If you have genuinely experienced the life-changing power of God’s grace, if you have been radically changed and transformed, if you have the nature of Christ and the Spirit of Christ within you, how can that not make you a generous person? Is it possible that even though you know the right answers to the questions, you’ve actually never experienced true saving faith? And a faith that isn’t a saving faith is a faith that is useless. That’s the argument that James makes in James chapter 2.
Now James is a very practical book, perhaps the most straight-up practical book in the New Testament. The author James is not the Peter, James, and John; it’s James, the half-brother of Jesus. This book’s written less than twenty years after the resurrection of Christ, so a very early book. He’s writing to dispersed Jews—Jews that consider themselves to be Christians, but because of the persecution in Jerusalem they have fled and been dispersed around the Mediterranean. But James has a concern that even though they consider themselves to be Christians, for many of them there’s simply no evidence that they have experienced a life-changing encounter with Jesus. They say the right things but there are no works that seem consistent with a life that has been changed by Jesus.
Just because you say you are a Christian, just because you may know the right answer to some quiz questions, doesn’t mean you’ve actually experienced true life change.
So in Chapter 1, James talks about the need to be “doers of the word and not merely hearers only.” The Bible’s not an encyclopedia. The deal is not that someday when you die God gives a quiz and if you get eighty percent, you’re in. It’s not all about information; it’s about: This is how life is to be lived, and it begins with a powerful encounter with the resurrected Christ. He ends chapter 1 by saying, “For example, it should affect the way you talk. It should affect a compassion for orphans and widows in need.” In a 1st Century culture, those were the two most vulnerable categories of people. You should genuinely care about those in need, and number three: to remain unstained from the world—in other words to pursue a lifestyle of holiness. So that’s being a doer of the word, not merely a hearer.
Chapter 2 moves into a discussion about partiality, that if you treat someone with money differently than someone who is poor, you’re guilty of partiality, which is completely contrary to the message of grace. He doesn’t say that’s bad behavior; he says that’s sin. As a matter of fact he says, “It’s every bit as much sin as murder or adultery.” That then creates the context for the discussion that we want to have starting in verse 14:
What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? (*NASB, James 2:14)
Now it’s very important to understand the question is not whether salvation is by faith alone. The discussion is not: Is it faith alone? Is it works alone? Or is it faith and works? That’s not the discussion. As a matter of fact, that is a settled issue. The New Testament could not be clearer that it is faith alone, not by works. The issue James is discussing is the nature of saving faith. There’s no question it’s by faith alone, but the faith that saves is a faith that works. The Bible does not teach that salvation is basically an intellectual assent of three or four bullet points and, on the basis of my assent to that, I get my ticket to heaven and slip it in my back pocket. The New Testament teaching is that salvation is a radical transformation. It is rebirth. You are a new creation in Christ. You actually have a new nature and it’s the nature of Christ. You actually have the very Spirit of Jesus dwelling within you. It is complete and it is radical. If that’s true, then it’s far more than an intellectual assent. It is life changing and there should be evidence of a changed life. If all there is that twenty years ago I said a prayer, put my ticket to heaven in my back pocket, and “I’m good,” and other than that you live no differently than the rest of the world, you have reason to question whether you have actually experienced a saving faith. That’s why James says, “Can that faith save him? Can a faith that has no works save?” That’s the question at hand.
If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? (Vs. 15-16)
So there’s our illustration: Somebody is in need of food. Somebody is in need of shelter. Rather than having a heart of generosity, there’s merely pious language. Go in peace, be warmed and be filled. But the question is, “What use is that?” And the answer is, “It is no use.” It does nothing to meet the needs of these people. A true, radical transformation produces a heart of generosity. There is within us the compassion for people in need just like Jesus demonstrated when He walked on the earth. Verse 17:
Even so…verse 16 is the illustration…faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself…
In other words faith that demonstrates no real life change.
