The Gospel for the Rest of Us: Talk is Cheap

Sermon by Gabe Fluhrer on December 11, 2016

James 2:14-19

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As you’re sitting down, if you’ll take your Bibles and turn to the book of James, we’ll continue our study of the book of James this evening. The passage we’ll study tonight is James chapter 2 and verses 14 to 19. You’ll find that on page 1012 if you’re using a pew Bible. Once again, welcome. If you’re visiting with us, it’s good to have you here; we’re glad you’re with us this evening. James 2:14-19. Before we hear God’s Word, let’s pray together.


Father, we are asked a piercing question by Your inspired apostle this evening. “What good is a certain kind of faith?” Father, our hearts’ desire tonight is to have genuine faith. Would You give it to us if we lack it? Would You grow it if we have it? And in all things, would Jesus be made to be more beautiful and more believable than all the things that so easily take our eyes off of Him. We pray in His mighty name, amen.


James 2:14-19. This is God’s Word:


“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 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? So 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 apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder!”


The grass withers, the flowers fall, but the Word of the living God shall stand forever and ever.


We all have those favorite Christmas movies. One of the favorites around the Fluhrer household is Elf, about the story of Buddy the Elf who comes to our world. And there’s this great scene in the movie where he’s this real elf from the North Pole and he comes across a department store Santa, which always scare kids, and this one’s no exception. And he thinks it’s the real Santa so he’s celebrating seeing Santa Claus, then he starts to recognize, “This is not the real Santa!” He starts to recognize, “This is an actor playing Santa!” but Buddy the Elf can’t quite make sense of it. So he goes up to him in front of all the kids who are cheering and the Santa is getting uncomfortable and he starts looking at him and saying things to him and finally he says to him, he says, “You’re not Santa at all! You don’t even smell like him! You smell like beef and cheese!” And here’s the deal. When he does that, what is he showing us? He’s telling us about knowing what the genuine article is. You know, and that’s what James is after tonight. He’s going to show us, in a manner of speaking, whether or not you have a beef and cheese faith or you are the real deal.


And that brings us to where we are in James 2:14-19 tonight. Remember, the whole book of James can be summarized in two words – genuine faith. That’s what this is a book about. It’s not a book about works. We’re going to come back to that again and again because of the popular misunderstanding that James is a book about works. It’s a book about genuine faith. And then we’ll also see tonight as we come to the heart of the letter there are two words that summarize chapter 2. In the first thirteen verses, which we’ve been studying – favoritism. And those thirteen verses illustrate what James said in 1:27 where he said, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and our Father is this. To visit orphans and widows and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” Then right in chapter 2, he gives us a prime example of worldliness – favoritism. And then for the rest of this chapter, 14 to 26, which forms the heart of James’ letter, he is concerned with genuine faith. What does it look like? What’s the real article? That’s what he’s after tonight.


So what I want us to see is that James teaches us that genuine faith is demonstrated not by what we say we believe but how we live out what we say we believe. Not by what we say we believe, but how we live out what we say we believe. And we’ll look at this text under two headings. In verses 14 to 17, we’ll look at – “Don’t just tell me.” And then in verses 18 to 19 – “Show me.” So those are our two headings – “Don’t just tell me,” 14 to 17; and “Show me,” in verses 18 and 19.


Don’t Just Tell Me!


Look back with me there at verse 14. “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 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? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” Now before we launch into this, it’s vital, vital to note that James has a pastoral tone throughout here. Did you notice that? Where he says, “My brothers,” he’s not here to beat them over the head. He’s asking penetrating and in some cases very stinging questions. But it’s a pastor’s letter and a pastor’s tone throughout. Another thing to qualify as we start out, James is not teaching us how to be saved by doing good works. As we come to the heart of this letter, remember that James opposes false faith and false works just as much as he opposes one or the other. If you go back to chapter 1 verse 6, what does he say? “Let him ask without doubting, for the man who doubts should not suppose he will receive anything from the Lord.” So just as much as James is opposed to faith without works, he’s also opposed to works without faith.


