Megan McKenna tells the parable of a woman who wanted peace in the world and peace in her heart, but she was very frustrated. The world seemed to be falling apart. She would read the news and get depressed. One day she decided to go shopping, and she went into a mall and picked a store at random. She walked in and was surprised to see that, behind the counter, stood Jesus. She knew it was Jesus because he looked just like the devotional pictures she had seen. She looked again and again at him, and finally, she got up her nerve and asked, “Excuse me, are you, Jesus?” “I am.” “Do you work here?” “No,” Jesus said, “I own the store.” “Oh, what do you sell here?” “Oh, just about anything!” “Anything?” “Yeah, anything you want. What do you want?” She said, “I don’t know.” “Well,” Jesus said, “feel free, walk up and down the aisles, make a list, see what it is you want, and then come back and we’ll see what we can do for you.”
She did just that, walked up and down the aisles. There was peace on earth, no more war, no hunger or poverty, peace in families, no more drugs, harmony, clean air, careful use of resources. She wrote furiously. By the time she got back to the counter, she had a long list. Jesus took the list, skimmed through it, looked up at her and smiled. “No problem.” And then he bent down behind the counter and picked out all sorts of things, stood up, and laid out the packets. She asked, “What are these?” Jesus replied, “seed packets. This is a catalog store.” She said, “You mean I don’t get the finished product?” “No, this is a place of dreams. You come and see what it looks like, and I give you the seeds. You plant the seeds. You go home and nurture them and help them grow and someone else reaps the benefits.” “Oh,” she said. And she left the store without buying anything.
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters,” James asks, “if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”
We come today to the heart of God’s message through James. By way of a double negative followed by a double positive, James cuts through the fog to boldly declare what true faith in Jesus is, and what it is not. Lots of people call themselves Christians; this passage calls it like it is to separate what’s real from what’s fake. James begins with our words, insisting that…
True faith is more than what we say.
Anyone can talk a good talk. But if the walk doesn’t match the talk, it’s phony. It’s not saving faith. It isn’t following Jesus. It’s just a bunch of hot air. Useless.
On the day of judgment, there will be people who attended church and truly considered themselves Christians, who will go to hell. What they considered faith wasn’t following Jesus at all. It was just empty talk.
And you don’t have to look far to see that we each have the potential to be deceived about this. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill did a study a few years ago. They analyzed the “Save Darfur” Facebook page. Darfur is a region in Sudan where the Sudanese government’s military has pursued the genocide—the utter obliteration—of members of an ethnic group from which a rebellion had arisen against their current president. Entire villages of people were wiped out via systematic torture, rape, and murder.
On that group’s Facebook page, more than a million people indicated they were concerned and wanted to offer support. Now here’s the study. Researchers found that 99.8 percent of them never donated a dime.
By clicking a button on a social media page, they looked concerned, and they felt good about themselves. But they did…nothing. Their faith on that issue…was a fraud. Real faith is more than what we say. Real faith is more than what we click. Real faith is more than what we post. If your faith doesn’t move you to help where there’s a need, it’s fraudument, dead.
Sources: Matt McCue, “Are You a Righteous Dude?” Men’s Health (12-14); Lewis, Kevin, Kurt Gray, and Jens Meierhenrich, “The Structure of Online Activism,” Sociological Science (2-18-14)
Twice James asks, “What good is it?” What good is it to say things that sound good, but your lack of action mumbles, “I don’t really mean what I’m saying?” Real faith acts. God expects genuine believers to help one another practically.
So Paul can say in Galatians 6:10…
“Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”
Every chance we get, let’s do things that show we love, serve, and care for people. Let’s try even harder to do that among us, the family of believers.
Deedless Christianity is dead Christianity.
John Marks is a producer for the 60 Minutes television reporting show. He went on a two-year quest to investigate evangelicals: he had grown up in a church like this one, and had later walked away from the faith. He wrote a book about that quest—and his return to faith in Christ, in his book titled Reasons to Believe: One Man’s Journey Among the Evangelicals and the Faith He Left Behind.
I want to boil down the best nugget from his story. It was Christian’s generous and persistent help after Hurricane Katrina that brought him back to the Christian faith. Years after the hurricane, and long after federal assistance was spend, Christians were still showing up to help rebuild homes. The Christians who showed up crossed racial lines and barriers there in the Deep South: whites, blacks, Hispanics, Vietnamese, Cajun.” They didn’t just talk. They gave. They sweated. They served.
I want you to hear John Marks’ conclusion, because this has everything to do with why God led us as a church to move in to this YMCA, this community crossroads. Here it is, the best nugget from John Marks’ quest:
“More and more Christians have decided that the only way to reconquer America is through service. The faith no longer travels by the word. It moves by the deed.”