To experience the resurrected Christ, something deep within me changes. I have a new conviction of sin; I have a passion for righteousness and holiness; I have a desire to be generous. I want to know God; I want to know God’s Word; I want to know God’s people; I want to give my life to the things that matter. If there’s simply no life change, that is a faith that is dead, and it is not a saving faith. James anticipates an objection and he records that in verse 18:
But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works”; (Vs. 18a)
Now verse 18 is much debated. The debate is about where the quotation marks go. In the Greek text there are no quotation marks, and so it’s up to the interpreter to decide how much of that verse is the voice of the objector. I believe only the opening line is the objector. All the scholars agree that it’s the voice of the objector saying, “Now wait a minute”, (and by the way this is perfect for our 21st century post-modern crowd). The objection is, “Now wait a minute, you have your deal; I have mine. You do it your way; I’ll do it mine. Some have faith; some have works; it all works itself out.” That’s basically what the objector is saying. So then James is responding:
“…show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” (Vs. 18b)
How do you demonstrate that you have truly experienced a saving faith if there are no works? James is saying, “You have no reason to believe that you have experienced a life-changing encounter with Jesus if there are no works. You simply have no evidence of that.” But James is also saying, “I’ll show you I’ve been radically changed; it’s evident in the way I live my life.”
Now the purpose of this text is not for everyone to walk back out the doors thoroughly insecure, now wondering, “Am I really saved?” It isn’t that complicated. Look at your life: If you can demonstrate, “I have been radically changed,” “I have a passion for holiness,” “I have a heart of compassion,” “I want to know God,” “I want to know what God says,” “I want to be generous,” “I want to walk in holiness,” “I have conviction of sin,” there’s evidence that I have been radically changed by the power of Jesus. But if you were to be completely honest and say, “You know when I look at my life, I know the right answers to the quiz questions, but other than that I see no real difference between my life and the unsaved people around me,” you have reason to believe perhaps you haven’t really experienced saving faith. Verse 19:
You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.
In referring that God is One, remember these are dispersed Jews and at the core of Judaism was the belief of one God. It’s a reference to the Shema from Deuteronomy that says, “Our God is One God.” All of the religions of the ancient world were polytheistic—had multiple gods. There was one religion and that was Judaism where there is one and only one God. So this is at the core of their belief system and James is saying, “You believe that. Good for you! So do the demons!” They get it! There is one God and this God is powerful and it makes them tremble. So let’s put this in 21st Century language. Most of the people who identify themselves as Christians would say, “Well, I believe like the Christmas story; I believe that, you know, God became flesh; Jesus was born in a manger from a Virgin Mary.” Well, good for you! The demons believe that too! “Well, but I believe the Easter story. I believe that Jesus died on a cross. I believe that He was buried. I believe He rose again.” Good for you! The demons believe that too! I would suggest there’s not a demon out there that denies the Christmas story or the Easter story; they know that’s what happened. They get it. They believe it and they tremble! But clearly that doesn’t make them Christian.
You have to move from intellectual assent to what the Bible would call believing or trusting. It’s a step of faith—that I actually trust that Jesus did this for me. It includes repentance: I’m no longer pursuing self-righteousness but trusting in what Jesus did for me. And it is a faith that results in a radical transformation, and that radical transformation should be evident in changes in your life, your purpose, your mission, your conviction of sin. You are a new creation in Christ, and at the center of that should be a heart of generosity. That’s who Jesus is and, if we now have the nature of Christ, it should be evident in our desire to help those in need.
But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “AND ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? (Vs. 20-25)
Two illustrations: If you were to take those verses, pull them out of context and isolate them, it’s very confusing. That seems completely contrary to what Paul teaches in Romans. But this is a reminder why we do not take verses out of context and isolate them. They are very much given in a context and that’s where they have to be understood. So to start with, let’s remind ourselves that when Paul was making an argument that salvation is by faith alone, who did he use as the poster child to make his point? Answer is Romans chapter 4: Abraham. He quotes Genesis 15:6: “Abraham believed and it was reckoned as righteousness.” He wasn’t circumcised until two chapters later. The discussion here in James is thirty years later when Abraham offered Isaac. The argument that James is making is not that Abraham was justified on the basis of works, but rather that the Bible states he was justified on the basis of faith. But to demonstrate that faith was a saving faith, it was followed by works. Specifically thirty years later, in his greatest moment of faith, he was willing to offer Isaac, his only son, on an altar in obedience to God. So the question would be: “Okay, the text says that Abraham was justified by faith. How do we know that’s a true statement?” Answer: “His works demonstrated that he was truly, radically changed, justified by the power of God.”