The Faith That Saves

And therefore, in the second place, James has already told us that we’re saved by faith and by faith alone. Throughout both the Old and the New Testament, we have this consistent teaching. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus alone, and James is no exception. Remember what he told us back in chapter 1 verse 21? He said, “Receive with meekness the implanted word that is able to save you.” So James’ message is completely consistent and consonant with the rest of the Bible. He is not coming at us now in chapter 2 and doing an 180 and saying, “Oh by the way, now I’m going to tell you how to be saved by what you do.” He’s already told us we’re saved by God’s action first. That’s vital to keep in mind as we launch out.

So what is James telling us? He couldn’t be clearer in verse 14. “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that kind of faith save him?” That’s a good translation here in our ESV of the Greek. This is the central question of the entire epistle of James and he’s giving us this question, it’s designed to get us to ask, “Do I have real faith or do I have the kind of false faith that James is opposing here?” And the answer he expects at verse 14 is, “Does this kind of faith save?” The answer he expects is, “No. This kind of faith doesn’t save at all.” So remember, not being saved by works; James isn’t opposed to salvation by faith alone. He’s saying there’s a certain kind of faith that saves and a certain kind of faith that does not save from God’s coming judgment.


An Example of Saving Faith

Then he gives us an example in verse 15. He returns to the example of a poor person. Remember he used that example right back at the beginning of chapter 2. He said there’s a poor person who comes in and you give the rich person the best seat. Now he gives us another example and says, “Here’s this poor person who comes and lacks the basic necessities of life.” Now here’s where we’ve got to translate ourselves back into James’ day. This is not somebody who needs help with a power bill, as necessary as that is. And maybe a better example, this is not somebody who’s lacking money for a cable bill. This is somebody who has the bare cloak on their back and nothing to eat for the rest of the day. That’s how he comes out in the original. And James says this person comes who is a Christian himself or herself to a group of Christians and says, “Please help me.” Notice that James is particular here in his word order. He says it’s a brother or sister. Now, of course, we should always be concerned to help the poor wherever we find them, but be sure that the Bible always makes it a point to say that especially among God’s people the poor are to be given a kind of special status.


That’s what James is telling them here. He’s saying, “You failed in this regard.” That’s what he’s saying to this congregation. They’ve come, these poor people, and have asked for help. And they’ve said, “Be warmed and be filled.” And a good way to translate that would be, “May God help you, because I certainly won’t.” That’s the force of what is being said to these poor believers. And James says, he opens and closes this section with the same question – did you notice that? “What good is it if you say you have faith? What good is it if you say, ‘Be warmed and be filled,’ and you do nothing?” And his expected answer is, “It’s no good at all. It’s meaninglessness.” That’s what he tells us.


And so what we need to see as we study James here is this. As he’s doing this, he does it like the rest of the Bible does – James, like Paul, and like his half-brother Jesus is vitally concerned that we care for the poor. He says that ought to be a basic part of any real, living Gospel ministry. He says, “Do you want to know if you have genuine faith?” What do we think about the poor? What do we do for the poor? Now we live in a time where, again, we have to translate that. Even the poorest, and I say this with some hesitation, but even the poorest in our country are better off than so much of the world’s population. So we need to be careful here what kind of poverty James is talking about. But one thing we can say for certain is this – if we claim to be Christians and we never give a second thought about helping people who do not have as much as we have in terms of financial resources and material wealth, James says our profession of faith is worth nothing. What do we think about the poor? Do we think about the poor? Throughout both testaments, we find this constant emphasis – What do you do about the poor? That’s the test of faith that James gives us right off the bat.


James’ General Principle

And then he gives us a general principle there in verse 17 to kind of close out this opening point. “So also, faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” You see what he does? Here’s the example. They don’t help, and he says this kind of faith, this faith that says and never does, is dead. Now again, put yourself in the shoes of James, a 1st century Jew writing this. What did Jewish people of James’ day avoid like the plague, so to speak? Any kind of contact with death – because that made you unclean, unable to go to the synagogue, unable to go to the temple. And James says, “If you’re professing and there’s no action in your life, you’re like a dead corpse.” He’s using strong language here, and he wants to make his point unavoidable. “Don’t just tell me! Don’t just say it!”


