Sermon for Sunday, March 27th, 2022 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)
Old Testament reading:
[Gen 22:1-14 ESV] 1 After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2 He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” 3 So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. 4 On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. 5 Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” 6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. 7 And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” 8 Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together. 9 When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. 11 But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called the name of that place, “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”
New Testament reading:
[Jas 2:14-26 ESV] 14 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. 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.
[Mat 7:21-27 ESV] 21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ 24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
What is it that James says demon’s believe?
“Even the demons believe—and shudder.”
They believe merely THAT GOD EXISTS. They believe “that God is one.”
Here we have a reference to the Shema—that phrase in Deuteronomy that has been a mantra for the Jewish people. “Shema” means “hear” or “listen.” And this is short for the whole phrase, “shema yisrael adonai eloheinu adonai echad.” – “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.”
Truly a beautiful theological and Biblical truth. There is one God. There is none other.
But merely believing this fact does not impress James. He critiques those whose “faith” does not extend beyond this fact. Perhaps a few other basic theological truths may also be held by such people. But James’s point is that this is no REAL FAITH, for even the demons believe that God exists.
But demons don’t believe God is sovereign, or they wouldn’t be futilely fighting against Him.
And demons don’t TRUST in GOD. Rather, they trust in themselves.
Demons, in short, do not have saving faith, they do not truly believe in the Lord Jesus Christ
And so we understand that James is using a definition of “believe” that is different from how we commonly use the term; how Paul and John and others speak of belief and faith. Usually when we speak of faith, of believing, it means assent to the propositions of the Scriptures; trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the God, you will be saved.”
But James here uses the term “belief” to be something like “understanding.” The demons UNDERSTAND that there is a God. And all people, except fools (the Biblical term for atheists) UNDERSTAND that there is a GOD. But they do not BELIEVE in God in their hearts.
Those who “believe” just as the demons “believe” have no real faith in the Lord. Deists believe in the existence but they don’t know him. They don’t know the saving grace of Jesus Christ, the new birth, the changed life, the hope of eternal life.
So we see James using the term “belief” in a different way. He really means their beliefs are limited, they are not saving beliefs, they are not truly believing in the Lord at all. They merely understand some truths. Keep that in mind, because later we’ll re-read some of James with definitions in mind.
That is first to understand. “Belief” for James is “mere understanding.”
Similarly, James has a different definition in mind of the word “faith.”
Now, certainly the Christian faith of James is the same as the Christian faith of Paul and all the other disciples. But the definition of faith that James uses is different. Again, “faith” here is “mere understanding.” It is a not a saving faith, not a trusting in Jesus. This is clear by the fact that James asks “Can THAT FAITH save him?” While salvation indeed comes through faith, it doesn’t come through “THAT FAITH.” “THAT FAITH” is no faith at all; it is mere understanding at best, but not assenting to the propositions of the word of God nor trusting in His sovereign will.
And from “THAT FAITH” no works issue forth.
But for the Christian, who has true faith, good works arise by natural consequence.
When James speaks of “faith shown by works” THERE he is speaking of TRUE FAITH. That is the second definition we must keep in mind.
1st – “belief” for James is false belief. And “that faith” is “false faith.”
2nd – “faith shown by works” is true faith.
Sometimes James even shortens thre phrase “faith shown by works” and calls it merely “works.” This is because he is differentiating it from that false faith that does not issue forth works. This can be confusing indeed, but we must keep in mind that when James later says “we are saved by works” he means “we are saved by a faith that produces works.”
Now, I’ve critiqued theologians in the past for “interpretive gymnastics,” jumping over backwards to see a view of the text other than what it actually says. And perhaps one might complain that I’ve done a back handspring to understand James 2 in a Calvinist framework. But I am merely using the simplest of all Biblical tools for understanding the text. That simple, and necessary tool, is call “comparing Scripture with Scripture.” It is also called “the analogy of faith” or even fancier in Latin the “analogi fide.” But all that really means is that we start with the premise that the Scriptures do not contradict one another, and we are to use the simple and clear texts to better understand the more difficult ones. Not all texts are easy to understand. Peter admits that Paul is sometimes hard to understand. He could add James here to that comment. So we understand James not through interpretive gymnastics, but making clearer sense of his statements by comparing them with the rest of Scripture. And in the rest of Scripture we see over and over and over and over again the teaching of Salvation by Grace through Faith, works being excluded from the equation.
So to properly understand James we have to realize how he is using his terms. And we have to realize he’s not opposing the rest of the Scriptures which teach salvation through faith alone.
The doctrine of salvation through faith alone, Sola Fide, is prominent and clear in the Bible.
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, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
John 5:24 – “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life.”
Romans 3:28 – “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from the works of the law”
So we have to understand James in that greater context. He can’t be speaking against Sola Fide.
What then do we do with verse 24. Boy oh boy! Verse 24.
v. 24 – “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
James and Paul use the same terms. They even both appeal to the same Genesis story of Abraham.
