In a book I was reading recently, the author describes how she lives close to a major freeway. Over the years, she has grown so accustomed to the noise of the constant traffic that she barely notices it anymore. She describes it as “white noise.”
I (Elyse) have lived less than a quarter of a mile from Interstate 15, one of the busiest freeways in California, for about eight years now, and because of that I’ve had firsthand experience with what is commonly referred to as “white noise.” Although this busy freeway is so very nearby, I’m rarely aware of it; its persistent hum has become background noise to me. Of course, if there is a semi rolling down the stretch near my home and the driver lets his foot off the accelerator, I’ll hear the popping of his engine, but generally speaking I don’t even know that the freeway is there. It has become white noise, and I’m glad that my brain tunes it out, because at my age I don’t need any more distractions.
While I am thankful for this innate ability to ignore unimportant, repetitive sound, I’m afraid that we don’t do a very good job differentiating between what we need t pay attention to and what can be safely ignored. To be more specific, I fear that familiarity with certain biblical concepts is liable to make them seem insignificant to us. I’m afraid that we unintentionally strip certain concepts of importance and prominence and relegate them to the category of white noise—we recognize they are there, but we don’t just pay much attention to them.
As Christians, we can become so accustomed to the need and brokenness in the world around us that we don’t even notice it. It becomes white noise to us. But those who have been justified by grace alone through faith alone are called to notice and to do something about it. We are called to hear beyond the din of the white noise and to respond practically. In fact, such behaviour indicates that we have been justified.
Our positional righteousness is accompanied by a very practical righteousness. And one of the ways is by practically caring for the vulnerable. This is a significant theme in the book of James.
As we approach this study we need to ask ourselves, since I have been justified, what now? In the light of recent studies about loving our neighbour as ourselves, bringing forth fruit that is evidence of repentance, and seeing and receiving the unwanted, what now? What will we do—now?
I can think of no more relevant passage from which to address this question than James 2. In chapter 2, James, in my view, does not miss a beat from chapter one. Instead, he carries on the subject that he has introduced there: that of true religion (1:27). The religion (devotion, worship of the true God) that we profess, which will be truly owned by God (that is why it is characterised as “pure” and “undefiled”), is that which reflects His character.
To properly address this issue, we need to appreciate the context of this letter and the purpose for which James wrote it.
The letter was written to Jewish believers, at a point in church history when the makeup of the church was primarily Jewish (see 1:1, 18; cf. Revelation 7:1-8; 14:1-5). Many Jews were being converted.
People may have been quick to profess Christ and yet there may not have been a true work of grace in their hearts. Hence, for some (apparently for many) there was the lurking danger of empty professions of faith.
Some may have truly been justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and yet because of various pressures, along with simple selfishness, they may not have been living out their faith as they should have.
Some may have been battling with issues of ethnocentrism (racism). And hence they were not as welcoming and affirming of all believers as they should have been; including—perhaps especially—the poor. After all, the early church had much experience with helping the poor (Acts 2:42-45; 4:34-35; Galatians 2:10) and perhaps some were suffering from mercy fatigue. That is, they may have felt that they had nothing, or very little, left to give. Their compassion, they may have felt, had been stretched to the limit.
Regardless of the specific reason, these professing believers were in need of a doctrinal and practical exhortation to live out the faith in Christ that they professed to have. And hence James, the pastor-teacher of the church at Jerusalem, writes this very pastoral letter to help these Jews to examine their profession of faith and to stir the believers among them to good works.
You could say that, in essence, James wrote with the purpose of reminding these professing Christians what genuine saving faith looks like. After all, they professed to have been justified by faith alone; they needed the reminder that the faith that justifies also sanctifies. And if the latter does not occur then the former has not occurred. Yes, faith works.
We need the same reminder.
As someone has insightfully written, “Faith is like calories—you can’t see them, but you can always see their results!” And one of the primary ways in which we see the results is in our interaction with our society; first within the household of faith and then to those outside.
I want us to focus in this study on three marks of saving faith that arise from our text, and my aim is the same as that of the author of this text. I am pastorally concerned to help us to 1) examine ourselves as to whether we have been truly justified by grace alone through faith alone; and 2) to stir up the justified to demonstrate God’s grace in our lives.
A word of caution is in order.
This exhortation is not for the purpose of seeking to attach artificial fruit to a lifeless branch. This is not about forcing fruit through guilt. Rather, it is about nourishing the roots of the righteous so that more fruit will abound. It is also about helping the rootless to see that they are fruitless so that they will run to Christ alone for forgiveness and for a right standing with God. Then, and only then, will they be able to bring forth fruit in accordance with repentance.