It’s the same argument with Rahab. Somewhere along the way, Rahab the prostitute believed. We don’t know when that was. We only know that when the spies went in to Jericho, she risked her own life to protect them, to care for them, and to deliver them. What we know is that Rahab did not just have an intellectual assent. She believed; she was radically changed; the evidence is that she actually risked her life in order to act on that faith and to deliver the spies. The story of Rahab is a fascinating one. Her faith was so great that she would live among the Jewish people and she would actually be a woman through whom the seed of the Messiah would travel. If you look in Matthew chapter 1 in the genealogy of Christ, there listed is Rahab the harlot—a radical transformation. His point is true: saving faith works. He closes the chapter with verse 26:
For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.
It’s a rather graphic illustration, but if you’ve been to a funeral, there’s a body in a casket. Without the spirit there is no life; it has no potential to do anything. Faith without works is like a body without spirit; it is simply dead.
So what do we do with this text? First of all, this is not a text by which we judge everyone else’s salvation. That’s always the danger in a text like that. Perhaps you’re sitting there thinking, “Well, I’m thinking about Joe,”—“Joe’s out”—“and Sally”—“Sally’s out.” Or even my spouse. That’s a very dangerous thing to do. You don’t know that. What you do know is yourself and your own heart, and that is the point of the text. Okay, good for you. You know the right answers: You know the right answers on the quiz; you know what to say when God asks you the Kennedy question. That doesn’t mean you’ve experienced a saving faith. A faith that saves is a faith that works (not faith plus works). If you’ve truly experienced a radical transformation by the power of Jesus, Paul says to the Corinthians that salvation is on the basis of God’s grace and that grace is so radical that if you’ve truly experienced God’s grace, it will make you a generous person. Specifically he says, “Jesus, who was rich for your sake, He became poor in order that through His poverty you might become rich.”
If your understanding of sin is narrow, then your understanding of God’s law, His grace, and your love for others will also be narrow.
Here’s the truth about the gravity our sin condition, the high standard of His law, the unfathomable depth of His grace and Christ’s sacrifice.
God’s definition of sin is broad
- ‘Everything that is not from faith is sin’ (Romans 14:23)
- Turning away from God through unbelief is sin (Hebrews 3:12)
- Not doing what you know is right is sin (James 4:17)
- Doing wrong without knowing is sin (Leviticus 5:17)
Breaking God’s commandments is sin (1 John 3:4)
- God’s commandments are not just the ten commandments, but all the moral commands stated in the Bible
- The Rich Young Ruler thought he kept all the commandments of God, but Jesus said it wasn’t ‘complete’ because he did not care for the poor according to his financial ability (Matt. 19). Taking care of the poor is a moral command
- The story of the rich young ruler shows the impossibility of earning one’s salvation by following a list of commandments (Mark 10:26)
- James 2:9 states if you show favoritism or discriminate anyone, you have broken all the commandments
Even our human nature is sinful from birth
‘See, I was born in sin and was in sin from my very beginning’ (Psalms 51:5). Our sinful human nature can produce only one thing naturally. Sin! That’s why we need to be born again. More on this later
We cannot view sin as merely a list of dos and don’ts
- Since, everything that is not from faith is sin, every action and attitude that we do without faith in God’s promises is sin
- Therefore, we cannot view sin as merely a list of dos and don’ts
- One of Satan’s most successful lies is that sin can be limited to a manageable list of dos and don’ts
- This is so satanic and dangerous because it causes thousands of christians to think that things are OK between them and God because they avoid one list of don’ts and practice another (much shorter) list of do’s (ex: church going, returning offerings, not committing murder literally etc); but in fact may be sinning all day long
God’s standard of law is so high; no fallen man can measure up to it always
- His standard of law is so high that it is humanely impossible for any fallen man to measure up. Perhaps occasionally, but not all the time. In Greek, Romans 3:23 is actually saying ‘all have sinned and continue to fall short of God’s standard’
- It this standard of law that we have broken, are guilty of, condemned for, and deserving death (Romans 6:23)
His standard of love towards others is also high
- A lawyer asked Jesus, what must I do to inherit life (Luke 10:25). Then Jesus recited the story of the good Samaritan. The lesson from the story was you must show perfect love to your neighbour, wherever, or whoever they may be all the time. This is humanly impossible to do all the time.
