Dead faith - James 2:14-26

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the Riverside Church service on 15th February 2015.

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James 2:14-26

On June 30, 1859, Charles Blondin became the first man in history to walk on a tightrope across the Niagara Falls. Over twenty-five thousand people gathered to watch him walk 1,100 feet suspended on a tiny rope 160 feet above the raging waters. He walked without a net or a safety harness of any kind. The slightest slip would have proved fatal. He did it. And when he safely reached the Canadian side, the huge crowd burst into a mighty roar.

In the days that followed, he walked across the rope in slightly different ways. For example, he once walked across on stilts; another time he took a chair and a stove with him and sat down midway across, cooked an omelet, and ate it. And he once carried his manager across on his back.


On another occasion he asked the spectators if they thought he could push a man across sitting in a wheelbarrow. Of course they roared. Blondin spotted a man cheering loudly and asked him a direct question. “Sir, do you think I could safely carry you across in this wheelbarrow?” “Yes, of course.” “Well, get in,” Blondin replied with a smile. Sadly the man refused.


I’ve no doubt that the man genuinely believed in his head that Blondin could do it. He had some sort of intellectual belief. But that kind of belief was not enough to get him to the other side of the gorge. 


Today, in James chapter 2, we are confronted with the difference between dead faith and living faith


Dead faith - some sort of intellectual assent to revealed truth but it’s a faith that doesn’t actually transform us and save us for eternity. 


Living faith - genuinely connects us to the God of life now and forever. 


I want to show you three things from this section of James as we think about dead faith and living faith.

  • How to recognise what kind of faith you have (Vs 14-17)
  • An example of dead faith (Vs 18-19)
  • Two examples of living faith (Vs 20-26)


First, how to recognise what kind of faith you have (Vs 14-17)


Look at verse 14


The stakes are huge. We’re not talking about getting across the chasm of the Niagra Falls to be greeted by thousands of cheering spectators. No, we are talking about getting across the chasm of hell to be greeted by billions of angels and fellow believers and the Lord Jesus Christ as we enter the security of heaven. The question is, can some sort of intellectual assent to the truths of Christians without any practical transformation save a person?


Think of the many people in the UK who say, I don’t need to go to church to be a Christian. They say it’s real. Is it? Will such a belief take them to heaven?


Look at verse 15. Read verses 15 and 16. The person makes no effort at all to help. Doesn’t mean they offer to pay. What good is it? It’s pointless. Useless. It doesn’t do the person any good at all. 


And what’s James’ point? Look at verse 17.


There is a kind of faith that does not change us or lead us to do things, things like practically helping our brothers in need. Although there is a vast number of others things. James is saying that such a faith exists - but it is no good. It will not save us. Such a faith never connects people to the God of life. 


It may inform their mind and may lead them to say certain religious things with their mouth but but it keeps a person morbid - dead in sin and far from God.


In some sense this should scare us. Who wants such a counterfeit faith? How can we recognise if we have it?  Look at our life. If there is no evidence of Christian discipleship as described by the NT then you may have such a dead faith. 


Or if I can put it like this, the presence of dead faith is shown by the absence of changed life. 


Genuine faith unites us to Jesus who grants us the Holy Spirit. He will change us in observable ways.


Do we speak about Jesus? Do we want to listen to him in the Bible? Do we want to meet with his people? Are we becoming more like him?


We will never be perfect this side of heaven, but there will be evidence.


And that’s how you recognise living faith. Deeds are not the basis of our acceptance before God but they are the evidence of our acceptance before God. So if you want to know if you are genuinely spiritually alive and connected to the God of life, look at your life and ask yourself, can I see evidence of the Spirit’s transformational work in my life? And if yes, then you can be sure that you have that genuine faith that will save you. 


Second, let me show you an example of dead faith (Vs 18-19)


Look at verse 18. Read verses 18 and 19.


Let’s understand the objection. Surely it’s okay for us all to be different. We don’t need to be identical do we. Christians don’t all have the same spiritual gifts. Therefore, is it not okay for some Christians to have a faith that shows itself in action and other Christians to have a real faith that is more private? 


What is James’ response? Show me your faith without deeds and I will show you my faith by what I do. But let me tell you who is in your intellectual assent category. You believe there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that - and shudder!


This is rather shocking. The demons know their doctrine better than us. So they have some sort of faith but it’s a dead faith. It will not save them. Why? They don’t repent of their sin. They don’t love Jesus and live for him. They know all about him but they will not allow him to be ruler of their life. 


This example is a reminder to us that belief in a God doesn’t save anyone. Even the demons belief that. That is dead faith. What is required is a movement from belief in a God to the embracing of Jesus as our personal Saviour and Lord.  



Third, let me show you two examples of living faith (Vs 20-26)


These two examples taken from different extremes of Jewish history. Abraham, one of the key ancestors of the Jewish people and then Rahab, who was a non-Jewish prostitute from the Old Testament but who had that living faith that we’ve been talking about. 


What do we learn about Abraham?


Look at verse 21. This will come as a shock if you have read much of Paul’s argument in Romans. Paul is at pains to say that Abraham was not justified by what he did but by his faith. Does James disagree with him?


All Scripture is God-breathed. Words are exactly as God intended. The structure is exactly what God intended. There are no contradictions. It forces us to think carefully about what is actually being said. 


What is James saying? He first refers to Gen 22. When God tested the genuine of his faith. But then he quotes from Genesis 15 when it clearly says Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness and Abraham was called God’s friend. 


Abraham showed he had true faith by doing what God said. His deeds are not the basis of his justification. They are the evidence of it. 


So when James says in verse 24 that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone he doesn’t mean that somehow we secure our acceptance before God by what we do. Not at all! Jesus has secured everything and we get access to Jesus by faith. How do we know that faith is real and not just intellectual assent? Genuine living faith with change our life. 


What do we learn about Rahab?


At the opposite end of the religious spectrum. We read about her in the book of Joshua when she hid some of the Israelite spies from capture. She wasn’t an Israelite. She was a prostitute. But she had living faith. We know this because of her actions. 


What are we to learn from these examples? First, the examples are showing that faith and deeds and inseparably in the story of God’s people. Second, true faith will change any life. Whether you are an Abraham or a Rahab. Living faith changes lives.


So do you have that living faith? Do you need move from intellectual assent to the personal trust that will transform you to be like Jesus Christ?


And if you do see the signs of change? Praise God for the change. And expect to change even more.

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