Does salvation involve works minus faith or faith minus works? This sermon discusses three kinds of faith and tackles the alleged contradiction between James’ and Paul’s definition of faith.
14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
In eternity past, God the Father and God the Son knew that we would sin. They knew that we would rebel. They knew that we would walk away. So they devised a plan to pursue us, and the plan was that a sinless Savior would come as the sinners’ Savior. And in the fullness of time, the Lord Jesus Christ exited his throne in heaven, and he entered into human history humbly. And he knew exactly what he was sent to do and the work that he was commissioned to accomplish.
Jesus grew in wisdom, stature, and favor with men and God. He preached the truth, he helped the hurting, he healed the sick, he gave sight to the blind, he raised the dead, he rebuked the demons, he contended with the religious, and he emerged victorious. And on the precipice of the most important event in the history of the world, the crucifixion of the Son of God, the atonement for our sin, Jesus paused, in John 17. And he paused to have yet another meeting with God the Father, and it’s the longest recorded prayer in the entire Bible. And Jesus says this in John 17:4. He says, “Father, while on the earth, I have completed the works that you have sent me to do.”
Jesus knew exactly what he was to be doing, and that is exactly what he was doing. Jesus completed the works that he and the Father had agreed to. Then, Jesus proceeded forward boldly and he went to the cross where he substituted himself for us. The God-man put himself in our place and suffered and died the punishment we deserve, that we might receive the salvation that he alone secures.
Friends, everything Jesus did is everything that needs to be done. He said this on the cross, breathing out his last in triumphant victory cry, “It is finished!” The work of salvation was completed. We don’t add to it. It’s not Jesus plus baptism, Jesus plus a good life, Jesus plus speaking in tongues, Jesus plus tithing, Jesus plus doing better and trying harder, because Jesus plus anything ruins everything. It’s all Jesus, it’s only Jesus, it’s always Jesus, and Jesus alone saves. And that’s Jesus’ saving work. We are not to do anything; we are to trust the one who has done everything. And the Bible calls that faith.
As we trust Jesus and have faith in him, we are plugging in to the life of Jesus. Just as you would take dead technology and plug it into its power source so that it would come to life, so we who are spiritually dead by faith have access to the power of the living Jesus and are made spiritually alive. Jesus’ work for us begins a work in us. Jesus’ work begins to transform us. Our appetites, our desires, our longings change. We no longer love what we used to love, we no longer do what we used to do, because we are no longer who we were.
Jesus’ work for us then continues with Jesus’ work in us, and it culminates with Jesus’ work through us to love, and to serve, and to give. Not so that God would love us, but because in Christ he already has. Not so that God would accept us, but because in Christ he already does. It’s the life of Jesus for us, in us, and through us so that all of that—hear me on this—all of that is the work of Jesus. All of that is the work of Jesus. And there is often confusion regarding this, so then preachers and teachers need to clarify this.
One of them is a man named James, who’s Jesus’ little brother, and he’s working as a pastor in the great city of Jerusalem, and he’s dealing primarily with religious people who have been going to meetings like this and hearing sermons like this for a really long time. And he’s going to clarify them—Jesus’ works and your works.
If you’ve got a Bible, find this place: James 2:14–26. And he’s going to speak of faith in three categories. The first two are counterfeits, and the last is authentic.
The first counterfeit faith is a dead faith. James 2:14–17, “What good is it, my brothers.” He’s writing to religious people. Some are Christians, some are not, but most are Jewish. He is Jewish, they are Jewish by descent, and they are his Jewish brothers and sisters. “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” Very significant, important question.
We’re saved from Satan, sin, death, hell, torment, and the wrath of God. Being saved is incredibly important. Can this kind of dead faith save you from that fate? And then he uses a case study, an example. “If a brother or sister”—a fellow Christian—“is poorly clothed.” There’s somebody in your Community Group, there’s somebody in your church service, there’s somebody in your neighborhood, and as all the kids walk to the bus stop in the morning, you notice every day one kid doesn’t have a coat. It’s cold, and it’s raining, and the child is shivering and shaking. Or you see one “lacking in daily food.” The single mom in your Community Group, the single mom in your service, the single mom in your neighborhood, is trying to make ends meet, but she’s fallen short again this month. As a result, she’s distressed because she can’t buy groceries.