Someone has helpfully described the connection between justification and sanctification as revealed in Ephesians 2:8-10. In that text, God describes three things.
First, there is the issue of salvation—the work God does for us. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (vv. 8-9).
Second, there is the matter of sanctification—the work God does in us. “We are His workmanship” (v. 10).
Third, the text speaks of service—the work God does through us. As God’s workmanship, we were “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (v. 10).
We do well to reflect on the works that God desires to do through us once we have been justified.
Søren Kierkegaard once gave an illustration that he titled “a parable about Duckland.”
It was Sunday morning, and all the ducks dutifully came to church, waddling through the doors and down the aisle into their pews where they comfortably squatted. When all were well-settled, and the hymns were sung, the duck minister waddled to his pulpit, opened the Duck Bible and read: “Ducks! You have wings, and with wings you can fly like eagles. You can soar into the sky! Use your wings!” It was a marvellous, elevating duck Scripture, and thus all the ducks quacked a hearty ascent, “Amen!” and then plopped down from their pews and waddled home.
Rather than waddling, we should consider God’s grace in justifying us and ask, what now, Lord?
James offers three marks of faith in our text: (1) Works that are measureable; (2) worship that is merciful; and (3) words that are meaningful. All of the above is only because of a work that is a miracle—a miracle that empowers us to fly rather than to waddle.
Works that are Measureable
This theme undergirds the whole passage; in fact, it undergirds the whole epistle. James believed, and taught, that those who are justified will manifest the fruit of this root. Therefore, in this epistle, he highlights, in the words of the Reformers, that the faith that justifies alone does not remain alone.
James is perhaps the most practical book in the New Testament. It is the Sermon on the Mount in the form of an epistle. As Leviticus 19 is a very practical guide for what is holy, so James is a very practical guide for what is righteous (that which conforms to the standard of God’s law). Though they are not synonyms, holiness and righteousness are closely related. We can say that holiness speaks to character and position while righteousness speaks to conduct and practice. In other words, holiness has to do with who we are (set apart as children of God), while righteousness has to do with what we do (our behaviour because we are the children of God). Because our character has been changed (regeneration) our conduct will change (sanctification).
Because our heart has been regenerated, we have believed on Christ and thus have been justified (legally, positionally declared to be righteous—having met God’s standard through the righteousness of another). But what is the proof that we have been regenerated? What is the proof that we have been justified? That is, what is the evidence that we are right with God, that we have been reconciled to God? The answer is given by James. And his answer is unambiguous.
Galatians 2:1-10 relates an event that shows that even this great apostle and pastor-teacher at one time was a bit muddled over the evidence of justification. It appears that he at one time thought that the measurement of whether one was truly and fully justified was physical; namely circumcision. But Paul sorted him out and once he was put into a right frame of mind he came to his senses. However, he did not throw out the baby with the bathwater. James still held to the biblical principle that justification always leads to practical sanctification. And such a setting apart to God would be visible; such a practical outworking of being regenerate and justified was therefore measureable.
Steven Cole notes, “When God changes a person’s heart, when He raises that dead sinner to new life, He imparts saving faith. That new life and genuine faith will result in a new direction in life. Just as a seed when planted grows into a fruit tree, so the seed of new life in Christ produces the fruit of godly character and good deeds.”
In all that James writes, he constantly exhorts professing believers to examine themselves as to whether they have true, genuine—that is, saving—faith. And for James, the proof was not in the mere profession but rather in that which was a miraculous practice. These are measures of our profession of faith. And so much of this has to do with how we practically relates to others. Note the following relational measurements in this epistle:
- the use of our tongues with others (chapters 1 and 3);
- our concern for orphans and widows (chapter 1);
- our treatment of the poor (chapters 2 and 5);
- our disposition towards others (chapter 3);
- our attitude towards others (chapter 4); and
- our prayerful concern towards others (chapter 5).
The good news of the gospel is that God justifies believing sinners and that He changes their hearts to such a degree that their value system is put right side up!
Note this in chapter 1.
Faith and Adversity
In 1:2-26 James begins his litany of evidence of how those who are justified are also sanctified. He speaks first of the adversity which the believer personally experiences in life and tells us how a true Christian responds: in reliance on the Lord and therefore with rejoicing in the Lord and hence by restraining his tongue under the Lord. The behaviour that James enunciates here is nothing less than a supernatural response. It is truly a gracious response. Therefore one can measure the authenticity of his professed justification by whether or not he responds miraculously to adversity.
