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I invite you to open your Bibles or your service folder to our second lesson for today as we focus on what God says through James about Faith.
Many people today seem to think that faith is a feeling. They claim that they are Spiritual, they have faith, but are not religious. They want to come to church and leave feeling good, they want to hear uplifting music. They want to hear about how they can be successful in life and have the power of positive thinking. They want to feel love. But faith is not just a warm feeling in our hearts that we have for a little while on a Sunday morning. James says that such faith, faith that is just a feeling, is really no faith at all. It is dead.
To be spiritual, to simply confess that there is a god, can give you a feeling alright, but not necessarily a warm fuzzy one. If all you know is that there is a supreme being, someone infinitely wise and powerful, you should feel terrified. If he is infinitely wise, nothing escapes his notice. He sees everything you do and knows everything you think. He knows how rotten you really are. And if he is infinitely powerful there is nothing you can do to escape his anger and punishment. That’s how the demons know God, as an all-powerful being who is going to punish them, it’s no wonder that they shudder. Faith, living faith, is more than just knowing God exists and fearing his anger.
James describes where true, saving faith must start when he says, My brothers, have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. True saving faith is not just a good feeling that you might get from some up-beat music. It is not just thinking positively. It’s not just being spiritual. True saving faith is believing in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. It is knowing the facts about who he is and what he did, that he is true God and true man, that he lived a perfect life and that he suffered and died on the cross. But it is more than knowing the facts, it is knowing why he did these things. It is knowing that he lived and died to pay for your sins. It is more than knowing, it is trusting that because of who Jesus is and what he has done God will accept you into his eternal dwellings. Faith is the ability given by the Holy Spirit to say, “Jesus is my glorious Lord, the Christ. How wonderful it is that he came to be my savior!”
Does it make you feel good to be able to say, “Jesus is my Savior?” I sure hope so! But the point is that you don’t believe because you feel good, you feel good, you have true peace and joy, because the Holy Spirit has enabled you to believe, to trust Jesus for forgiveness and salvation.
James, guided by the Holy Spirit, was concerned about some who were claiming that we are saved by faith alone. Obviously, you can understand that statement correctly. There isn’t anything we can do to contribute to our salvation even a little bit. James shows that he understands this when he points out that whoever keeps the whole law but stumbles in one point has become guilty of breaking all of it. You are either perfect in God’s eyes or you aren’t. You can’t say, “Yes, I admit I’m not perfect. I have done some things wrong. But at least I never murdered anyone. Shouldn’t that count for something?” You can’t say, “I showed love to the rich person, wasn’t that keeping the royal law?” But, you neglected to show love to the poor person. So, you didn’t really keep the royal law. As Jesus pointed out in the parable of the Good Samaritan, everyone, even our enemies, are covered by the royal law. We are to love them too.
No matter how big or how small a sin might seem to you, or to society, just one sin makes you a transgressor in God’s sight. And he says any sinner, anyone who is not perfect, deserves his wrath and eternal punishment. No one can do anything to contribute anything to their salvation. We are saved by grace through faith alone.
The point that God is making through James is that, although we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus alone, our faith is never alone. Don’t use a claim that you have faith as an excuse for failing to love your neighbor as yourself. He says, Show me your faith without works and I will show you my faith by my works. Or as we heard earlier, Faith without deeds is dead. Jesus says that he will use the fruits of faith on the last day as evidence that we had a true and living faith. Even though we are saved by grace alone through faith, God has prepared good works for us to do.
James gives us a number of examples of dead faith, failing to put your faith into action: Showing favoritism, giving a rich person a good seat, treating him well, but treating a poor person differently, making him sit on the floor. How easy it is to fall into that trap! We all would have to admit that if someone walked in with a long scraggly beard, unkept hair, someone who seemed to be a homeless person, we would look at and treat that person differently than the person who walked in wearing the latest fashions and being neatly groomed. Yet Scripture says: If you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.
What if a fellow Christian is in need, struggling to have the basic necessities of life. If you know about this and your only response is, “I wish you well, I’ll pray for you,” but you don’t help them with their physical needs; if you think, “I have faith, I don’t need to do good works;” if you think, “they have wasted their money, or they are just lazy, that’s why they are in this predicament,” James asks, “What good is your faith?”
True faith in Jesus as our savior will show itself in actions. As Jesus said, a good tree produces good fruit. If there is no fruit, the tree of faith looks dead and is in danger of being cut down and thrown into the fire.
James calls attention to Abraham as an example of how faith shows itself in action. His faith was evident in that he left his homeland simply because God said so. He trusted that God had his best interest in mind. When God asked him to sacrifice Isaac he got up early the next morning, traveled to Moriah, and would have sacrificed him if God had not stopped him. He trusted that God would provide a lamb. Abraham’s faith was evident in his actions. His faith was more than a feeling, more than being spiritual, it was religion. It was a living faith. It produced fruit. It guided his every decision and action.
The definition of religion is not just showing up at church most Sundays. Religion is a set of beliefs by which a person orders their whole life. Consider the examples that James used earlier. If you really believe that God has made all people, that each person is a descendant of Adam and Eve, special creations of God, and someone for whom Jesus died, then you cannot be prejudiced or show favoritism. If you do, what you are really saying is that you do believe that some people are better than others, or that you are better than others. If you say that you love your neighbor as yourself then, if your fellow Christian is in need you will help him. If you don’t help, what you really believe is that you love yourself and your things more than your neighbor. Your religion is not only what you say you believe, but also what you show by your actions.
Hopefully, as you heard what God says through James, you recognized that there is room for improvement in your life. People often say that Christians are hypocrites because their works don’t match their confession. They are saying what James warns about, and unfortunately, they are often correct. Hopefully you recognized that sometimes you do show favoritism, that you don’t always help your fellow Christians in need. Hopefully you feel a little guilty. Why would I say that? Because I have a long list of things I need help with and I figure the more guilt you feel, the more likely you are to help? NO. I want you to feel guilty because God says you are, and because then I know that you will be looking for help and I have the wonderful privilege of pointing you to that help. I have the great Joy of telling you, “Jesus has paid for your sins and shortcomings, for the times that you didn’t help because you were too selfish, for the times that you thought that you were better than others. Your many sins are forgiven. Your guilt has been taken away, not because you are good, not because you have earned it, but only because of what Jesus has done for you.” I have the great joy of knowing that as you rejoice in your forgiveness in Jesus the Holy Spirit will be at work in you causing you to have a living faith that produces fruit, that moves you to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself, not just with words, but with actions and in truth.
As some of you probably know, Luther struggled with the book of James. At first, he thought that James was saying that works helped earn your salvation. As he studied it more, he realized that James and Paul were saying the same thing. Salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus alone. Works don’t contribute anything to salvation, but where this is a living faith, like a living tree, there will be fruit, the fruit of love. Faith expresses itself in love.
Luther put it this way. A Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and in his neighbor. Otherwise he is not a Christian. He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love. By faith he is caught up beyond himself into God. By love he descends beneath himself into his neighbor.