James 2:14-26 “What good is it, my brothers, is a man claims to have faith but has no deeds ? Can such faith save him ? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his 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 person is justified by what he does 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.”
The message of Christianity, like that of every religion, is that men are saved by good works. But the unique message of the Christian religion alone is that salvation comes by the works of God the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, not by sinners’ works. It is the sum of his righteous works of obedience to God’s royal law which is imputed to all who are joined to him by faith. The righteous judgment of God which the Lamb of God suffered in our place on Golgotha – because of our lack of good works and because of our abundance of bad works – is the utterly adequate basis for the church’s salvation. That is Christianity. Christ’s active and passive works of obedience redeem all who receive him by faith.
We see only some of our sins but what we see we despise. We see only some of our good works, but we scorn them as the foundation of our salvation. Our one and only plea before God is that Christ has lived and died for us. That is our faith: it is focused in the good works of the Lord Jesus alone. That is the Christian religion. It is perfectly expressed in the opening verses of Romans chapter 5: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.” Our faith does not save us because it is imperfect faith: our faith did not obey God’s law; our faith did not die for us; our faith did not rise from the dead. That was Christ’s great prerogative. He lived the loving life we could never live, and died the accursed death sinners must die unless they find a Saviour. Every single person in heaven – and that will be a company more than any man can number – will be there because of the good works of the Lord Jesus Christ, not because of their own. Our faith, focused in him, is the channel by which his blessings become ours.
Introduction: James and Good Works.
Then what is James saying in this section of his letter ? 1] Firstly, he is stating what the whole New Testament affirms, that every Christian saved through faith in the Son of God has this calling, to do good works. “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephs. 2:10). Jesus Christ gave himself for us “to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:14). “Let you light shine before men” says the Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 5:16), and again, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). “Offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God” (Romans 12:1). There is not a membrane separating the convictions of James from any New Testament teaching about the necessity of good works as a mark of union with Christ, and as fulfilling our obligation to our neighbour, and as our submission to our Redeemer’s commandments. That is taught by every other writer in the Bible, but it is not understood by some people within evangelical churches. In a “Handbook of Personal Evangelism” produced by an American Bible College we read these words, “Any teaching that demands a change of conduct toward either God or man for salvation is to add works or human effort to faith, and this contradicts all scripture and is an accursed message” ( ed. Stanford, Seymore and Streib, Florida Bible College, 1975, Hollywood, Florida). That ‘believer’ mentioned by James (2:15) who ignores his starving freezing siblings might give a hearty ‘Amen’ to that statement, but it is Scripture itself that demands a change of conduct if anyone professes to be in Christ Jesus. Christian works are not a contributory offering to purchase our redemption (which is by the precious blood of Christ alone) but an evidence that we are the redeemed of the Lord. We are saved through faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone, it is always zealous to do good works.
2] Secondly, it must be said that James is putting a different but proper emphasis on words that Paul and Peter also use. Three words, ‘faith,’ ‘justification’ and ‘works’ are capable of being used in a different sense in various contexts – like many other words in and out of the Bible.
i ] When James uses the word ‘faith’ here he means an intellectual assent which has no effect upon conduct. Even demons have that sort of faith. But when the apostle Paul uses the word ‘faith’ he is talking about an attitude of the entire man by which his whole life is entrusted to Christ. So, the faith James condemns is not the faith Paul commends. Paul is just as severe as James in denigrating a faith that permits people to continue in sin. Paul’s ‘faith’ is that which receives the Spirit who gives power to men to lead holy lives. James is demeaning a cerebral acknowledgement of faith in God which doesn’t touch one’s daily living.
ii] When James uses the word ‘justify’ he is using it in the sense of ‘vindicate.’ He says (in v.24) “a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” The works of a person like Abraham or like Rahab vindicated his or her claims to believe in God. Their conduct showed that they truly had faith in God. Jesus said on one occasion, “wisdom is justified of her children” (Matthew 11:19). We don’t need to brag up the importance of wisdom: it is vindicated by all who live wisely. When Paul uses the word ‘justify’ he uses it in the sense of declaring someone to be righteous. James uses it in the sense of a demonstrating that one is a genuine believer. Thomas Manton says that in Paul’s sense a sinner is absolved, and in James’ sense a believer is approved..