I have seen this time and again in the lives of believers in our church. Recently, a family of four experienced some adversity in their home. The mother and the daughter both fell in the home and broke bones in the leg and ankle. Both were in casts and on crutches, which might seem to be a terrible inconvenience to many. This family, however, responded with great peace and joy—evidence that they are true believers.
In 1:27—2:13 James reveals a second evidence as he subtly shifts the emphasis to how we respond to others who are facing their own personal adversity. In other words, the measurement of our profession of faith is not merely how we respond to our trials but also how we respond to others in their trials.
J. Ligon Duncan observed, “Many people, in the midst of trial, show that they’ve never really been trusting in the lord Jesus Christ. So also, many people, by their social behaviour, their public behaviour, their lack of Christian behaviour in social relationships show that they do not know the Lord Jesus Christ.” I would simply want to add that, according to James, such “social behaviour” is particularly put to the test as we engage with those who are in adversity; with those who are vulnerable in the midst of a very broken world. Let me be as specific as James: How do we respond to the needy? I would contend that such a response is indeed measurable. This brings us to our next point.
Worship that is Merciful
In 1:27—2:13, James emphasises the fact that the true believer’s worship is merciful. It is vital that we understand a recurrent theme that runs through this epistle: the needy.
Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.
My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,” have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonoured the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? Do they not blaspheme that noble name by which you are called? If you really fulfil the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself,” you do well; but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. For judgement is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgement.
Over and over James speaks of the poor and the vulnerable. He illustrates this in 1:27; 2:1-13 and in 2:14-19 (see also 5:1-12). In fact, I would argue that, throughout this section, James’ supreme test of one’s profession of faith is how they respond to the vulnerable, to outcasts, to the socially unwanted. In other words, true worshippers (believers) are characterised by mercy. They love mercy (Micah 6:8). Their worship of the true God is measured by their works of mercy. And what was true of Christians of James’ day is no less true in ours. Note the following.
It Engages the Vulnerable because it Knows What is Valuable
At the end of the first chapter of his epistle, James writes, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (1:27).
These two exhortations—(1) to visit orphans and widows in their trouble; and (2) to keep oneself unspotted from the world—are closely, because contextually and deliberately, connected. What James is saying is that those who have been justified have a completely different value system from those who have not been regenerated. Justification is not mere legal fiction, and the proof is in the fruit. A new heart is manifested in a radically new way that we view the world (see 1 John 2:14-16; 2 Corinthians 5:14-17).
A God-Centred Worldview Changes Our View of the Vulnerable
Instead of viewing the vulnerable (because needy) as either an obstacle to our own pursuit of comfort or as a burden to society, rather we learn to see them as opportunities for us to glorify God by ministering to those made in His image. And since there is very little hope of any return from them, we can learn to practice and to develop Christlike selflessness. We can learn to love, even if the more we love the less we are loved. This leads to the second observation.
It Rejects Partiality because it has Experienced Real Poverty
James 2:1-13 should be read as a continuation of what James has introduced in 1:27. He is still speaking of the vulnerable, but perhaps now has in view those with whom we have contact, not in the wider society, but rather right on our front door; in fact, in our church building.
The picture is of a synagogue service (which has been conquered by the gospel!). A rich individual and a poor individual arrive. The world’s value system would fall all over itself to show preference to the wealthy individual, while perhaps viewing the poor individual as a nuisance. But not those who have been justified by faith alone in Christ alone! No, such an individual has, by the grace of God, come to appreciate his own poverty of spirit and therefore is not swayed by superficial externals. He knows that, apart from the grace of God, he would still be an outcast, rejected by God. His value system has thus been so transformed that he sees beyond a man’s designer labels and doesn’t even notice when a man’s clothes have no such labels. The only thing that matters to him is that this person is made in the image of God. That is what gives the poor person dignity. And further, he may also be one for whom Christ died!
People are to be valued for who made them rather than by who made their clothes or their cars, or by what part of the neighbourhood they dwell. James is saying that when we show partiality we are manifesting “a self-serving discrimination that is based upon shallow externals.” (Duncan)
Those who are justified are freed from the bondage of such sinful behaviour. What we need is a good dose of gospel humility. As Duncan says, we, the church, are “the assembly of the unworthy.” And the more deeply we reflect upon this, the more likely it is that we will stop measuring people by the superficial standards touted by the clueless and godless world.
As in 1:27, the justified individual no longer views people as a means toward his own end. Rather, he now sees people as potential recipients of his service. That is why it makes no difference to him whether the person has wealth or not.
Let me put it this way: Those who are controlled by the world’s value system will view people as either able or unable to spend themselves on them. But those who are regenerate and hence justified view others as people upon whom we can spend ourselves. That is radical, is it not?
