Show Me Your Faith
Explore the Bible Series
August 9, 2009
Background Passage: James 2:14-26
Lesson Passage: James 2:14-26
I grew up in an environment that placed great emphasis on professing faith in Christ by responding to a post-sermonic altar call. Though my dear pastor (my dad) always included careful explanation that this physical response to the message did not, in and of itself, have any saving power, I think many people, in that environment, believed that this profession of faith brought a person into a saving relationship with God. Indeed, it seems that this response to an altar call was essential to the ordinance of baptism and church membership. However, as I grew a little older (during teen years), I noticed a problem that deeply troubled me.
Many people, some of those who publically professed faith in Christ, dropped out of regular church attendance and gave no detectable verification of conversion. Baptist churches kept people on the congregational rolls, despite the meager evidence of a living relationship with Christ. This incongruity puzzled me. Adults often assured me that these people were “saved”, but they were backslidden. In fact, some folks even responded to the altar call by “rededicating” their lives to the Lord. This was especially common during semi-annual revivals. I accepted this as normative for many years; indeed, I “rededicated” my life to Christ, on several occasions. My puzzlement, however, only intensified.
During seminary years I met Dr. Tom Nettles. He encouraged me to read the theological writings of some of the older Southern Baptists, particularly James P. Boyce (Dr. Nettles graciously gave me a copy of Abstract of Systematic Theology) and John L. Dagg. I found these writings stimulating and informative, especially as it related to the nature of saving faith. Boyce, for instance, warned about the danger of “historical faith”, a mere intellectual assent to the things taught in the Bible (Boyce pp 389-390). I suspect that a survey of “backslidden” people would reveal this kind of mental assent; however, saving faith, I believe, reaches beyond historical acquiescence. The Epistle of James provides an invaluable correction to this kind of theological error.
Saving faith involves at least four things: knowledge, assent, trust, and commitment.
1. People cannot believe what they do not know. Preachers must, in this sense, address the mind with the claims of the gospel. I do not imply that one must master a theological course of study to believe in Christ, but he must have some understanding of rudimentary facts concerning Lord Jesus.
2. As I am using the term, assent means that the believer must affirm the essential truth of the gospel message. He must, for instance, affirm Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. This assent serves as an indispensible building block of saving faith. Religion that stops here reminds me of Mr. Bunyan’s Talkative, a man whose religion was all in his tongue. He made a fair, eloquent profession of Christ, but his “faith” had no bearing on his life.
3. Trust moves beyond mental assent, and embraces the truth as a life-changing principle in one’s life. It involves a casting of one’s life on the truthfulness of the gospel claims.
4. The gospel demands a commitment of one’s life to the cause of Christ. Jesus called his disciples to forsake all for the sake of the gospel. No other concerns in life can take priority over the glory of Christ. Also, commitment requires devotion to growing in holiness and obedience to Christ. We must take great care here. The gospel does not teach that we merit God’s grace by observance of an external code of conduct, even the holy law of Jehovah (this is the message of Paul’s epistle to the Galatians). Rather, saving faith evidences itself through a faithful, loving heart that desires to live according to God’s will (this desire, as I see it, arises from the life-changing implications of regeneration). Faith, therefore, does involve practical obedience to the Lord’s commands.
James, I think, had this expansive understanding of faith in mind when he wrote the words we will study this week. Real saving faith includes all four elements: knowledge, assent, trust, and commitment. Dr. Curtis Vaughan said that James’ aim here centers on contrasting two kinds of faith; one genuine and the other spurious, one alive and the other dead (See Vaughan p 56).
I. An Essential Principle Stated (v. 14)
A. A hypothetical opponent: James imagines an opponent who might counter his views on faith, a person who might claim that practical obedience has no bearing on salvation. Mere profession of faith in Christ, minus obedience, is worthless mental assent and falls short of the biblical norm.
B. A poignant question: “Can that (kind of) faith save him?” James’ question anticipates a negative response.
II. A Hypothetical Example (vv. 15-17)
A. A brother or sister in need (vv. 15-16a): James, again, imagines a Christian friend in dire circumstances, in need of the basic essentials of life. This destitute person meets with empty platitudes from the church, and the poor friend turns away with needs unmet, cold and hungry.
B. An unmistakable conclusion (vv. 16b-17): James surmised that this kind of unfeeling, disobedient faith is worthless. This kind of profession of faith has no life dead and fruitless (See I John 3:16-18).
III. A Hypothetical Objection (vv. 18-20)
A. The objection summarized (v. 18a): Perhaps, at some point, James had a conversation with someone who argued about the nature of saving faith, and our author remembered the impression this dispute made on him.
B. An answer to the objection (vv. 18b-20): James made clear that good works serve as evidence of the life-altering nature of genuine faith; that is, Christians demonstrate their faith by acts of personal compassion and obedience to the Lord. Moreover, James used the example of demons to make his point. Devils are “orthodox” in their “creed”. They believe in the one true God, and, no doubt, they hold accurate views of the person and work of Christ. Indeed, the text indicates that demons have a fear of the Lord. However, they do not have saving faith, faith that issues in warm trust and commitment of life to Christ. Those who hold to such an inadequate view of faith demonstrate their utter foolishness.
IV. Two Examples of Saving Faith (vv. 21-26)
A. Abraham (vv. 21-24): Both Paul and James used Abraham as an example of their theological emphases. Paul referred to Abraham as an example of how a person cannot merit salvation by observing the law (See Galatians 3:1-9). James, on the other hand, used Abraham as an example of the necessity of works as an outgrowth of saving faith. In particular, this epistle emphasizes the patriarch’s act of faith in offering Isaac to God (See Genesis 22). James viewed Abraham’s obedience as the fulfillment of the patriarch’s faith. Works perfected Abraham’s faith as fruit fulfils the purpose of a tree (See Vaughan p. 62).
B. Rahab (vv. 25-26): The second chapter of Joshua recounts the story of Rahab, a prostitute who helped Jewish spies do recognizance in Jericho. She believed the “witness” of the spies, and demonstrated her faith by hiding the men from the authorities. She risked her life to preserve the lives and mission of the spies, and, in doing so, she exercised her new-found faith in Jehovah. James concluded this section with a final analogy. Faith without works is like a body without the spirit. The lifeless body may, for a time, retain the appearance and outward form of life, but it is dead nonetheless.