Sermon 09-12-21: “Faith Without Works Is Dead”

Scripture: James 2:14-26

Last week in my sermon I talked briefly about investor Warren Buffett, the third wealthiest man in the world, and his pledge, several years ago, to give away tens of billions of dollars to charity. At the time he said, “There is more than one way to get to heaven, but this is a great way.”

As I’ve said before, there are only two problems with this statement: First, there’s only one way to get to heaven, and second, no amount of money—even the tens of billions of dollars that Buffett pledged to give away—can begin to purchase salvation. The debt that we owe to God on account of our sin is infinitely more than that!

So… what is Warren Buffett’s only hope of heaven? Faith in Christ… alone.

This is the clear teaching of scripture. When the apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians, he was righteously angry… because false teachers had infiltrated this church that he had planted, and they were telling these Galatian Christians—most of whom were Gentiles—that of course they needed to have faith in Jesus to be saved. But… they just needed to add a few good works to their faith in Christ—like having their men get circumcised—then… then… they’d be okay… Then they’d be saved.

So, these false teachers were saying that you need faith in Christ plus good works to be saved.

And Paul not only says this teaching is wrong, he tells the Galatians that if they accept this teaching, they will be rejecting the gospel of Jesus Christ!

Because, for Paul, the gospel is this: God has done everything necessary to save us from our sins and give us eternal life; he did it through his Son Jesus’ atoning death on the cross; there’s nothing we can add to what Christ has done on the cross; it’s a completely free gift of grace which we receive only through faith in Christ… and nothing else.

Another way of talking about this is to say that we are justified—which means, brought into a right relationship with Godthrough faith in Christ alone. This is one of the core doctrines that all Protestant Christians, including us United Methodist Christians, hold in common with one another. In Latin, this doctrine is known as Sola Fide… “by faith alone,” and it refers to justification by faith alone.

Now, I promise I’m not meaning to pick on Warren Buffett, and what I’m about to say is strictly hypothetical… I don’t know the man, I don’t know his heart, and since he made that statement about going to heaven, he might have changed his mind… but suppose that Warren Buffett heard me preach this gospel of free grace… this gospel of “justification by faith alone”… And suppose he understood for the first time who Jesus really is, what Jesus accomplished on the cross, and suppose he believed it. Now suppose he joined our church and said to me something like this: “Pastor Brent, I’ve got to tell you: Back when I thought I had to earn my salvation by giving away so much of my fortune, I was depressed. The thought of giving away so much money was a very hard pill to swallow. But now that I’ve heard about what Jesus did for me—about the grace that he gave me—free of charge—I am so relieved! I’m relieved that I won’t have to actually go through with it and give away all that money! I’m relieved that I get to keep my fortune and still go to heaven when I die! I’m relieved that I don’t have to do anything to be saved!”

What do you suppose the apostle James would say about that

I’m sure he would say—as he says three times in today’s scripture—that “faith without works is dead.” Or useless.

See, it’s very possible that James himself had heard about the way in which some people had twisted or distorted or misrepresented or at least misunderstood Paul’s doctrine of “justification by faith alone”… They believed that Paul was teaching something like this: “If you have faith in Christ, it doesn’t matter how you live your life, or what you do… or what you don’t do. The only thing that matters is… faith… not how you live!”

I’ll never forget a professor I had at Georgia Tech decades ago, who said that he wasn’t so sure whether Christianity was true. But he said he deliberately became a member of First Baptist Atlanta, got baptized, and made sure his name was on the membership rolls… you know… just in case. And he was at least half-serious when he said it—he said it more than a couple of times. For him, being a Christian is a one-time decision you make at some point in your past… and then live the rest of your life as you please!

What would James say to this professor?

He would say, “No!” He would say, “If you are an authentic Christian, you must have good works to show for yourself! Otherwise you’re not saved at all!”

Which brings us to perhaps the most controversial verse in the entire New Testament! James writes, in verse 24, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Justified by works. Weren’t we just talking about how Paul teaches that we’re justified by faith alone. In Romans 3:28, Paul says, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” 

Uh-oh! Is this a contradiction? 

Not at all. Not if we understand what James means by faith, and what he means by justification. Because he’s not using those words the way Paul uses them.

So that’s what this sermon is about… We’re going to first figure out what James means when he talks about faith, and what he means when he talks about justification… and then what that means for us.