iii] When James commends what he refers to as ‘works’ he is speaking of those actions in the lives of Christians which spring up from new life in Christ. Paul is in total agreement with James. He says that no man can inherit the kingdom of God without such works (Gals. 5:21). But Paul also is concerned with a massive problem that James does not deal with in this letter, Jewish reliance upon the ‘works of the law’, that is, works done by human sweat intended to get men salvation. Paul wants us all to know that “a man is not justified by observing the law” (Gal. 2:16). That is not the way of salvation. The reason is clear, our best works are imperfect, spoiled by self, and done out of mixed motives. They cannot justify us.
So James is simply saying about works what the whole of the Bible teaches. He has, as we have seen, some special emphases of terminology, but he also introduces some vivid examples which lay the importance of a consistent godlike life on the consciences of every one of his readers. James in our passage uses hyperbole, then irony, then venerable example, then a most incredible example to get this one message across, faith without works is dead – not that ‘it does not exist’ – it is all around us – but it is devoid of the life of God. Let us look at these four cases. The first is very brief:
1. THE WORST POSSIBLE SCENARIO: IGNORING YOUR NAKED STARVING SIBLINGS. (vv. 15-17)
Here we have a ‘hyperbole,’ that is, an extravagant and obvious exaggeration to illustrate a truth. For example, Jesus once said that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 19:24). Here James invites us to be onlookers on the daily life of one of these ‘believers’ whose faith does not affect his life at all. This religious miser bumps into someone who is his own brother or sister and notices that they are half naked on a cold day, and they haven’t had a meal for an age and so are weak with hunger. This believer says to his own sibling, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs” (v.16). You see the hyperbole ? He is supposed to be a Christian; it is his own family; they are half dead – can you believe it ? – and he clothes and feeds them with mere platitudes as he hurries on by – “Good luck to you !” How would you describe such a man ? A monster. A hypocrite. A man slaughterer. “You whitewashed wall !” I don’t need to quote to you verses in the Bible that speak of Christian duty to those who are destitute, especially towards those who are in his own family. The whole world agrees that this man is an utter rotter, and we are ashamed and embarrassed that he professes to believe in Jesus – all of which is James’ intention. “What good is his faith ?” asks James. “No good at all,” we mutter. James curtly says, “faith if it is not accompanied by action is dead” (v.17). We are all concur with that too. So there is such an entity as dead faith. What this man believes is orthodox enough, but if it doesn’t affect his life it does no one any good. We find no comfort from saying to ourselves, “Well, he believes the right things.” So what ? He is a lost man. Then James proceeds to deal with another aberration, demon faith.
2. THE MOST ALARMING SCENARIO: EVEN THE DEMONS HAVE FAITH (vv. 18-20)
If the first example is hyperbole, then here we have irony. James imagines someone speaking out, maybe incensed by what he has heard of this ‘believer’ who remains detached when he sees his own sister starving and freezing to death. He cries to that man, “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” (vv. 18 & 19). It is an emotional outburst, but it makes very telling ethical and theological points. There is no punctuation in the original and we have to decide how long we think this man’s speech lasts. It could go right to the end of verse 19. Here would be a rare example of someone who is in total sympathy with what the New Testament writer is saying intruding his opinion. Usually it is some objector who is described as raising a point contrary to what the apostle is teaching, and the apostle then proceeds to answer him, but here the interjector is moved to denounce a faith that is devoid of works, endorsing what James is teaching.
