The actress Helen Hayes was once asked whether she ever had doubts about her faith. Her reply was, “Yes, I have doubted. I have wandered off the path. I have been lost. But I always returned. …. It is intuitive – an intrinsic, built-in sense of direction. I seem to find my way home. My faith has wavered but has saved me.”
But, ‘Can faith save you?’ This rather challenging question was asked by James in a rather controversial passage on the role of faith and works for achieving salvation (Jas 2:14). Can we achieve salvation by faith alone without the need for works?
We touched on this question last week in the passage preceding today’s; but, now James explains his argument in detail.
Apparently, there were some Christians in James’ day who believed that the doctrine of justification by faith alone means that at the judgement, they will be justified through faith in Christ, and will receive salvation, regardless of how well or poorly they have lived.
They based this understanding upon their interpretation of Paul’s teaching on salvation by faith. And it was this idea that works are inconsequential that James felt a need to correct.
Do we, then, have a conflict in the teachings within the Bible? Well, I would suggest that the answer to this is no! Those who misunderstand Paul’s and James’ teachings and see conflict in them are misunderstanding what we mean by the terms ‘faith’ and ‘works’. From our passages for today we can derive three features of faith that will help us to better understand this saving faith:
I. Faith is more than ‘belief’
Simply believing in God, or professing a set of doctrinal beliefs about God, will not result in salvation. As James pointed out in verse 19, even if we believe the doctrine of the Trinity, i.e. that God is one, this in itself will not save us. After all, the demons believe in God, and probably have quite an intimate knowledge of God’s being; but, we know that they are not justified. There has to be more than just belief.
Also, belief is a certainty, whereas faith requires doubt (just as experienced by Helen Hayes). Do you sometimes doubt the reality of your faith? I suspect so, because most of us have at some time experienced doubt – including me. But even the most devout followers of Jesus sometimes experience doubt.
In fact, the possibility of doubt is a necessary requirement for faith! If there is absolutely no doubt about something, then we do not need faith to accept it! You do not need faith to believe that this organ exists – you can see it, you can touch it and you can hear it – there is absolutely no doubt that it exists.
It is only where doubt exists, that faith is required. And the Christian faith is called a faith because God wants us to accept the Gospel in faith. The central belief of the Christian faith depends upon faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. God wants followers to come to him in faith.
So, knowledge or belief alone, will not necessarily result in salvation. When Jesus asked his disciples in the Gospel passage, “Who do you say I am?” Peter stepped forward and acknowledged that Jesus is the Son of God. But merely expressing knowledge of who Jesus is, is not enough. Jesus indicated that we must do something. Faith is not merely passive believing; rather, …
II. Faith is active
Saving faith requires a response from the believer. Peter’s answer to Jesus’ question would probably have surprised everyone: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matt 16:16) The Christ (Greek), or Messiah (Hebrew), means ‘the Anointed One’, and has the sense of being consecrated by God, and given divine empowering, for a particular task. To call Jesus Messiah, Son of the living God, was an enormous step of faith for Peter to take.
But note that Jesus did not leave Peter’s confession at this verbal acclamation. Jesus then went on to say that if we are to be a follower of him, then one must take up one’s cross. People carrying crosses in Jesus’ day were people going to execution – to lose their life. And, as a follower of Jesus, ‘cross bearing’ means giving one’s whole life over to following him.
So faith is a self surrender of the whole individual to God. It is a personal response in genuine gratitude to the grace of God which Jesus proclaimed and manifested in his life, death and resurrection. It is a relationship of trust, loyalty, gratitude, and affection.
Suppose that there is a fire in the upper section of a multi-story house. As the people gather in the street below, they see a child at the window of a room next to the fire. The fire fighters are still on their way and will not arrive quickly enough to save the child. However, in the crowd is a man well known for his strength and athletic ability. The man shouts to the child, “Drop into my arms; trust me, I will catch you.”
It is one part of faith for the child to know that the man is strong and able to catch her. But the essence of faith lies in her trusting and actively responding by dropping down into the man’s arms.
