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James 2:14-26

"14 What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of 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 does it profit? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. 18 But some will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe--and shudder. 20 Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that faith apart from works is barren? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, 23 and the scripture was fulfilled which says, "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness"; and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead."

In chapter one, verses 22-25, James encouraged his readers to not be only hearing the word, but to put what they hear into practice. In this long section, James is making the point that a faith that is not lived out is useless. Our faith must translate into action in our lives. We need to live by the faith we say we possess.

At the beginning of his letter, James told his readers that the various trials they were encountering were for the strengthening or purifying of their faith in God. As they handed over their current situations to God and counted on Him for their lives and identities, their faith would grow because they would come to see more and more clearly the true, good, generous nature of the God they trusted.

When we are under stress, we are tempted to hope there is an easy or quick solution to our problems. We hope that there is some program, or information that will clear up all or our external difficulties. We are tempted to believe that merely knowing something is as good as changing our attitudes and behaviors to fit with what we now know. Isn't knowing that, say, I struggle with being willing to admit wrongdoing as good as actually admitting the wrongdoing whenever it occurs?

Sometimes we are tempted to think this way about our faith in God. We hope that, because we say we trust God with our lives, He will now make our present circumstances better. We forget that the growing of our own faith, our maturity, is what God is mainly interested in bringing about, not an alleviation of our difficulties. God will have us be His mature, pure, true children and He is willing to take as long as necessary to bring this about. He is always at work to bring about our complete transformation into the sons and daughters we were created to be. Rather than taking us out of our trials, He works along with them to bring about our perfect trust in Him, our growing ability to know His rest, peace, yes, even His joy in the midst of whatever we are going through.

So if our trust in Him is what God wants to grow, it makes sense that just having an intellectual assent to God's existence is not enough. We are to have works along with our faith, which means we are to live as if God truly is the generous, loving Father He reveals Himself to be.

James begins this section with two questions, "What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him?" What benefit is there to say you know you are God's beloved child and that your only source of life is Him, and yet not live in any way as if this were true? How can one experience God's saving, healing work with this kind of faith?

James says that this "faith without works" is like seeing that someone is ill-clad and hungry and saying "'Go in peace, be warmed and filled,'" but not actually giving them anything that they need. Is there any benefit, James asks, in saying those words? Notice that in this illustration, the problem isn't that they were ignoring the poor man. The problem is in believing that the words are somehow enough, are an adequate substitute for actually getting the man food and clothing. This is not really faith, but presumption! We can see how absurd this thinking is when we consider this story. Of course, the words are not the same as actual clothing and food!

James says, though, that this is the same for us when we say we trust God but we do not work to act on the basis of that faith. It is a lovely thought that I no longer need to try and find my worth in money, worldly success, being well-liked, but how can I receive the real peace and joy that comes with this truth, if I continue to live as if my worth really is caught up in these other things?

James now turns to those who try to separate faith and works by saying, "'You have faith, and I have works." James totally opposes this idea. It is not possible to have only one or the other. You cannot have works which glorify God without faith just as you cannot have faith in God without works. You cannot show faith apart from your works because they are integrally related to each other.

James goes on to say, "'I by my works will show you my faith.'" How we live in the midst of our circumstances, how much we receive God's peace in the midst of our anxieties, shows ourselves and others the real nature of our faith, our trust in God. Are our works based in a counting on God, or in an attempt to win points with God or others? Maybe we could say that our works, that is how we live, relate to others, perform our tasks, are the fruit of either our counting on God, or not counting on Him for our lives.

To merely believe God is or exists is not the kind of faith that leads to our perfection. James points out that even demons have that kind of belief. They believe "God is one" but they don't then count on Him to be their source of life. The only behavior that this belief results in, in them, is that they shudder. Such belief is empty, fruitless, meaningless.

James ends this section with two examples from the Scriptures of true faith that brings about works. First he speaks of Abraham when he offers his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God. James makes a couple of points about the nature of faith and works from this story. First he says that "faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works..." In order for Abraham to offer up his son, he was actively trusting God the entire time. He was turning his actions over to God, trusting that God would be true to His character and to the words He had spoken to him about his descendants.

Notice that James says that Abraham's faith was completed by his works. Abraham acts out of faith and it is his faith that is made complete by his actions. Faith is the root of all right or righteous action. That takes us back to the beginning of the letter and the fact that our trials are meant to grow and purify our faith. Our faith is to grow and it grows by being acted on. Faith is not static, it must be lived out. We know this is true in our relationships with one another. I can say I trust a friend, but if I never act on this trust, my trust, and therefore my relationship, with this friend cannot grow.

The second point James makes on the story of Abraham is that the Scripture about Abraham's believing God is only fulfilled when he acts on it. Only when he lives as if God is true, is the comment on his belief in God fulfilled. And it is when Abraham acts on his trust that he is called God's friend. This tells us that trust is dynamic and the central part of a relationship. Now Abraham is God's friend, because now he has lived according to what he has come to believe about God.

James mentions Rahab as his second illustration. She acts on her belief that the true God was at work in these men and so she helps them to escape from her city. This action gave evidence of a true faith in God.

James's last point is to equate the relationship of faith and works with body and spirit. The body cannot live without the spirit; and faith cannot live unless it is acted upon. Can we trust God in the midst of our trials? Can we turn over everything to Him each day, and make room in our lives to receive His peace for us because we believe He has peace He wants to give us? Can we see that when we do not work on living by our faith, we miss out on experiencing the peace and life He wants to give us?

This is the main thing James wants us to see: we are saved by faith alone, but faith never remains alone, it becomes active. But James is aware of the opposite problem too. Works without faith, as their source, are also empty. And this can be just as big a problem. This is what we mean by legalism. We obey, but without faith in God and God's being true to his character and word. We become mere activists, doing things for God in order to win his favor, or avoid his wrath or help God out because somehow he demands our assistance. In this mode, we act as if God were a slavemaster and we are servants who don't really belong to Him, who are not really a part of His family. We miss entirely the kind of relationship God has with us in Jesus. We don't see and count on God as our heavenly Father and Jesus as our brother. We don't trust in the goodness of God to raise us up to be his beloved children and to share in every good thing He freely wants to give us if only we would trustingly receive it.

I have a friend here who is struggling with some deep problems in her marriage and her life. She tells me she trusts God as she is frantically and resentfully going about the tasks before her. As we talked about living by faith, she came to see that she was not really trusting God in the midst of her trials. She viewed her faith as an act of believing, in such a way, that if she believed "hard enough" God would change her present circumstances. She began to see more clearly that she needed to trust Him to be at work in her more than taking away her present distress, and that she needed to do things in her life that came out of an active trusting in Him. Her works were based on panic and desperation. Now she has decided to take the time each day to actively know and rest in God and to have her actions be out of the peace He gives her. Of course, this work to grow her faith will need to be repeated over and over because we are always, moment by moment to be living out of faith.

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