Show Me!


And that brings us to the second point, what James tells us here. He says, “Don’t just tell me. Show me.” Look at verse 18. “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.” So James is dealing with an objection here. He is, in essence, what the objector is saying. This objector is saying, “Well I have the spiritual gift of faith; you have the spiritual gift of works. See, I’ve got my faith; you’ve got your works.” And James has a simple and crushing reply to that. What does he say to us? He says, “Show me. You say you have faith?” He says to us, “Show me.” His message is simple and clear and we’ve got to get this straight in our minds. Good works do not save us, but good works that we perform, that flow out of our lives, demonstrate, demonstrate that we have genuine faith. That’s what James means when he says here, “Don’t just tell me, show me your faith by your works. Demonstrate the reality of it.”


And so for so many, I think, professing Christians today, good works are an optional kind of add-on to an otherwise complete faith. We’re good as far as we go, and if we get some good works done, okay, but if not, it’s no big deal because after all, we’re saved by faith. We’re all about Paul. James is kind of stern. Remember, as we’re going to see in a couple of weeks, James and Paul are in complete agreement on this point, beloved. It’s not like Paul is the grace guy, James is the works guy. They’re both in the same boat, telling us the same thing. Genuine faith always demonstrates itself with good works.


James’ Second Example

And so James gives us a second example here. He says this. He says, “Here’s another objection. You believe God is one, you do well. Even the demons believe and shudder.” He’s driving us deeper, isn’t he? He’s saying that it’s possible for us as Jews in his day did, to have the right orthodox profession of faith, to have all the right beliefs, and not be saved. “You believe that God is one.” Who is he talking to? As we mentioned this morning, the great Jewish profession of faith, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” James is looking at the person who says, “Well James, wait a minute here. I’m not like those pagan outsiders. I believe that God is one. I’m not like the pagans around me.” James says, “If that’s where you are and there is no demonstrated reality of faith in your life, your faith is on the level of demons.” And even further than that, he says, “Even the demons have the good sense to shutter! Even the demons get it enough to go, ‘I should be afraid of this one God!’” The implication here is that the person without works doesn’t even go that far.


And that lands in our community today, doesn’t it? We live in a time where there are so many doctrinal debates, and those need to be had. Let me say that doctrinal debates need to be had. But if you’re a person who all you’re interested in is doctrine and you’ve got all your “T”s crossed and all your “I”s dotted and you can talk about the Westminster Confession of Faith and you’ve read Calvin and you know all the books of the Bible but all of those wonderful and necessary and true beliefs make no impact on your daily life, then James says if that’s us, our faith is on the level of demons. That stings. That lands with us. It’s possible to have purely a head knowledge and never have it touch your heart.


Now growing up in the South that’s what we see a lot around us, particularly in our area of the country, isn’t it? Everybody kind of grew up in the church. Everybody’s a Christian. And the way the narrative goes where I came from, and you can substitute whatever schools you want but it’s kind of life, “Well you know, I grew up in the church, I heard good preaching, went off to Clemson or Carolina, kind of did my own thing” – which means I completely rejected my profession of faith and lived how I wanted – “and now I’m coming back to the church and isn’t it so great?” And I hope that’s true! I hope if that’s maybe your testimony and you’ve come back, praise God. But let’s be clear that when we say, “I kind of did my own thing” or “I kind of went wild in college,” if we went that way and that’s how we lived and we said, “I’m a Christian, I’m a Christian, I’m a Christian,” and anybody around us who saw our lives would say, “I think that guy looks like everybody else who doesn’t profess faith in Jesus,” then we need to look at our hearts. That’s what James is after here. The person who says, “I’m a Christian, I’m a Christian, I’m a Christian,” and there’s no demonstrated reality of Jesus in his or her life.


