Main Idea: Saving faith transforms you.
Last week, we started asking the question, “Can your faith save you?” We talked about how faith and works are related to one another. The Bible says that we’re saved by grace through faith, and yet genuine faith goes on to walk in the good works that God calls us to do out of joy. We’re going to talk about that even more this week, focusing more on the works side of things.
I think we tend to want to separate faith and works because most of us know that our works are lacking. We know that we don’t do enough. But the point in talking about doing good works isn’t to ask whether you do enough, but rather to ask, does your lifestyle reflect your faith?
Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 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. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 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? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. (James 2:20-26)
Father, help us to have faith that shows itself through works. Help us to trust You so much that we serve You and have a faith that’s alive. Help us to glorify You. In Jesus’s name, Amen.
I read a true story about a man in a small town in Indiana who robbed a bank. He was caught right away and he spent 10 years in prison for his crime. Ten years later, on the day that he was released from prison, he went back to the same bank and tried to rob it again. In the 10 years that he was in prison, he didn’t learn not to rob banks.
We might say that he’s not the brightest crayon in the box, but how often do we keep making the same mistakes over and over again?
Proverbs 26:11 says:
Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool who repeats his folly. (Proverbs 26:11)
I think we’ve all acted a little foolish like that from time to time.
Sometimes it can take us a long time to learn very simple lessons, and sometimes we never learn them.
I love how James doesn’t beat around the bush. Verse 20 starts by asking, “Do you want to be shown, you foolish person…” That’s like saying, “Hey, dummy, listen up!” I don’t necessarily recommend starting a conversation like this.
For one thing, we don’t usually have the authority of God to back us up. Like Moses, Paul, and all of the other writers of the Bible, James was writing this under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. So they aren’t just his words, but God’s words through him.
Secondly, the things we most often want to call people foolish about usually don’t rise up to the same level of importance as what James is addressing in this passage. We want to call people idiots when it comes to politics, or differences of opinion, or even driving. And even when we have important theological or philosophical disagreements with unbelievers, the vast majority of the time, calling people dummies isn’t going to help.
But James is talking to Christians who really should know better about a hugely important topic. Look at verse 20 again.
Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? (James 2:20)
Apparently, some believers were saying that you can be a Christian without doing the things that Christians ought to be doing. They were saying that you can have faith without works. And the thing is, that sounds very close to the truth. Paul even wrote in Romans 3:28:
We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Romans 3:28)
And the truth of the matter is, we can’t possibly be saved through what we do. We can’t be good enough. We were dead in our trespasses and sins, and a dead person can do nothing.
But that’s actually different from the situation that James was addressing. James wasn’t saying that you need to do works in order to be saved. He was saying that if you’re saved, your faith will cause you to do works. If you trust in Jesus, and follow Him, you’ll begin to do things that glorify God. You see, the more you rest in God’s grace, the more you’ll want to rejoice in God by doing good things. And to say otherwise is foolish, and that kind of faith is useless.
It would be like saying, “I love my wife, I just don’t want to do anything she asks me to do.” No, if I love my wife, not only will I do things she asks me to do, I’ll do them with joy. I’ll do things for her without even being asked to do so. Because if we love each other, we’ll happily commit to serving each other all of our lives.
And James was saying that all of this ought to be completely obvious. It ought to be obvious that faith and works go together, and that faith without works is useless.
In other words, a consistent Christian saved by grace will serve God. A consistent Christian saved through faith will do works that display his or her faith.
James gives a couple of examples of how that’s shown in the Old Testament. The first is of Abraham. Verse 21.
Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 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. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:21-24)
Remember, James is writing primarily to Jewish believers, so they would have highly respected Abraham. Abraham is the father of the Jewish faith. And if you’re familiar with the story, you know that God didn’t even really want Abraham to sacrifice his child, so God stopped Abraham from doing it before he did it. God just wanted to test Abraham’s faith. So Abraham’s faith was completed, or shown to be mature, by his works.
The second example that James gives of the relationship between faith and works from the Old Testament is Rahab. Verse 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? (James 2:25)
When the Jews were about to enter the Promised Land, Rahab lived on the edge of the city Jericho. The Jews sent some spies into Jericho to see how they should go about entering. Rahab took them in, protected them, and then sent them off in another direction from the people who were pursuing them. This was evidence that she feared God, because she knew that God had given the Jews the land. She believed God, and it was counted to her as righteousness.
But it’s interesting that James used Rahab as an example at all. Abraham would have been seen as a person who had a lot of works, but Rahab would have been seen as a person who had very few works. She was a prostitute. She hadn’t been living a life following God. She was an immoral pagan. And yet, James says that she is also a prime example of someone who was justified by works.
