Faith without deeds
These exhortations were given by me between 1999 and 2005. That was a long time ago, and I have grown a lot since then. They may not reflect my current beliefs.
Last time I exhorted, three weeks ago, I talked about the importance of faith. I talked about how men like Noah, Abraham, and David were forgiven because of their faith, and I reminded us that we too can be forgiven anything if we have faith.
Today I want us to think about the impact our faith should have on our day to day lives. I want to do that by looking at the letter of James. It is a fairly short book, and I want to read all of it to you this morning. From time to time I’ll be breaking off from reading it to summaries what has been said.
There are around half a dozen different themes in James. He reminds us that trial is the equivalent of spiritual exercise, and he teaches us simple rules about how we should live. Faith without works is dead says James, and the tongue is the most dangerous part of our bodies. Earthly wisdom is contrasted with heavenly, and we are exhorted to submit ourselves to God. An of course, James tells us in no uncertain terms “You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.”
Please open your Bibles at James chapter 1.
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings.
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. Those who doubt should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; they are double-minded unstable in all they do.
The believer in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the one who is rich should take pride in their low position, because they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business.
Blessed are those who persevere under trial, because when they have stood the test, they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.
When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by your own evil desire, you are dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.
Why should be consider it joy when we face trials of many kinds? It is through trials that God makes us mature and become complete. It is like taking bodily exercise. If you just sit still all the time, relaxed and doing nothing, your body becomes unhealthy. We all know this. We also need to be exercised spiritually, testing of your faith develops perseverance, and blessed are those who persevere under trial, because when they have stood the test, they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for human anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Those who listen to the word but do not do what it says are like people who look at their face in a mirror and, after looking at themselves, go away and immediately forget what they look like. But those who look intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continue to do this, not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it – they will be blessed in what they do.
Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
These three paragraphs give us some very practical tips about how to live as a follower of Christ. There are five points you could write down on a small card and keep them in your pocket:
- Do not be angry
- Get rid of moral filth and keep yourself from being polluted by the world
- Don’t just listen to the word – do what it says
- Keep control of your tongue
- Look after orphans and widows – the disadvantaged – in their distress.
Its almost a five point summary of the sermon on the mount. James is reminding us here that we don’t need great volumes of rules and regulations to follow Christ and to please God. There are simple rules to follow, not pages and pages and pages of legislation.
My brothers and sisters, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favouritism. Suppose someone comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the one wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the one who is poor, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong?
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbour as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favouritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.
Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!
James is saying here that showing favouritism is essentially the same as not loving your neighbour as yourself. How is this the case? How would you feel if you were rich and every meeting you went to was interested in you and what you did. The imagine you suddenly lose that money, and suddenly your brothers and sisters aren’t interested in you any more, or perhaps even judge you, thinking you must have done something terrible for God to punish you like that.
It wouldn’t make you feel very good would it?
If you discriminate against people, based on outward appearance, you are, in effect, doing that to others; you are not loving your neighbour as yourself. Instead, you must speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if people claim to have faith but have no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that–and shudder.
You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a people are justified by what they do and not by faith alone.
In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
This is arguable the main point of James’ letter. It is certainly the most famous. To believe in God must also mean that at the very minimum you try your very best to love those around you. We don’t always succeed. We all fail often. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. If we don’t even try then there is no point in believing in God. Faith without deeds is dead in the same way that a tree that never produces leaves is dead. If a tree is alive it produces leaves. In turn those leaves support the life of the tree. If we have faith then our reaction to the world around us is modified by that faith, and our modified reaction keeps our faith alive.
Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers and sisters, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Those who are never at fault in what they say are perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.
When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed, but no one can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
Perhaps our most important action is what we say, closely followed by how we say it. What we say affects how others see us, and it leads our behaviour. It is very difficult to continually say one thing but actually do another. If we keep saying “I don’t like brother X” even if we don’t mean it we will eventually come to mean it. We will eventually believe what we say. We shouldn’t say spiteful things because we will ultimately become spiteful people. Similarly if we are careful in what we say, we become careful in what we are. Just as the rudder steers a boat, our tongues control who we are.
Who are wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbour bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.
James contrasts earthly wisdom with spiritual wisdom, and what a contrast there is. Earthly wisdom leads to selfish ambition, disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Those are qualities that will be shown by someone who follows the five points I mentioned earlier. Someone who is not angry and keeps control of their tongue is peace loving and considerate. Someone who looks after the disadvantaged is full of mercy and good fruit. If you get rid of moral filth and keep yourself from being polluted by the world then you are pure. Someone who listens to the word and acts on what it says will be all of those things – peace loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.
I want to emphasise that “the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure” and being pure means betting rid of moral filth and being unpolluted by the world. As the tree gives life to the leaves and the leaves give life to the tree, keeping yourself unpolluted from the world brings heavenly wisdom, which in turn brings the ability to be less and less polluted. If we allow ourselves to be polluted by the world, our heavenly wisdom will be snuffed out. As James said, faith without deeds is dead.
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely? But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.
Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you–who are you to judge your neighbour?
James is exhorting us to submit ourselves to God. But once again, the faith aspect – submission to God – is tied up with the deeds aspect – do not slander one another, do not fight with one another. Throughout this letter James emphasises over and over again that faith and deeds are part of the same thing, and one without the other is meaningless.
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil. Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.
There are so many ways that we are reminded that we don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow. We can make great plans, but they come to nothing. We ought to be making plans and saying “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” There is a more serious warning here as well. “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” When we plan to do something good, we should always remember that we might not be in a position to do it when we plan. If there is some good thing we can do today then we should do it today. Saying “I will do good tomorrow” when you could do the same good today is as bad as planning to make money tomorrow.
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.
Here James is not condemning all rich people. He is condemning the rich who have trusted in their riches, and who got their riches through immoral means. “The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.”
Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. Don’t grumble against each other, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!
Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.
Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear–not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your “Yes” be yes, and your “No,” no, or you will be condemned.
You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.
Nearly 2000 years have elapsed since James wrote those words, yet they were true then and they are still true now. For each of us there is never more than one lifetime between now and when we will be aware of the coming of Christ. And when you think about the length of a lifetime, it isn’t really that long, especially when you consider James’ words “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”
Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.
Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.
My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sin.
In his short letter, James covers so much. His letter is almost a pocket sized reference book of everything we need to know. There is not much detail, but everything is there. It can help us to understand suffering. It tells us clearly and simply how to live. It teaches us to submit ourselves to God, and says to each of us “You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.”