Practicing Your Faith
Sunday School Lesson for August 10, 2003
Focal Teaching Passage: James 2:14-26
Dead Faith: Faith Without Works (2:14-17)
This section of James’ epistle identifies one of the key issues that prompted him to pen this letter to his believing brethren scattered throughout the world. James was concerned that those who claimed to be followers of Christ should display the reality of their faith through works prompted by their belief and trust. Specifically, James argued that acts of mercy and practical care for one another, especially the disadvantaged in the faith- community, provided the real proof of one’s own experience of God’s saving mercy in Christ (cf. 1:22-23). From the negative side, his main contention was that "where loving action is conspicuous by its absence, there is irrefutable evidence that real faith is lacking" [Tasker, 63].
In this verse James raised a fundamental question to the members of Christ’s church—one designed to prompt them to consider whether or not they possessed authentic faith. His question is composed of two parts:
Here, James provided an example of the kind of useless faith he had in mind. He set up a hypothetical situation (perhaps based upon an actual occurrence or conversation with someone) that would serve to illustrate false faith. The situation involved a "brother or sister" in Christ who had the need for "daily food"(v. 15). Rather than mercifully responding to them by freely giving "what is necessary for their body," the person with a spurious faith would simply say, "Go in peace, be warmed and be filled" (v. 16). This might be the equivalent to the modern-day penchant of saying something like, "God bless you brother. I’ll pray for you." Yet, however noble or pious such words might sound, James made it clear that it was of no value—"what use is that?"
Having illustrated his key point, James set forth the central theme of this section of his letter—"faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself." In other words, the "mere profession of religious belief apart from merciful acts . . . is dead" [Richardson, 132]. A dead faith cannot save and does not serve the body of Christ. It is devoid of both life and usefulness and "does not contain within it the will or spring of action appropriate to faith" [ibid.]. This powerful statement would seem to make the answer to the question raised in verse 14 very apparent indeed! The obvious answer is that a faith which does not possess "as an integral element in its composition, the power and desire to meet the infinite pathos of human life with something of the infinite pity which God has shown to man in Jesus Christ, is not faith at all" [Tasker, 64].
Faith Defined: A Faith That Works (2:18-20)
Here James addressed an unnamed "someone" who had evidently raised objections to the demands faith placed upon disciples of Christ. This person claimed that the presence of both faith and works was not necessary in one person’s life—"You have faith and I have works." That is, like spiritual gifts, one member of the body could possess faith while another would have the ministry of practical works of service. However, James would have nothing to do with this kind of thinking that separated the two. In fact, such a "disavowal of personal responsibility to act mercifully is a terribly misguided way of thinking [and] is characteristic of believers who are self-deceived" [Richardson, 133]. Thus, James’ response to such a ridiculous assertion was most straightforward—"I will show you my faith by my works."
The claim that one merely had to "believe," while leaving it to others to engage in ministry, is patently false, and places one on the level of "the demons" who "also believe, and shudder." Note that this kind of demonic faith has the right profession—"God is one"—yet, is certainly not sufficient to bring one into a right relationship with God. It is also clear that simply having an emotional reaction or experience is not indicative of true saving faith since the demons themselves "shudder" in association with the knowledge that God lives. True faith, then, provides evidence of its authenticity "not by shaking in terror but by acts of charity" [Tasker, 67].
Having heard such a ridiculous claim that faith may be disconnected from works, James confronted the "foolish fellow" with the fact that "faith without works is useless." With this statement we are able to construct a simple working definition of true faith as a knowledge and acceptance of the truth that results in acts of mercy and service. Faith, according to James, is composed of complete trust in God and a humble obedience that specifically manifests itself in service to the body of Christ.
Illustrations to Consider: Faith, Works, and Salvation (2:21-26)
Next, James provided illustrations of saving faith for his readers in order to help them better understand how it reveals itself. Two Old Testament figures are mentioned as key examples:
In this last verse James repeated once more his major theme in most graphic terms. In the same way that "the body without the spirit is dead," one who has no "works" possesses a faith that is "dead." Thus, faith apart from works is like a corpse or dead body. It neither trusts in Christ nor serves His people.
Major Themes for Application and Reflection
One: Faith or fluff?—In your own words, how would you describe the essential differences between real biblical faith and mere religion?
Two: Backslidden or lost?—In light of James’ teaching in this passage, what are we to make of the many people in our churches who display no discernable commitment to Christ or His church? In other words, according to James, is there really such a thing as an "inactive church member"?
Three: Putting faith to work—What practical suggestions can you offer for putting your faith to work in your local church? How can you mercifully provide for the needs of others within the body?