- This parable teaches once again the impossibility of earning one’s salvation. The standard, which is perfect love, is too high; you can’t manufacture such God kind of love.
Narrow view of sin leads some to believe they can ‘do’ the law and inherit life
- Because some have a narrow view of sin, and law, they like the rich young ruler, pharisees and that lawyer still think that they can DO the law to inherit eternal life
- Only way to be saved by the law is to keep the law perfectly—every moment of every day for your entire life
- “But those who depend on the law to make them right with God are under his curse, for the Scriptures say, “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the commands that are written in God’s Book of the Law” (Galatians 3:10)
- People have a tendency to just cherry-pick a handful of things out of the law like the Sabbath (if you are a Sabbath keeper), offering giving, not stealing literally etc. But what Paul is saying, you can’t cherry-pick the law. If you’re going to earn righteousness under the law, it’s all the commandments (love others unconditionally, help the poor, don’t discriminate, every single one of them etc), and if you fail in one slightest detail ever in your life, then you are under a curse, and you are condemned.
- If you think you can be saved by ticking a few commandments, you are in for a surprise. ‘Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:23)
- If we don’t understand the seriousness of sin, the standard of his law, and how we don’t measure up to God’s standard, we will never understand our dangerous-sinful-hopeless-condition, why Jesus came, why He died, why we need a savior, what he accomplished by His death, and how we can walk righteously.
Because we cannot pay for our sins, God turned over our sins to Jesus
- Sin separated us from God, and created a bridge between us and Him (Isaiah 59:2), but Jesus took away our sins on the cross (1 Peter 2:24). God punished Jesus for our sins (Isaiah 53:5), and ‘brought us back to himself through Christ’ (2 Corinthians 5:18)
- Apart from Christ we are separated from God, condemned, lost. But ‘Christ united us with God‘ (Eph 2:6). We were united with God the moment we repented for our sins, trusted Jesus that He was punished for our sins, our death, our law breaking, and believed that His sacrifice is sufficient to save us.
- When we repented, our sins were completely forgiven. ‘There is now no condemnation for them that belong to Jesus’ (Rom 8:1). The law no more condemns us because it already condemned someone else: Jesus. ‘You are complete in Him’ (Col. 2:10)
- Since we have broken God’s law, there is no way our good deeds could offset our bad deeds. ‘For if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die’ (Gal 2:21). Only Jesus can save us and He did save us from the punishment by taking the punishment for our sins.
In God’s plan, we receive righteousness on the basis of faith
- I am “found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (Philippians 3:9).
- We receive the righteousness of God apart from the law, meaning it doesn’t come from obeying the law. It comes from another place; it comes from Jesus Himself. It’s His righteousness.
- God’s credits his Son’s righteous life on this earth as our righteousness by exchanging it for our sins the moment we repent, tell him we have messed up, and confess we can’t measure up to His standard, and put our trust in Him! In that very moment, we are declared righteous in God’s presence as a gift of God’s grace (Romans 4:3). This is the good news! This is radical. This is grace. This is something only God thought up in his heart. Not man. Please don’t lower grace to your standard.
When you repented and believed in Jesus, you were born again
- When we repented for our sins and our inability to save ourselves, and accepted Jesus as our perfect sacrifice, sin bearer, savior, Lord, He came into our life and we were born again. Jesus gave us a new birth, a new start in life. Our past is just that. Past. We can now look forward to living changed, righteous, and joy filled lives as we have Jesus living in us now.
- ‘When we believed, we were sealed with the Holy Spirit‘ (Ephesians 1:13). This seal is the guratanee that tell us we are now God’s children, we are empowered, we have eternal life, we will inherit what God has promised us (2 Corinthians 1:22).