Jesus is the Perfect Example of Faith

So then the question becomes – if this stings us if this lands with us – “Where is Jesus in this passage? Is this just James rebuking us?” No. Jesus is right here because Jesus is the picture perfect example of genuine faith. When you read about His ministry, it was a ministry of preaching and good deeds. It was saying and doing. It was a perfect balance. That’s what He did. He never sent the poor person away empty handed. Jesus never said, “Be warmed and be filled,” without giving them exactly what they needed. No, Jesus is the perfect example of faith, of genuine faith for us. And never once did Jesus say, “All that matters is if you live a good life,” or, “All that matters is if you do your good works. It doesn’t matter what you believe.” He never said that on the one hand, nor did He say on the other hand, “You know, it doesn’t matter what you do, just make sure your theology is all lined up.” He said it both. He said you must have both to have genuine faith.


What About Us?

What about us? If you’re like me, you read this passage and it lands with you because you’re ashamed at how often you fail to have this kind of faith. Isn’t that right, as we look over our lives? We love our possessions more than we love giving them to the poor. We love our own way more than we love God’s way. Our good works are just lacking. What about us? Is there hope for us? Here’s the Gospel in this passage. Here’s the good news. The good news is this. If you come to Jesus empty handed with all of your love of your possessions, more than giving them to the poor, all of your love of yourself more than others, if you come to Him empty-handed, Jesus will never send you away empty handed. He’ll fill you up with love and genuine faith that spills out and over into others’ lives. Here’s what He loves to do. Here’s what Jesus loves to do. He loves to take callous people like us and make us compassionate people. He loves to make greedy people like us generous people. And He loves to make saying people like us into doing people. That’s what He’s up to. That’s what He delights to do. And all you have to do, all that it takes tonight to begin that wonderful journey of having a more genuine faith, a more authentic faith, all you’ve got to do to stop smelling like beef and cheese is admit that you smell like beef and cheese. It’s to admit that you don’t have the kind of faith that James is talking about here. It’s to admit that we need more of this. All of us do! That’s why he began, “My brothers.”


One Danger to Avoid

So let me say a couple of things in closing. I want to be very careful here. There’s a very real danger tonight, any time you preach a passage like this, that somebody who’s really wrestling with whether or not they are a Christian, hears this and goes, “Obviously I’m not a real Christian.” Let me give you two case studies here to kind of dispel that fear. The first is the person who maybe struggles deeply against a sin that just won’t go away. It might be an addiction. It might be some besetting sin you’ve had for years and you’ve prayed about it, you’ve cried about it; you’ve said, “Lord, please take this away,” and it never seems to change. And eventually, you conclude, “I must not be a Christian. I must not really be saved.” James is not talking to that person here tonight. James, in fact, would be the first one to tell you that if you’re struggling against sin, if you’re saying, “Jesus, I hate this about myself. I want to be rid of it,” James would be the first to tell you Jesus is right there in the struggle with you. He is there. He has not abandoned you. He has His own good purposes for leaving you in the struggle.


A Second Danger to Avoid

And the second is the person who may have fallen deeply into grievous sin. You know, we can get so comfortable with our little ticket sins, can’t we? Isn’t that how we pass our days so often? We never fall into the big sin. We kind of have our pet sins that we excuse and our respectable sins in the company we keep. What about the person who blows it? What about the person who has a spectacular failure? Does that show their faith isn’t real? Not according to James. Not according to the Biblical witness. After all, the man after God’s own heart, King David, managed to commit murder, adultery, and about everything else you can think of and all the commandments, and I had a professor once who thought that it may have happened on the Sabbath so he broke all ten commandments! That was the man after God’s own heart who failed spectacularly. James isn’t talking about that person either. He’s talking about the person who may have all the trappings of a Christian, may be able to walk the walk and talk the talk, but there is absolutely no heart change. There’s no desire to do good works. There’s no desire to follow after Jesus. It’s just the bare word of, “I’m a Christian like everybody else.” It’s the faith that just drifts along and it’s faith that will never save. That’s what James is against tonight.