First, what does James mean by “faith”? 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?” Please notice those words: “if someone says he has faith and not good works”… 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, James is not conceding for a moment that this person possesses a true, living, authentic Christian faith. No, this hypothetical person merely says he has faith. His faith is superficial: his faith is a matter of mere words. None of us, James says, can be justified by a faith that consists of words only.

Because notice what James says in verse 19: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!”

See, there is no better theologian in the world than the devil himself. Satan, and his fellow demons, are creatures who began their lives as angels in God’s heavenly courts before they rebelled against God and sinned. So the demons had first-hand knowledge of the deep theological truths that we describe every week, for example, when we recite the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed. Satan, like us, would agree that each and every point is true! And he knows the Bible better than anyone who’s ever lived on earth except for Jesus! 

That’s not enough to save him… or us! 

So when it comes to the man in verse 14, James isn’t talking about genuine Christian faith… He’s talking demon faith… Or maybe even less than that… Because at least “demon faith” provokes some kind of response in demons; it causes them to do something—their faith at least causes them to shudder in fear. The man in verse 14 doesn’t even do that! His “faith” makes no practical, tangible difference in life.

Why? What’s the difference between genuine faith and this bogus, nominal, “demon faith” that James describes?

Jesus tells us the difference in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Most of you remember this parable: A man is traveling on the dangerous highway 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 clergyman, 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 the injured man can rest and recuperate. He pays for all expenses associated with the man’s convalescence.

Suppose I asked you, “What is the difference between the first two men—the so-called ‘religious’ men—and this Good Samaritan?” Some of you would likely answer, “The Samaritan, unlike the other two, stopped to help.” And that sounds like the right answer. I agree.

But not so fast… because before the Samaritan stopped to help, Jesus says the following about him, 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 for this injured man, Jesus says, he had compassion. 

And what is compassion? It’s a stirring in our hearts… it’s a feeling deep in our heartsIt’s a heart condition.

And this goes along with everything else Jesus taught: he was constantly teaching that what counts in God’s eyes is not so much what we do,but what’s in our hearts. In fact, even the good things we do—like 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 the spiritual equivalent of murder.

Because what counts more than anything is the condition of our hearts!

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.”1 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 heart has been transformed. Good works are a sign that you’ve been born again by the Holy Spirit. Good works are a sign that your heart has been changed by the Holy Spirit! And a living faith can produce this change of heart, not a dead faith.

So with all that in mind, let’s look again at verse 24: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” 

For James, there’s no such thing as “faith alone.” In other words, a “faith alone” kind of faith doesn’t exist! Real faith will at first change the heart and then result in good works. Every time!

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 one time: We are justified by faith alone, but not by faith-alone faith.

So that’s what James means when he uses the word “faith” in verse 24. It’s as if he’s putting faith in quotation marks. It’s not real faith.

Okay, but we still have to deal with the “justification” part: “You see that a person is justified by works…” What does James mean when he says “justified by works”?

Look at verse 21: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?” James is referring to Genesis chapter 22, an incident near the end of Abraham’s life. This was when God asked Abraham to do the unthinkable and sacrifice his son Isaac. 

The problem is, Paul talks about Abraham being “justified” too—but justified not by works but by faith—about 40 years earlier, in Genesis 15. This occurred when God first made the promise to Abraham 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. When God first gave that promise to Abraham, Abraham was 75; Sarah, his wife, was in her late-sixties. They were past the point of having children. Besides, even when they were young enough to have kids, they were unable to. Having kids now seemed impossible.

So… Would Abraham step out on faith, believing that somehow God would fulfill this promise? 

Do you see the potential problem? James says Abraham was justified by works in Genesis 22. Paul says he was justified by faith 40 years earlier in Genesis 15. Is this a contradiction?

No… because in verse 21, James is using the word “justify” in a different sense. He’s using it in a way that we often use it today: to “justify” means to “prove that something is 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 showing your work can you prove to your teacher that you know what you’re doing! And so it is here. The New Living Translation gets this meaning across nicely: it translates verse 24 to say that we are “shown to be right with God by what we do, not through faith alone.”

So… in Genesis 22, Abraham is taking a test, as verse 1 tells us: “God tested Abraham.” What was God testing? Was God testing Abraham’s works? No, God was testing his faith. And how would Abraham pass the test—how would he justify himself, how would he prove that his faith is real? Through his works. Through his willingness to do what God commanded him to do—as difficult, if not impossible, as God’s command seemed. But Abraham did pass the test. He “justified” himself through his actions. 