What’s the good of a profession of faith without any change of life ? Isn’t there a faith which is mere cold assent to Christian teaching ? For example, people take a course of study – there are plenty on offer – the Catholic Inquiry Centre runs them, the Anglicans announce confirmation classes, the Baptists have pre-baptism studies, the Presbyterians have church membership classes, and there is the Alpha course. People go along and are taught some basic Christian teaching, and then after some lessons they are asked if they are believing what they have heard. Some nod. Then the authority figure teaching the course informs them that then they have become Christians. “Oh ? That’s what becoming a Christian is, is it ?” they think, shyly smiling at one another, relieved that that step has been taken so unconsciously. Then for the rest of the course they are treated as Christians and the ultimate ritual takes place which is aimed at confirming their new faith – something like a bishop putting his hands on their heads, they take communion, they get baptized, they speak in tongues, they are given the right hand of fellowship and they become members of a congregation, that is, some further engineering of man takes place. No doubt in some of these courses some people might be worked upon by God the Holy Spirit and they may be genuinely converted, but for many others what they display is mental assent to Christianity. To believe one is a Christian because of the testimony or activity of a mere man is the ruin of a life and of a professing church. Conversion proceeds from the grace of God alone, while a religious system which ascribes it partly to God and partly to the assurances of fellow sinners is the road to perdition.
There was a man in the book of Acts (chapter 8) named Simon Magus, a sorcerer, a boaster, with many fans whom he amazed with his magic. When he heard the evangelist Philip speak he became one who professed faith and was baptized (v.13) and he followed Philip everywhere. Alexander Whyte says, “Philip telegraphed to Jerusalem. ‘I actually have the name of Simon Magus on my communion-roll.’ At the hearing of that, the apostles sent two of their foremost men down to Samaria to superintend the great movement.” When Simon Magus saw the Holy Spirit could be given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands he offered Peter thirty pieces of silver saying something like, “What will you take for the Holy Spirit ? Show me your secret. I have plenty of money, and I know where there is plenty more.” “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:9ff.). Whyte says, “The intoxicating love of notoriety had taken such absolute possession of Simon Magus that he simply could not live outside of the eyes of men. He must be in men’s mouths. He must have a crowd around him … the crowds that followed Peter and John were gall and wormwood to Simon Magus.” Peter, the former fisherman, could hardly control himself; “May your money perish with you … your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you.” Simon was a ‘believer,’ but not from his heart which was not right before God. He had been stirred by all he had seen – the crowds (v.6), the signs (v.7), and the joy (v.8) – and professed faith himself, but he had not been regenerated by the Holy Spirit. He was still “full of bitterness and captive to sin” (v.23). He had a deficient faith, akin to the faith of demons, and soon it showed itself in sinful works.
Judas Iscariot is another example. He had faith and followed the Lord Jesus with the other eleven apostles. What privileges he had. Few in the history of the world saw and heard what Judas saw – the Lord Jesus in prayer, the raising of Lazarus from the dead, the Sermon on the Mount, the stilling of the tempest with a word, the sheer lovableness of Christ. He was one of the Lord’s confidants. What gifts the Lord gave Judas, to preach and heal and exorcise demons. What success he had had. He was a believer in Jesus of Nazareth, and all the while he was a devil. As Thomas Charles says, “He had religion on the surface; but the love of this world was all the while at the bottom of the heart … Sermons were in vain, even from the mouth of Christ himself; warnings and reproaches were all useless; and at least one devil brought in another worse than himself, and hurried him to eternal ruin.” Judas was a ‘believer’ with a dishonest heart, loved the world more than Christ, was more for filling the bag than doing good; and in order to fill it, sold even Christ himself. Who knew more than Judas ? Who believed more ? Yet he knew nothing, and had the faith of demons.
“A man may believe all the truth contained in Scripture, so far as he is acquainted with it; indeed, he may be familiar with far more truth than many genuine Christians. And as his knowledge may be more extensive, so his faith may be more comprehensive. He may go so far as Saul of Tarsus had. Although he believed all the Scriptures before his conversion, Saul’s faith was not saving faith. Consider also Agrippa, to whom Paul said: ‘King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets ? I know that you do believe’ (Acts 26:27). But such faith did not save him” (Lord and Christ, Ernest C. Reisinger, P&R, 1994, p.42). How little theology did the dying thief possess. How much theology did Saul of Tarsus have. Yet one was a lost man and the other was saved because he used the little knowledge he had to cry from his heart to Jesus. True saving faith is a work of the heart. At Pentecost we are told of the 3,000 men listening to Peter’s message, “now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37). The apostle Paul tells the Romans “Believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead … with the heart one believes to righteousness” (Rom. 10:9,10)
James speaks in our text of the beliefs which demons have. They make an orthodox confession of faith, and they have a religious world view. Not one demon is an atheist, or even an agnostic. They have Trinitarian faith crying, “Jesus, you Son of God” – and they believe in the authority of Christ and in the reality of hell – “Have you come here to torment us ?” (Matthew 8:29). John Milton describes the demons discussing in hell the divine providence, with accuracy and venom:
“If then His providence
Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,
Our labour must be to pervert that end,
And out of good still to find means of evil”
(Paradise Lost, Book 1, lines 161-164).
