James 2:14-26: Good Works

Sun, 08/10/2023 - 10:30 -- James Oakley

Let me ask you a question: Do you need to be good in order to go to heaven? Do you have to do good works, good deeds, to get to heaven? That is a really important question, is it not? Because where you spend eternity really matters. This life we live in now is short; the most any of us will get is probably 100 years, relative to which eternity is a very, very long time. So where you get to spend eternity, well, there is no more important question for you than that.

Some folks here have recently done exams, maybe GCSEs or A-levels. I know some of you have recently done medical exams, and you're waiting to find out if you can practice as a doctor. Maybe you've taken a driving test and passed or not passed. I know some of you have taken more than one, and it's been a little bit of a battle to get through. You want to know as you prepare for your exam what it is they're going to test you on, what questions will they ask you in the driving test, what roads might they take you on, what kind of manoeuvres might they get you to do so that you can practice, so that you know that when the test is on, you are going to have what it takes to pass.

Well, what is the assessment on judgement day that determines who goes to heaven, who goes to hell? What will you be tested on? Knowing whether good works, good deeds are part of the mix is really, really important. It's dangerous to get it wrong.

If the answer is yes and good works are necessary, but you think they're not, you could go through life complacent and with a false sense of assurance that all is well when, in fact, you haven't properly prepared for your exam. If the answer is no, good works are not necessary, but you think they are, well, then you could go through the whole of your life with an unnecessary sense of guilt and a loss of the assurance that you could have otherwise had that everything is fine. So it really matters that we get this right.

It's also a really important question historically. In the second half of the 16th century, a movement swept through the whole of Western Europe and Great Britain that shaped the culture and identity of the nations it touched, called the Reformation. All there was at that point in the West, church-wise, was what we now call the Roman Catholic Church, and the Protestant church was born as people rediscovered the truths of God's grace. The leaders of that movement were giants, people like John Calvin, Martin Luther, and Ulrich Zwingli, and here in the UK, you have names like Thomas Cranmer.

Now, the Roman Catholic Church of the day and the reformers agreed that we are saved by grace and we take hold of that salvation through faith. But the question was this: Is it faith alone or faith plus good works? Is it grace alone or grace plus my effort and my merit? Indeed, the teachings of the five of the main reformers have been summarized under five slogans, each of which ends with the word alone. Because people like Latin for some reason, sometimes you get the Latin version, which means it starts with the word "sola."

Grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone, we learn about God in Scripture alone, and all of our lives are lived to the glory of God alone. People like me who were schooled in kind of reformation thinking can find James chapter 2 slightly awkward because it seems like he's siding with Rome and against the reformers. It could sound like he's saying you need faith and works. So, look together at verse 22. “You see that his faith and his works were working together.” It feels uncomfortable.

You can see it even more sharply if you set the Apostle Paul alongside James. So, this is the 2011 version of the NIV translation of the Bible into English. Its predecessor was the 1984 version. In the 1984 version, let me read  you two verses. First of all, Romans 3:28 says this: "We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law." James 2:24 says, "You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone." Now, that was so uncomfortable that when they revised it in 2011, they re-translated the word "justified" to stop it sounding like that. But that's what it says. So, which is it: faith alone or faith plus works? It matters.

Faith Saves You

Well, I've got two things to say to us this morning to answer that question. And the first is, faith saves you. Faith saves you. Now, this is not the focus of this passage, so we're not going to focus there either, but let's just make sure that we all know that this is true. Let's remind ourselves.

So, look outside James just for a moment. Ephesians chapter 2:8, 9. We preached through Ephesians a year or so ago. Paul says this, "It is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works so that no one can boast.” You can't boast because you didn't contribute.

People boast about all kinds of things. I could show you a beautiful painting in the Louvre in Paris, but if I boasted and said, 'Look what a great painter I am,' you'd go, 'You did not paint that,' and I'll go, 'You've got me. I didn't.' So, if there's a fantastic painting and you did not even contribute towards it being done, then you can't boast. And that's Paul's point. You do not even contribute to being saved, so there is nothing for you to boast about.

Luke 18:17, the words of the Lord Jesus. These are familiar words, and they are precious words. Jesus says, "Truly, I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." The point here of being a little child is that you come with empty hands. You do not have anything with which to pay for your salvation. When you are a newborn infant, your bank account is empty. You just come and receive.

Or even within James, if you ask James, "Go on, James, what's the gospel? I want to share my faith with my friends. What should I tell them if I've got five minutes to go over the gospel with them?" He says, "Ah, have a look at Verse 18 of Chapter 1 of my letter. That'll tell you what I think the gospel is." Oh, what's that? "God chose to give us birth through the word of truth." God's choice and God's gift. It's all of God. That's the gospel according to James. We are justified by grace, by faith alone.

