“Embracing a Striving Faith”
May 3, 2020 – Evening Service
Faith Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, WA
Pastor Nathaniel H. Gutiérrez
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.
James 2:18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
Every culture has its own expressions and sayings. Though we live in the USA, there are people on the other side of our country that express themselves very differently than us.
Believe it or not, there are people who say things like “Bless your heart” and “I can’t wait to hug on your neck.”
But as I was writing this sermon, I thought of a Southern expression that really fit with this message. It goes like this,
“Boy, you are about as useless as a screen door on a submarine.”
Now, for this message, we would need to slightly change this expression. It would need to go something more like this: “Your faith without works is about as useless as a screen door on a submarine.”
In the same way that a screen door is completely useless on a submarine, and will bring certain disaster, so a faith that is not accompanied by works will bring about certain disaster.
This passage is warning us. It is saying that we need to be aware that we might be relying on a faith that is in fact, no faith at all.
So as we begin, I would like to start off by dissecting this passage, to understand what James is getting at, and show you why he believes this.
No Contradictions in Scripture
To start, it is important to note that some people feel like this passage of James contradicts other portions of Scripture’s teaching. So I want to spend a couple of minutes clarifying that.
First of all, there is no contradiction. We know according to 2 Tim. 3:16, that “all Scripture is God-breathed.” And we know that God, who is Truth, does not err. Therefore, while there can be apparent contradictions, we begin with the understanding that there can be no real contradictions in Scripture. All of its parts consent and complement one another.
The Westminster Confession of Faith helpfully reminds us that when we come across difficult passages, we have an infallible rule for understanding these passages. We turn to other portions of Scripture to understand. For Scripture interprets Scripture. “When there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture…it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.” (WCF 1.10)
The reason I mention this is because God’s word clearly teaches that no one is good but God alone. We read that we are saved apart from God’s law, because we have all fallen short of God’s glory, and even our good works are tainted with sin.
In other words, we cannot save ourselves by doing good works. Our works are not sufficient to save us from our sins, nor to cover over our past sins. All men stand condemned.
This is a foundational teaching in Scripture. Paul is very clear on numerous occasions. But to not belabor this point, I will simply cite Ephesians 2:8-9
“For by grace you have been saved through faith.
And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,
9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
This passage is clear, but the apparent contradiction comes when we turn to this passage in James, and James explicitly quotes what sounds like a contradictory passage.
James 2:24: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
Paul says, “You are saved by grace through faith, not a result of works.”
While I am aware that these two passages sound like they contradict, they actually complement one another, and the rest of this section and message will clarify that.
That said, James did not mean for this passage to be used as a sermon on how the Scripture doesn’t contradict. He has an important focus that I would like to turn to now.
How many of you have ever seen a scenario like this roll out? Someone who is in financial need or is poorly clothed or is lacking in daily food approaches you or someone else, expressing their need. You hear them out, you are devastated for them, and you tell them, “I’m so sorry! That is horrible…. I’ll be praying for you!”
Another way of rephrasing that would be to say, “Good luck!” Hope you find some help somewhere!
Having the ability to do something, even if meager, and choosing not to do it, but then mentioning that your thoughts “are with them” is the same as doing nothing.
I can’t tell you how many times non-Christians have told me “my thoughts are with you” while I’ve been in the middle of mourning or some tragic event. While well-meaning, I have to be honest. People “thinking of me” doesn’t really help me out all that much.
AND our well-meaning expression of, “I’m so sorry…I’ll be praying for you” is sometimes just an expression as well. James sees that as being pretty similar to saying “good luck”.
He sees it to be about as helpful to them as a screen door on a submarine. What good is that? It won’t get them anywhere. James says that that isn’t faith. That isn’t love. Faith that does not help, that doesn’t work to solve the problem, is dead.
My faith is good enough
At this point, you might be tempted to object. Yes, of course we are supposed to love our neighbors, but we no longer live under the law. We are saved by grace. We are saved by faith alone, not by the works of the law.
James doesn’t disagree with the fact that we are saved by grace through faith, but he does believe that that faith must be real. And that real faith must be more than an intellectual assent to a doctrine.
Faith isn’t a simple belief that God exists, and that he will judge us. James mocks that false faith, saying, “You hold to the doctrine that there is only one God? Well, congratulations! But that is no better than what the demons believe. How will that faith save you?”
