Listen: Simon Manchester presents Christian Growth.
In this episode, Simon teaches from the book of James, in the New Testament.
Follow this series at Lessons From The Book of James — A ‘Christian Growth’ Series
We are picking up our travel through the letter of James at the end of the New Testament.
This is a short, punchy letter. Why do we do this? Well the late John Chapman used to say on a regular basis, “If you want to hear God speak, the normal way that God will speak to you is through the Bible”. So that’s what we do, we open the Bible and we are moving our way through this little letter of James.
Now, James was in an amazing position to write to the local church because he grew up in the same house as Jesus. He was one of Jesus’ half brothers. Same mother but different father. And he was hostile. The Bible says that all Jesus’ brothers did not believe. And then after Jesus was crucified and rose, he went and met with a number of people including his half-brother James, and James seems to have been remarkably transformed. He was converted and he became a church leader. He started to write, and contributes here to the New Testament.
And what sticks out as I work my way through the letter of James and listen to it myself and seek to preach it to you, is that this is the letter of a transformed man, and he is seeking to write to his readers to say that Christianity is a transformation. It really is a big change.
Think of the Apostle Paul: utterly hostile to Jesus, changed, totally devoted to Jesus. What happened? Conversion. Think of Paul: utterly opposed – utterly devoted. Think of James: totally dead to his brother, changed, utterly devoted to his praise and his proclamation. The Christian life is a transformation.
You may remember, if you were here some weeks ago, we started the letter, and we noticed that James immediately talks about trials and troubles. And he says very simply – “I want you to know, my dear friends, that the trials and the troubles that you are going through have got a deeper, more profound significance, because there is a great God at work doing something through these trials and tribulations. They are not random. They are not accidental.”
And then he starts to talk about temptation. He says, “I want you to know that when you are tempted, there is something deep and more profound going on. It’s got to do with your own sinful nature.” And then he starts to talk about taking the Bible seriously and he says, “don’t just read it superficially like you’d glance in a mirror and forget what you saw. And then he says, “take one another seriously – don’t just look at one another superficially and deal with the people who look good or sound good or appear good”. All of this is an appeal for a transformed and deeper Christianity.
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Now the appeal that he is making, therefore, in the letter, is that Christianity is not becoming a cardboard cut-out. Imagine if he was coming to preach to us this morning and he got up at this pulpit and said to us something like this: “You know, I used to be completely spiritually dead, and then by having a meeting with the risen Jesus Christ, everything changed, and I now find myself heart, mind, soul and strength changed”. And he might say to us, “you know friends, when Jesus died and rose he didn’t die to bore us, He didn’t die and rise to give us some sleeping pills, He didn’t die and rise to make us into cardboard cut-outs, He didn’t die and rise to give us a dumb Christmas present. He died and rose in order that our heart, mind, soul and strength would be utterly and deeply wonderfully changed.”
Christian in Name, Not Christian in Nature
So today we come to James 2:14-26. This is the most controversial part of the letter and the most infamous part of the letter because as James writes the letter, he has a serious issue in mind. This is how the serious issue goes, if you can follow this with me.
He is dealing with people who say they are Christians but their hearts are unchanged – not converted. People who say the Christian words and sing the Christian hymns and you don’t have to hang around a church for too long before you know the slogans – but are not converted. And his strong message – and this is his experience, not just his message, this is what happened to him and this is what he is saying to us – is that faith in Jesus brings eternal life and eternal life brings transformation. And the transformation can be seen.
Get your family to watch, and they will see that you are a sinner who has been changed. Get your work place to watch, and they will see that you are a changed person. Get the local church to watch, and they will say – this is a changed person.
And James says, “this faith which you profess must be seen in godly living and deeds and the deeds are so essential”, says James, “they are so real and they are so inevitable – just as a real apple tree must produce apples, real Christian faith must produce deep change. James says if you don’t have the works and you don’t have the deeds and you don’t have the Godly living, your faith is false, it’s dead.