Genuine Faith Always Challenges Designer Lives

And the other thing we see about this passage, which lands I think with all of us, is this. Genuine faith like James is talking about, always challenges designer lives. If you’re anything like me, you spent a lot of time this week thinking about, “How can I make myself more comfortable? What really makes me happy?” Those, in some instances, are really good questions to ask, but don’t they overwhelm our thinking? Don’t we try to build the most comfortable, designer lives with the latest, greatest, and best? Genuine faith is on a collision course with that because God the great designer loves us too much to let us sacrifice genuine faith for a designer life, for a life that is all about us. Because that’s what a designer life is. It doesn’t look upward to God; it doesn’t look outward to others. It looks me-ward. That’s by definition what a designer faith is. It’s all about me.


And what James says is this. He says genuine faith, when God implants that Word in us that he told us about in 1:21, when His grace saves us, when He has made us a new creation in Christ, however long it takes, however much we stumble and fail, there’s a new principle of life within us. There’s a new life that will, cannot help but fail to express itself in good works, in a life that strives after meeting the needs of others, after caring for the poor. That will happen. That’s what James is telling us. It will begin to destroy our designer lives. Aren’t you thankful for a Savior tonight who loves you too much to leave you in the grip of a designer life? Who does all He can and will do all He can and will do all that is in His good will to break that spell that so easily grips us?


And one of the best ways to do that, friends, is through mercy ministry. My kids watched, A Christmas Carol, the Disney version, the animated version, for the first time this Saturday. And there’s this scene there where he’s seen Jacob Marley – and if you know The Christmas Carol, Scrooge is getting out to shut the window and he looks down on the street and there’s a woman with her child; you know this is Charles Dickens’ London with just grinding poverty everywhere. And the woman is screaming out, “Somebody help me!” And there are all these spirits around her saying, “I wish I could help you! I wish I could help you!” And the point is very simple that Dickens was making. All these people are bound by their chains of loving money more than people and the point is so clear – in this life is when it matters that we help the poor.


And what we ought to do, what we ought to be thinking about as individuals and as a church is that we use all of our available resources to help the poor, creatively, collectively, and constantly. And one of the things that, you know we hear about our big budget deficit every week, one of the things I love about looking at our budget is our benevolences. This church does a lot. And let me say again, I hope we say this enough from the pulpit, thank you. Thank you for giving sacrificially to First Presbyterian Church. And when you look out at this city and we see all the needs and we see all the suffering, what ought to be burning within us is to say, “O Lord, send us! Let us help! Give us resources to give it away to those who need it around us.”


People magazine told the story of Coach Gary Barnett of the Northwestern University Wildcats. Now Northwestern is the smallest and most academically rigorous of the Big Ten schools. And when Coach Barnett got there in the 90s, he had one goal and one goal only. And he stated his goal on his first day of the job by ordering a Tournament of the Roses flag and putting a silk rose on his desk. And he said, “Our goal is very simple. We will make the Rose Bowl.” Well if you know about the Big Ten, Northwestern was not even in the conversation for like, the Birmingham Bowl, and I can say that because that’s where my team is going this year! I know it’s not a great bowl! They were not even in those conversations! The Rose Bowl was way off the charts. Well sure enough in 1995, under Coach Barnett’s leadership, the Northwestern Wildcats reached the Rose Bowl. And the kicker for that team, Sam Valenzisi, recalled their first team meeting. He said this. He said, “Coach Barnett told us that we needed belief without evidence. The coach asked the whole team, ‘Do you know what belief without evidence is? That is faith!’”


That may be the kind of faith that wins Rose Bowls or at least gets your team there, but belief without evidence is the very opposite of the kind of faith James tells us about tonight. The kind of faith that saves and the only kind of faith that saves is belief full of evidence, full of life, full of good works, to the praise of His glorious grace. Let’s pray!


Father, thank You for faith in Jesus. We were stung tonight by this, Lord. We ask that if we are struggling with whether or not we have genuine faith, You would reassure the downcast, reassure the struggling. Help all of us, Lord. We are so given to pride; we are so given to being hard-hearted towards others, towards the poor in particular. Open our hearts wide. Let us give. And Lord, let us prove our faith and let us never trust in our faith. Let us have that restless resting. We rest in Jesus but we’re restless to do His will. We pray these things in His name, amen.

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