“And you say”—you don’t do anything. This is the problem with religion. Religion says a lot of things, it doesn’t do anything. “You say to them, ‘Go in peace.’” Oh, it’s religious hyperbole. Quote a little verse, give them a little truism, a little—“When God closes a door, he opens a window. I’m sure he has great things for you. Just trust the Lord. I’ll be praying. I’ll be praying he gives you a coat.” He already did; it’s at your house! “I’ll pray he gives you a sandwich.” He does; the sandwich is in your fridge. Go get it. If you’re going to pray, answer the prayer. You say, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled.”
Religious people are smarmy. They’re annoying. When they talk, it makes you want to hit them. “‘Oh, go in peace, beloved. Be warm, be filled’—without giving them the things needed for the body.” Here’s a good question, “What good is that?” What good is that? “See also faith by itself, if it does not have works, it’s dead.” You know what dead people do? Do you know what dead people do? Nothing. It’s not a trick question. They do nothing. You know what dead faith does? Do you know what dead faith does? Nothing. Dead faith is all lip service and no lifestyle. Dead faith is a profession of faith that you do not practice because you do not possess. This is like a guy who says, “I love my wife.” Do you talk to her? “No.” Do you serve her? “No.” Do you live with her? “No.” You don’t love her. “Yes I do, don’t judge my heart.” Well, the problem is your heart has overflowed into your life, and we see it. Dead faith is lip service, not lifestyle.
Some of you have dead faith. Some of you have inherited dead faith. You don’t give, you don’t serve, you don’t care, but you believe in God. This is classic lazy, lukewarm, lifeless religion. And some of you have gotten theological about it and you’ve got arguments for why you are fruitless.
You know what? You can be baptized in the church, you can grow up in the church, you can sit in the church every week, you can have your wedding in the church, you can have your funeral in the church, close your eyes, and wake up in hell. Because church doesn’t save; Christ saves. Tradition doesn’t save; Christ saves. Religion doesn’t save; Christ saves. It’s not what you do, it’s not what the church does, it’s what Jesus does and whether or not you trust him.
Jesus said this: A good tree bears what kind of fruit? Good fruit. A bad tree bears what kind of fruit? Bad fruit. In our yard, we planted two trees. One rooted and is fruitful, the other did not and is dead, but they’re both still standing there. I haven’t taken them out yet. Some of you are like that. It’s only a matter of time before Jesus comes back, chops you down, and burns you up because you’re a bad tree and you don’t bear good fruit. You have dead faith. It’s not rooted and as a result of not being rooted, it’s not fruitful.
Some of you are like that. You’re rooted in morality, you’re rooted in religion, you’re rooted in spirituality, you’re rooted in tradition, but you’re not rooted in Christ, so there’s no life in you, there’s no life through you. The result is, it’s fruitless. It’s fruitless. How many of you are discouraged and a little scared? It’s going to get worse. Next section. OK, that’s dead faith.
How about this one? How about demonic faith? James 2:18–19, “But someone will say”—You know why? Because theologians and nerds, they always like to argue about what they’re not doing. “I’m not doing it because I read the Bible. It said not to do anything.” Using the Bible to excuse your disobedience to the Bible is not rightly using the Bible. “But someone will say,” hypothetically in their Community Group because they’re a nerd, and they love footnotes, and they don’t do anything. Hypothetically, “But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have works.’” “We believe in pluralism, tolerance, and diversity. That’s your path, this is mine, let’s not judge each other. We’re both right.” He says, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe that—and shudder!”
There are two groups having a little argument in the church. Two thousand years later, these groups still having an argument. We have the works people, and we have the faith people. And the works are works minus faith, and the faith is minus works. So, the works-minus-faith people are saying, basically, “You can earn your salvation. It’s not what Jesus does; it’s what you do. Be a good person. Try harder. Reincarnate. Pay off your karmic debt. Go to Mecca. Tithe 10 percent. Speak in tongues. Get baptized. Do something.”