So people have positioned James against Paul because Paul says again and again, “works are useless”. And James says “works are crucial”. So who is right? And the answer is – they are both right. They are not saying opposite things, they are saying two different things. They are friends – they are working together and we are going to see this as we study the passage for a few minutes this morning.
I have two points – the first is that faith and deeds cannot be separated (verses 14-19). The second is that faith and deeds must be joined (verses 20-26).
Faith and Works Cannot be Seperated
First of all, faith and deeds cannot be separated. Now there are two types of people in verses 14-19 who are trying to separate faith and deeds. The first I am going to call: “Mr Head-Only”. Please don’t despise the simplicity of this as it is actually very profound. This is the person who is able to ‘say’ Christian things but there is no change of heart. It’s a global and a terrible problem in churches. See in verse 14, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man, a woman, claims to have faith but has no deeds?” Claims to be an apple tree but has no apples? Can such faith save?
So the person says:
- I am an apple tree but there is no apples.
- I am married but I live on my own.
- I am converted but there is no conversion.
Something is wrong.
I’ve told you in the past of the minister in the 19th century called William Haslam who was in ministry, unconverted – doing the job of being a minister, but unconverted. He is just religious – playing the game and turning up on Sundays, reading the Prayer Book, announcing the hymns, talking the talk, but unconverted. He went to visit an elderly lady in the congregation one day and he said, “you know I am thinking of building or improving the building”. The elderly lady said to him “I suppose you will start with the roof”. He walked away scratching his head, because he didn’t know what she was talking about. She was saying to him – “you don’t have a clue do you? I am converted and I go to the church and you are not converted”, she was saying to her minister. And then one day William Haslam was converted while he was preaching in the middle of his own sermon – the scales fell and he could see who Jesus was and he suddenly got it, and his sermon took off, and some visiting clergyman in the back row stood up and called out, “your minister has been converted!”. And they sang the Doxology: “ Praise God from Whom all Blessings Flow – round and round and round, because their Minister had been converted.
What am I saying to you? It is possible to be in ministry and unconverted. It’s very easy to be in the pew and be unconverted. So we should be very grateful that in the New Testament James and Paul have completely different people in mind.
Paul is thinking of the person who needs to be saved. What does he say to the person who needs to be saved? He says: “Put away your works. It doesn’t matter how wonderful you are. Don’t tell me how wonderful you are. Don’t tell me what a good person you are. It won’t impress God. It won’t win your salvation. Put all your medals in a cupboard. Don’t speak of yourself at all. Just put out two empty, humble hands and take hold of Jesus and you’ll be saved.”
James is looking at the Sunday 10 o’clock congregation and he is describing what it means to be saved, that eternal life brings change or revolution. James is saying to us: “Please, friends, don’t tell me what you know. Don’t recite things to me; that could all be dead orthodoxy. I want to know what is happening in your heart. I want to know what is happening when you get behind the front door and the office door not just the church door.”
Christian Words Without a Changed Heart is Not True Faith
I think I have told you from this pulpit a thousand times in my ministry that there is a very famous question which goes like this: “If you died peacefully in your sleep and you came face to face with Jesus and He said to you, ‘Why should I welcome you into heaven’, what would you say?” It’s a very interesting question because it sorts out people who are depending on themselves from the people who are depending on Jesus. And we use this question quite intensively in the Christianity Explained course. In the past all the wedding couples used to come to my Christianity Explained course and so they would all be asked very carefully this question. And eventually, of course, everybody learned the answer. They learned the wrong answer and they learned the right answer. You don’t trust yourself but you trust Christ.
And I remember one of the girls who was getting married was an absolute terror; one of the scariest women I have ever met. In fact I remember a cartoon that I saw once of a couple in the cartoon standing beside their wedding cake and the bride was a large girl and she had just lifted the figure of the groom off the cake and had eaten its head! And this girl reminded me very much of that. This girl made Jezebel look like Shirley Temple. Hillary Clinton looks like a little helpless baby.