Philip Yancey, The Question That Never Goes Away (Creative Trust Digital, Kindle Edition, 2013)
Talk is cheap. Sweat equity and an open wallet prove genuine faith. True faith is more than what we say. Second, James continues…
True faith is more than what we believe.
In verses 18-19, James shifts to a false argument someone might come back with, writing…
“But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.”
Someone hears this warning that faith is more than what we say, and they respond, “Sounds good. You take care of the works department, I’ll handle the faith department, believing God for great things.” James comes right back with, “No way. Not a chance. For anyone who claims to have faith but all they do is sit on their butt, I’m going to show you my faith by what I do. True faith is more than believing something; it does something. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together like hand and glove.”
There’s the story about a guy who walks into a restaurant and orders a Coke. As soon as he receives it, he throws it in the waiter’s face. The waiter is ready to fight, but the man says, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I have a horrible compulsion. I can’t help it. Whenever someone hands me a drink, I throw it in their face. Please, forgive me.” Then the guy says, “I’m working hard to overcome this compulsion. Would you bring me another Coke?”
The waiter says, “Do you promise not to throw it in my face?”
The guy responds, “I’m going to do everything I can not to throw it in your face. I’m working really hard to resist.”
So the waiter says, “Okay, I’ll bring you another one.”
Soon the waiter comes back with another Coke, and the guy throws it in the waiter’s face. The waiter yells, “I thought you said you wouldn’t do that.”
The guy apologizes: “Oh, this compulsion is so strong. I promise you that I will check myself into an in-patient clinic to get some help. Forgive me. I’m so sorry.”
The guy felt genuine guilt and sorrow, so he checks himself into a clinic, and for one month he gets intense psychotherapy to deal with his compulsion. When he gets out of the clinic, he goes back to the same restaurant, and he walks in and says, “I’m cured. Give me a Coke.”
The waiter says, “Wait a minute. I had to change my shirt twice the last time you were here. Are you sure you’re cured?”
The guy says, “I know I’m cured. I promise.”
The waiter says, “Okay, if you’re cured, I’ll bring you a Coke.” And so the waiter brings him a Coke. The guy looks at it and throws it right in the waiter’s face. The waiter says, “I thought you said you were cured.”
The guy says, “I am cured. I still have the compulsion, but I don’t feel guilty about it anymore!”
Phillip Griffin, from the sermon “Broken and Repentant”
James asks and answers, “What good is belief that doesn’t lead to changed actions? It’s a sham.” Jesus called people to a radically different way of life, to actually follow him in ways that showed up demonstrably.
Think with me about the account in Mark chapter two when Jesus was teaching to a packed house. A group of friends four strong show up, carrying their paralyzed friend. The only way they can see to get their friend to Jesus is that they actually climb up onto the flat roof of the house, where they dig a hole through the roof and lower their friend straight down to Jesus. Mark tells us something powerful. In that moment, it says…
“When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’”
Maybe you’ve read this story before. But did you catch what Jesus saw? What he saw…was the faith of those four friends! Their faith was a visible thing. True faith is always visible, demonstrable, evident—not theoretical and only in your head. Real faith isn’t something we believe about God; it’s something that shows up in what you do. True faith can be seen; counterfeit faith is invisible.
And if that isn’t clear enough, James swings a hard left and comes in for the knockout, verse 18: “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” There are demons…who are doctrinally right on point! Remember that James is writing to Jews scattered all throughout the pagan Roman Empire. James is fully aware that for a Jew, the single greatest confession of faith is that God is one. Jews would recite Deuteronomy 6:4 every day…
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”
Even if you believe the right things, James warns, but your faith doesn’t move you to new actions, new ways of behaving, you may well still be headed for hell. Correct doctrine isn’t the proof of whether or not you truly know Jesus. Surveys have a lot of people saying they’re Christians. Our actions prove what we really believe.
There was the single Mom picking up groceries at the end of a long week at work. She was juggling a shopping list and finding the right items, all while trying to keep two young kids happy and not grabbing things off the shelves and candy from eye level in the check out lane. When she finally finished checking out and paying, she rolled the cart and kids to her car, only to have one of the bags rips open and spill a dozen eggs onto the pavement. The goop was on her shoes, it was splashed up onto the car, and all over the bottom of the cart.
Another Mom passed by and commented, “Oh, I remember those years!”
An employee walked past and yelled, “Don’t worry about the cart. I’ll get it when you’re done.”
A customer pulled into the parking place next to her cars, got out, and said, “I’m so sorry that happened. I’ll say a prayer for you!”
Just then a high school student was walking by and saw the mess and the frazzled Mom. She took a ten dollar bill out of her purse and handed it to the Mom, saying, “Take the kids to a drive-through on me. You could use a break.”
James would ask, which of the four had true faith? True faith is more than what we say. And true faith is more than what we believe. In verses 20-26 shifts from the negative—what true faith is not—to what true faith is. If you’re taking notes…
We can tell we have true faith by how it’s changing us:
As we see in Abraham’s conviction.
