Sermon 09-03-17: “Dead Faith Can’t Save Us”

My previous sermon was about the classic Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone. But that sermon didn’t mention the 800-lb. gorilla in the room: What about good works? Don’t they play a necessary role? In fact, doesn’t the apostle James warn that “a person is justified by works and not faith alone” (v. 24)? Is James contradicting Paul? This sermon answers these questions.

Sermon Text: James 2:14-26

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Yesterday, Sports Illustrated wrote the following: “J.J. Watt might be the best defensive player in the NFL, but literally nothing he has done or will do on the field can ever top what he’s done for the city of Houston in the past week.” Have you heard about what the defensive end for the Houston Texans has done? Last Sunday, he launched a fundraiser to raise money for victims of Hurricane Harvey. His goal was a substantial, but very doable goal for someone of his means and influence: $200,000. That goal was surpassed in less than two hours. Donations continued to pour in, and as they did so, he kept upping the goal and upping the goal and upping the goal. As of yesterday, he’s raised over $17 million.

Seventeen million dollars. And counting. So here’s a question: One day, when Christ returns, and J.J. Watt stands alongside everyone else who’s ever lived, and faces God in Final Judgment, will this generous, selfless act of his count in his favor—toward his salvation?

I’m reminded of something that Warren Buffett, the world’s second richest man, said after he announced a few years ago that he would donate 85 percent of his $44 billion fortune to five charitable foundations. When asked to comment on this extreme act of generosity, he said, “There is more than one way to get to heaven, but this is a great way.”

So… Is Buffett right? Will 85 percent of $44 billion—which is $37.4 billion—and Watt’s $17 million and counting help either of these men get into heaven?

Based on what Buffett said, after all, he’s thinking about eternity—thinking about what he has to do to “make it to heaven”—thinking, “Have I done enough? Have I given enough? Will this donation prove that I’m good enough, generous enough, unselfish enough to get into heaven?”

And I’m sure that if you took a survey of average Americans, the large majority of them would say, “Yes! Thirty-seven point four billion dollars is good enough to get into heaven.”

And as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, if I were to counsel Warren Buffett on the matter, I hope I would have the courage to look him in the eye and say, “Thirty-seven point four billion is not enough. Not even close.” And if he doesn’t understand why, he doesn’t understand the gospel. He doesn’t know how far short he falls of God’s standard of holiness, which is nothing less than perfection. He doesn’t understand the awful ugliness of his sin. And as much as he is a genius when it comes to making and managing money, he has woefully underestimated the extent of his debt before God. Thirty-seven point four billion is less than a drop in the bucket of what he owes God!

As Jesus said of another rich man in a similar context, it’s easier for a camel to go through eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Of course, camels can’t go through needles’ eyes; it’s impossible. Just as it’s impossible for a rich man to go heaven—and it’s not because rich people are worse sinners than the rest of us. It’s impossible for the rest of us, too! Not to mention by first century standards most of us are also very wealthy!

So is there any hope for us?

This is where the gospel comes in: We don’t have to do anything to get into heaven; Jesus did everything—he fulfilled every aspect of God’s Law; he lived a life of perfect faithfulness and obedience to his Father; suffered the penalty for our sins on the cross—for us. We don’t have to give anything; Jesus gave everything—including something far more precious than money—his own precious blood—for us. For me, for you, for J.J. Watt, for Warren Buffett. For everyone!

Am I saying that eternal life is an absolute free gift? Yes. It only requires believing in Jesus.

Now, I realize this is completely hypothetical, but suppose that Warren Buffett heard me preach this gospel, and he heard this message of free grace. He understood for the first time who Jesus really was, and what Christ accomplished on the cross and through his resurrection, and Buffett believed it. And he joined our church. And then, suppose he said to me, “Pastor Brent, I’ve got to tell you: It was difficult for me to decide to give away so much of my fortune. But now that I’ve heard about what Jesus did for me, and the grace God gave me, free of charge, I am so relieved?” And I might ask him, “What do you mean?” And suppose he said, “I’m so relieved that I won’t have to go through with it. I’m relieved that I get to keep all this money and still go to heaven when I die!”

I don’t know Buffett’s heart, of course. But if Warren Buffett isn’t already a Christian, and if this happened to him, and if he said that, what could we conclude about the genuineness, the sufficiency, the reality of Buffett’s Christian faith? What would the apostle James likely say about it?

When we hear about the doctrine of “justification by faith alone,” we better not think of it as an easier alternative to “justification by works.” To think in those terms, is to miss the point of the gospel. “Justification by faith alone” isn’t an easier alternative to “justification by works”—as if God tried justification by works when he gave Israel the Ten Commandments and the rest of his Law, and that proved too difficult for them, so by sending his Son Jesus he came up with a easier plan. Now we don’t have to do anything!

