Ah, the book of James. Arguably one of the most difficult books in the New Testament. So much so that Martin Luther at times wished it had never been written, simply because it is so easy to misinterpret, and largely because of this section we are about to venture through. Luther said the position of a preacher is a precarious one… for on one hand, one must preach justification by faith alone, and yet also one must preach on the necessity of good works. For if one only preaches faith, he gets a bunch of false converts who do nothing, but if he preaches works he gets a bunch of self righteous legalists. So my danger is great here, as I try to walk the tightrope of works and faith. I tell you, it makes me tremble inside, for to not keep the balance is to mislead, and perhaps greivously wound those God has given me to care for, and in my opinion, nowhere is the tension between faith and works more clearly displayed than this section of James. James has a clear concern that his hearers are not grasping what saving faith is, and I believe it is evident from the text alone that he has written to refute the idea of a saving mental assent; an assent that acknowledges Christ as savior and God, but does not go any deeper to teh heart of the gospel. James uses strong language to refute this error, and I think we can see a good example of how our hearts should react to what has been coined today as easy believism. He says things like faith without works is dead. He compares some of his heaers faith to that of the devils, and makes one of the more confounding statements in the New Testament: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Oh brethren, this is not something to pass over lightly, but it should stop us in our tracks, and make us scratch our head and ask God “What does this mean?” How does this fit into the rest of the New Testament? Would Paul be able to sit at the same table as James? The tension is clear… Paul is clear… by no works of the law shall flesh be justified. Yet, here is James. Is he contradicting Paul and thus is the scripture contradicting itself? Or are Paul and James in agreement? Can I marry James to Romans? My answer to you is yes, you can. And for this reason Paul does not speak of a lifeless faith unaccompanied by works, but of a faith that radically changes our beings and propels us into the very things James says prove justifying faith in our hearts.
To Prove my assertion, we must ask ourselves one great and vital question. A question if answered wrongly could spell our doom. “What is faith? And how does it change me?” For years I pondered this question. I longed to understand it, for I knew as I know now that to misunderstand this and teach my misunderstanding was a one way ticket to destruction. So, let’s take a minute to look at the core of all motivations, good deeds and sin, and see if we can’t come to a deeper understanding. Knowing that God gives understanding, let us ask Him for it knowing as James says that He gives liberally without reproach. It is my firm belief that all men always do what they believe will make them most contented, and ultimately happy. From the zen buddhist to the suicide bomber. From the hardcore criminal to the man who hangs himself. We all chase after the things that we believe will make us most contented and ultimately happy. I hold this truth to be self evident, but just in case it isn’t, let me ask you this: Why do you do what you do? When you sin, is it not because you believe there is something in it that will please you? Something in it that will fulfill you? Of course you do. You wouldn’t do it otherwise. Even all the way down to the man who kills himself. What man would attempt suicide when he is happy and in great circumstances? No, it is the ones who believe that in killing themselveas they will have release from their sufferings. Death would be better than life, oblivion better than pain. Some are even duped into believing that Hell is better than what they suffer here. So, what of good deeds? Is the motivation not the same? Is it not done because one believes it will bring something of value to not only the recipient, but also the doer? Even Kant can’t escape this truth when he speaks of dispassionate virtue. He neglects to realize that the reason he seeks to be dispassionate in duty is because he believes deep down that this is the best, most contented way for a man to live. Now did anyone notice how many times I used the word “believe?” (7 times) It is important, because you will chase after, worship, and fight for whatever you believe will give you satisfaction. We are hard wired this way. Our problem is not that we seek after fullfillment, but that we seek it in all the wrong places. Places that we have been told by God Himself won’t pay out anything but misery and death. The problem is, we just don’t believe Him. See, the issue is not that man is faithless, it is that we put our faith in all the wrong places, and usually never in the one place that will truly pay off. Yes, even in the world, faith produces works. That’s how you know where your faith really is. The man that believes he will have fulfillment in sex has no choice but to seek sex like water, and in that he does the work of fornication and adultery. The man that believes being violent will fix his problems and bring him peace is a violent man. Likewise, the man that believes that knowing Christ and God in him will follow after Him and spare no expense in doing so. And by nature of chasing what he believes will satisfy him, will disdain and walk away from every other competing source of satisfaction. He will cut out eyes and limbs to have what he desires. In this, all men are alike. We will sacrifice whatever it takes to have what we believe will be of most benefit to us, without exception. And this belief, this faith always produces action… this is the crux of what James is saying! If a man says he has the faith that saves him from sin and the world, but continues to find his life in sin and the world, then that man is deceived at best, and a fraud at worst. His faith is not faith at all, it is a dead thing. It’s not breathing. Oh, he will still have works indeed, but his works will manifest where hs faith truly is. This is why James says what he says in 2:18. The devils know who God is, they know who Christ is, and I would venture that they know what He has done better than most, and yet it makes them shudder. They hate Him and who knows where their faith lies? But I tell you this, they would not have fallen if they had not believed it possible to ascend to the throne of the Most High. And neither would we for that matter. No, indeed by an act of belief man fell, and by an act of belief, man is restored. This begs the question again. What is saving faith?
I’m glad you asked. Saving faith is believing in the person of Christ. It is believing first that He is who He says He is. It is believing that He paid the penalty for your sins on the tree and that apart from His payment, you are damned because you cannot earn God’s pardon, you are too bent. No amount of good deeds can make you love God. No amount of good deeds can take away the stain of sin. Saving faith is a belief that in dying for us, Christ has purchased out forgiveness and the way to God is clear, God is reconciled to us. Saving faith says I will be reconciled to HIm. Saving faith believes that true satisfaction is found in knowing who God is and in knowing Him in our lives as God. Saving faith believes that because we are reconciled to God and He is all we need we have no need for the lies we used to chase after. His commands are ways for us to see him and know Him more in our lives, and in that respect His commands are not a burden, for they will cause us to have more of the one we must have! Saving faith loves Jesus, because He is ever increasingly everything we need. It holds on to Him because it realizes without Him no satisfaction forever. It must have Him and is miserable without Him. This faith produces action. Actions of good will toward men because we have no need of men or their things, or their opinions of us. We have God’s good pleasure in Christ. It produces compassion in our hearts because we become what we behold, and He is compassionate, and it is our joy to behold Him, and be like Him. For saving faith also realizes that we are made and saved so that we might bear His image and that in doing so we will be satisfied. It is after all, the best way to be. This faith produces the fruit of the Spirit: Love, joy, peace, ect, for we know the promises of God are yes and true in Jesus. Does it change the way one lives? You had better believe it. AAs the sun of faith rises in our hearts, it ever more increasingly changes our lives. This faith that justifies also sanctifies. And if a man is not being sanctified, he has no reason to believe that he is justified. Now the question is, do you have the faith of which I speak?