“You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.”
Faith and works are yoked partners, true faith expressing itself through works.
Abraham was the ultimate example to Jews of faith. So James shrewdly points out that their greatest hero of faith was best known for what he did by faith: he offered his only son, the child of promise, as a sacrifice to God. If you don’t know that story from Genesis chapter 22, God stopped Abraham. The point of that account is that Abraham obeyed God, because he believed God. His faith was proven by his obedience, by his works. Hebrews 11:19 explains:
“Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.”
What about the supposed contradiction between Paul and James? In Romans 3:28 Paul writes:
“For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.”
While James insists…
“You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.”
How do we make sense of both statements? Let me get right to it:
James is arguing against a wrong view of faith, while Paul is fighting against a wrong view of works.
Here’s another way to say it: Paul urges trusting in Christ; James warns against just claiming that you trust in Christ.
They are two sides of the same coin.
The person who truly trusts in Jesus for forgiveness of sin is saved. That’s Paul’s emphasis in Romans. The person who claims to trust in Jesus but shows no evidence of being saved, isn’t saved. That’s James’ warning.
You have an insert in your bulletin today that goes into greater detail. It is written by a New Testament professor who is the author of a book titled Paul vs James: What We’ve Been Missing in the Faith and Works Debate.
Again, to summarize how Paul and James complement rather than contradict one another, James is arguing against a skewed view of faith, while Paul is fighting against misunderstanding the place of works.
Sam Alberry offers a helpful visual analogy. If I spill ketchup on my shirt before church this morning, you see that I did so. It’s visually apparent, obvious, beyond question. Anyone who is paying attention will see a big red stain on my shirt.
James says the same about true faith: “You see” it, he writes, meaning, when a person is truly trusting in Jesus, their faith becomes visible, evident, and obvious by the good they do. He’s not talking about how anyone is justified before God. He’s talking about how you know someone is. Their faith works. It shows up.
Paul’s emphasis is that we are saved by faith alone, while James emphasizes that saving faith never remains alone. That’s what we see in Abraham: his conviction—his faith—is visible in his obedience. So is yours and mine. We can tell we have true faith by how it’s changing us for the better—not only as we see in Abraham’s conviction, but second, James points out…
As we see in Rahab’s courage.
“In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”
Again, James is writing to Jewish believers in Jesus. They know the Bible story he’s alluding to, from Joshua chapter two. God’s people are poised at the edge of the Promised Land. The first battle awaiting them is to overtake the great high-walled city of Jericho. Jewish spies are dispatched to get a sneak peek at what they’ll be facing.
Word gets out that spies are in Jericho. Officials come knocking at the door of a woman named Rahab, but she covers for them, lying and sending the officials in the wrong direction, while helping the spies escape. Bottom line: she puts everything on the line because she believes—truly believes—the Lord is with them. He faith is proven beyond a shadow of a doubt by her courageous actions. No one could ever dispute her faith, even though by everything other than her works, she would be denied by Jews: she wasn’t Jewish, and she was a prostitute. James holds out one of the most extreme examples possible to confront the so-not-Jesus idea that I can believe in Jesus but continue to be lazy or uncompassionate or stingy or racist or mean-spirited.
True faith works. It shows up in acts of conviction like Abraham’s, and acts of courage like Rahab’s. Genuine faith is visible, it comes out, it expresses itself in good works, motivated by the amazing grace we have seen in Jesus Christ.
I got to know Pete & Debbie Leonard at the Chicago area church we served prior to coming here. Pete had a relative commit a white-collar felony crime. He was caught, went to trial, and was sentenced to prison time. When his sentence was completed and he was released, no one would hire him. That’s a known problem for people coming out of jail and prison. It drives many back into crime.
It turns out Pete had been roasting gourmet coffee at home, as a hobby. Friends and family who tried it kept suggesting he sell it. So Pete came up with an idea. He started a gourmet coffee roasting business, and among those he hires are felons who are re-entering society and need a decent job. The business name is a nod to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s work for justice: it is “I Have a Bean” coffee.
The beans are the top one percent of quality in the world. I Have a Bean has been served in the White House, with their story told as an example of giving a second chance to those coming out of the penal system. Pete eventually took a leap of faith and left his job to commit to the business full-time. Today, ex-felons have good jobs there, roasting some of the best coffee available. It’s in yChurch’s carafes today; I Have a Bean is the coffee we’re serving right now.
Just a few verses back, James penned a radical revelation. Here it is: “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” Mercy triumphs over judgment. It always has, and always will. The reason the early church so powerfully impacted their world was because they had a faith that worked. It showed up in acts of mercy and courage and conviction and compassion.
Our world is ripe today for Christians who do more than merely talk about our faith, who show it through good works. More and more, may this become true of us—that we will be a people with visible faith, who through our faith made tangible, draw others to see the Savior.