This functions oftentimes formally in religion. And depending upon what religion you go to, they’re going to hand you another job description. Do these things, and then God will love you, and God will save you, and God will forgive you, and you can go off to Never Never Land. It’s going to be awesome for you forever. Just do these things on the list. Every, every, every single religion is about works except for Christianity. That’s why I get frustrated. People are like, “Oh, Christianity is just like other religions.” No, it’s not. Like, babysitting is not like terrorism. They’re different. They treat people differently. Religion and Christianity are different, and all religions are works. You work hard and save yourself. In Christianity, Jesus does all the work, you just trust him.
I was talking to Ravi Zacharias. I was interviewing him for a book project. If you’ve not read Ravi, read him, but if you can, listen to him. He’s Canadian, we still love him. And he’s East Indian with a British accent. The guy could read the phone book and make it sound amazing, OK?
He’s one of the foremost Christian experts on world religions. And I was interviewing Ravi, and here’s what he said: “Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, Judaism, Islam—all of them have one common assumption in one way or the other, whether they be pantheistic or theistic, that the means to your destination is good works at the keeping of a certain moral framework, or certain laws, or certain rules.” Every religion except for Christianity says there is a savior, and you meet them every morning in the mirror. This leads to pride—“I save myself”—or despair, “I failed and lost my salvation.” There’s great uncertainty and anxiety if salvation is accomplished by me.
These people are having this argument with the faith people. So, the works people are having an argument with the faith people. And the faith people are faith minus works. They’re saying, “You know what? We just need to calm down. There’s no need to get so serious like these devoutly religious people. We don’t need to pray. God’s sovereign; he already takes care of everything. We don’t need to give; God will provide. We don’t need to serve; that would be legalism and works, and we should sit down. We should just trust the Lord, and maybe argue theology, and publish some books, and wait for Jesus to come back. You don’t want to do anything. “You’re not religious, are you? You don’t want to do anything. You’re not legalistic, are you? Why are you trying? Don’t you trust Jesus? Why are you helping? Why are you praying? Why are you caring? Why are you serving? That’s not very godly. You look like the Pharisees. Remember those religious guys?”
The faith people are over here saying, “Don’t do anything like those religious people.” And the works people are over here saying, “You don’t need Jesus. Like a virgin had a baby who rose from the dead. How about something more practical like, you figure it out yourself and you fix it yourself?” And James says they’re both wrong. They’re both wrong.
There are versions of this in Christianity. There are whole churches and denominations that basically take one of these options: the faith option or the works option, and both are demonic. Now, there’s an informal third way that exists in our culture, and that is, “No, I’m not going to do nothing and I’m not going to do a lot of things. I’ll just assume that what I’m already doing is good enough.” These are people who are like, “If you died, do you know where you’re going?” “I’m going to heaven.” “Why?” “I believe in God. I’m a pretty good person.” Which means, “I’m not going to try any harder. I feel like he grades on a curve, and I think I’m OK. I’m one of those C students, but you know, he grades on a curve. Oh, I could do more, but I could do less. I’m a pretty good person.”
How many of you thought, or think, or know someone who thinks they’re a pretty good person. They believe in God. “I’m sure it’ll be fine when I die. If there’s a happy place, I’ll go there.” Most people are in that category.
What’s the answer? James says, “You are like a demon.” It’s not very encouraging, is it? That would not be a best-selling book title, You Are Like a Demon. “Oh, yay! “I didn’t know which book to buy, “‘Seven Steps to a Whole New You’ or ‘You’re Like a Demon.’ I don’t know, you know? I was in the self-help section.” He talks about demonic faith. “Demonic faith.” I’ll put it in quotes. It’s not saving faith. Demonic faith approaches God the way demons approach God. He says, “Oh, you believe in one God. Congratulations, you’re a monotheist.” Even the demons are monotheists. You can have an understanding of Jesus without an affection for Jesus.
You know what’s curious? I’ll give you a couple examples. As you read the Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—and they talk about the life of Jesus, there’s a lot of people that don’t know who Jesus is, like his family. They don’t know who he is. His disciples—he calls them dull. I’m sure it didn’t bother them. When you’re that dull, it just flies right by. Because they didn’t know who he was.
