The Faith Work Out: "Faking Faith" – James 2:14-26

The longer I live, the more I become skeptical of “imitation” products. The breakfast cereal box claims it tastes like a berry – but had to get that flavor from a chemically created imitation. The desk I sit at is made from “imitation oak”. What exactly IS imitation oak? Is it pine, dressed up in an oak design? I don’t know. What I do know is that we often buy “imitation” because the price of the real seems too high. In more recent days I have begun to wonder about what sounds like imitation faith from the mouths of some popular “Christian” personalities. They SAY the speak God’s Word, but the lifestyle choices suggest something entirely different. It occurs to me that a purely theological Christianity has always been susceptible to fakery. People can SAY they believe anything, but that may not align with what they do in the daily practice of their life. In fact, ask the political pollsters for either campaign right now, and you will be informed that polls can be wildly inaccurate, and exit polls are wholly unreliable. In our country, the majority of people would like to keep the lever they pull in the ballot box a private affair – and so they tell a story different than reality. There are vocal exceptions, but most prefer to be left un-harassed by opponents, and keep their actual opinions to themselves. There is significant evidence that what happens in our political life has spilled over into our religious life as well. Shockingly, there are not only people that want to keep their beliefs private, but also some who are saying the exact opposite of what they believe inside.

I want to read an unsettling clip from the news team at the blog “Cloudblazer” who wrote an article, based on NPR and Time Magazine’s article:

What do you do when you find yourself preaching a message you don’t believe in? Besides the credibility gap that may be obvious to those closest to you, there is the question of lying to yourself. How do you rationalize living a double life?  For ministers who have professed Christianity but have become atheists, the challenges are numerous. Explaining matters to family, friends and others can make the transition so prohibitive, many who are atheists continue to live a lie in front of others, pretending to be ministers of the gospel. Not so anymore for Jerry DeWitt. “If you don’t believe, then you will be like me – you’ll suddenly find yourself where you only have two choices,” the preacher-turned-atheist said, as reported by Time magazine. “You can either be honest that you don’t believe … or you can pretend that you do”. He is now preaching against the faith he once professed to belief in. DeWitt now heads an organization “Recovering from Religion”, founded 2009 and committed to helping people get out of religion. The work of his organization reflects what may be a growing trend featuring multiple groups and organizations that are reportedly working to provide a community for atheists. One such effort focuses on ministers… “The program’s ultimate goal: to help unbelieving preachers to “come out” in real life”. DeWitt’s story contrasts interestingly with that of another minister-turned-atheist. “I’m currently an active pastor and I’m also an atheist,” Teresa MacBain told NPR, in an April 30, 2012 story. “I live a double life. I feel pretty good on Monday, but by Thursday — when Sunday’s right around the corner — I start having stomachaches, headaches, just knowing that I got to stand up and say things that I no longer believe in and portray myself in a way that’s totally false.”

The fact that some people are Speaking “Christian-eze” but are not Christians is not new – it is as old as the movement itself.

The Book of Acts demonstrates there have always been fakers. As American follows the path of the European Union – from Christian Heritage to Post-Christian and even Anti-Christian public stands, the church is shaking off the fakers of faith. They aren’t leaving because we got better at spotting them, but because they have founded their own communities to feel secure in their unbelief. I think it would be great for them to have a community and feel better, if there weren’t any ultimate judge at the end of their lives. There should be little consolation in the warm huddle of the perishing, especially when they bolster one another’s sense of security in a false look ahead.

When we take into account that some will be faking it, and that both the Apostle Paul and the Apostle Peter warned about the increase of such an attack on truth in the last days, we are forced to raise a question: “How can we tell the difference between real faith and fake faith?” That is the question posed in our text for this lesson.

The Context of the Question

As we have looked at the Epistle of James, perhaps the earliest of the Epistles of a church leader sent to fledgling group of first century believers, we have seen ample evidence that the writer was a direct and confrontational type of man. He didn’t pull his punches, but landed them in power and precision.

  • He opened the letter and told first century Jewish believers that God may choose to use the tool of trouble as a weight to build up our endurance for the future plan He has for us. Even though that is true, he reminded, God will never tempt us to do wrong. God uses WEIGHT, but never BAIT. Temptation is the work of the old man or “flesh” within us (James 1), applauded by the fallen world and enticed by the enemy of God.
  • James exposed one way the “flesh” that baits us by grabbing our hearts beneath the surface of our lives – by showing in our preferential treatment of people. Privileged treatment of people is a thinly veiled manipulative behavior – trying to “curry favor” with people we believe have the means of adding to things our flesh hungers for – fortune, fame, power and pleasure. (James 2:1-13).

When we pick up our reading in the next section of the letter, it should come as no surprise that James is equally stiff and vocal concerning the subject of FAKE FAITH – where he opened with a direct assault on those who decide to speak one way but live another. He wrote:

James 2:14 What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?

What a great question! Is there any eternal value to a theoretical faith that isn’t backed up by life choices? Obviously, James sought in his rhetorical question a hearty “No!” from his audience. Verses like this help us understand the popular statement: “Talk is cheap!”

