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Faith That Works
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.”
The True Church not an Institution
• The New Testament teaches that the attributes of the true church are soteriological (determined by faith in Jesus) and not institutional.
• The church is one because the atonement that Christ made on the cross has “brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us.” (Eph. 2:14, 15).
• So, the barrier which separates fellow believers according to class, race and sex has been removed by Christ’s death on the cross. The risen Lord is therefore the exalted Head of “a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17) which is His “one body” (Eph. 1:16, 19-23; 2:14).
• The community of believers in Christ is the fellowship of “who have been called by God to be his own holy people. He made you holy by means of Christ Jesus, just as he did for all people everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord” (1 Cor. 1:2). So, the “saints” are those who have put their trust in Christ as Saviour, who have been born again by the Spirit, who have been reconciled to God and to each other and whom God has separated from the world to be His people (2 Thess. 2:13, 14; 2 Tim. 1:9, 10).
• The church is catholic (i.e. universal) because Christ has made atonement (payment) on the cross for the sins of the whole world and because this good news is now being proclaimed “to every nation, tribe, language and people” (Rev. 14:6).
• So, the universal church of God consists of all believers in Christ throughout the world. These are they who have received forgiveness of sins through faith in Christ’s name (Acts 10:43) and who have been born again into the family and kingdom of God (John 1:12, 13; 3:1-8). Local congregations are but the local manifestations of the one universal church of Christ.
• The church is apostolic because its faith and life are grounded solely on the testimony of the apostles whom Christ sovereignly appointed to witness and proclaim His saving work (Luke 6:13; Acts 1:2, 21, 22; John 14:26; 15:26f; 17:20).
• The New Testament has preserved for the church the content of the apostles’ teaching concerning Christ, His redemptive work on the cross, His triumphant resurrection from the dead, and His ascension to heaven where He was exalted by the Father to sit at His right hand.
• Just as the church was founded upon the apostles’ witness, so it is nourished and grows by continuing in the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42). The strongest condemnation rests upon anyone who would corrupt the purity of the apostolic Gospel (Gal. 1:6-9).The apostles’ interpretation of the Gospel is the final norm of sound teaching (2 Ti. 1:13-14; Tit. 1:3, 9).This is “the faith that was once (for all) entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3), and insofar as the Christian Church upholds the true Gospel as proclaimed by the apostles, it is “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).This commitment to the apostolic witness alone will safeguard the unity, holiness of the church.
• Rome interprets the attributes of the church in institutional terms. Unity means lockstep conformity and submission to the demands and teachings of the hierarchical Roman structure.
• The Reformers denied Rome’s claim that its organization constituted the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church because they had discovered a vital truth in the New Testament—that the attributes of the church are not institutional but soteriological.
• Therefore, according to the New Testament and the Reformers, Christ’s true church is the community of all who have put their trust in Him. The marks by which we may know the true church are: it believes and faithfully proclaims the pure and unadulterated Gospel as recorded in the Scriptures by the Lord’s chosen apostles, and it faithfully administers baptism and the Lord’s Supper (by which the gospel is portrayed).
• Certain religious institutions claim to be Christ’s only true church to the exclusion of other Christian groups, which are regarded as apostate Babylon. In attempts to find scriptural support for such self-commending claims, appeal is made to certain isolated proof-texts upon which dubious interpretations are imposed. For example, Roman Catholicism appeals to Matthew 16:18 (“And I tell you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church”) in an effort to establish its supremacy.
• Some religious groups make the name of their denomination the mark of the true church (e.g.“The Church of Christ”).
• Sectarianism is contrary to the principles of the Bible by denying the unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity of the Christian Church as depicted in the New Testament Scriptures. It denies the unity of all who believe in Christ for the forgiveness of sins and that all believers have a common Father in heaven and share a common new life in the Spirit constituting them members of one family. Thus does sectarianism bring division into the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 3:16, 17).
• It denies the holiness of the church because it ignores the fact that the imperfections in belief and practice seen in the different segments of the Christian community are covered by the blood of Christ. It usually claims perfection for the doctrines it promulgates referring to them as “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” According to them all other denominations are steeped in darkness and error.
• It denies the apostolicity of the church by its claims to have light and knowledge in advance of the rest of Christendom and sometimes even of the chosen apostles of Christ to whom were revealed all the truth the church needs to know this side of eternity. This advance light and knowledge is usually based on an extra-biblical authority.
• In many respects the Adventist understanding of the church is very much like that of Roman Catholicism.
The True Church and Remnant
• Adventism regards itself not merely as “a church” but as “the church.” It claims that its denomination is the only true church on earth today. All other denominations it denounces as Babylon.Therefore, according to Adventism, it is the only legitimate visible church in the entire world. As stated above, such claims are only made by sectarian cults of which the Roman Catholic denomination is the greatest.