BUT THEY DON’T HAVE THE SAME DEFINITIONS IN MIND.
Remembering how James is using the terms in this passage, we can understand the verse more clearly in saying:
“You see that a person is justified BY A FAITH THAT PRODUCES WORKS and not by A FALSE FAITH THAT IS DEVOID OF WORKS.”
The whole statement is really verses 20 through 26:
Let’s read it again importing the definitions James is using:
[Jas 2:20-26 ESV] 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that UNDERSTANDING apart from A FAITH THAT PRODUCES WORKS is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by A FAITH THAT PRODUCES 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 A FAITH THAT PRODUCES WORKS and not by UNDERSTANDING alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by A FAITH THAT PRODUCES 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 UNDERSTANDING apart from A FAITH THAT PRODUCES WORKS is dead.
Understand this then, what is James getting at? Or, to ask this another way, how can we apply what James has said?
Well, there are two teaching he’s keying in on. First, he is against easy-believism, and second he is promoting good works, not as necessary to our salvation but as a proper fruit of true belief.
1. Against easy-believism.
The error of easy-believism is a form of hypocrisy. It only gets half of Paul’s message from Romans 10. It says that you must “confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord,” but it discounts the remainder which is “that you must believe in your heart that God raise him from the dead.”
It is hypocrisy when a person signs their name is a Bible saying “on such-and-such a date I came to faith in Jesus Christ” but then forget about him entirely and live entirely unchanged. True faith, as James is getting at, produces good works.
You may show your faith by a signature in an un-used Bible, I’ll show my faith by working for the Lord day by day, hour by house, praying to Him, caring for others, mortifying sin, glorfying Christ. True faith leads to these things.
This is not to say that such good works take the place of God’s grace for our justification, nor is it to say that they must be added to God’s grace for our salvation. Rather, what James (and the Bible as a whole) is saying is that “saved by the Grace of God and having faith in Him, it is natural (in our new nature) to work for his kingdom.”
When a person immigrates from one land to another it is customary, if he loves his new nation, to learn the language, adopt the customs and work for the good of that nation. But if a person were to move to a new land, avoid learning the language, never adopt the customs of that place, and even work for its destruction while caring more for the land of their birth, you’d say “they are not a citizen of this land.” “They do not belong to this kingdom.” They may SAY that so, but their actions prove otherwise.
Likewise the person who merely says they believe in Christ but is absent of fruit is not a member of the kingdom of God. A difficult theological question might be “how much fruit is necessary.” But the Bible doesn’t quantify it; rather it is either on (1) or off (0). Like a light switch.
So James is against easy-believism, and he is promoting good works.
2. Promoting good works.
And it is GOOD to promote good works. Good works are good. We sometimes forget to remember that, as we are keen to emphasize salvation through faith by the grace of God.
But in response to the new birth, we live in new ways. We are to seek to do good works.
Not only does James promote this idea, but it is said by Paul and by Jesus as well.
Paul is Galatians 5:6 says, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only FAITH WORKING through love.”
See, faith is to go forward, not sit still. It is to be alive, not dead.
Paul also says in Romans 1:5 that Jesus Christ is him “through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the OBEDIENCE OF FAITH for the sake of his name among all the nations.”
The OBEDIENCE OF FAITH. The results, the works, that come from a true faith.
Then Matthew 7 Jesus tells that believers will be recognized by their fruits. The fruit that comes from the good tree is the good works that come from the believers.
The correct way to speak about works is not that they are a necessity UNTO salvation, but an inevitable fruit of our salvation in Christ. It is not that MUST do good works, its that we WILL do good works because we are in Christ and have the Holy Spirit living in us. [REPEAT]
James is writing to Christians to encourage them to produce good works from their faith.
And so we should ask ourselves, “How does faith make a difference in your life?” How does faith lead you to good works. Where might we grow in obedience, in love, in fruit?
I hope it is not merely that your name in a Bible, or in a baptismal certificate, or in the membership of a church. Those are all good things. But the paper is a dead tree, the words of God are living. And for those who have heard and believe the word of God, we WILL go forth in His service.
Let us then seek to do good works. To help others. To donate to good causes. To flee from sin. To pray. To read the word. To be in the fellowship of believers. Having the fruit of the spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Isn’t that interesting – many good works are attitudes. Even if you don’t have the money or time to donate, you can do great things with joy, peace, patience, self-control, etc. We all have many opportunities to do these good works.
But, we also want to act. When a person comes to you with some struggle, yes, say “I will pray for you.” But also say “how can I help you?” Do you need a meal? Do you need a ride? Do you need a friend to listen? Say, “I am not merely hearing you, I am here for you.”
Show your faith by your works. Let the love of Christ lead you in all that you do. And in response to the salvation that the Lord has already won for you, praise him in all your deeds. Praise be to God. Let us pray.