wage war against the old man, the sinful flesh that you have always carried with you. Once you have faith you do have the ability to choose between right and wrong in daily life. But to choose to come to Christ and to make yourself spiritually alive? No. To choose whether you’re going to watch that movie, or whether or not to read your Bible? Absolutely, yes!
James gives the theme of his letter in verse twenty-two of the first chapter: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” You see, the apostles Paul and James were battling two different problems. They have been pictured fighting back to back. Paul was battling the errors of work righteousness. James was battling a lack of zeal and caring of the things of God. We can be pushed either way, so we need to fight against both problems.
To not be concerned about what are doing in this life is like being pulled out of a burning house, saying “thanks” to the one who pulled you out, and then walking right back in. You have been pulled out of the fires of hell. God implores you not to walk back in. “Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2).
James offers Abraham and Rahab as examples to illustrate the connection between faith and works. Verse 24 is a little troubling to read because it says, “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.” That sounds like the opposite of what we read in the book of Romans. Let us understand it in this context, however. James is emphasizing that faith without works is really no faith at all. Abraham’s faith was not the lip service of the demons. It was a genuine faith as shown by the fruits that it produced. There was a connection between him and God. Rahab’s faith shone through in a similar way.
The connection between faith and works is intimate. “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” [v. 26] A person with body and soul is complete, so works are also a part of faith. You cannot remove works and still have faith.
So how do you get a living faith like that? It is through the Gospel of God. The beginning of faith and the motivation for a Christian life are found in the good news of Jesus Christ. In the Word of God you will have direction.
Do you want your faith strengthened? Go back to that same Word of God. The Holy Spirit will work through the Gospel to increase your faith and understanding of your Lord.
Don’t let the Devil deceive you. Faith is not just of the mouth. It is of the heart. You are a new creature in Christ. Strive for what Jesus would have strive for. Feed your faith and the fruit will come naturally. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.