James 2: 14-17
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
For the next several weeks we will be working with the Letter of James. Tradition says that this letter was written by the brother of Jesus and James was one of the new Christian leaders in the church at Jerusalem. The letter is addressed to Christians everywhere and not to a particular early church. Paul’s letters are to various early churches in the Middle East. The purpose of the Letter of James is to teach Christians how to live Christ-like lives. James gives very practical advice on things like anger and quarreling, showing favoritism, controlling the tongue, boasting, patience and prayer.(1)
Today’s message is focused on four simple, yet powerful verses in the second chapter. These versus from James directs us to a question that many Christians seem to struggle with. Is faith alone sufficient for a close relationship with God or should faith be accompanied by works? At a glance this looks like a question any Christian can answer with a simple yes or no. But is it that simple? Jesus dedicated much of his Ministry to answer it. He used parables such as The Good Samaritan, Lazarus and the rich man, The Vine and the Branches to make us aware of both faith and works.
These four versus bring up the tension between faith and works. As we will soon see, these are not two different ways to serve the Living God, but really two combined expressions of challenges on how to walk with Jesus during our lifetime. James is insisting that faith without works is good for nothing because it cannot save us, Now, some of you might wonder, why did Paul teach that salvation is by faith alone and not by works. But James isn’t saying we are saved by works. He is saying we are saved by faith verified by our works! (James 2:15-16).
What type of works are able to verify our faith? They are definitely not works such as observing religious rituals or keeping of traditions. But if you want to follow this scripture and you are working to “love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. So, by works James actually means, treating one another with empathy. Without love faith is dead and therefore cannot save because love is the only external example of true faith, (James 2:17). Christianity teaches we are saved by faith verified by our works!
An example of the contrasts: Several years ago, there was a very vocal man at the Westminster Rescue Mission. He always carried his Bible with him, and he could give you chapter and verse on any Scripture that you were seeking. However, it seemed to everyone there that this man loved to demonstrate his knowledge and intellectual interpretation of the Scripture, but he did not live by the words he quoted. He did not last very long at the Mission because he could not get along with the other clients.
Many of you have known Steve Hull. He has spoken to us several times and Art Smith and I have known him from our Friday morning’s Men’s Prayer Group. Steve had an audible awakening from God as he returned from a mission trip to the Dominican Republic. Steve heard God’s voice to go back to the Dominican Republic and feed the Haitians in the bateys. Of course, Steve argued with God that God had chosen the wrong person, but Steve and Ann Hull were people of deep faith and out of extensive prayer and dialogue with other Christian friends, The Least of These Ministries was born and today thousands of people in the Dominican Republic are being fed.
A living faith is expressed by works motivated by love. Aren’t some of us guilty because we have failed to treat someone with such love at some point in life? Maybe we have shared the good news of Jesus Christ to others when we sensed that it was the right time. But, don’t we blame the government and the social programs, for the misfortunes of others in society but we have not done anything on our own. What shall we do then? We need to treat each other with love because that’s what God expects from us and that love is best expressed in deeds not speech! Faith and works cannot be separated. Either they coexist in the Christian or they don’t exist at all, because works are the natural result of faith in God! Where there is faith there are works and without works there is no faith, (James 2:18).
When we read of the life of John Wesley whose heart was strangely warmed at Aldersgate was, from early in his ministry, unflagging in pastoral visits to those in need. Wesley’s scheme for pastoral visitation was for five days visiting those in prison, one day reserved for just children, and Sunday to the poor and elderly. Christ’s love is extended to all people. In today’s secular society, we are reminded again that Christ’s love is for all —male or female, Muslim, Jew, gay or straight, rich or poor, Black or white, or people of other races, young or old, strong or weak, physically able or the physically challenged, brilliant or the mentally challenged, liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat — Christ love is available to all!
Obviously, the last question we have to ask ourselves as the congregation of Pleasant Grove UMC what shall we do? Here are some suggestions: deepen your faith by reading of Scripture and daily prayer and ask yourselves tough questions about your faith. That is what Spiritual Growth is all about. Second, get to know some one who is different from you. Share your life with them and they with you. Your will grow deeper as you pray for them.
Finally, just like we need both hands to clap, our Christian lives also needs both faith and works. Think of your right hand as faith and your left as works. Cut off one and your salvation becomes null and void. Works are not the root of salvation but the fruit. Faith brings a person to salvation and works bring that person to fruitfulness.
(1) From the NIV introduction to James