The faith that saved Abraham back when God first called him and promised him a son was proven to be a true faith, a living faith, a genuine faith… 37 years later when Abraham acted on that faith under the most difficult circumstances imaginable. What Abraham did in Genesis 22 in his willingness to sacrifice Isaac didn’t save Abraham, but it did prove that Abraham had saving faith.

So what does this mean for us? Well, thirty-seven years from now, should we live that long, we should be doing things then… in the future… that justify… or prove… that the faith that we profess right now is real. That’s what James means when he uses the word “justification.”

So… What about us? What do our works, our actions, our good deeds, say about our Christian 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 a church 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 about the truth of the gospel. 

No… 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

That’s the test! Do we pass it or not? The hypothetical man in verses 14 through 16 doesn’t.

And maybe you’re worried at this point. For some of us, these words in verses 15 and 16 hit close to home.” Just speaking for myself I was in midtown Atlanta at the Georgia Tech game yesterday. On my way to and from the stadium I passed plenty of people who, as James says in verse 15, are “poorly clothed and lacking in daily food.” How many times have I turned a blind eye to them. How many times has my heart been hardened to them? How many times have I refused to help. 

Does that mean my faith isn’t real?

Not necessarily. First, when James talks about proving our faith by our works he’s not talking about doing so perfectly… all the time… without sin. Even more, please notice the beginning of verse 15: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed or lacking in daily food…” In context, he’s talking about a brother or sister in Christ—which for James means someone in our church… that we already know personally… that we already have a relationship with… Imagine one of your brothers and sisters in Christ here at Toccoa First coming up to you, in desperate physical need… Would you send that person away with pretty words or even a prayer… when you yourself have it within your means to help them

I’m not for a moment suggesting that we don’t also help strangers… or people who aren’t in our church… or people who aren’t Christians… not at all! 

But that’s not what James is talking about here… The callous disregard for the poor is even more shocking because it’s happening to people we already know, people we’re already connected to, people who are already a part of our family, people we’re already supposed to love more than life itself. If we’re refusing to help even them… if our hearts are not moved by compassion even for them… then, by all means, that’s a sign that something is wrong in here… in our hearts… indeed, that’s a sign that our faith isn’t genuine.

So examine yourself and see if you pass that test…

But as you do so, let me encourage you with this…

Years ago, my first week at a new job—after I became an electrical engineer—I met a fellow Ramblin’ Wreck named Scott, whom I liked… with whom I later became friends… But… when I first met him… literally about three days after I met him, he came into my cubicle at work and said, “Hey, Brent, I’m moving to my new house on Saturday, and I’m wondering if you can help me… move?”

And I told Lisa this at the time… but I didn’t dare tell Scott… But I promise I had this thought… “You and I are not good enough friends… yet… for you to be asking me to help you move. That’s definitely a ‘good friend’ kind of request, if you know what I mean.” Again, not that I told Scott that. I showed up on Saturday and helped him, however reluctantly.

But the fact remains… if you and I are friends… true friends… genuine friends… what wouldn’t  I do for you? You better believe I’ll be there for you. Name the place and time. I’ll show up. I’ll help! I’ll do it! I wouldn’t have to give it a second thought! That’s what friends are for! That’s what friends do!

So do you see what James is getting at now in verse 23, when he says that Abraham was called a “friend of God”! If we’re friends with God, of course we’ll have good works to show for this friendship! Why wouldn’t we? We wouldn’t think about not having good works to show for our friendship. 

Similarly, in John 15, Jesus says that we’re now his friends! 

What wouldn’t we do for him?

This is why our church’s mission statement is “treasuring Christ above all,” rather than “Doing Good Things for Christ” or “Working Hard for Christ” or even “Serving Christ”? Because think about what you treasure. You daydream about it. It gets you out of bed in the morning. You look forward to enjoying that treasure. Many of us treasure college football, right? I do! September is the beginning of my favorite time of year! It doesn’t require a lot of effort to treasure college football… because my love for the game, and for my team, lives in here… in my heart.

If we treasure Christ above all, naturally that’s where our love for him needs to live, too.

So… nurture your friendship with Jesus and these good works that James talks about will take care of themselves. You know how to do that… Our church offers many ways to nurture your friendship: worship, Bible study, small groups, Sunday school…

What are you doing right now to nurture your friendship with Christ?

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.2


  1. Matthew 7:17
  2. Thomas Schreiner, Faith Alone (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 264.

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