So, some of you may know an ancient hymn written by somebody with the fantastic name of Augustus Toplady. Augustus Toplady wrote "Rock of Ages." Here's verse three:

"We're justified by grace," he wrote. "Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling. Naked, come to thee for dress, helpless, look to thee for grace. Foul, I, to the fountain fly. Wash me, Saviour, or I die."

But it's not just grace; it's grace alone. Verse two:

"Not the labours of my hands can fulfil thy law's demands. Could my zeal no respite know, could my tears forever flow. All for sin could not atone. Thou must save, and thou alone."

Faith Changes You

Faith saves you, but second, faith changes you. We need to look really, really closely and carefully at what James says in this passage. He is not saying that you need two things: faith and works. He's saying what you need is faith—real faith. Faith leads to good works; that's how you can tell it's real. So you need a real, living faith in the Lord Jesus—the kind that changes your life.

So, look at verse 14: 'What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith?' Okay, now you can claim anything. I can claim to be able to run a mile in under 4 minutes, beat Bannister to it! You would watch me outside my front door for 100 yards and know that I'm not going to do the remaining 1550 yards in the rest of four minutes because I've used three of my four minutes to cover the first 100 yards. You can claim anything. So, what about this claim—“claims to have faith”? Really? Okay, but has no deeds. Ah, that kind of claim, can that faith save him? Such faith? No, it's not real faith.

Or look at verse 17: 'In the same way, faith by itself, if it's not accompanied by action, is dead.' Ask this question: What is it that's dead? Not you. He doesn't say, 'You, unless you are accompanied by action, you're dead.' No, faith, if not accompanied by action, is dead. It's the faith that is dead.

Or verse 18: He's having an imaginary conversation going on between James and somebody else. This other person likes to go, 'Well, you know, James, some people, they're into faith; others, they're into deeds. Me, I'm a bit of a faith guy. I don't think I need the deeds.' Okay, someone will say, 'You have faith; I have deeds.' James's answer is this: 'Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.' Faith is invisible, but add the ink of deeds, and you can then see it. Deeds are how faith is seen.

Or verse 26: As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deed is dead. So, you put your hand near the mouth and nose of this alleged faith, and there's no moisture, there's no breath. And the conclusion is, the faith is a lifeless corpse, and lifeless corpses are not very good at saving other people."

There you are, you're in the swimming pool, you get into some difficulty, you look around for the lifeguard to come and help you and discover the lifeguard has had a heart attack and is lying on the concrete slabs at the side of the pool. Now, fortunately, that lifeguard is being seen to by paramedics and will be okay, but while that lifeguard is lying there unconscious, that lifeguard is not going to be able to save you. The kind of faith that has no deeds attached to it is dead. It is as lifeless as a corpse without breath, says James, and so it is not going to go saving you because it itself has no life.

So, James is not saying you need faith plus works. He's not saying that you're saved by works, but what you need is faith (faith to help you change so that you can become good enough and get to the pass mark).

No, he's saying you're saved by faith alone, and faith will transform your life. Imagine you go to do your weekly shopping, and you decide that the cost of living crisis is getting a bit expensive. You haven't got enough money this week to pay for the food at your supermarket bill. So, what are you going to do? You're going to go onto the internet, and you're going to download a picture of some money, and you will print yourself a £10 note! Quantitative easing from home. I am going to print a £10 note and pay for my shopping with my £10 note.

And the shopkeeper goes, "I'm very sorry, you can't pay for your shopping with that." And you go, "Ah, I know what I did wrong. Silly me. I forgot something. I forgot my marshmallows. You see, to pay for your shopping, you need money and marshmallows. Not just money.” And the shopkeeper looks at you like you like you’re nuts. He goes, "You do not need marshmallows to pay for your shopping." What you need is to get rid of that and get yourself some real money. Real money will pay for your shopping. In fact, if you get some real money, you can get a better-sized bag of marshmallows with that same money as well.

Faith changes you.

We can illustrate all of this by thinking about the criminal who hung on the cross next to Jesus in Luke 23. Remember when Jesus was crucified? Two criminals were hung, one on his left, one on his right. One mocked him, and the other said this, Luke 23:42, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." And Jesus answered him, "Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise." If what you needed was faith plus works, that criminal would have been utterly stuffed. He had no time to do any good works. If what that criminal needed was faith to infuse in him some power to become better so that he could reach the pass mark, in the fullness of time, he would be stuffed. He had no time to improve himself. But all that criminal needed was faith in the Lord Jesus. And within minutes, he was straight in glory.

But you could add something to that. If he had lived, if there had been some last-minute reprieve and he was taken down from the cross, that criminal would have been a changed man, in the same way that Zacchaeus was because he had real faith. And even in the few minutes he had remaining, our God can see minds and hearts and would have been able to see that deep inside that man's heart, something very real had changed. The difference would be clear to God.

