God’s Word for You
James 2:14-17 Faith and works
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Thursday, July 23, 2020
Beware an Inactive Faith
14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says that he has faith but has no works? Is that faith able to save him?
There is a German word, Maulchristen, which means “mouth-Christian.” This is a person who says he is a Christian, who goes to church sometimes and thinks he knows about Jesus, but he doesn’t trust the gospel and he doesn’t live his faith. With his mouth-Christianity he truly disgraces the Savior who died for him. He shames the gospel.
There is a great misunderstanding in the world, even in the realm of Christianity, about the places of faith and works in our salvation. The entire point of Christianity, the salvation of our souls and eternal life, is obtained through faith in Christ (John 14:6). It is ours entirely by faith and only through faith. Anyone who trusts that they can obtain forgiveness and salvation apart from Christ has no faith: “She does not trust in the Lord; she does not draw near to her God” (Zephaniah 1:2). And don’t those who reject Christ say, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!”?
So why is there a call like this to have good works as well as faith? Our works are the way that we show our faith. A faith or a so-called faith that doesn’t produce anything in us (good works or deeds), is not saving faith at all. Jesus said frankly: “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:16). And to this he added the warning: “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:19-20). Or as Luther said, a man is justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone. Only faith in Christ saves, but it will also produce good works. The good works do not save us, they are simply evidence that saving faith is present.
One day at the dinner table Luther also said: “It’s necessary to have life, salvation and grace before works, just as a tree doesn’t deserve to become a tree on account of its fruit but a tree is by nature fitted to bear fruit” (Table Talk, LW 54:456).
15 Suppose that a brother or sister has no clothes and no food day after day, 16 yet one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but does not give them what their body needs, what good is it? 17 Such a faith by itself that has no works is dead.
James, like a good coach, comes up with an illustration to shame those who did not know they were guilty and to inspire and comfort those who did not realize the quality of their service. We might apply verses 15-17 to helping the needy, especially the poor and the homeless in our communities. And they need to be helped just as widows and orphans need to be helped. But in such a time of crisis like this one, what about those who have various addictions like alcoholism, who have trouble finding a place that is open for meetings or counseling? Even apart from lockdowns and social distancing and virtual classrooms, what about Sunday school lessons, one-on-one teaching for those with special needs, and such? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a church that had too many volunteers to teach Sunday school. It’s always a late-summer problem that we face. Last years’ teachers have new obligations, and most adults don’t think they’re qualified. All it takes is the courage to read to children, to give them what their souls need. So while James uses a single illustration of poverty, we must also see that there are many needs, many poverties, many ways of lacking the gospel. We might also turn the tables entirely: A poor Christian with a firm faith sees a wealthy man in despair over his sins. Should the poor Christian tell the wealthy man, “You must repent!”? Does that teach the wealthy man anything at all, or just crush his spirit all the more? Has the poor Christian no message of consolation to give? No promise to share? No comfort to warm the heart of the accursed? That would be a bitter, vengeful faith. Knowing how hard it is for the wealthy to enter into the kingdom, we must also pray for them, remember them, and reach out even to those who have so much money and so little hope.
Go labor on; count not the cost
Your earthly loss is heavenly gain.
The world indeed will praise you not,
But you will share in heaven’s reign. (Christian Worship 563:2)
Pastor Timothy Smith