Key Principle: Real faith changes not only our speech, but our behavior. Belief that doesn’t guide our action isn’t real belief – it is a half-hearted mental exercise with little or no value.

James tried to make the case clear – real faith produces change. Real faith surrenders old ideas, old habits, and old desires to the will of the Master. When the Bible uses the term FAITH, that is the intended meaning – truth that changes behavior by surrender of the will to God’s perspective and purpose. With the truth, James offers three examples to guide our understanding of both the NEED and the LOOK of faith:

Example #1: Hungry believers

James 2:15 If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? 17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.

The point is very simple: eloquent words don’t fill up empty bellies.

  • The example begins with an observable need – a brother or sister is hungry.
  • The example includes a behavior – speak instead of acting to meet a need.
  • The example poses a question – were your words without food of any value?
  • The example ends with a proverb – faith without practical outworking is dead theory.

In this example, James focused the attention of the readers to brothers and sisters in Christ. This wasn’t a late night TV commercial about giving money for starving children on another continent – it was a live example of real deprivation played out right in front of a believer. That believer took the time to respond VERBALLY, but offered no practical help. They were like the people who slow down to shout advice about your stalled car on the side of the road. Even if shouted insights are correct, they feel unwelcome and uncaring. The example lead to the question – “Were the words to the starving of any real help?” Finally, James offers the proverbial point: Real faith MUST change behavior. Real faith is ACTION FOCUSED, not cerebral theory.

What does that mean? It means that if you KNOW ABOUT Jesus – that doesn’t make you a believer. If you ABSOLUTELY BELIEVE that Jesus is the Messiah, sent to save men and women – that doesn’t change your hell bound destiny. If you TOTALLY ACCEPT that Jesus came as God in human skin to die for the sins of the world and give us access to Heaven – that doesn’t mean you are going there. There is only ONE CONDITION in which you are saved: When you surrender your life in practical terms to follow the commands of Jesus. Knowledge without submission is NOT salvation – because your faith changed NOTHING about your life and your choices.

Because of the emphasis of Paul on making sure that we understand that we CANNOT WORK FOR SALVATION, men like Martin Luther didn’t like James. He didn’t think it equal to the lofty work of Ephesians – and he was WRONG. Paul wasn’t saying something DIFFERENT than James, he was saying something based on the understanding James made clear. The Holy Spirit, the author of BOTH James and Ephesians was not in conflict.

The words of Ephesians 2, may seem in conflict, but a closer look will answer the problem:

Ephesians 2:1 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, 2 in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. 3 Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.

The salvation you have came by God’s direction, and God’s work – since you were dead spiritually and needed His work to be made alive. Your spiritual death, the domination of the enemy, and the lust filled selfish life made your initiating a walk with God IMPOSSIBLE –so God started it.

James 2:4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

When God initiated your salvation experience, He did it with LOVE and ETERNAL PURPOSE, and did all things necessary to make the way for us.

Ephesians 2:8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.

The whole point of the passage is not to suggest that someone can live like they want to call themselves Christian because of a prayer they prayed or an idea they embraced. Paul nowhere argues that God’s intent was anything less than our change – and there is simply no way Ephesians 2 can be stripped of that context. Would anything less than real faith tear us away from the flesh pursuits that dominated us before salvation (2:3)? Would anything less than real surrender make us an example of His workmanship? (2:10). The notion that God wanted to stamp us SAVED while leaving us SELF WILLED doesn’t square with God’s purposes in Ephesians, and is UTTERLY ELIMINATED BY James’ clear statements about working faith.

If faith without works is dead – there is no such thing as salvation without surrender. If faith without works is dead – my salvation must not be measured simply by my words, but rather by my lifestyle.

Woe to the church that convinces men and women that God has truly saved them and they can be secure – yet walk in disobedience and defiance of the Spirit and the Word. I am not saying that any disobedience disqualifies you from a walk with God – since the Bible is replete with examples of people who KNEW GOD and made terrible sinful choices. I am saying that you need to examine your CHOICES to see that you know God – not just inventory the STATEMENTS of your doctrine. That is why Paul told the Philippians:

Philippians 2:12 So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

Let me continue that idea, but head to the second example of James’ lesson in James 2:18ff:

Example #2: A theoretical theologian

James 2:18 But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” 19 You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. 20 But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?

Again the point is very simple: Believing requires more than a cognitive change. Real belief shows in the hands and feet, not just the recesses of the mind.

  • The example began with a claim –faith can be solely inside requiring no external action.
  • The example continues with an exclamation – “My faith can be seen in what I do!”
  • The example offers an encouragement – It is valuable to believe correctly.
  • The example bids a warning – even demons recognize some truths.
  • The example ends with a question – “Is your internal thought of any practical value to the Kingdom?”

Though one must know the facts of the Gospel to surrender to the truth of it – knowing the Gospel is not what is REQUIRED; surrender to Jesus is what is required. In every presentation of the Gospel the notion of REPENTANCE was not simply feeling badly about sin – but about having a change of heart concerning the WILL. Perhaps the third example will make that even clearer…

Example #3: Father Abraham

James 2:21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? 22 You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “AND ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS,” and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.