And she said to me one day, wanting to get her way, “I know the answer to your question”. And she did, she knew the orthodox correct answer to the question: “What would you say if you came face to face with Jesus?” She knew it, she could write it, she could recite it, but she was unconverted. She had no interest in Jesus whatsoever. There was just sheer, dead, orthodoxy.
So don’t put James and Paul against each other. They have different groups in mind. Paul is explaining salvation to the outsider, and James is explaining transformation to the insider. James is concerned for the head-only’ people; the dead orthodoxy people where the heart is unchanged.
Look at verse 15. “What do you say”, says James, “when there is someone in the fellowship who is struggling (food and clothes).” What are you going to make of the person who goes up to them and says ‘God bless you’ and walks away? What are you going to make of the person who says, ‘I’ll pray for you’, and they have got plenty of resources to do something?
What are you making of the person who says ‘all the best’, and they earn hundreds of thousands of dollars. ‘Why don’t you get a job?’ What are you going to make of the person who just says to the person in great need, ‘here’s some words’ (verse 17)?
The answer, says James, is that their faith is dead. It’s a fake and it’s just in the head. Talk, says James, without a heart that is changed, is dead. Talk when the heart has been changed, is real.
Now a wonderful thing about conversion, when Jesus changes somebody, is that you don’t have to rattle the person to get the good deeds out of them; they come. You don’t have to shake or beat the tree to get it to produce apples; they come. The wonderful thing when Jesus converts somebody and changes them is that they begin to come from the heart, generous and loving. It’s one of the great privileges of being a pastor of this congregation, is to see the people whom Jesus has converted and their heart overflows with generosity.
So Luther said, “Real faith is busy faith – it doesn’t wait to be given orders before the question is even asked – it is doing what is needed and more”. Now that’s the first attempt to separate faith and deeds: “Mr Head-Only”. I tick the orthodox box but the heart is unchanged.
Good Works Without a Changed Heart is Not True Faith
The second person who tries to separate faith and deeds is in verses 18-19 and this is
“Mr Hands-Only”. “Mr Head-Only” is just words – heart unchanged. “Mr Hands-Only” is just deeds – heart unchanged.
Look at verse 18. Here you see the slogan of “Mr Hands-Only”. Well you’ve got faith but I’ve got deeds. You like doctrine, you like Bibles, you like discussing Christianity; I’m just a practical man, don’t give me any of your truth. You run your Bible Study, you have your little chats, when it comes to the concrete things I will do them. When it comes to the food, I’ll produce it, I’ll be practical, and you sit in your ivory tower and discuss doctrine.
Now James’ reply in verse 18 is that you cannot actually have real deeds, godly fruit, unless it comes from real faith in Jesus. That’s why he says ‘show me your faith without deeds”. It’s impossible; you can’t get faith without deeds and you can’t get real deeds without real faith.
He goes on to say, “I’ll show you my faith by the deeds – I’ll show you the fruits from the roots – I’ll show you the roots that lead to the fruits.” “Wanting to try and invent apples, says James, without trees? Well, I’ll show you the tree and then the apples and then I’ll show you the apples prove the tree.” Now I don’t want this to be too complicated everybody – I’m really just trying to say to you that you cannot separate faith and deeds – it is as weird as trying to separate a tree from its fruit.
And every crowd in a church building has the “Head-Only” people, sadly. Every crowd has the “Head-Only” people. They know some stuff – heart unchanged. They know the talk; they don’t know the Lord Jesus, tragic. And every crowd in a church building has the “Hands-Only” people, sadly. That is, they say ‘we are not interested in truth, we are just practical’.