Dr. Henry Krabbendam argues that James is actually putting this sort of faith below the faith of demons because at least the demons act on their beliefs. He says:
“At this point James does not contrast the intellectual assent of the unbeliever with the saving faith of the believer. This does not appear to come in the picture here.
He rather contrasts the dead ‘faith’ of the unbeliever, with the active ‘faith’ of rebel angels. ….The demons have it over you in the area of faith! Irony of ironies, at least in them God evokes an active response” (Laws, 126).
“Why is it that demons tremble, while sinners can sail on in blissful unconcern?” They are apparently not as blind as some members of the human race. They know that they must face the wrath of God, while “careless sinners can (mistakenly) dream that they are safe in the everlasting arms” (Krabbendam, 522).
Here James is highlighting that many people are blinded by their concept of what faith actually is, and so they relax in their false security, not realizing that their faith is actually worse than that of demons, because it is void of works.
It is not unlike the Christian who, saved by grace, decides to sit back in their salvation, and decides not to put up a fight against sin—or the predestined Presbyterian, who knows that God will save his elect, and decides that evangelism is not a priority because, after all, God will not allow his elect to perish.
The true Christian produces good works, as does a living faith.
Real and living faith must have a heartbeat and life of its own. A faith with a heartbeat lives out its beliefs actively. It produces works because that is just what faith does. A dead tree doesn’t produce any fruit, nor does a dead faith produce any works.
Abraham and Rahab demonstrate Living Faith
I admit that certain subjects can be difficult to grasp and understand. There are many mysteries in Scripture, places where you come across a passage and wonder what is going on here? So you turn to one commentary, then the next, and after you have read 6 commentaries and hypothetically spent hours on the subject, you realize they are all just as confused as you are. Nobody knows!
Well, James doesn’t see this passage as one of them. He has zero tolerance for the person who thinks differently. He says, “Listen. If you don’t get it, I’ll show you, okay? I’ll walk you through it using other passages in Scripture.”
So he turns to Abraham and Rahab.
Abraham was saved by a living faith that had works.
Abraham believed God. His belief, or faith, produced in him an obedience that moved him to be willing to take the life of his one and only son.
Here we see that Abraham’s faith was validated. It was not false, he was willing to do anything God asked of him, because he trusted in God. His faith was a real faith.
Didn’t Abraham believe in God prior to this moment? Yes. But this action seemed to particularly validate his faith in a way that his previous actions had not.
And, I would like to note, it was not his action that was highlighted in the story of him about to take his son’s life, but his faith in God that is highlighted.
At this point it is easy to think: Well, that is Abraham. He was a pretty big deal. He was the “Father of Faith.” And I think that is why James mentions him. It is not only because he was a well-known figure, but because it is one of the clearest moments when an action is directly tied to faith explicitly in Scripture.
In other words, works proved his faith was real.
But if you were at all tempted to think that referencing Abraham is sort of an unfair example, James then takes someone from the opposite side of the spectrum.
He chooses someone who not only was not a father of the faith, or a leader in Israel, but who was a woman, a foreigner, and was known as “Rahab the prostitute.”
She was the exact opposite of Abraham. Most importantly, she was not an Israelite. She was a Canaanite, and she was a sinner by profession.
James says that Rahab the prostitute was justified by works. Now, even people on the street who know very little about the Bible would say that that doesn’t make sense. Anyone, even a 5-year-old, could see that Rahab of all people was a sinner. She couldn’t be saved by her works!
But James says she was saved by her works. He is making sure everyone realizes that Rahab was not saved by the works of the law, but by the works of faith. Her works were works that came out of her faith. Her faith in God took on a heartbeat that moved her into action, to save God’s messengers.
Faith Requires Significant Sacrifice
What does all this mean to us? Why do we care about Abraham and Rahab’s faith and works? It matters because James is explaining that many have misunderstood how faith and grace work.
Abraham and Rahab both demonstrate that living faith takes significant sacrifices.
Let me explain. If we look back to Abraham’s faith, Abraham was called to trust God in the small things, but he was also called to actively trust God in the big things as well. Rahab too was given a very difficult circumstance where significant decisions were made.
This is where faith meets the road.
God calls us to act on faith in the most difficult of circumstances.
Abraham was to give up his most valued possession, one that he had longed for and loved intensely with an unmatched love.
Rahab’s faith was challenged when she had to put her own life at risk for God’s glory.
