FAITH AT WORK
Some things belong together: strawberries and ice cream, coffee and cake, horse and carriage, bow and arrow, love and marriage.
So also faith and works belong together. Faith and works are the two feet with which a person walks in Christ. One without the other produces a spiritual cripple. Our text from James 2 also proclaims this truth: faith and works belong together. You can’t have one without the other. Faith without works is dead; works without faith is not pleasing in God’s sight. May God’s Holy Spirit give us a faith that produces many good works.
I FAITH ALONE SAVES
Although faith and works belong together, faith alone saves. What is faith? Basically, faith is trust. By using all the letters of the word faith, we get: ‘Forsaking all I trust him’. That’s FAITH.
Faith has to do with believing in Christ. The word ‘believe’ means to entrust your life to Christ. Another way of looking at the word ‘believe’ is given by Dr Paton, a Bible translator. He was translating the Bible into the language of some South Sea Islanders. He searched for a way of expressing the word ‘believe’ in their language. Just then one of the locals came in, hot and tired from a long walk. The man threw himself on a chair. He put his feet on another chair and used a local word which meant, ‘I am resting my whole weight here’. Instantly Dr Paton had the words he needed for ‘believe’. The people of that Pacific island now know that to believe in Jesus, or to have faith in Jesus, means that you rest your whole weight of mind and heart on Jesus.
Faith or belief in Christ is a gift of the Holy Spirit. As St Paul says, ‘No one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit’ (1 Cor 12:3). If the Holy Spirit were absent from our lives, we would never come to faith in Christ. Our Spirit-less heart is too hard and corrupt to put its weight on Christ. But the Holy Spirit has called us to faith through the word of Christ and led us to trust him.
Through faith we believe that Jesus came to earth as sin bearer, devil- slayer, death destroyer. Jesus came as our substitute. All that he did, he did for us. He copped God’s judgment over sin in our place. He was tempted by Satan in our place. He died in our place. By trusting Jesus, we receive the fruits of his cross – forgiveness of sins, life with God and freedom from the power of Satan. More, Jesus rose from the dead for us. Faith brings with it the sure hope of our resurrection from the dead.
Faith justifies us or puts us right with God. As St Paul says, To be put right with God ‘is through faith from beginning to end’ (R. l:17).
The Bible makes it very clear that faith alone saves. Our works cannot save us. As St Paul says, ‘a person is put right with God through faith, and not by doing what the Law commands’ (R. 3:28). Indeed, ‘Those who depend on obeying the Law live under a curse. For the Scripture says, “Whoever does not always obey everything that is written in the book of the Law is under God’s curse!”’ (Gal. 3:10) Well, no one can keep God’s law perfectly. As St James says, ‘Whoever breaks one commandment is guilty of breaking them all’. Apart from faith we would be doomed. Faith alone connects us to Jesus who kept the law in our place. Yes, faith alone saves. May God’s Holy Spirit give us such a saving faith in Christ.
II FAITH IS NEVER ALONE
Although faith alone saves, faith is never alone. Faith always produces good works. It is always doing something. As Martin Luther says, ‘Oh, a living, energetic, active, mighty thing is this faith. It is impossible for it not to do good constantly. Nor does it ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is put, it has already done them and is forever doing them’ (Plass 1:499).
Works show the reality of our faith. This is shown by the story of the queen of Sheba who came to visit king Solomon. It is said that one day during her visit she decided to put king Solomon to the test. She brought artificial flowers so perfectly formed that no human eye could detect them from real flowers. She put them in a vase on Solomon’s table, in his throne room next to real flowers. As he came in, the queen of Sheba is reported to have said, ‘Solomon, you are the wisest man in the world. Tell me without touching these flowers, which are real and which are artificial’. Solomon studied the flowers for a long time and said nothing, until finally he said, ‘Open the windows and let the bees come in’. Only true flowers have a genuine scent which attract bees.
Brilliant. That, too, is how to tell genuine faith from dead faith. Only people with true faith give off the aroma of Christ. Dead faith gives off no aroma of Christ.
Works flow from true faith in Christ. Works come from a cleansed and redeemed life. We rejoice to produce works which please God.
