Someone has said that faith is not “believing in spite of the evidence, but obeying in spite of the consequences”. When we read Hebrews 11, we meet men and women who acted upon God’s Word, no matter what the price they had to pay. Faith is not some kind of feeling that we work up, but a confidence that God’s Word is true, and that obeying it will bring God’s blessing. What kind of faith really saves a person? Is it necessary to perform good works in order to be saved? How can a person tell whether or not he is exercising true saving faith? James answers these questions by explaining to us that there are three kinds of faith, and only one of them is true saving faith.
I. DEAD FAITH (verses 14-17)
In verses 14-17, James talks about dead faith. People with dead faith substitute words for actions. They know all the right words to say during times of prayer and testimony, and can even quote the right verses from the Bible, but their actions do not measure up to their talk.
James gives a simple illustration: a poor believer came into a fellowship without proper clothing and in need of food. The person with dead faith noticed the visitor and saw his needs, but he did not do anything to meet those needs. All he did was say a few pious words: “Go in peace, be warm and be filled.” But the visitor went out just as hungry and unclothed as he came in!
In verse 14, James is saying, “Can that kind of faith save him?” What kind? The kind of faith that is never seen in practical works. The answer is “No”! Any declaration of faith that does not result in a changed life and good works is a false declaration. What kind of faith is dead faith? In verse 17, James says “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” True saving faith can never be by itself. It always brings life, and life produces good works.
In a Decision Magazine article, missionary Patrick Harris tells of his son David, who was brain-damaged. When David was very young and his family was home on furlough, many people told them, “We are praying for David.” Patrick and his wife were grateful. But one woman said, “I have Wednesday off. Give me the privilege of taking David out that day to relieve you.” Harris said, “That was what was needed – not only prayer but practical help!” An important part of praying is a willingness to be part of the answer.
II. DEMONIC FAITH (verses 18-19)
Only God can see “faith” in the heart of a person. People see our faith only by our works. Faith is like a seed planted in the ground. It is hidden from view, but if it is a living seed it will soon manifest itself by pushing its stalk up through the soil for all to see. Out of the war comes a story of faith in action. A godly chaplain in the army found a dying soldier on the battlefield, and being anxious about his salvation, he took out his Bible and said, “Shall I read a portion of Scripture for you?” But the soldier replied, “No sir, I am thirsty and need a drink of water.” At the risk of his own life, amid bursting shells, the chaplain went in search of water, and having found some, gave it to the wounded man. Then he asked again, “Shall I read some Scripture to you?” But the man replied, “No thank you, I am so cold. I am almost freezing,” The chaplain removed his own coat and wrapped it around about him, and once more asked with shivering and chattering teeth, “Now may I read to you?” Again the reply was, “No sir, I am too uncomfortable on this rough ground.” The chaplain gently lifted him up and placed him across his knees with his head in his arms and once more asked the same question. “Yes sir”, he replied, “for if what you are going to read can make a man willing to risk his own life like this to ease a dying stranger, I want to hear about it!” And there on the battlefield he was told about Jesus who died that he might live. This is the gospel in action! This is what the world is looking for today!
Then James says in verse 19, “the demons also believe and shudder.” It comes as a shock to many people that demons have faith! What do they believe? For one thing, they believe in the existence of God. They are not atheists. They also believe in the deity of Christ. Whenever they met Christ when He was on this earth, they bore witness that He was the Son of God. They also believe in the existence of a place of punishment. They live there! Not only that, but they also recognize Jesus Christ as the Judge, and they submit to the power of His Word. Yet, knowing all that, they still rebelled against God and were condemned to hell.
In verse 19, the word “shudder” or “tremble” meant to be “rough on the surface”, “to bristle”. It has the idea of making your hair stand on end and goose bumps to appear. That’s the way the demons respond to God and to His Son, Jesus Christ!
III. GENUINE FAITH (verses 20-26)
Dead faith touches only the mind; demonic faith involves both the mind and the emotions; but genuine faith also involves the will. The whole person plays a part in true saving faith. The mind understands the truth, the emotions desire the truth, and the will acts upon the truth. Faith and works go together.
Pastor John MacArthur says it very clearly in his sermon entitled “Living Faith” (www.gty.org/resources/sermons/59-16/living-faith). Preaching about James 2:21-26, Pastor MacArthur says: “There is a faith in God, there is a faith in Christ, there is a belief of Scripture, there is a belief of the gospel that does not save from hell. . . . It is possible to believe in God, to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, to even believe that what Christ did He actually did, to affirm the cross and the resurrection and never be delivered from sin and never be given eternal life. This is what James would call ‘dead faith’.” That’s what he called it in verse 17, and now he says it again in verse 20 and again in verse 26.
In verse 20, James responds to the unwillingness of his readers to recognize the connection between faith and works. He says: “You foolish fellow”. The Greek word can be translated “empty” in the sense that they are “without spiritual life”. James goes on to say, “Can’t you see that faith without works is useless”? The Greek word “arge” means “barren”, “unproductive”. Faith that fails to produce genuine works motivated by willing obedience from the heart is a dead faith. It demonstrates that it has never been alive because there has been no external evidence sufficient to remove any doubt. Righteous behavior is an inevitable result of genuine faith.
In verses 21-25 James proves his point by giving two examples of true living faith from the Old Testament: Abraham and Rahab, described as “our father” and “the harlot”. The evidence for Abraham’s genuine faith was his willing obedience to God’s command to offer up his own son, Isaac, on the altar. Because of his obedience, Galatians, chapter 3, teaches that Abraham is the spiritual father of all true believers..
James 2:22 reads, “You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected.” The Berkeley version says it this way: “You see how his faith cooperated with his works and how faith reached its supreme expression through his works.” Abraham’s works made his faith complete. In verse 23 Abraham is called “the friend of God”
On the opposite end of the social and moral spectrum, James now chooses Rahab as an example of true living faith. Even though Rahab was a Gentile and a prostitute, James says “Likewise also”, telling us that the illustration of Rahab teaches the same lesson about faith as the illustration of Abraham: “God saves, not because of one’s righteousness, but because of one’s faith.” Remember: only God can actually see our faith. We see genuine saving faith only by works. Rahab demonstrated her saving faith by her words to the spies in Joshua 2 saying, “… the Lord your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth below”, and by her willingness to hide the spies at the risk of her own life and the lives of her family members. Joshua 6:25 and Matthew 1:5 tell us how God blessed Rahab. She was grafted into the nation of Israel, became the wife of Salmon, and was an ancestor in the line of David and the Lord Jesus Christ. She is also mentioned in Hebrews 11 as a woman of faith.
CONCLUSION AND APPLICATION:
In verse 25, the apostle James states his conclusion one more time: “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead” Do you have living faith? Do you have saving faith? Is it evident to those around you? Is it evident to you? You may have been baptized, you may have made a public or private profession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. You may be attending a church at the present time. You may be in the choir or teaching a Sunday School Class. You may be on the deacon or elder board. You could even be a pastor and not have a saving faith that manifests itself in a deepening walk with Jesus Christ and increasing joy in serving Him and obeying his Word. I’m not saying this to point the finger at anyone or embarrass anyone. I just want you to be sure if there might be any doubt. Good works are the proof that Jesus Christ is living and reigning in your life. As Jesus said in Luke 6:46, “And why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?”
May our faith be genuine and evident to the world around us, and may we enjoy the privilege of being children of God through faith evidenced by works (Ephesians 2:8-10).