Let me just pick up briefly on something I said earlier. We talked about this being a big issue at the time of the Reformation. Some of you may be wondering what about the Roman Catholic Church today? What does it teach? What does it think and understand? We've not got time to go into this in a lot of detail. So, if this is a live concern for you, do talk to me. But the Roman Catholic Church today does still teach some form of faith plus works. That comes out in two ways. One is that they actually quote James chapter 2 to say that in order to be united to the Lord Jesus, it is not enough to have faith. You also need to have love as well, an additional thing. And the second way it comes out is that they teach that once you become a Christian, your salvation is not secure if you commit the more serious sins. (They define those pretty precisely). You would lose your salvation and need to convert again to get back into a state of grace because having done those big sins, you are not good enough. That's the potted version.

Now, don't misunderstand me here. I am not saying that if you have been brought up in a Roman Catholic background and you've had some really positive experiences of Roman Catholic people, or schools, or whatever, and that blessed you, that I'm wanting to dismiss all of that as invalid. Not at all. God can use anything to bring His light and life into people. If that happened to you through them, then praise God for that. Don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying you can't be a Christian if you're a Roman Catholic. No, I'm not saying that at all. You're a Christian by trusting the Lord Jesus, whatever shelter you choose to live under. I'm not saying that every person who teaches on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church is going to teach error at this point. There are many, I'm sure, very good and faithful Christians in leadership in the Roman Catholic Church who teach the wonderful good news of the Lord Jesus Christ. But I am saying this: the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, what you would teach today if you are being a good Catholic, gets this wrong, and this is right at the heart of the Gospel. This is about how people get saved or don't get saved.

Often, different denominations differ about small stuff. So, within this church, some people baptise kids, some don't. And we just say, "Let's find a way to get along and not make an issue of it." But this is not a small thing on the fringes. This is a big thing right at the heart of the Christian faith. So, it's worth being clear that no matter how many excellent people you may know within the Roman Catholic Church, at its heart, the official position of that institution remains what it was at the Reformation, which is that you need faith plus works.

James then gives four examples to illustrate what he's been talking about: two negative ones, two examples that show how useless it is to have faith if it doesn't lead to change; and then two positive examples of how precious and wonderful it is when someone trusts in God's Word and lives accordingly.

The First Negative Example: The Hungry Christian

Verse 15: Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, keep warm and well-fed,' in today's language, 'Why don't we pray about that,' but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it's not accompanied by action, is dead.

This illustrates James's point but also drives it home. If you were here last week, we talked about in the first half of James 2 about how churches need to be those places where the vulnerable, the needy, the poor are particularly cared for and valued. So here he is saying that faith needs to lead to good deeds. What kind of good deeds? Well, a church that lives out its faith shouldn't have people in it who are routinely hungry.

The Second Negative Example: The Hell-Bound Demons

Verse 19: You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that and shudder.

The demons in hell are the most orthodox individuals you could meet. Their theology is extraordinarily deep and detailed. Every week, we have a part of our service when we share together what we call a Creed or a statement of faith, where we encourage each other by saying, 'We believe.' Normally, when we introduce that, we say something like, 'If this is what you believe, please join in.' Why do we do that? Because we do not want people to be pressured into saying things they do not agree with. So if you're here investigating, we don't want to pressure you to say this as if you believe it when you don't. That's your freedom to work out what you think.

The demons would be joining in full voice because they know it's all true. Every single word of it. In fact, they understand it. Okay, they understand what 'begotten not made' means, even if you don't, they get it. But they stay in hell.

When we have our baptism services or when we have a dedication service for a newborn baby, the questions we ask are this: 'Do you believe and trust in that God, the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit?' Now, the demons, they're fine with the belief bit; it's the trust bit that's missing. And so they stay in hell.

You can have the most articulate Christian faith. You can teach in the theology faculty of a leading university. You can have notebooks full of excellent sermons that you've heard. But if you don't act on it, it does you no good at all.

The hell-bound demons.

The Third Example: Abraham

Now, remember the story. God promised Abraham three things: as many descendants as there are grains of sand on the seashore, a land to call his own, and great blessings. Then comes Genesis 15, Verse 6: 'Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.' That's a verse that the Apostle Paul quotes frequently, trusting God was all it took for Abraham to receive righteousness from God as a gift. But James reminds us the story went on because later, God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the son who was born as a result of that promise. God never wanted that actually to take place. God provided a ram instead to be killed in place of Isaac. The nations that the Israelites displaced when they occupied Canaan did sacrifice their children to their gods, and that's one of the reasons why they had to be destroyed. God is very clear that He hates the thought of that happening. This was never intended to actually take place. But Abraham did not understand how this fitted into God's purposes. How could he kill the child of the promise? And it still could happen. Hebrews 11 suggests maybe he knew that God had the power to raise the dead, but he set out anyway and trusted God enough to do it, or to begin to do it.