Augustus Toplady comments, “the devils are incomparably more orthodox than nineteen in twenty of our modern divines. Do you think there is such a being as an Arian devil, or a Socinian devil, or a Sabellian ? Is there an Anti-Trinitarian among the devils, or an Arminian, or a Pelagian ? No. They endeavour to seduce men into those heresies; but they are too well informed to be speculatively heterodox themselves. They believe in the existence of God, and that God is one” (“The Existence and the Creed of Devils Considered”, Works, Volume 3, pp. 259 – 283)
But notice more, James says, “the demons believe that – and shudder” (v.19). The Greek word literally means they break out with goose-pimples, or their hair stands on end. The idea is that which was expressed by Eliphaz to Job when he describes seeing a ghost-like figure. He said, “the hair of my flesh stood up” (Job 4:15). Non-saving faith is not necessarily non-emotional faith. The demons are not simply dead orthodox, they are tremblingly dead orthodox. With all the horrible magnificence of fallen angelic despair they await that sentence which will be pronounced upon them by Christ and his apostles. They brought about his crucifixion, and now they await Christ’s words of judgment. They shudder at the certainty of what they are to experience.
How does the faith of a demon differ from saving faith ? In many ways, but the chief are these, that it is a mere assent of the understanding unaccompanied by any affection for the Lord Jesus. It is a faith without repentance. A faith without love. A faith without holiness. A faith without a hunger for God. A faith without reliance upon the merits of Christ. They believe against their wills, longing that they were not forced to believe. They envy unbelieving sinners who spend their lifetimes without God in their minds. Their faith lacks any influences of the Holy Ghost.
How often the Bible speaks of spurious faith. The Lord Jesus speaks of many in the great day of judgment who will profess that they knew him and did many mighty works in his name, to whom he will say, “Depart from me I never knew you” (Matthew 7:22-23). Spurious faith is drawn by miracles, and addresses Jesus as ‘Lord.’ We are told, “Many believed in his name when they saw the signs which he did. But Jesus did not commit himself to any of them, because he knew all men” (John 2:23, 24). There are stony ground hearers who profess belief joyfully “but endure only for a while” (Matt. 13:21).
So there is the faith of demons. You are perturbed to hear of this ? Yes ? But don’t dismiss it because it is the word of God teaching that there is a faith in Christ that does not save, and that it is easy to be deceived. Seek the help of the Spirit. God himself cautions us at this very point: ‘A deceived heart has turned him aside’ (Isa. 44:20); ‘The pride of your heart has deceived you’ (Obad. 3); ‘Take heed that you will not be deceived’ (Luke 21:8). If you won’t face up to this possibility other errors lie before you. The tendency is to treat James’ deadly believer (who offers his siblings platitudes and hurries on home) as though he were saved but not consecrated or not filled with the Spirit. This folly is often compounded by calling James’ cold believer a ‘carnal Christian’ since he does not act like a Christian at all but has a mere profession. The suggested solution to his godless living is to tell James’ believer that he needs some kind of second work of grace. So there is constant appeal to ‘carnal Christians’ to fully surrender to Christ’s lordship and be filled with the Spirit, when the real problem usually is they have the faith of demons – historical faith – mental assent alone. What they need is regeneration by the Holy Ghost.
