FAITH WITHOUT WORKS IS DEAD
(from a transcript of a sermon preached on 4/8/01 at Sovereign Redeemer Assembly)
Today's sermon is entitled "Faith Without Works is Dead." Let's turn to James 2 and read verse 14 through the end of the chapter.
James 2: (14) My brothers, what [is] the gain if anyone says he has faith, but he does not have works? Is the faith able to save him? (15) But if a brother or a sister is naked and may be lacking in daily food, (16) and any one of you say to them, Go in peace, be warmed and filled, but does not give them the things the body needs, what gain [is it]? (17) So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead being by itself. (18) But someone will say, You have faith, and I have works. Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith out of my works. (19) You believe that God is One. You do well; even the demons believe and shudder. (20) But are you willing to know, O vain man, that faith apart from works is dead? (21) Was not our father Abraham justified by works offering up his son Isaac on the altar? (22) You see that faith worked with his works; and out of the works the faith was perfected. (23) And the Scripture was fulfilled, saying, "And Abraham believed God, and it was counted for righteousness to him;" and he was called, Friend of God. (24) You see, then, that a man is justified out of works, and not out of faith only. (25) But in the same way Rahab the harlot was also justified out of works, having received the messengers, and sending them out by another way. (26) For as the body is dead apart from the spirit, so also faith is dead apart from works.
I'd like to go verse-by-verse through what we just read, so we can really glean the meaning of this passage. As you might know, this is a controversial passage in some circles. Some would say that this passage proves that the book of James is not inspired. Others say that this is the so-called "Arminian side" of Christianity that needs to balance out the so-called "Calvinist side." Some Arminians say that this disproves salvation by grace alone. But let's not be sidetracked with such nonsense. What James 2:14-26 says is true. So let's see what it means. Look at verse 14:
James 2: (14) My brothers, what [is] the gain if anyone says he has faith, but he does not have works? Is the faith able to save him?
This verse is made up of two rhetorical questions. It is saying this: "There is no gain if anyone says he has faith, but doesn't have good works. This faith is not saving faith." James here is combating the heretics who were saying that one can believe in the person and work of Christ and yet not have any good works to manifest that faith. It is a form of antinomianism. It's the "carnal Christian" mentality. These are the ones who say that a Christian can live just like the immoral, irreligious world, but as long as they believe, they're saved, even though all their works are evil. The Holy Spirit through James says that this is impossible. Someone who says he believes the gospel, even the true gospel of salvation conditioned on the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Christ alone, but who has no accompanying good works, is not regenerate.
Now on to verses 15 and 16:
James 2: (15) But if a brother or a sister is naked and may be lacking in daily food, (16) and any one of you say to them, Go in peace, be warmed and filled, but does not give them the things the body needs, what gain [is it]?
James here gives an illustration. The illustration consists of someone who is in need of food and clothing, and someone who has the means to help that person. The person who has the means to help is saying to the person who is in need, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled." So what good has that done the person who's in need? If you meet a person who's dying of thirst, and you tell him, "May you be blessed with a drink," what good has it done that person who's dying of thirst? It's just empty words. You've done nothing to help the person.
Now verse 17:
James 2: (17) So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead being by itself.
James shows how faith without works is like the person who says "be warmed and filled" but doesn't give the person any food and clothing. Just as the words are empty words, this faith is an empty faith. It has no substance. If someone tells you that he believes the gospel but who lives in irreligion, immorality, and unconcern, his profession is an empty profession. The same with someone who tells you that he believes the gospel but who does not love his brothers and sisters, as James showed in the first part of chapter 2. He really doesn't believe the gospel. Let's turn over to 1 John 2:9-11:
1John 2: (9) The [one] claiming to be in the light, and hating his brother, is in the darkness until now. (10) The [one] loving his brother rests in the light, and no offense is in him. (11) But the [one] hating his brother is in the darkness, and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness blinded his eyes.
Here's one who SAYS he's in the light, who SAYS he has faith, but who hates his brother. God says that this person who claims to be a Christian is actually unregenerate. His faith, with no accompanying love for the brothers, is dead. Now over to chapter 3, verse 17:
1 John 3: (17) Whoever has the means of life of the world, and sees his brother having need, and shuts up his heart of compassion from him, how does the love of God abide in him?
Here's another rhetorical question. The one who has the means and does not love his brother by giving to him, does not have the love of God abiding in him. Now chapter 4, verse 20:
1 John 4: (20) If anyone says, I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar. For the one not loving his brother whom he has seen, how is he able to love God whom he has not seen?
