Foolish Faith: James 2:14 – 2:26

thePsalmist on January 23rd, 2010

There is a real irony in the foolishness of the gospel though. In Proverbs foolishness was a very very bad thing:

“A foolish son bring grief to his father and bitterness to the one who bore him.” Proverbs 17:25

As Christians I think we can often bring a great deal of grief to God, and real bitterness into the heart of Jesus who bore us spiritually into this world and the next, by the utter foolishness with which we live out the gospel. A foolishness which isn’t like the foolishness Paul talks about in Corinthians, but is a foolishness in stark contrast to the gospel – a foolishness which seeks to hang on to the values of this world some measure, whilst also trying to claim the rights of heirs of God’s kingdom.

This passage from James is the fundamental reason for entitling this series “Inside Out and Upside Down”. This central passage in James’ letter is often seen as the pinacle of what the letter is all about, especially the famous opening verse:

“What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” James 2:14

And herein lies a big issue for our understanding of the Christian gospel. It is the most important of fundamental teachings of the Christian faith that there is absolutely nothing which we can do, by way of good deeds, to save ourselves. When Jesus was confronted by the rich young man, himself a fantatsic example of upright citizenship and religious obedience, he made the mistake of addressing Jesus as “Good Teacher”:

“A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.” Luke 18:18-19

Jesus challenged him not on his question but on his use of the word “Good”. He takes that opportunity to make the point in his ministry that there is no one who is good, not really, not compared to God! Our deeds, our religious observances, our niceness or perfect morality will not add up before God to making us “good” people worthy of His kingdom:

“This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference,  for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” Romans 3:22-24

ALL have sinned … and ALL are justified freely by HIS grace. Not one is justified by their own good deeds. Not one! Are we saved by our own merits? Nope! Are we able to convince God that actually we are quite holy and righteous after all? No! Was Christ’s sacrifice fully sufficient in and of itself to redeem my sinfulness? Yes, absolutely.

So why then does James bang on about our faith HAVING absolutely and necessarily to produce good works? Surely that is contrary to the Word of God? James’ most famous of passages here would appear to tread a dangerous line between the gospel of grace and the heresy of salvation by good deeds.

Well perhaps … and perhaps not. This is James at his very gospel centred best in truth. This is James at his hardest hitting, calling a spade a spade, inside out and upside down best. The gospel of grace is central and crucial, but the full impact of that grace on our lives is left without any doubts at all.

Back in Romans again we see Paul’s take on what effect the Gospel should have in our lives:

“12:1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spirituala act of worship. 2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. 3 For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. 4 Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.” Romans 12:1-6a

Paul makes a bold claim here. Firstly that everything we now have and are are there by God’s own grace and mercy, and that secondly, in response we should give our whole lives to be living sacrifices to Him … thus to each other who we find in the body of Christ. Paul goes on and on turning our faith upside down, just like James, making out that who and what we are comes not from us but from God … or at least it should do. Our faith should be generating more stuff from above and a lot less from the world below. The stuff we exhibit in our lives should be the gifts from God to serve one another, he says, the stuff from Up there, being given to serve each other Down here. Upside Down.

God’s grace, love and mercy in action in the everyday. Our faith, so desperately held inside our hearts, worked out in the relaitonships we are part of and the community around us which we live in. Inside Out and Upside Down.

So James is able to say in the light of all this …”What flaming good is it you muppets if you reckon on God giving you a new life and yet you live it like the old one you had before? What point is it in believing in spiritual gifts which are given for the common good, but you don’t actually use any of them! What use is the church if it was created by Jesus to change the world and yet all it does is meet in relative comfort and isolation and cares not one jot for actually being out there with it’s sleeves rolled up?”

Well, he might have said that, had he lived amongst us these days.

Wr might believe every word of the Bible, but unless it is actually busy transforming our lives, our minds, our hearts, our values (as Paul would say perhaps), then it really counts for nothing. James drives the boot deeper into our backsides saying

“You believe there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder.” James 2:19

Oh! And so he brings us to the issue of a foolish faith:

“You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?” James 2:20

Foolish Faith – a foolish faith is one for James which hasn’t even begun to grasp the reality of what that faith teaches, and yet professes to live by it nonetheless. To be honest, most people with any sort of faith have a foolish faith. I speak to many teenagers especially who would devoutly call themselves pagan, yet haven’t even begun to grapple with the true meaning of paganism … as they celebrate Christ’s birth at Christmas, live lives highly out of balance with nature and environmental concerns trashing the planet with their high-refuse generating, high-polluting, high meat-consuming diets. I speak to many more who profess to being convinced atheists whose atheism hasn’t even begun to be thought through, and who readily turn to prayer at the mereist whiff of trouble. And sadly I speak to so many Christians who live lives wholly divorced from the impact of the gospel on their lives, either through the outward engagement in living life the way the rest of the world lives their lives with decadence, loose morality, no morality, sexual misadventure, materialism … Or worse, the lack of love for their neighbours, the holding their faith quietly, the lack of service of others, the consumerism within the church. All of these things equally foolish for a people who have been supposedly transformed by the grace of God.

James raises before us a profound example, he talks about Abraham … a man who lived until a ripe old age of 90-odd without an heir, with no son to pass on both his worldly wealth and his faith in the true and living God Yahweh. Yahweh had promised Abraham a massive, world dominatingly large, eternal offspring … and yet he was now in old age and the promises of God looked hopeless. But God’s promise was good and Abraham’s equally aged wife bore him a son. No sooner was this son walking and talking though and God called Abraham to put his money where his mouth was. God said “You say you believe in me? Good! Now prove it! … take your son, who I promised you, and sacrifice him on an altar to me!”.

From that point on Abraham was living an inside out and upside down sort of faith. He was living a life which would have made James very proud. Abraham just quietly got on with the task of obeying God’s word, not making excuses and not theologising his way out of it. He gathered wood for a fire, took his son, some servants and headed out to the place God told him to go. He tied his son up, placed him on the wood and held out the knife ready to kill him. …And God said “STOP!”

Now that action, that readiness of Abraham was credited to him as righteousness. It’s the action of the body, it’s the words from the mouth, which truly show faith for what it is. If your faith in your heart is not causing you to sacrifice everything for God, who has sacrificed everything for you, then what sort of faith is it really?

If your faith has not enabled you to tithe sacrificially to God’s work in the church then what faith is it?

If your faith has not caused you to give up your time to serve others in the church and in the community, then really, does your faith truly mean anything in your life?

If your faith has not transformed you, how you think, how you talk, how you behave, …to be more like Christ, then is your faith really living and active and present in your life?

James finishes with these wise words:

“As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”

And in so doing summarises just how he is able to tread that line between a heresy of salvation through works and the gospel of grace and mercy. James is saying that while the faith itself is one of grace, when it is active within us we should see transformation and real godly lifestyles emerging. A living and active faith will necessarily bring about such radical change in those who have accepted it for what it is, that they will not be able to help themselves in living out the fuitfulness of it. The love for the lost, the poor, the needy, … the proclamation of God’s word, truth, love, grace, mercy, … the sacrifice of material comforts for the sake of giving more to God and to those in need, … the study of God’s word and the time spent in prayer … All of these things and more will be evidenced by a life set on fire with a true and living faith in Jesus Christ.

Our God is a good God who loves us, but who loves us so much that He is wanting to transform our lives into something which is more like Him … and He is not tired of working among the needy, and He is not afraid of sharing who He is, and He has not had his turn to serve, or worried about money. He just is love!

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