• Adventism not only claims to be the only true church on earth today, it also claims to be God’s remnant—His end-time church. The two main proof texts for this claim are Revelation 12:17 and 19:10. Based on these two texts it states that the true end-time church—the remnant—must observe all ten commandments and have a prophet. Accordingly, Adventism claims that it alone qualifies as “the remnant church.”
Adventism’s 1844 Theology
• The above claims by Adventism are also based on its unique interpretation of its cardinal text of Scripture—Daniel 8:14. Mrs. E. G.White, Adventism’s end-time prophetess, states: “The scripture which above all others had been both the foundation and the central pillar of the advent faith was the decla ration:‘Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.’ Daniel 8:14” (GC 409).
• What can be said of Adventism’s 1844 theology? Just as Christianity stands or falls on the resurrection event (1 Cor. 15:1-4), so Adventism stands or falls on the “1844 event.” If there were no resurrection, there would be nothing salvage- able in Christianity. If no event of redemptive significance occurred in heaven on October 22, 1844, there is nothing salvageable in Adventism.
• Adventism is adamant that God had revealed the true meaning of Daniel 8:14 to its pioneers and Mrs. White and that He has entrusted it to the Adventist denomination as His end- time message to Christendom and the world. This is the basis of Adventism’s triumphant self-image:“a special people with a special message for a special time” (to quote a popular Adventist slogan).
• Not only, however, is there no biblical data—a clear ‘Thus saith the Lord’—to support the 1844 date and Adventism’s explanation for the Great Disappointment debacle, the 1844 theology is contrary to the New Testament Gospel.
• Christ’s finished work of atonement (redemption) on the cross and His once-and-for-all entrance into the heaven itself—Heb. 9:24 to sit down at the Father’s right hand exclude a redemptive event beginning on October 22, 1844 (such as the ‘final’ atonement, the blotting out of sins started from 1844, the transfer of sin onto Satan, justification ‘full and complete’, the latter rain, the final seal of God, etc).
• In proclaiming such an event and exhorting people to place their faith in it, Adventists are preaching “another gospel” (Gal. 1:6-8)—a gospel with features not found in the writings of the New Testament apostles.
• At best, Adventism’s 1844 theology can only rest on an extra-biblical authority—that of its prophetess, Mrs. White. Raymond F. Cottrell, one of Adventism’s leading scholars, frankly admitted this. (See his paper submitted to the Glacier View Sanctuary Review Committee, August 10-15, 1980, entitled, A Hermeneutic for Predictive Prophecy, esp. pp. 28-30).
• So, in promulgating their 1844 theology, Adventists go beyond the apostolic witness as recorded in the New Testament. It cannot therefore claim to be a church based on the apostolic teaching of the Gospel.
• The remnant motif first appears in the Old Testament in reference to the minority in Israel who had not bowed the knee to Baal (1 Kings 19:18).
• But the New Testament apostles employed the remnant motif to describe the New Testament community. (Acts 15:14- 18; Rom. 9:27-29; 11:1-5). Therefore, in the light of the New Testament, the Christian Church or Body of Christ IS the remnant since its inception on the day of Pentecost and will remain so until the last day when Christ will come again.
• The pioneers of Adventism developed their 1844 and end- time-remnant doctrines on the assumption that the last days did not arrive until 1798 (1844 era).
• But the apostles declared that they were already living in the time of the end and that the Gospel they were preaching was God’s end-time message for the world (Acts 2:17; Heb. 1:1, 2; 9:26; 1 Pet. 1:20; Rev. 1:1
• Therefore, Adventism’s claim that the last days arrived when it arrived on the scene in 1844 is way off the mark by about 1800 years! No, the last days arrived when Jesus arrived on the public scene 2000 years ago. This is the witness of His apostles.
• To now go beyond what the apostles preached and wrote is cultic. Adventism has officially denied what the New Testament says in this regard in order to maintain its unique 1844 theology and all that goes with it.
• In view of the above, what arrogance is manifested in Adventism’s claim to be the remnant church while not possessing that which alone makes a person part of God’s remnant—the true Gospel of Christ as promulgated by the New Testament apostles. Faith alone in this Gospel made the Gentiles part of the end-time remnant.
• The Jews had the Ten Commandments, observed the Sabbath and boasted the possession of more than one prophet (outdoing Adventism on this point).Yet they were excluded as a nation from the remnant because they rejected the Gospel concerning Christ and His saving work.
• Therefore, when weighed in the balances of the apostolic witness of the Gospel as recorded in the New Testament, Adventism is found wanting. Not only does it not have the true Gospel, the three or more divergent theological strands within Adventism (conservative, progressives, liberal, Sequeiran SDA gospels preached in the church) constitute nothing less than Babylonian confusion.
• And then it has the audacity to label all other Christian denominations Babylon!
• Adventism does not therefore qualify as the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” as per the attributes stated in the Bible.
(Adapted: The True Church not an institution by Christ Badenhorst (appeared on Proclamation Sept/Oct 2006)