We need to have this paradigm shift. We need to be willing to seek the welfare of others, not the wealth of others! In fact, Jesus taught His disciples to invite to our banquets those who have nothing with which to repay us. After all, is this not precisely what God has done for those whom He has justified?
Why has God given you wealth? (Wealth, biblically defined, is anything beyond food, shelter and clothing.) Why has given you so much more than others? Why has God given to you anything? The answer is quite simple: so that you can be a blessing to others.
If you understand that principle, the question is, what now? How do you practically show your concern for others? Will you help a destitute individual? Will you help someone to adopt? Will you yourself adopt a child? Will you help someone to get back on their feet (perhaps offering an employment opportunity)?
Why has God given to you enough wealth to hire a domestic worker and/or a gardener? Is it possible that He has done so in order for you to have extra time to be involved in reaching out to the needy?
Why has God enabled you to retire? Why has God connected you to a local church which is growing in social responsibility? These are questions with which you would do well to wrestle.
Meeting our Mercy
Just how important is this issue of mercy? James does not leave us in the dark, for he tells us that if we expect mercy on Judgement Day then we had better be showing it now!
Now, again, this is not about doing works so that we will be justified before God at the judgement. Instead, the point is that those who show mercy are giving evidence that they have nothing to fear on Judgement Day. This is along the lines of what Jesus taught with respect to forgiving others as evidence that we ourselves have been forgiven by God (Matthew 6:14-15; 18:35).
Those who have a compulsion and commitment to showing mercy have nothing to fear, for it is clear by their treatment of others that they have been mercifully justified and hence will be justified before the Judge.
Words that are Meaningful
In vv. 14-19, James emphasises that our words must be meaningful.
What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!
It is Dissatisfied with the Merely Theoretical
This section in James might be subtitled, “Talk is Cheap.” As Duncan points out, “James is not talking in this passage about real faith. His concern is not about a real faith, which has no work attached to it. He is concerned about—and he uses the term twice—a ‘dead faith’ (vv. 17, 26).” Maclaren adds, “The sense is, ‘being by itself’: that is, destitute of any accompanying fruits or results, it shows that it is dead. That which is alive bodies itself forth, produces effects, makes itself visible; that which is dead produces no effect, and is as if it were not.”
With reference to ministry of mercies, though not all are called to the same ministry we are all called to some ministry of mercy.
As James develops his argument, he very cleverly uses an illustration of empty words. He likens empty faith (that is, faith without works) to one who says to a hungry man, “Be warmed and filled,” while at the same time not providing anything to make such a wish a reality. The main point is not that we should not use empty words to the needy, and yet James subtly uses this illustration to drive home the point of empty, and hence non-saving, faith. But since James has been dealing with issues of mercy, the illustration is a two-edged sword.
Albert Barnes notes, “The comparison in these verses is very obvious and striking. The sense is, that faith in itself, without the acts that correspond to it, and to which it would prompt, is as cold, and heartless, and unmeaning, and useless, as it would be to say to one who was destitute of the necessaries of life, depart in peace.”
The point that we can take away from this is that those who have been justified will substitute empty platitudes for real works of mercy. Those justified will have a social conscience and will be socially constructive. We can all work on this.
You can’t do everything but you can do something. And you don’t need to look far to put your hand to the plough. Whatever good your hand finds to do, do it!
A Foolish Objection
James anticipates a rather foolish objection to his teaching: “You have faith, and I have works.” Some might try to say that some have the “gift” of works and others have the “gift” of faith. “It’s fine for you to have your gift of works so that you care for the needy. But that isn’t my gift.” James will have none of this. Real faith will be demonstrated by works.
“Show me your faith without your works,” replies James, “and I will show you my faith by my works.” The appeal of James is clear and logical. We can’t see someone’s faith, but we can see their works. You can’t see faith without works, but you can demonstrate the reality of faith by works.
It is Dissatisfied with the Merely Theological
Some might be tempted to respond with an empty theological statement: “I believe there is one God.” This is an important theological affirmation (see Deuteronomy 6:4), but it is insufficient to prove the validity of faith. As James argues, “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!” The fallacy of faith without works is demonstrated by the demons, who have a “dead” faith in God. The demons acknowledge that God exists. But such “faith” does nothing for the demons, because it isn’t real faith, as proven by the fact that it doesn’t have works with it.
Verse 19 is very much connected to this issue of worship and mercy. As noted, James makes reference to the Shema, as recorded in Deuteronomy 6. It is the great statement of monotheism as recorded by Moses. Many Jews were of the opinion that to be orthodox was tantamount to being justified. They were wrong.