3] THE MOST MEMORABLE SCENARIO: ABRAHAM’S FAITH (VV.20-24)
James is like the Lord Jesus Christ who warned his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount of the faith of the Pharisees, and of other false prophets, saying, “By their fruits you shall know them” Then the Lord Jesus also taught his disciples the marks of real trust in God. So James, having done this demolition job on mere professions of faith which lack any credibility because there is no change of life, reminds us of Abraham. In the Scriptures it is Abraham who outstandingly introduces to mankind a way of responding to God, that is, the way of faith. God’s choice of Abraham and his believing reaction makes him the father of all the faithful. He is the model for James, and also for Paul (Romans 4 and Galatians 3), and for the author of the letter to the Hebrews (chapter 11).
Abraham becomes more than a name to us in Genesis 12. He was living in Ur of the Chaldeans with Sarai his wife. They had no children. And one day, just as suddenly as the Lord met Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, “the God of glory appeared to our father Abraham” (Acts 7:2), saying, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 121-4). It was like a marriage proposal. “I want you,” said the Lord, and he used the isolating singular pronoun – “thee.” He demanded that Abraham leave everything in order to become his, that he surrender so much to follow God. There was a promised land whose character and worth only God could guarantee. Abraham knew nothing about it. He would have no familiar friends there but one – the Lord. God said that he would give himself to Abraham as his unfailing provision. “I have chosen you to be my friend, and I am going to be your God,” he said. God and Abraham are in covenant. From then on in scripture Abraham is called the friend of God and the Lord is called the God of Abraham.
“Leave your country,” said the Lord. In that stark choice facing Abraham there meant abandonment: there was a great city to be forsaken with all its amenities, and saying goodbye to his friends, and accepting the hardships of tent-life of a semi-nomad. There were the idols of Ur to be repudiated: “Religion in Babylonia at this time was polytheism of the grossest type. The texts mention the names of at least three thousand Sumerian gods, many, of course, titles of one deity. This shows, however, that more than three hundred distinct gods were worshipped” (The Word of God for Abraham and Today, Donald J. Wiseman, 1959, p.7). Abraham’s had to face a turning from idols to serve the living God.
“So Abram left, as the Lord had told him” (Gen. 12:4). There was the bare word of God. There were no miracles or signs to ratify it. We are not told that there were electric-like currents moving up and down Abraham’s spine. There was this mighty command and promise from the Lord, and Abraham showed he believed it by obedience. That was Abraham’s faith. We are given nothing of the psychology of his beliefs. We are given the story of a promise God made to favoured men and we are told how they acted in the light of it. That is faith. Genesis is not a collection of the biographies of the her oes of faith. On the contrary, it shows how much sin there was in the tents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Bible does not disguise this, or sweep it into the desert sands. We find in the Bible a chronicle about the beginning of the people who believe in God, and how graciously he deals with them as they look forward to the coming of the promised Messiah.
Abraham is not called the father of all who believe because he had perfect faith. He lacked that. There was an occasion when he temporarily moved from the land of promise to Egypt because of famine. In order not to endanger his life during his stay in Egypt Abraham resorts to a trick: he pretends that Sarah is his sister rather than his wife. Because of her great beauty Pharaoh might want her for his harem and kill Abraham to get her. The promise made to Abraham is endangered by his conduct, and the Lord has to intervene to ensure the couple return to Canaan. What we are seeing is not perfect faith, but faith that is increasingly focused in God’s word and stumblingly obeys it. It is faith in the promises of the God who saves.
Again the Lord speaks to Abraham and says to him, ” ‘a son coming out of your own body will be your heir.’ He took him outside and said, ‘Look up at the heavens and count the stars – if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be'” (Genesis 15:5). There again is the bare word, and the only sign the familiar hosts of stars in the heaven. The staggering promise was that Abraham would have a child and his offspring would ultimately be numerous as them. We are told, “Abraham believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (James 2:6). Again it is not perfect faith that Abraham displays. When the months pass by and Sarah still is not with child then 86 year-old Abraham takes her servant the Egyptian Hagar and begets by her a child named. But this is not the child of the word. Abraham has to wait 13 more years before the word of God again confirms that promise that he and Sarah will have a child, and a year later Isaac is born. All the time Abraham is being tested concerning his faith in what the Lord says. He believes God: sometimes his faith is as fine as a spider’s thread, but all the time it is to the Lord that he keeps returning.