So, faith firstly requires knowledge and secondly requires an active response to this knowledge. This is a personal response - a self surrender of ourselves to God. This should result in saving faith; but, how do we know if this is so? There is a way to know, and that is James’ primary thesis: to know we should look at how we subsequently live our life, because …
III. Faith is proved by works
In verse 21 James at first appears to contradict the teaching of Paul in Romans, Galatians and elsewhere when he points to Abraham and says, ‘Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar.’ The ‘works’ to which James refers is the work of total obedience to God’s will that Abraham demonstrated when he prepared to sacrifice his beloved son on the altar.
But as we read on we begin to understand that faith plays the major role. James explains that faith promoted Abraham’s action – his obedience was not an isolated occurrence but was in response to his faith – the first and basic reality in Abraham’s relationship with God.
Both faith and works are required; faith precedes and promotes the works, and by engaging in an activity of ‘works’ faith grows to maturity.
The misunderstanding by which some see a contradiction between James’ and Paul’s teachings has arisen through the use of the word ‘works’. James’ use of the word focuses on whether a profession of faith is valid if there are no deeds to substantiate it. In Romans, the word ‘works’ represents earned credits.
Paul is concerned with the question of “How does one come into a right relationship with God?” Do we, as Paul when he was Saul the Pharisee had believed, have to earn God’s good will, or buy his favour, by offering up a spotless record of keeping the law? Paul says, “No!” We are “justified by faith”, i.e. by responding wholeheartedly, in gratitude to the love which God has freely offered to us.
So, salvation is not about earning our way into heaven through doing good works, i.e. keeping the law or doing good deeds. If it were so, then my friends, I am afraid that every one of us would be lost – every one of us would fail miserably to attain the goal.
Let me give you a little illustration of what I mean.
Let us imagine that the goal of salvation could be attained by the work of swimming to New Zealand. So, all of us who desire to achieve this goal of salvation go down to the shore at Nambucca Heads, dive in and commence swimming to New Zealand. Well, even though I have been in the Navy, I am not a very strong swimmer, so I can tell you that I would only get a few dozen yards before I would become exhausted and would drown. Some of you in your youth may have been stronger swimmers than I and would have achieved a few hundred yards – others might even have achieved some kilometres. But the fact is that every one of us would eventually fail and drown – not one of us would achieve the goal!
As well as Abraham, James uses another example from the Old Testament - Rahab the prostitute. Rahab’s work was to reach out and take into her own care those who were needy and helpless, regardless of the cost to herself. This teaches us that unless our faith is active and willing to take personal risks, such as Rahab took, then our faith is lacking.
In addition, the contrast of a prostitute with Abraham illustrates that simply maintaining respectability may not indicate the presence of saving faith. In the view of Jesus and of James, respectability and faith are not equivalents. Society does not give us the yardstick by which to attain God’s approval. Sometimes the law is not moral, or what is moral is not lawful. Many of our service personnel know this! Some come home from deployments, particularly peace-keeping operations, with psychological stress illnesses because of having to deal with conflict between the lawful rules of engagement, which they must obey, and what they know to be morally right.
The mere fact that we operate inside the law as a good citizen is not a guarantee that we have a saving faith. We could ask, for example, “Are we a good Christian if we are self disciplined in our personal habits whilst being ruthless in personal ambition?”
The point that James is arguing (and which I have suggested Paul also would support) is that both faith and works are necessary requirements of a follower of Christ. ‘We are justified by Faith only …’ (as expressed in the 11th Article of Religion). Nevertheless, as James says, ‘… faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead’. Saving faith requires an active response to God’s grace. And, an indication that we have responded with a saving faith will be the works that subsequently follow.
Alternatively, doing good works, by itself, will also not result in eternal life. The good works must arise from a faith in Jesus Christ as our Saviour and Lord.
We might consider salt – you will remember that the Christian is said to be the salt of the earth. Salt is composed of two chemical ingredients, sodium and chlorine. Each of these elements on its own is a poison and if we were to ingest either of the two poisons, we would die. But if we combine them properly, we have sodium chloride, which is the common table salt that gives flavour to our food and indeed life and health to our bodies.
So, too, are faith and works inseparable. Salvation is provided through faith and the outcome and evidence of a saving faith is the doing of good works. Amen.