Orthodoxy divorced from orthopraxy is useless. In fact it is less than demonic faith: at least they tremble! Brian Bell has noted that the term “tremble” means “to bristle,” or to be “stiff” and “erect.” “It was used of the physical signs of terror, esp. of the hair standing on end. The word often expresses a high degree of awe or terror. The present tense indicates that which is always true!”
If we took seriously the judgement of God, then we would be examining ourselves as to whether we had faith as evidenced by whether or not we have hearts of mercy.
I am once again grateful for the insight of Duncan, who observes with reference to this verse, “There is a difference between knowing notions and knowing God.” Or consider the words of the nineteenth century preacher Alexander Maclaren, “The people who least live their creeds are often the people who shout loudest about them. The paralysis which affects the arms does not, in these cases, interfere with the tongue.”
It should also be noted in this regard that it is more than mere emotion that evidences “true religion.” After all, the demons apparently are pretty emotional when they think about God, and yet they clearly are not justified. The issue is, how does your emotional, intellectual and heart response to God affect your heart response to the needy around you?
It is not the profession of your creed or of your denominational confession that is the measure of your faith in Christ as your Saviour, but rather the measure of mercy that is in your soul. After all, if you have Christ then you have all of Him—including His heart of love.
God is active, and so are those who are saved by Him and thus who are related to Him. Because it is theological, true faith is practical. This leads quite obviously to the next point.
A Work that is a Miracle
Verses 20-26 shows us that faith must be manifested by good works.
But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
I refer to “a work that is a miracle” because this is a work that comes from outside of us. It empowers us to do the otherwise impossible: that is, to live by faith.
Following on from v. 19, James gives two examples to prove his thesis. Though the kind of faith in v. 19 does produce an effect (in the case of the demons it produced trembling and alarm), it is still useless in the matter of salvation. The faith of Abraham and of Rahab was entirely different from this. And the difference between demonic belief and saving faith is due to the miraculous grace of God.
Significantly, James uses two examples of this miraculous living faith: Abraham (the father of the Jews) and Rahab (a Gentile). I want to simply point out that both Abraham and Rahab responded to God after they were justified, in the same way that you and I must. That is, they lived by faith. And living by faith almost always mandates that we move beyond our comfort zones. So, what now?
Abraham moved beyond his comfort zone when he surrendered to the will and the Word of God, and was willing to sacrifice that which was most precious to him. And he did so, we are told in Hebrews 11, “by faith.” He believed that God could and would raise what he sacrificed from the dead. So must we.
When it comes to works of mercy, we need to let go of what God has entrusted to us—money, time, possessions—trusting Him to give it back if necessary.
We learn from Rahab that the faith that saves is indeed a faith that saves! She was willing to risk all because she believed God. This, in many ways, this is what is required of us if we will involve ourselves in the lives of the otherwise vulnerable.
James perhaps is subtly rebuking the partiality that may have developed on the part of Jewish Christians against the Gentile believers who were attending their church. After all, Rahab was precisely the type of “unworthy” Gentile that the Jews would be likely to despise. We can learn from this that we should be very careful about relegating someone as unworthy of our mercy when God is merciful to all kinds of people.
The lesson from Abraham is clear: If we believe in God, we will do what He tells us to do. The lesson from Rahab is also clear: If we believe in God, we will help His people—even at our own expense.
We cannot hide behind the vain excuse that God works differently in the lives of His people, for as Calvin notes, James “designedly put together two persons so different in their character, in order more clearly to shew, that no one, whatever may have been his or her condition, nation, or class in society, has ever been counted righteous without good works.”
The Faith that Saves is Powerful
James concludes, “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (v. 26). As much as you can have a body with no life (a corpse), so you can have a faith with no life—and faith without works is a dead faith, unable to save.
Is your Christianity a corpse? Maclaren notes, “Motion is the test of life. A ‘faith’ which does nothing, which moves no limb, is a corpse.”
As we come to a close I simply wish to exhort you to examine yourself. Is there evidence of genuine saving faith in your life? That is, is there fruit? Are you living by faith? If so, then nurture that faith. Be involved in that in which God wants you to be involved. Be merciful. And if you are not sure what to do, then the best counsel that I can give to you is to just do something! There are plenty of opportunities.
If you are not sure, then look to Christ alone as God’s all sufficient Saviour. You may not be merciful, but He is. And when He saves you, then His mercy will become yours.
So, what now? You have been justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. How will you glorify God alone? By living for God alone which mean others will not be left alone.
Perhaps because you have been born again and justified by faith alone, you want to do something. So, just do it!