Verse 19 is a very powerful text, isn’t it, which kind of kills off the heresy. James says “you believe in God? Good! Don’t forget the devil believes in God. Don’t forget the devil could stand beside you in the pew and say the Creed with you from start to finish and believe every single word of the Creed but be unchanged and unsurrendered and unconverted.” We know from the Gospels that the demons did know who Jesus was and they were terrified of him but there was no change of heart. “So,” says James, “what do we make of the person who says all the right things but they don’t even…(shudder – like the devil)? Something is seriously wrong.
So there is the attempt, the terrible, terrible attempt, to cut the link between faith and deeds.
Faith and Deeds Must be Joined
The second thing this morning is that Faith and Deeds must be joined. So let me get this clear with you everybody. If you have faith, it will take you to Jesus for eternal life. Faith will cause you to go home from a meeting like this, get down on your knees beside your bed and say “please forgive me and give to me eternal life”. When you have done that, Jesus will begin to work deeds through you, he’ll change your heart, he’ll change your life and he will start to bear fruit through you.
And to make the point that real faith brings real deeds, James uses two Old Testament, historical examples. One is Abraham and the other is Rahab.
- Abraham was the great Father of Faith and Rahab was a prostitute.
- Abraham was a male and Rahab was a female.
- Abraham was a Jew and Rahab was a Gentile.
You couldn’t have a greater spectrum and yet James wants to show that it doesn’t matter who you are if you’ve put your faith in God – it will show itself in deeds. And Abraham had true faith in God and the ripest fruit of his faith (you can see in verse 21) is that he so trusted and obeyed God that he was willing to sacrifice his son. We know, of course, that God intervened and he never actually did sacrifice his son, but his faith was obviously real because he was ready to give up his son.
Rahab the prostitute (verse 25) was the opposite end of the social spectrum. She had true faith in God because (and here’s the ripest fruit of her faith) she trusted and obeyed God to the point of risking everything by welcoming the spies into her house. She was in the land of Canaan (the Promised Land), and she was not a member of the Israelite nation. Twelve spies of the Israelites came into the city and at incredible risk and cost she welcomes them in to her house, because she knew that the God of Israel was the God of the world, and her God and her future. And again God protected her, but if you want evidence of a conversion just look at her behaviour.
Now do you notice that James begins by saying “the proof that your heart has been changed is that there is a new generosity”, and he finishes by saying “the proof that Abraham had a heart that was changed is that he was willing to give up his most precious position, and the proof that Rahab had her heart changed was that she was willing to give up and risk her future knowing that God had everything under control”. And this of course is simply saying to us that when you become a Christian, your heart becomes a little more like God’s generous heart. It changes.
I want to point out something very technical to you, for those of you who like to dig a little more deeply, and some of you may just switch off for a couple of minutes. In verse 21, it actually says that Abraham was justified by what he did. And in verse 25 it actually says that Rahab was justified by what she did, and in verse 24 James actually says “so you see we are justified by what we do”.
Now we who understand Christianity well know that justification is by faith alone. How can James speak of justification by what people do? The simple fact of the matter is that Paul and James are using justification in completely different ways and we also just justification in completely different ways.
Let me give you some examples. The first is, imagine somebody is trespassing on your property at night, and you go out and you arrest them, call the police, and the police come, and the person who has been trespassing explains why they have been on your property. They “justify” their behaviour, and you say, “that makes perfect sense – thank you so much – go in peace”. They justify and receive immediate pardon.
And then, of course, think of the other situation, where you are planning to give some money to a mission, and in five years’ time the mission has really expanded and grown, and so your decision to invest in the mission has been wonderfully “justified”, “vindicated” or “proven”. You see, sometimes we use justification to mean “immediate pardon”, and sometimes we use justification to mean “ultimate proof”.
Paul uses justification in the “immediate-pardon” sense. James uses justification in the “ultimate-proof” sense.
Abraham and Rahab were both immediately pardoned when they put their faith in God, but they were ultimately proven to have faith when they made their generous behavioural decisions. So that’s why James can say in verse 24, ‘a person is shown to be a believer, justified, vindicated, exonerated in the ultimate sense, when he or she shows there is a new life at work. And so he finishes by saying, “faith and deeds are joined”, just as life is in a body.
