Posted on May 13, 2015
James 2:14-26—Visible Faith
It was autumn of the year 1517, and the Catholic priest Martin Luther had a problem. He was increasingly troubled by the church’s do-this-do-that approach to godliness, especially when the required deeds had a big price tag attached.
Most recently the church had begun selling indulgences, forcing people to pay high fees to supposedly have their sins forgiven. Luther found no such requirement in God’s Word; instead, God’s forgiveness was freely available to a repentant sinner by grace. This was just one of many ways Luther saw the Catholic church of his day violating scripture; he’d made a list of ninety-five anti-biblical practices!
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his list—the now famous 95 Theses—to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. When the list went public a spiritual tsunami hit Germany, then rolled over all of Europe. Most people hadn’t realized they were being deceived by the church they’d trusted, because they had no access to the Bible in their own language. The few people who could read, couldn’t read Latin—the chosen language of the Catholic church, the only language in which copies of the Bible were available. (Luther would eventually defy the Catholic hierarchy by translating scripture into common German, giving his countrymen a new motivation to learn to read, the chance to read the Bible for themselves, and a way to recognize false teachings.) People were stunned to learn that those expensive religious rites weren’t gaining a thing—in fact, weren’t even of God.
Luther had seen salvation-by-works theology at its worst. He was firmly convinced of the grace of God available through faith—and firmly disgusted at the greed and corruption of the works-oriented church. As a result, Luther easily accepted scriptures like Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not of yourselves—it is the gift of God, not of works lest anyone should boast.” But he had a big problem with today’s passage in James, with verses like, “Faith without works is barren/useless.” (Jas. 2:20b) In fact for a time Luther utterly rejected the book of James with its emphasis on works, until he grasped the real message James was teaching.
Thanks for joining me for today’s study in our series James: Faith Meets Reality. Get your Bible and read James 2:14-26, paying attention to the words “faith” and “works.” James hits three key points in these verses.
1) Works don’t earn salvation; works give evidence to salvation. God isn’t impressed by the things we do, or by what a good person we are. Unless our sins are covered by the blood of Christ, we are lost. Period. We can’t do enough good things to earn our way into heaven. We need Jesus. But once we’re His, faith-filled works prove the change that has occurred in us because we’re saved. Faith-filled works express our gratitude to God for saving us. Faith-filled works show us to be a friend of God (James 2:23).
2) Talking about faith and demonstrating your faith are two different things. Many people talk a good game; from their words, you would suppose they’re devout Christians. But they do nothing but talk. That’s why James declared faith without works to be fruitless; Jesus said people would be recognized as godly or ungodly by the fruit yielded in the way they live (Mt. 7:20). Nothing good is produced when all we do is talk. But when we are cultivating active faith—when we are abiding in Christ—faithful works will naturally pour out of that relationship. Jesus taught, “If a man remains in Me and I in him, he will bear much fruit.” (John 15:5) True faith needs an outlet in obedient works and must have it.
3) Faith should have an obvious impact on the way we live. Real faith is miserable unless it is obedient to God (Rom. 8:5-6). James illustrates this in the extreme by saying that demons believe, but don’t act on on their belief (vs. 19). We misrepresent God when we claim to be His while continuing to enjoy ungodly activities or to neglect godly activities. We’re just not believable. A young Christian friend recently posted on Facebook that she loved the movie Fifty Shades of Grey. Listen, friends: there is nothing about that film that is God-honoring in any way; on the contrary, it’s full of things that are reprehensible to God, offensive to His holiness. Why then would a Christian “love” it? If we are His, we love what honors Him and we avoid what dishonors Him. We’re called to be holy because He is holy (1 Peter 1:16). In every way every day, our works should show the faith we claim to have.
Late in his life, Martin Luther wrote these words: “Oh, it is a living, quick, mighty thing, this faith…. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question could be asked it does them, and is always doing them. He who does not do these good works is a man without faith…. Yea, it is impossible to separate works from faith, as impossible to separate burning and shining from fire.” By then he knew that though works don’t earn salvation, they do demonstrate it.
A saved person radiates faith by way of works. Her faith is visible. She is God’s woman; no one near her doubts it because they see Him in all she does.
• Review the verses you’ve memorized so far. These are James 1:2-3, 12, 17, and 22, and James 2:13. This week add James 2:17 and 2:26. You will then have eight verses from James in your mental arsenal!
• Reread the introduction to this series, a post called James: Faith meets reality. Look over the seven suggestions for enhancing your study of James. Try the One-One-One™ method with James 2. How would you sum up the chapter in one sentence? What key word in your sentence will you choose to meditate on this week?
• Read James 3:1-12 to get ready for next week’s post. I’ll meet you here next Wednesday!
© Diane McLoud 2015