Then the greatest trial of all comes to Abraham’s faith. “Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham !’ ‘Here I am,’ he replied. Then God said, ‘Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about'” (Gen. 22:1&2). It was his only son, the promised son, and Abraham was now over a hundred years of age. Would his faith in a loving and all-powerful God be strong enough to obey the Lord now ? We are not told of the remotest hesitation on Abraham’s part. It was early the next morning he set off for Moriah to sacrifice his son. How could he do it – destroy the object of his love and the inheritor of the promise ? Everyone had laughed with joyous wonder at the birth of the boy, and Abraham, in that happy home, had named him Isaac (laughter). Now he is asked to extinguish the laughter. It was by faith in the faithfulness of God that Abraham had the energy to obey. The fact that nothing was impossible with God spurred him on. We are told in Hebrews 11:19 “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead.” “God says that through Isaac the Seed will come, and all nations of the earth are going to be blessed through him. Now God is telling me to offer him as a sacrifice to him. God is never wrong. God can resurrect Isaac.” He clung to the promises of God and went ahead trusting the Lord. He took Isaac to Moriah; he took wood and fire; he built an altar; he bound his son and laid him on top of the alter; he lifted his knife to slit his throat – Abraham did everything God asked him believing that the promise God made through Isaac he would keep. That was the faith of Abraham. All he was and all he had belonged to the Lord. That is saving faith. That is why Abraham is the father of all who believe and sing,
To Thee, Thou dying Lamb, I all things owe;
All that I have, and am, and all I know.
All that I have is now no longer mine
And I am not my own; Lord, I am Thine
Then the angel cried “Abraham ! Abraham ! … Do not lay a hand on the child. Do not do anything to him” (Gen. 22:12). The child was spared and restored to him: “figuratively speaking, Abraham did receive Isaac back from death” (Hebs. 11:19). Wasn’t it through his faith in God’s power and love that Abraham became a righteous man ? So James says, “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” (vv.21&22). Abraham’s faith was not the faith of the man who could ignore his starving siblings, nor was it the cold cerebral faith of demons, but a faith of full commitment, passion and persistent obedience. Abraham unreservedly abandoned his life to God’s demands. The only explanation of his action in offering Isaac to the Lord was that he trusted God. His works showed that his faith had always been God-given, and so completed his faith.
Some friends were white-water rafting through a long gorge, rocks looming up ahead and the boat seeming to speed towards them, the cliffs in places hardly left space for the boat to get through, the air thick with spray and the constant noise of the water and the boat’s engine – it was not a journey for the faint-hearted. On such a trip you have to totally trust the man at the wheel. Though he appears to be heading for disaster he is going the right way to get through safely. He knows the ways of the river and the power of the boat. It is like that with us. God has perforated our lives’ histories, and called us to follow him, and the secret is to trust and obey. We are moving in obedience, but God also is on the move to fulfil his word. Trust Him ! Sing to him,
As a mother stills her child,
Thou canst hush the ocean wild;
Boisterous waves obey Thy will
When Thou sayest to them, Be still !
Wondrous Sovereign of the sea,
Jesus, Saviour, pilot me !
4] THE MOST UNUSUAL SCENARIO: THE FAITH OF A PROSTITUTE (vv. 25&26)
What a neat contrast: Abraham, a massive figure in the Scriptures; Rahab a bit player. Abraham the father of the chosen people; Rahab a foreigner. Abraham the respected; Rahab the disreputable. Wealthy Abraham; poor Rahab. Abraham a man; Rahab a woman. Abraham had a spouse; Rahab owed loyalty to no man. James leaps from Abraham to Rahab. He is making a comprehensive statement about faith that works through love in every believer from Abraham to Rahab and back again. Unlike the first uncaring man mentioned by James Abraham kept nothing from God, while Rahab laid her life on the line to care for those who were no relation to her.