The point is unmistakable: a proper world view isn’t enough – we need to act on it for real completion!

  • The example began with a picture – Abraham holding a knife over Isaac in the land of Moriah.
  • The example continued with an observation – faith that worked out in behavior was completed or authenticated faith.
  • The example offered Scriptural support – that Abraham’s belief was accepted when he ACTED on that belief.
  • The example was finished with a declaration – justification is by working faith that changes behavior, not theoretical mental ascent that accepts the plausibility of the Word as the truth

Not long ago a man left the church where I teach after about a year in the local body. He did so because he truly believed that the Gospel that required surrender was a Gospel of works. He tried on a number of occasions to pose that Paul taught pagans that they only needed to know that Jesus died for them. I disagreed. I traced the movement of Paul in the Book of Acts, and showed that the Apostles bound the followers of Jesus to behaviors in Acts 15 – or WOULD NOT LET THEM BE A PART of the movement. I do not know what goes on in the human heart – but I do know that real submission in the heart can be seen in one’s life. I am not naïve enough to believe that a specific act of sin holds one out of heaven – but I fully believe that the Bible teaches that failing to submit practically to Jesus as Master of their choices DOES hold one out of Heaven. If I can believe theoretically but not live practically –then please explain what James is truly saying here. He left calling my Associate Pastor a heretic – which is better, I suppose, than being called one myself. (Just kidding!). Seriously, there are whole schools of theology dedicated to theoretical faith and the salvation of the self-willed. I just cannot grasp it. Spurgeon said it this way in a commentary on the story of Joab hiding by the horns of the altar in 1 Kings 2:

OUTWARD ORDINANCES AVAIL NOT. The laying hold upon the literal horns of an altar, which can be handled, availed not Joab. There are many—oh, how many still!—that are hoping to be saved, because they lay hold, as they think, upon the horns of the sacraments. Men of unhallowed life, nevertheless, come to the sacramental table, looking for a blessing. Do they not know that they pollute it? Do they not know that they are committing a high sin, and a great misdemeanour against God, by coming amongst his people, where they have no right to be? And yet they think that by committing this atrocity they are securing to themselves safety. How common it is to find in this city, when an irreligious man is dying, that someone will say, “Oh, he is all right; for a clergyman has been, and given him the sacrament.” I often marvel how men calling themselves the servants of God can dare thus to profane the ordinance of the Lord. Did he ever intend the blessed memorial of the Lord’s supper to be a kind of superstitious vialicum, a something upon which ungodly men may depend in their last hour, as if it could put away sin. I do not one half so much blame the poor ignorant and superstitious persons who seek after the sacrament in their dying hours, as I do the men who ought to know better…. Do they conceive that grace comes to men by bits of bread and drops of wine? These things are meant to put us in memory of the Lord Jesus Christ, and, as far as they do that, and quicken our thoughts of him, they are useful to us; but there is no wizardry or witchcraft linked with these two emblems, so they convey as form of grace…

You cannot decide to choose to have Jesus and be your own Master – the two choices are in opposite directions. Lapses of judgment and failure to the flesh aside – there is simply no argument to be made for the “self-willed” follower. It is the act of surrender played out in the choices of life that shows the validity of real faith. The last example shows that well…

Example #4: Rahab

James 2:25 In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.

  • The example focused on another story – the Canaanite woman at Jericho hid the spies to her own peril.
  • The example asserted a truth – that she was justified before God only when she responded with the actions she took on behalf of God’s people.
  • The example ended with a final proverb – a Biblical world view without the accompanying lifestyle choices is as useless as a body devoid of life.

In the end, we need to recognize that God needs no army of lawyers to parse our words and argue for the reality of your belief in your heart and mind. He requires, rather, that real belief show itself in the actions of one’s hands and feet. There are times when that action is quite limited – the thief on the cross had only his words of belief and defense of the Savior – for he was a cross-bound and dying convert. Yet this is the exception. Too much has been made of his death-moment confession to Christ – as if it somehow became a standard of the normal Christian. James argued that normal believers need BOTH a Biblical world view (using the term “faith”) AND the actions that show one has truly adopted such a view.

Biblical belief requires a change of mind, but does not allow for the reality of such a mind change without a change in life choices.

With the coming of the Spirit into the new believer, new desires fill them. Old hungers are not destroyed – a point that James made in the last chapter – but new desires are noticed and begin to assert themselves.

Submission IS required for salvation – and that is NOT considered a WORK in Paul’s Epistles, but should not be ignored in Paul’s intent. It is WRONG to believe that one can simply ‘believe’ in the mind without ‘surrender’ in one’s life. If “faith without works is DEAD” means anything, it means that one must bear the actions of a surrendered heart to show the truth of inner ownership change. Jesus cannot be simply a Savior – He must be the new owner of my heart. I must be actively making effort to remove every obstacle to full service to Him! The tension that exists between heart and hands is a false distinction, since James argued that without the outworking – the theory was ineffective, unhelpful and altogether dead.

Real faith changes not only our speech, but our behavior. Belief that doesn’t guide our action isn’t real belief – it is a half hearted mental exercise with little or no value.