What does life do in the body? It causes your body to do things. What does faith do in a person? It causes them to do things.
Comforting and Disturbing
Now I want to finish this morning by saying to you that I hope this will bring some comfort to most, if not all, of the people here this morning, whose hearts Jesus as changed. It is the privilege of a fellow Christian to sometimes see Christ at work in another Christian. And I see Christ at work in so many people here this morning and although I don’t have x-ray eyes and I’m not the final judge, if you were to come and ask me, “do you think Christ is at work in my life?” I think I could give you a very honest and hopefully encouraging answer.
But I hope also that this passage will disturb some people who know that their hearts are not change; God knows your heart is not changed. Maybe you know that your heart is not changed and may be some of us know that your heart is not changed. I hope that you will take this particular warning and go on your knees to Jesus and ask for the change of heart, the conversion, which he died to give you.
And to make this very practical for the bulk of the people who are here this morning, I want to just give you advice on how to use this passage in your own Christian life.
I was reading a book this week by a guy called Kevin de Young and he said that a lot of sermons are as meaningless and unenlightening as post-football game interviews. You know those dreadful post-football game interviews where the commentator asks:
Question: “How was it?”
Answer: “It was pretty tough.”
Question: “What would you like to say about the game?”
Answer: “Well, we all dug deep, we all believed in ourselves.”
Question: “And how will you be going for the rest of the season?”
Answer: “Well, we will probably be just playing one game at a time.”
(Really? Not three games at a time?!!)
That’s the kind of absolutely stupid post-game interview. And some sermons, sadly – I know how to deliver them – can be as impractical as that. So I give you two things to think about as you go home.
Firstly, I want to urge you as often as you can, especially perhaps as you are around the house or driving your car or sitting on the train, to play in your head the gospel song. Keep reminding yourself that Jesus died to take away and remove every danger, and he has, and to bring you every spiritual blessing – and he has, full-stop! He has done it. Your faith is in Christ. Every spiritual danger has been removed and every spiritual blessing has arrived. Keep playing the Gospel tune to yourself so that it actually puts a skip in your step.
Secondly, work at your godliness. There are many people here in this building:
- You work really hard at your fitness but not at your godliness.
- You work hard at your holiday planning but not at your godliness.
- You work hard at your craft but not at your godliness.
And I can only say that it is not just an accident, that if you put nothing into your fitness, you don’t get fit, and if you put nothing into your holiday plans, nothing happens, and if you put nothing into your godliness, you just don’t make much real progress. And the New Testament is absolutely full of words like:
- “Kill” stuff that will wreck your faith.
- “Peresevere” in following Jesus.
- “Make every effort” to grow in your faith and your faithfulness.
Again and again and again, the New Testament says “put stuff off” that will affect you badly, “put stuff on” that will affect you well. Go forward, run, toil, labour, put some effort into your spiritual life, and watch the good effects.
I suspect that many people here today would start to make real joyful progress if they would play the Gospel song to themselves, and make some practical, sweaty effort to go forward in the Christian life, in the knowledge and love of Jesus.
Let’s pray. Loving Father, we thank you for giving to us the Lord Jesus. Thank you for giving to so many here this morning faith in the Lord Jesus which has brought salvation and eternal life and transformation and deeds and works to your praise.
We pray that you would help everybody who can hear my voice this morning, to look to you for saving faith. We pray that you would also help so many here this morning, who believe and belong, to grow in the godliness and the deeds and the works and the fruit of this faith in the Lord Jesus.
We pray that you would forgive us, heavenly Father, for taking salvation and then sitting back with great neglect. We pray that you would give us joy in the Gospel and also diligence in discipleship, and we ask this in Jesus’ Name – Amen.
- Follow this series at Lessons From The Book of James — A ‘Christian Growth’ Series