Both made significant sacrifices born out of their faith.
In our passage, James gives an example of a brother or sister in need. As I mentioned in my previous sermon, I believe James is using this example to illustrate a more robust concept.
We are certainly called to attend to the poor and needy in our midst, something we should take incredibly seriously and not just dismiss their needs with a promise to pray. And yet, I think James is after more than only helping the poor.
James’ main argument is not about being a good person, or a good Samaritan, although that is a logical and necessary part of our faith. Yes, we must, must, must not let our poor and hungry go away hungry. We should act, give, and sacrifice. But we must also remember that Jesus himself said “the poor will always be with you”.
I pray that you hear this correctly. We must, must, must help the poor—AND we should also see what other areas of our life we need to grow in – areas of life we have not acted in faith in. You might be giving to the poor. That is good.
Keep it up! BUT ALSO consider how God may be calling you to act out your faith in even deeper areas of your life that are less visible or more difficult to address—how God is calling you during this time of quarantine to be faithful in the most trying of circumstances … in all of the calamities of our lives … in the midst of coronavirus, and in the midst of difficult marriages … in the midst of cancer and the midst of financial hardship.
How will we act in faith in these moments?
Abraham was tested repeatedly. I mean, poor guy. He was tested so much.
1. He was to leave his family and go into the wilderness to an unknown place.
2. His life was in danger when a Pharaoh desired Sarah for himself.
3. He had no children until he was very old.
5. He didn’t wait for God’s promise and then created tremendous strife between his wives.
6. He finally has his son, and then learned that God wanted him to give him up.
Abraham’s faith failed the test repeatedly, and God kept working in him and sanctifying him, testing and purify his faith. Making it more and more pure through each trial.
Finally, after many failures, Abraham believed and trusted in God, and was willing to give up his only son.
It was no small thing. God required his most beloved possession – his son.
Living faith is more than listening to a sermon on your TV. It is more than having devotions and having a good moral life.
It moves you to do things that are extremely difficult, painful, heart-sinking, risky and stomach-turning.
Faith moves you to deep and difficult things, knowing that God has promised to be with you no matter what happens.
I’ll never forget the conversation my friend Nate Bonham and I had with Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian pastor from a prosperity gospel church. He had been preaching that Christianity was all about health and wealth until one day God opened his eyes. He realized he was preaching a false gospel.
So, in faith, he took steps that he knew would carry grave consequences. He knew that preaching the true gospel would mean he would lose all the money he and his church had personally invested in their church building and much more. He knew he would be cut off financially and lose a great number of his congregation.
But in faith he preached the gospel with all his heart, and he lost the building and he lost an enormous amount financially and lost many members. I know that he hasn’t yet fully recovered. But he did it in faith. He trusted that his obedience to God’s word would be honored by God. So he did it to honor the Lord.
God doesn’t call us to only be faithful in the small things. He calls us to be faithful in the big things as well. What big things is God calling you to obey in in faith that you have resisted?
Prayer and Fasting
I remember sitting across the table from a man in Peru. “Unless God does a miracle, my wife and I will never get back together.” Which he then specifically clarified, “Unless God changes her, we will never get back together.”
This is the case with many relationships. It happens in marriages, and in singlehood. We are all willing to have faith that God will be with us, up until a point. But once we have hit that point that we decide is enough, we throw up our hands as if God’s commandment no longer applies to us.
Scripture is reinterpreted, history is reorganized, and loopholes are created.
James says a living faith is an active faith that faces calamities and the greatest hardships of life. It doesn’t give up in hardship, but trusts God when he says that he will hear his children when they cry out to him.
A living faith gets on its knees and pleads with God through fasting and tears. Living faith is the persistent widow, the person who trusts that a righteous Father will hear our prayer for our wayward children, our or childlessness, our lack of work or our greatest health fears and more.
A living faith will not throw in the towel or give up when adversities hit. It perseveres in the most difficult calamities of life. It will face the greatest hardships of life on her knees.
Calvin reminds pastors that we must encourage our churches to take God at his word in those great hardships. He says,
“In like manner, the pastors of the church would not be doing ill today if,
when they see ruin hanging over the necks of their people, they were to cry out to them to hasten to fasting and weeping….[in] times of calamity.” Calvin’s Institutes, V. 1, 611.