Again, here is one professing to have faith but who hates his brother. God calls this person a liar. His profession of faith is a lie. Faith without works is just a lie. It's a dead faith. And remember when I talked about true love for the brothers? What is one of the main evidences of true love for the brothers? It is not speaking peace to the brothers' enemies. For example, if a professing believer says that some who believe in universal atonement are his brothers in Christ, then he is speaking peace to the enemies of the people of God, showing that he actually hates the people of God. His professed faith is a lie.
Let's go back to James 2 and read verse 18:
James 2: (18) But someone will say, You have faith, and I have works. Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith out of my works.
James here refutes those who say that works and faith can be ripped apart such that one person can have faith with no works and another person can have works with or without faith. James replies, "Go ahead and try to show me your faith apart from your works." Remember, he's talking about one who claims to have faith but who has no accompanying works. So James is saying that it is impossible for this man to show his faith when his works are evil, such as not loving the brothers. James counters by saying, "I will show you my faith from my works." He's saying that his works are evidences of his faith. A faith with no evidences is not true faith.
James 2: (19) You believe that God is One. You do well; even the demons believe and shudder.
James continues to speak to the person who professes to have faith but has no works to evidence his faith. He says that this person professes to believe in one God, not in many gods. In other words, this person professes to be a monotheist, not a polytheistic idolater. James then says, "Well, good for you - even the demons believe this, to the point of being afraid of God." He's saying that your profession of believing in one God is no more than what the demons believe. It's another way of saying, "Big deal!" or "So what!" Are we to be impressed when a person says, "I believe in the one true and living God?" Or when someone says, "Thank you, God?" Are we to get all excited and say, "He's a believer! He's a believer!"? No. SO WHAT if a person says this. Millions of people say this who are on their way to hell. It doesn't mean a thing.
Now some people use this verse to say that orthodoxy isn't important. They say, "You can have all the doctrine right, but that doesn't mean you're saved. Even the demons are orthodox. They have all the right doctrine." I have several things to say about this. First, I would agree that someone can SAY or PROFESS to believe in all the right doctrine and still be lost. There's no question about that. But if they BELIEVE in all the right doctrine, then they are obviously saved. Now someone might accuse us of holding to the faith without works heresy. However - and this is important - if someone believes right gospel doctrine, then he will AUTOMATICALLY bring forth good works. There's no such thing as truly believing right gospel doctrine and not having good works. Now to their point about the so-called "orthodox demons." This passage is NOT saying that demons are orthodox. It is saying that they believe in one God and shudder. It is saying that the demons are monotheists. It is NOT saying that they believe right doctrine about salvation. They shudder because they only know the wrath of God. They do not know the mercy of God. Hebrews 11:6 says that "the one drawing near to God should believe that He is, and [that] He becomes a rewarder to the ones seeking Him out." Believing that there is one God is certainly part of the equation, but there's a lot more to it than that. A believer not only knows that there is one God, but he knows WHO God is and WHAT God has done in salvation. Romans 10:3 says that the one who is ignorant of the RIGHTEOUSNESS of God is lost. That means that one who DOES NOT KNOW that God is just to justify the ungodly based solely on the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Christ is lost.
Back to James 2. Let's read verse 20:
James 2: (20) But are you willing to know, O vain man, that faith apart from works is dead?
God calls the one who claims to believe in God but has no accompanying works a vain man. A vain man is a man who is empty. His words are empty, his profession is empty, and he is empty. God then reiterates to this vain man that his so-called faith is dead, because it is not accompanied by works.
James 2: (21) Was not our father Abraham justified by works offering up his son Isaac on the altar?
James now goes into an example of faith evidenced by works. Abraham, out of obedience to God, offered up Isaac on the altar. The rhetorical question that James puts forth states clearly that, in this act of offering up his son, Abraham was justified by works. Now the controversy starts spinning more rapidly. How could James say that Abraham was justified by works, when Paul said in Romans 3:28 that a man is justified by faith without the works of the law? And how about Romans 4:2, which says, "For if Abraham was justified by works, has a boast, but not with God"? Are Paul and James contradicting each other here? Well, we need to remember that it is the Holy Spirit through Paul and James, not just Paul and James. So if I'm going to ask if Paul and James are contradicting each other, it would be the same as if I asked, "Are God and God contradicting each other here?" Of course God doesn't contradict God. God is One. He is in perfect unity with Himself. He is only truth. That is why none of the Scripture contradicts itself. James is not contradicting Paul. James is talking about a different kind of justification than Paul is talking about. Paul is talking about justification as being declared righteous before God. James is talking about justification as proving that one's faith is real. Turn to 1 John 2:3-6:
1 John 2: (3) And by this we know that we have known Him, if we keep His commands. (4) The [one] saying, I have known Him, and not keeping His commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that one. (5) But whoever keeps His Word, truly in this one the love of God has been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him. (6) The [one] claiming to rest in Him ought so to walk himself as that [One] walked.