No! The good news of the gospel is not that salvation through Christ is easy whereas salvation through works is hard. The good news of the gospel is that salvation through Christ is possible. Whereas salvation through works is impossible! Easy has nothing to do with it.

But I get it: when we hear that salvation is a free gift, available through faith in Christ alone and not works; when we hear that we don’t have to do anything to earn it, well… we can start to think of the Christian life as being very easy. Which by the way is around the time we start sleeping in on Sunday. It’s around the time we stop worshiping God in this sanctuary. It’s not important to us. And we become antinomians—which is a theological term meaning we no longer care about obeying God’s Law, or doing the things that please God. Paul himself was accused by his critics of being antinomian. In his letter to the Romans, he says that his opponents are “slandering” him with this accusation. They’re saying that he’s saying that we can sin to our hearts content, because after all, our sins are forgiven. In fact the more we sin, and the more God forgives us, and the more God forgives us, the more grace there is! And the more grace the better! So sin away! Paul’s critics were saying that! Romans 6:1: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!” Paul says.

And it’s possible that James himself had heard that people were slandering Paul with the accusation of antinomianism, and they were misunderstanding and misrepresenting the doctrine of justification by faith alone, and James wanted to set the record straight! Good works are necessary for salvation!

And I know that can sound like James is contradicting Paul: For example, he says, in verse 24: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” But he’s not contradicting Paul—not if we understand what James means by faith, and what he means by justification.

First, let’s talk about the kind of faith that James is talking about in this passage. Look at the first verse, verse 14. James writes, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” Notice he doesn’t say, “If someone has faith and not good works,” but rather, “If someone says he has faith and not good works.”

In other words, in this hypothetical example, James is not conceding for a moment that this person possesses a sufficient, living, authentic Christian faith. No, this hypothetical person merely says he has faith. His faith is superficial: it’s a matter of mere words. But none of us can be justified by a faith that consists of words only.

Even if we believe those words. We are not justified by a faith that lives up here—in our heads. A faith that is mere knowledge. Or intellectual agreement. Not that words, knowledge, and intellect aren’t necessary for saving faith, but they’re not sufficient. Notice what James says in verse 19: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!”

There is no better theologian in the world than Satan himself. Satan began his life as an angel in God’s heavenly courts before he rebelled against him. So he knew God well. He had first-hand knowledge of the deep theological truths that we describe every week when we recite the Apostles’ Creed. Satan, like us, would agree with each and every point! And he knows the Bible better than anyone who’s ever lived on earth besides Jesus!

But the devil’s knowledge, as great as it is, obviously doesn’t save him. And it can’t save any of us, either!

Do you remember the Parable of the Good Samaritan? I taught this parable a couple of weeks ago in my Sunday morning Bible study. Remember the story: A man is traveling on the dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho. He gets robbed and beaten and left for dead on the side of the road. He needs medical attention right away, or he’ll die. First, a priest passes him by without stopping to help. Then another religious leader, a Levite, passes him by without stopping to help. Finally, a Samaritan stops and helps the man. He nurses his wounds. Bandages him up. Carries him to an inn where he can rest and recuperate. He pays for all expenses associated with the man’s convalescence.

So I asked the class, what was the difference between the first two men and the Good Samaritan? And someone answered, “The Samaritan, unlike the other two, stopped to help.” And that sounds like the right answer.

But before he stopped to help, Jesus says the following, in Luke 10:33: “But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion.” Before he did anything, he had compassion. As I told the class, Jesus was constantly teaching that what counts in God’s eyes is not our actions so much as our hearts. In fact, even good things we do—giving alms to the poor, praying, tithing, obeying God’s Law—even good things can be corrupted by sin. And even seemingly small sins are made much worse because of the condition of our hearts: So lust, Jesus says, is the spiritual equivalent of adultery. Anger is on the same spectrum as murder.

Therefore, the biggest difference between the Samaritan and these two clergymen was the condition of their hearts. You can’t fake compassion, after all. Either you have it or you don’t.

So one important truth that Jesus is teaching is that what counts most is not what we do, but what we are, in here—in our hearts! If our hearts are right—if they have been sufficiently transformed by God’s love and grace—then good works will naturally follow!

Jesus makes this same point in the Sermon on the Mount: “So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.” Good fruit cannot make a diseased tree healthy; rather, good fruit is a sign that a tree is already healthy. In the same way, good works are a sign that your faith is healthy. Good works are a sign that your heat has been transformed. Good works are a sign that you’ve been born again. That heart change happens first! And it happens through living faith and not dead faith.