Without the new birth, you can’t enter the kingdom of God nor walk righteously
- Unless one is born again, he cannot enter God’s kingdom (John 3:3).
- We need to be born again, because when we were born into this world, we were born spiritually dead; this was the result of Adam’s fall. When they died that day eating the fruit (Genesis 2:17), they died in a real sense. Their spirit or spiritual nature died. Therefore, all Adam’s children are born into this world ‘dead’ (Eph 2:5) or with a dead ‘spirit’. They are dead to the things of God, dead to the voice of the Holy Spirit. They can’t hear God speak to them.
- Nicodemus was a Sabbath keeper. Pharisees were Sabbath keepers. They kept a narrow list of commandments, and were satisfied that they met God’s standard. However, they were not born again. Their spirit or spiritual nature was still dead. That’s why they failed to meet the weightier matters of the law like justice, mercy, faith (Matthew 23:23), taking care of the poor, and helpless according to their financial ability. They didn’t even know they were sinning.
- People who are not born again may keep a narrow set of laws and judge other people on external things like church going, offering giving, etc. but their hearts are far from God. They have an outward form of religion, but they have not changed from the inside out, because they were never born again.
There is more than forgiveness in God’s plan
- When Jesus lives in us, He comes out in our actions, attitudes and affections. He empowers us to bear fruits of righteousness. He fulfills the righteousness requirement of the law in us (Romans 8:4) as His Spirit guides us.
- The law tells us this. How messed up we are every time we look at it because it’s standard is so high (Romans 3:20). We have never kept its demand constantly, every moment, every day.
- Those who have a narrow view of law will never see their true state from the law. The Pharisees never saw this. Therefore, they never really saw the need for a savior to take away their sins.
- However, the Holy Spirit is our guide now, and not the law (Gal 3:25). We are ‘led by the Spirit’ (Romans 8:14). When the Spirit guides, He puts us in tune with all the moral principles of God. We become sensitive to others. We become gentle, kind, patient. We become more and more like Jesus.
- The law may change people from the outside. But only the Spirit changes us from the inside out.
- While the Spirit guides us, we will read and study God’s word to see if we are following all his teachings and not cherry picking a few things.
- When you have Jesus, you have the fruit (singular) of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). Notice, its not fruits, its fruit. When you have the Spirit, you have the entire basket of fruits: ‘love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law’.
- Against such things there is no law means there is no law that can produce this fruit. There’s no legalism or external religious observances that can produce this. It’s a fruit of the Spirit.
- If you only have one or two of the fruits, that means you were not born again! Probably you never understood how sinful you are before a Holy God, and his law! You didn’t truly repent. Therefore, you were not born again.
- If you are not trusting Christ for forgiveness and are not resting in his daily work on your behalf, then none of your actions comes from faith, but every one of them (even the most noble) is sinful and an insult to the infinitely trustworthy God.
- Here’s the good news: Jesus took away your sins, and gave you new life. He died your death. His death wasn’t just a demonstration of love or death of a martyr. He died in your place so that he can take you home.
- Following Jesus is not following a set of narrow laws. It is having a relationship with Him, trusting what he did on the cross, believing that His sacrifice is sufficient payment for your sins, trusting him daily to do what is right in your life, and making His word your authority for living. As you trust him, you are empowered to obey him, honour him, and live a holy life. No matter what life may throw at you, you can face it, because your future is secure in Him, and His finished work.
When you understand how high God’s standard of law is, and how sinful you are, only then can you really appreciate grace and the sacrifice of Christ.
When you receive His grace, only then can you really demonstrate the same kind of grace, love, kindness, and gentleness to others.
If you have not received Him as your Savior and the Lord of your life. Then:
- Confess your great sin, how you haven’t measured up to his high standard and know you deserve to be condemned for insulting Him by your lack of faith, and thinking you could measure up.
- Repent, turn to Him and believe now in Jesus, that as your Savior who died to bear you sin and punishment, so you could live forever and walk in newness of life.
- Take him as your only hope of salvation and acknowledge him as your only Lord.
- Thank him for his forgiveness and His promise to be with you, and in you, and to empower you to do his will.
- Trust him to do what is right in your life.