Our works are what prove our faith to be real. In this sense, we are justified by works. So Abraham, by faith, offered up Isaac, showing that He believed God's promise.
Now to verse 22 of James 2:
James 2: (22) You see that faith worked with his works; and out of the works the faith was perfected.
The first part says that faith works with our works. Our works spring from our faith. Our works are fruits of our faith. Now what does James mean when he says, "out of the works the faith was perfected?" Does it mean that the faith got better? Does it mean that Abraham believed the gospel more because of his works? No. It means that faith is MADE COMPLETE by works. It's just another way of saying that faith by itself is not a true, living faith. It is only a true faith if it is a faith that produces works. Faith accompanied by works is the only true, complete faith.
James 2: (23) And the Scripture was fulfilled, saying, "And Abraham believed God, and it was counted for righteousness to him;" and he was called, Friend of God.
James quotes Genesis 15:6, just as Paul quotes it in Romans 4:3. James and Paul are in agreement. James then quotes Isaiah 41:8, where Abraham is called a friend of God. How did Abraham show that he was a friend of God? By his works of obedience. And his works of obedience sprang from his belief of God's promise. Do you see how that works?
James 2: (24) You see, then, that a man is justified out of works, and not out of faith only.
This is the conclusion that James reaches from the Scriptures he quoted. A man is justified out of works, and not out of faith only. Does that sound heretical to you? Well, if it does, then you're saying that God sounds heretical to you. I like the way the LITV puts it. A man is justified OUT OF works. This is easier to understand than BY, and I believe it's a better translation. The Greek word translated "out of" is also translated "out of" in passages like Mark 15:46 that says that the tomb was cut OUT OF rock, and in John 10:28, Jesus says, "not anyone shall pluck them OUT OF my hand." And there are many more examples. The word can also be translated "by" or "from" or "of," but even in most of these instances, "out of" makes a lot of sense. If the LITV were consistent, it would have translated verse 21 to say that Abraham was justified OUT OF works. And, just as I said in the commentary on verse 21, God is here saying through James that our works are evidence of our faith. Our faith is proven by works.
James 2: (25) But in the same way Rahab the harlot was also justified out of works, having received the messengers, and sending them out by another way.
Rahab is given as an example of justification out of works. Her works showed that her belief in the God of Israel was real. Hebrews 11:3 says, "By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish with those disobeying, having the received the spies with peace." In Joshua 3:11, Rahab told the spies, "For Jehovah your God, He is God in the heavens above, and in the earth below." She showed her faith by helping Israel.
James 2: (26) For as the body is dead apart from the spirit, so also faith is dead apart from works.
James compares the body-spirit connection to the faith-works connection. If you didn't have a spirit inside you, what would your body be doing right now? It would be just lying there. It would be dead. Upon death, the spirit departs from the body. So all living human beings have spirits, or souls, in them. No spirit, no life. The same goes for faith and works. No works, no life. If there is faith but no works, it is like a body with no spirit. It is dead. It's really not the person anymore. See how important good works are? They're not an option. They're not something that some Christians have and other Christians don't have. They are inevitable and essential fruits of true faith.
So what part do good works play when it comes to gaining salvation, maintaining salvation, or making one fit for heaven? ABSOLUTELY NO PART. Our works to not secure salvation in any way to any degree. Our works do not help us to maintain our salvation in any way to any degree. Our works do not make us fit for heaven or deserving of heaven in any way to any degree. The atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Christ is the only ground of salvation, from regeneration to final glory. Our good works flow from a heart that has been given faith, and our good works are the response of a heart that loves the God who has saved us based on the work of Christ alone. All God's people DO have good works, no exceptions. It is not because the works form any part of the basis of our salvation, but it is because we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God had before ordained that we should walk in them. A heart that has been created to love God will do good works from that love. Let us who love God be diligent to show our love and to evidence our faith by our works. Amen.