James says that two things happened at that point, Verse 22: his faith was made complete. You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.

I love the Narnia stories written by CS Lewis. Here they are: "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," "The Magician's Nephew," "The Horse and His Boy," "Prince Caspian," "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," and "The Silver Chair." They are fantastic stories; they really are absolutely brilliant. Each one of them is great. Hang on, I say six; wait, ah, The Last Battle, yeah, don't forget that one, okay. Each of the other ones is a brilliant story. They really are good on their own, but they are heading towards a conclusion and a climax that is met in The Last Battle. But when you've got the "Last Battle," you then have completed the set, and as good as each one is on its own, it's good when it's made complete, and you have the whole lot. And God says that's what happened with Abraham when he was willing to sacrifice Isaac. His faith was wonderful, but somehow it was complete when he would put it into practice, and the set was complete.

The other thing that happened is the scripture was fulfilled. This is verse 23: “The scripture was fulfilled that says, 'Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,' Genesis 15 Verse 6”. So the text says that Abraham trusted God. That trust was real; that trust was wonderful, but it anticipates a fulfilment. It's waiting for the action that will give us the opportunity to see that faith working in practice.

So I have here a glass. It's just an ordinary, common, or garden glass. Okay, it's a perfectly good glass. There was nothing wrong with this glass, but it was made for something. There was a reason why they made the glass. It's empty; that is the problem with this glass at the moment. So what we have to do to allow this glass to have its full potential is that it is now a filled glass. It has been filled full or fulfilled. Okay, that is what has happened to the glass. It is now a fulfilled glass, right? It no longer just has potential; it is now an actual useful glass of water. And that's what Abraham's faith was like, says James. And the scripture that pronounced that his faith was real was like a glass, and then when he was willing to do it, that scripture is suddenly filled full of the meaning that is there.

Or consider the marriage service. There are some wonderful promises said as husband and wife get married: 'I take you to be my lawful wedded husband (or wife), to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.' Now, I do not doubt that when a husband and wife make those promises, they mean them, and they are real. They're properly married based on real, committed public love. However, what happens if then there's a season in which one or the other of them is severely sick for three years, cannot work, and is dependent on their husband or wife forever? Suddenly, those promises that were made, the ones that voiced how real the love was, they're suddenly full, aren't they? They're full of meaning because now they're living it out. It wasn't as if, if that hadn't happened, the love wouldn't have been real. It's not that they're not married because they haven't suffered yet, but suddenly something has happened that means those real promises are filled full of meaning because you can now see them.

The Fourth Example: Rahab

And then the last example is Rahab. Again, remember the story. Israel gathers east of the Jordan, about to cross the land and conquer it because the people who were there before killed their children to their gods. Remember that the people on the west in the city of Jericho were quaking in their boots. The reading we had told us they were “melting with fear”. They knew who would win the battle, but like the demons, they just stood in Jericho and shuddered, except for one lady called Rahab. She changed sides and so was safe.

Four examples: the hungry Christian, the Hell-bound demons, Abraham, and Rahab. Do you need to do good works to go to heaven? No, you do not. It is the gift of the Lord Jesus; trust Him. You can't contribute, but it will change.


Now, if you're here this morning and you're not yet a Christian, you're still investigating the claims of Jesus, then let me just say this to you: forgiveness, a place in God's family, a place in heaven – it is all of grace. Every other religion in the world would have you climbing up the ladder, trying to reach God, trying to be good enough. The truth of the Lord Jesus Christ is that the Lord Jesus came down from heaven to reach you. You do not need to climb as much as one rung; you just have to take his hand – a hand that is outstretched to you, and he will hold you. So, stop climbing the ladder and receive him.

To those of us who are Christians, this passage is designed to do one of two things, and it depends on who you are. It's either designed to unsettle you or to reassure you. If you're here this morning, and you're saying, 'I'm a Christian; it's all free; I can live how I like,' please be unsettled. It is all of grace; it's free for everyone who trusts in Jesus. But it is time for you to ask if that really is you.

When I was at university, one of my roommates had a poster. They still make them with different pictures behind them. This one had a cartoon image of a judge in a wig. It just said, 'If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?'

This passage, though, is also designed to reassure. If you're here saying, 'I'm a Christian, but I fail, and I'm not sure I'm good enough,' then be reassured. You've trusted Jesus; God loves you. You don't need to be perfect; you don't even need to reach the pass mark. There are no grade boundaries for heaven. So you may not be what you will one day become; you may not even be what you would like to be today in your better moments. But by the grace of God, you are not what you once were because a living trust in the Lord Jesus has been at work to change and transform you. This is because when you trust God, His salvation is free and unconditional, and one of His kindnesses is that He gets to work, and stuff changes.

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