The story of Rahab is in Joshua 2. It’s the time the Israelites were entering the promised land, and the spies crept into Jericho to see its defences. The authorities learned that they were in the city, and searched for them, but Rahab “gave them lodging,” hid them in the roof and convinced the authorities that they had gone. Why did she act like that ? Because she had a word about their God. She says to them, “We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Joshua 2:10&11). She heard the word: she did not see the waters of the Red Sea drying up. She did not see the destruction of the kings of the Amorites. She heard the word and believed that the God of Israel is the only God in heaven and on earth. Her faith is acknowledged in Hebrews 11: “By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient” (Hebs. 11:31). She believed in a coming judgment, that her own city was a lost city if it resisted this God, and she pleaded that they’d be merciful to her and her family when Jericho was destroyed. She identified herself with the people of God. There is no indecision anywhere, and she lets the men down over the wall and “sent them off in a different direction” says James (v.25), while she remains in the doomed city. The men give her a scarlet cord which she hangs in the window when the Israelites enter the city as conquerors. She and her family are spared. They only. The gutters run scarlet with blood, but those sheltering behind the scarlet cord lived. She spends the rest of her days with the people of god. She marries and bears children. One of them is an ancestor of the line of Messiah mentioned in Matthew 1:5 – Rahab is named there in the opening verses of the New Testament.
The past of people like Rahab does not matter, in all its ugliness and shame. The only important factor is the present – are you now a believer in the Lord ? Are you showing you are a believer by how you live ? We are not asked for perfection of faith or life. We are asked for newness of life. Rahab was considered righteous for what she did. Rahab heard the word and believed it, and from then on the God of Israel was her God and the people of Israel were her people.
James concludes, faith without deeds is dead – like the body without the spirit. A new book was published this week entitled Lenin’s Embalmers by Ilya Zbarsky and Samuel Hutchinson (Harvill, Pounds 12.99). On January 21 1924 Lenin died and Stalin proposed that his body be preserved and put on display in a vast mausoleum in Red Square, Moscow. It has been kept under glass, embalmed and re-embalmed every 18 months for over 70 years. The chemically enhanced incorruptibility of the dead master served the Soviet masters well. During the Second World War the embalmers moved Lenin’s body to Siberia so that the Nazis couldn’t get it. A system that slaughtered and enslaved and exiled its own to poverties and gulags of the spirit and the intellect, and now skates on the thin ice of fiscal default, has managed to preserve, protect and defend at all costs this grisly icon. Let his body be buried ! Let Russia be free of his ghastly legacy.
Only an utterly rotten system could need the help of a cadaver. A dead body is of no value. It is to be disposed of as soon as possible. A corpse is worthless. A dead body is the choice symbol of a faith that has no deeds. Lenin lies there in Red Square. He looks like a resting man, but he does nothing. He does not speak or move a muscle. That is faith without deeds: a corpse that constantly needs to be polished. You claim you are a believer, but where is the vitality ? You state the Jesus is your Saviour ? Then follow him as Lord. A believer without any works is dead useless: he is a weight to be carried by a stumbling church.
Earl Kelly challenges us, “You believe that Christ is the Lord of your life. Good ! What do you do that you would not do if you did not believe it ? You believe that Christ came to save sinners. That’s wonderful. What effect does that have on your actions ? What sympathy do you have with Christ’s cause ? What are you doing that men may know what Christ has done and endured for them ? You believe in the judgment – from what sin does it restrain you ? You believe you are saved – do you ? Be honest with yourself, and ask yourself what difference it would make in your conduct if you ceased to believe it. How many things have you done, or left undone today because you respect God’s authority ? You say that you believe heaven is just beyond the veil of death. Does that belief give you patience to bear up under trials ? Does your belief make you place a different value on worldly wealth and power from that held by the man who does not believe in heaven ?” (James: A Primer For Christian Living, Craig Press, 1969, p.142).
Do our lips and lives agree ? Is what we profess seen in our living ? Paul tells us that Christ’s love for his church is displayed in a believing husband’s love for his wife. Peter tells us that a wife’s conduct before her unbelieving husband can be effective enough to win him, without the word. Don’t claim that you know God unless your life begins to shows it. Our works must vindicate our faith. Without them our faith is dead.
GEOFF THOMAS October 25 1998