So James is attacking a deficient kind of faith—a faith that is words only, a faith that is mere intellectual agreement, a faith that doesn’t penetrate the heart—that will never justify us! But healthy faith—living faith—will justify us. And how do we know it’s a living faith and not a dead faith? A living faith will naturally produce good works. It will prove itself by these works. It will demonstrate that it’s genuine based on works. This is what James means in verse 24: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” John Owen, an English minister from the 17th century summarized James’s point when he said the following: “We are justified by faith alone, but not by faith that is alone.” Or as yours truly put it in a meme on Facebook on Friday: We are justified by faith alone, but not by a faith-alone faith.

James cites Abraham to prove his point. Verse 21: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?” Justified by works? I know that sounds confusing, but bear with me: James is referring to Genesis chapter 22, an incident near the end of Abraham’s life, about 37 years after God made the promise to him that he would give him a son and that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the beach. The only problem is, Abraham was 75; Sarah, his wife, was in her late-sixties. They were past the point of having children. And even when they were young enough to have kids, they were unable to. Would Abraham step out on faith, believing that somehow God would fulfill this promise?

Yes… Genesis 15:6 tells us, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” According to Paul’s letters, Romans and Galatians, this was the moment when Abraham was “justified by faith alone.” That’s the moment when his sins were forgiven, and he was considered righteous before God. That’s when he was saved. James would agree with that. But in verse 21, he’s using “justify” in a different way. He’s using it in a way that we often mean it today: to “justify” means to “prove something to be true,” to demonstrate the truth of something. If you’re taking a math test or a science test, you have to show your work to justify the answer that you got. Only by looking at our work can we prove to our teacher that we know what we’re doing! And so it is here. The Common English Bible gets this meaning across nicely: it translates verse 24 to say that a person is “shown to be righteous through faithful actions and not through faith alone.”

In Genesis 22, Abraham is taking a test, as verse 1 tells us: “God tested Abraham.” What was God testing? Abraham’s works? No, his faith. And how would Abraham pass the test—how would he justify himself? Through his works. Through his willingness to do what God commanded him to do—as difficult if not impossible as God’s command seemed. And Abraham did pass. He “justified” himself through his actions. So that the faith that saved Abraham when God first called him and promised him a son was shown to be a sufficient faith, a living faith, a genuine faith—37 years later when he acted on that faith under the most difficult circumstances imaginable. What he did in Genesis 22 didn’t save Abraham, but it did prove that Abraham had saving faith.

Thirty-seven years from now, should we live that long, we should be doing things then that prove that the faith that we profess right now is genuine. That’s what James is talking about.

So… What about us? What do our works, our actions, our good deeds, say about our faith? Is it a living faith? The test for living faith is not whether a minister sprinkled water on our heads when we were babies; it’s not whether we were baptized by immersion after we walked down an aisle at the end of a stirring presentation of the gospel; it’s not whether we prayed the “sinner’s prayer” when we were 13 years old; it’s not whether we stood up in church and recited vows and a creed as part of confirmation; it’s not even whether we “believe” in Jesus—if by “believe” we mean that we intellectually agree on the truth of the gospel.

The test is whether or not our faith has changed our hearts through the power of the Holy Spirit so that our lives will bear good fruit. By which I mean, our lives will naturally demonstrate through our actions that our faith is alive.

In closing, I want to read the final paragraph from theologian Thomas Schreiner’s excellent recent book called Faith Alone. As I read it, I want you to ask yourself, “Could I say something like this about myself? Is my experience at least a little bit like his?”

Finally, I know myself, at least to a limited degree. God by his grace has changed me and made me a new person. I have new affections and have lived a totally different life than I would have lived apart from Christ and the transforming work of the Spirit. Yet I still struggle with pride, bitterness, resentment, lust, and so on. The fight with sin is not over, and I have had far too many defeats… But my confidence on the last day will not rest on my transformation. I have too far to go to put any confidence in what I have accomplished. Instead, I rest on Jesus Christ. He is my righteousness. He is the guarantor of my salvation… I am justified by faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone.[1]

1. Thomas Schreiner, Faith Alone (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 264.

One thought on “Sermon 09-03-17: “Dead Faith Can’t Save Us””

  1. I basically agree. I might give a bit more emphasis to the TYPE of works that go to show true faith exists. “Pure religion and undefiled is this: To visit the orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unspotted by the world.” James 1, last verse (KJV), Not that we can “count how many times we ‘visited'” or just “how unspotted” we have become, but those are the “general directions” that our lives should take if we do have saving faith.

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