How different is Islam. In Islam the only way to get to Paradise is through good works. But here is the catch: your good works have to outweigh your bad works. If your good works aren’t heavy enough, you cannot enter Paradise. To ensure enough good works are done, some countries even have religious police. In Saudi Arabia you’d better carry your marriage certificate with you to show that the woman who walks alongside you is your wife. If she isn’t, you’re in big trouble. In Malaysia teams of volunteers patrol the streets of Kuala Lumpur looking for people who offend Islamic law – like Muslim couples showing affection in public like holding hands. The patrols cannot make arrests but will alert police officers to this so-called breach of morality (Cf Asia Focus March 2006). As you can imagine, one can never be sure one has enough good works to get you to Paradise.
How different is Christian morality and good works. We do good works because we are already citizens of heaven. We believe that no amount of good works will get us into heaven. That’s why we hang on to Christ. For Christ alone was perfect and he credits his goodness to us! Christ’s death and resurrection make us certain that we will go to heaven.
At the same time we believe that if faith does not produce works, it is dead. As James says, ‘If (faith) is alone and includes no actions, then it is dead’. It is a pretend faith. Even demons have that kind of faith (Js. 2:19).
What’s your faith like? Is it producing many good works? Or are your works few and far between? Is your faith alone, or is it accompanied by works? Your answer is one of life or death!
III TWO EXAMPLES OF FAITH AT WORK
James gives two examples of faith at work. The first one has to do with the treatment of the rich and poor. He says, ‘As believers in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, you must never treat people in different ways according to their outward appearance’.
Apparently members of the congregation were treating the rich and poor differently. The rich were feted and made welcome; the poor were neglected and left in the corner. Looks like money spoke in those days too.
James rebukes these Christians for doing this. He tells them, ‘You are guilty of sin’. ‘You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great’ (Lev. 19:15).
Actually rich people are often blinded to Christ by their wealth. They tend to invest their time in their business and trust in their wealth rather than in Christ. As Jesus said, ‘It will be very hard for rich people to enter the kingdom of heaven… it is much harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle’ (Mt. 19:23-24).
At the same time poor people may find it hard to enter the kingdom as well. They may blame God for their poverty. Or waste their money on lotto tickets or one arm bandits in a vain attempt to get rich. They may try to milk the social security system by claiming money that is not rightfully theirs.
Whether we are rich or poor, we all need an active faith. For it is our faith in Christ that sends us with good works to serve others. Such service attracts people into the church. Generally people come into the church not because the pastor is a great guy or preaches great sermons. It’s not because the building is nice. It’s because someone cared for them. They saw Christ in that person. They felt at home, even if they were poor, or had little to offer.
James then gives a second example of faith at work. It also has to do with care for the needy. He says, ‘Suppose there are brothers or sisters who need clothes and don’t have enough to eat. What good is there in your saying to them, “God bless you! Keep warm and eat well!” – if you don’t give them the necessities of life?’
Good wishes and sympathy are not always enough. There’s a Peanuts cartoon where Snoopy is out in the cold. He’s shivering. Charlie Brown comes along dressed in a thick coat and gloves. He says to Snoopy, ‘Be of good cheer, Snoopy. Be of good cheer’. And then walks off leaving Snoopy to shiver in the cold. Snoopy needs a coat, or to be invited into Charlie Brown’s warm house.
If Christians don’t act, they harm the church. Scoffers see this and are quick to condemn. Thus it was that a needy lad wasn’t helped by fellow Christians. A skeptic tried to shake his faith. ‘How can you be a Christian when no one helps you?’ He replied, ‘God tells his people to help, but they forget.’ Do we forget to help? God forbid!
Faith active in good works is desperately needed today in our society. Our society is sliding further and further into moral decline. What can we do? We can write letters to the editor or to our politicians. We can speak up for good when the opportunity arises. But whatever the situation we face, may God’s Holy Spirit help us to maintain the good and be rich in good works. May the Spirit give us a faith that is active in good works.
Just as an ocean liner was putting out to sea, a young woman fell overboard, and was heard to scream that she couldn’t swim. No one jumped in to help her. Then, to the astonishment of all present, an elderly man of over 70 went hurtling after her. Eventually, amid rousing cheers, he brought her to safety. Such was the admiration felt for the old man’s heroism that a banquet was held in his honor at which the captain of the ship made a speech. Amid the applause which followed, the old man was urged to reply. He rose and said, ‘I’ve only one thing to say. “Who pushed me?”’ No one on board went to help the young woman. An old man did. But he had to be pushed!
No, faith never has to be pushed into good works. Faith has received the salvation Jesus won on his cross. A new life is received. A life which is always doing good things. Freely. Willingly. Faith alone saves. But faith is never alone.
So what’s our faith like? Alone? Or hard at work?