So we have two people on what we would call opposite ends of the spectrum. Abraham, who had a lot of works, and Rahab, who had almost no works. But both are said to be justified by works because their works demonstrated their faith in God.
You see, the amount of good works isn’t the point. God doesn’t look at how many good works we can do to determine whether or not we can save ourselves. No. The point is simply that saving faith transforms you so that you begin to serve God practically in your life. And if you can’t see how your life has changed you and is changing you since becoming a Christian, I encourage you to repent, and embrace the gospel. Because when you believe the gospel, you will come alive to do good works, rejoicing in what Jesus has done for you.
The amount of good works isn’t the point. The relative greatness of the goods works isn’t the point. The point is, are you seeking to obey God, rejoicing in what He’s done for you?
Jesus even made it incredibly simple in Matthew 10. Jesus said:
Whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward. (Matthew 10:42)
Do you see how incredibly simple good works are? God doesn’t tell everyone to sacrifice their only son. That was a one time thing that wasn’t even ultimately what God wanted Abraham to do because it was really about how God would sacrifice His only Son for us. And most people will never be given the opportunity to provide safety for Jews like Rahab, although we should certainly be willing to do these things as they’re needed, just like it was needed during World War II. But that’s usually not a daily thing for us.
But on a daily basis, it is possible to give someone a cup of cold water. It is possible to do simple acts of service. Sometimes we think that serving God needs to look like moving a mountain, and I’m not saying that’s never the case, but maybe serving God on a daily basis looks more like serving and playing with a little one made in the image of God. Maybe it’s less about what we might call the big things, and more about humbling ourselves in all the little things.
In fact, I’m becoming more and more convinced that what we usually call the big things really aren’t the big things, and the little things really are the big things.
You’ve probably heard the story about the girl who saved the starfish on the beach, but you probably haven’t heard it with the ending that I read this last week. A young girl was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement.
She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. You can’t begin to make a difference!”
The girl seemed crushed and deflated. But after a moment, she bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and replied, “Well, I made a difference for that one!”
Here’s the part I heard for the first time this last week. The old man then looked at the girl inquisitively and thought about what she had done and said. Inspired, he joined the little girl in throwing starfish back into the sea. Soon others joined, and all the starfish were saved.
It’s true that we probably can’t do a lot by ourselves. God isn’t asking any one of us to do everything. That’s why He gives us spiritual gifts, so that each of us can be useful in unique ways in the church. God isn’t asking any one of us to do everything, but He does call each of us to display our faith in real, often simple ways, so that all of His will is accomplished.
And if we’re not doing our part in that, our faith is kind of useless. Verse 26.
For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. (James 2:26)
So, the question is, do you have a living faith?
I think Titus 2:11-12 perfectly describes the relationship between faith and works as well. It says:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age. (Titus 2:11-12)
God’s grace trains us to renounce ungodliness. And despite popular opinion, the primary way that we renounce ungodliness is not angry ranting on Facebook. We renounce ungodliness by living godly lives in the present age. We repent of sin, not just by asking for forgiveness, but by turning away from sin, and doing things that glorify God. But we do all these things not to earn God’s grace, but because God’s grace inspires us and even trains us to be molded into the image of God.
Jesus said it like this:
If you love Me, you will do what I command. (John 14:15)
So let’s look at some of the things that Jesus commanded. Matthew 5:16.
let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:16)
Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5:39)
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:44)
Now, I realize I just chose three commands from one chapter of the Bible, but these are the kinds of things that Jesus commanded. He commanded that we love people. That we serve people, even evil people who we might consider to be our enemies. Jesus commands that we worry less about tomorrow, and less about our rights, and be more concerned with how we can give glory to God, shining the light of Jesus in us before others.
And if that’s the passion of your heart, and your life begins to reflect that, then you have the kind of faith that saves. It’s not that anything that we do saves us, but that the same grace that God gives us to save us also transforms us.
Have you received that grace into your life?
Pastor Chris Huff has been with us since July 2009. He and his wife, Abby, have four children. Chris is originally from St. Louis, MO and even though he was raised as a city boy, he has a small town heart. Chris is all over the internet, so you can find him on Facebook, Twitter,… (read more)
James is one of the most simple and practical letters in the New Testament written to encourage and instruct believers. The fact that this letter is in the Bible is interesting, though, because it actually almost didn’t make the cut. Some well-known Christians throughout history didn’t like it or think that it measured up to… (read more)