Are you in agony over your children? Is your marriage struggling and causing you deep grief? Do you long for a spouse or for children? I must remind you, as you see this hardship…rather than throw in the towel, hasten to fasting and weeping. These are acts of faith.
Anger and Resentment
What about Anger and Resentment? How does faith show its works?
What about those who are hard to love? Those people who you hate, who you hate with a passion? Or maybe you don’t say you “hate” them, but even the sound of their voice or saying their name just makes you hot under the collar. Furious, even.
Living faith, the kind of faith that is more than words, will convict you of this. It will not allow you to hate someone God has made in his own image.
It will require of you true repentance from your hatred and anger. None of the self-justifying excuses will give you peace at night; your mind, your heart, will not give you peace until you follow the impulse of your faith. A faith that requires of God’s children “doing everything possible, as much as it depends on you, to be at peace with all men.” (Rom. 12:18)
Anger and resentment, which Jesus identified as hate, can often be directed towards neighbors, friends, or family, and can also be directed toward leaders and authorities. They can stir up emotions so hot, that you think thoughts, and say things, that you would never want repeated or recalled in the communion of the saints. With all the restrictions in place, do you find yourself struggling to love?
Or, if that is not a concern, it is possible that you can grow so hardened, that you don’t even realize how you have let yourself go?
Faith will not allow this to go unchecked. After all, a living faith is one that expresses love and compassion. It demonstrates mercy and kindness. For Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” (Luke 6:27-29)
There is no room for hatred. Living faith demonstrates fruits of obedience. It does not give room for anger and resentment to continue. It will require of you to die to self. It will push you to actively do the polar opposite of what you have been doing. It requires you to take the first steps toward reconciliation, toward praying for those who have hurt you.
This is the hard work of faith.
When Jacob’s son Joseph was taken to Potiphar’s household, his master’s wife would come after him repeatedly, day after day, pursuing him. Joseph, holding fast to his faith in God, resisted her. This cost him years of his life and the hardships of prison.
No doubt, our faith requires us to make tremendous sacrifices. One of those sacrifices highlighted in the Beatitudes is a call to avoid lust and adultery, and flee from Satan’s tactics, making whatever sacrifice necessary.
If you find yourself in a situation where you are tempted on a regular basis, be it at your workplace, your school, sports, fitness, your room, your computer or your phone, your cable or Netflix subscription, or whatever it may be, having a living and real faith means that you must be willing to make the huge sacrifice to give up any of those things.
Joseph gave up everything. If your workplace or environment is a place where your sin abounds, and exposing it or dealing with it would cause you to tremendous financial hardship, true faith requires that you don’t just talk about improving your situation. It calls you to flee it.
Jesus says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” Here Jesus himself shows that active faith saves you from hell.
This means you put the tremendous financial hit discussion on the table. It means you take action to eliminate lust and temptation. No matter the cost—embarrassment, ridicule, shame, guilt, job loss, or whatever it may be. You cannot live your faith in word, but must have an active faith. Trusting that God will honor your obedience and provide and heal you from any fallout you face. You must do whatever it takes.
Whether it be anger, lust, discontentment, marriage struggles, or anxiety, or something that God will or has revealed to you, James in this passage is calling you to activate your faith; to embrace a striving faith and abandon a faith that is no more than words; to take steps of obedience, in faith, trusting him as you do.
During my days at Covenant College, a bunch of us went rock climbing for the first time. After reaching the top of the 60-foot rock, we were told to rappel back down, which consists of you doing the exact opposite of everything your mind has been telling you to do up to this point. Rather than cling and stay as close to the rock as possible, you are supposed to let go of your grip, hold on to the rock, grasp the rope, and kick off.
There is nothing more terrifying than to trust your life to a rope and the guy down below belaying you and keeping you safe. It is absolutely terrifying, and yet it is one of the most freeing and exciting experiences as well.
When your faith is joined with action, you are doing the exact opposite of everything your mind has been telling you to do up to this point. Rather than defend yourself, control what you can, or enact vengeance, you let go of it all and literally cling to Jesus, pushing back from all that you were holding onto so tightly.
It is one of the most terrifying things you will ever experience, but it is also one of the most freeing and exciting experiences as well. For when, by faith, you rest in Jesus’s care, he provides in the most incredible ways. As we grow in our working faith, Jesus makes us more and more like him, and gives us a dependence and closeness to him that surpasses all our understanding, making us less and less like the world and more and more “a friend of God.” Amen.