The religious people didn’t know who he was. The demons knew who he was. As you read the gospels, the demons know who Jesus is. I’ll give you some examples. Mark 1:34, “He,” Jesus, “would not permit the demons to speak because they knew him.” Luke 4:33–34, “There was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, ‘I know who you are—the Holy One of God.’” Luke 4:41, “Demons also came out of many, saying, ‘You are the Son of God!’ But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak because they knew that he was the Christ.”
There’s dead faith, friends. I had dead faith until I was 19 and met Jesus. I would have said, “Oh, I was baptized as a baby. I believe in God and I’m a good person, better than most. I’m sure I’m fine.” Dead faith. I didn’t know Jesus, I didn’t love Jesus, I didn’t enjoy the life of Jesus, I wasn’t growing in Christ-likeness. The life of Jesus was not flowing through my life.
Some of you have dead faith, and some of you have demonic faith. You know who Jesus is, but you don’t love him. You’re not responding to him. His life has not overtaken your life.
There’s three aspects of demonic faith, and again, I use these in quotes. Demonic faith has information but not transformation. OK, do demons become Christians, yes or no? No. Do demons know who Jesus is, yes or no? Yes. So, they know who Jesus is, and they go to hell. You can know who Jesus is and go to hell because you need more than just information. You need that information to result in your transformation.
Some of you could pass a test. “Jesus is the Son of God. You are the Holy One.” And you could score 100 percent along with the demon and be with them forever, because the test is not just fill-in-the-blank—it’s fill in the life. It’s not just what you know; it’s what that knowledge does to transform you. The idea is this: You can’t say, “I met Jesus and nothing changed.” You can’t. You can’t meet the Creator of the universe and not change.
Number two, demonic faith knows about Jesus but does not love Jesus. “You are the Holy One. You are the Son of God. We know who you are.” They don’t say, “And we love you. And we’re so glad to meet you. And we want to become more like you. And we want to follow you, and we want to listen to you, and we want to submit to you, and we want others to see you through us.” They don’t love him. Do you love Jesus? Do you love Jesus? Has he changed you? Is he changing you?
Thirdly, demonic faith is rebellious and not repentant. “You are the Holy One, the Son of God, and we’re not going to do what you say. We’re not going to submit to you, we’re not going to obey you, we’re not going to yield to you. We’re not going to bend our knee and bow our head in honor of you. No way.”
Some of you know who Jesus is and you disobey and you rebel. And if somebody confronts you, they’re like, “What you’re doing is wrong.” “Look, don’t talk to me. I know who Jesus is. He’s the Holy One, the Son of God.” You are like a demon. You’re like a demon.
These are two kinds of counterfeit faith. Dead faith, demonic faith. Dead faith does not produce fruitful living. Demonic faith is entirely, exclusively, continually theological and theoretical. It’s not practical; it’s not actual. The demons in the New Testament have a theology of Jesus that is better than a great multitude of Bible college and seminary professors. If the demons were to write a book on Jesus, it would be clearer than some of the junk at the Christian bookstore for sale right now, because when they talk about Jesus, they actually get it right.
Some of you live in a world of theoretical and theological, and you are using the Scriptures to explain away and defend your fruitless, faithless life.
There’s a third way. It’s dynamic faith. It’s not dead faith, it’s not demonic faith; it’s dynamic faith. James continues, chapter 2, verses 20–26. “Do you want to be shown, you foolish person?” How many of you think you’re pretty smart? You’re like, “I don’t know, he’s yelling. “I’m pretty smart. I don’t feel like you should yell at someone as smart as me. Oh yeah, there’s a dumb guy sitting next to me. All right, it’s OK. He needs to yell at that guy.” We think we’re pretty smart, don’t we? I’m pretty smart. I’m pretty smart.
He says, “No, you’re a foolish person.” Here he’s echoing the Wisdom Literature. A lot of the Bible’s about sin and holiness, but the Wisdom Literature’s about folly and wisdom. He says, “You know what? This is foolish, I want you to be wise.”
Some of you say, “I’m a Christian!” Maybe a foolish Christian. You can be a foolish Christian. “Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?” So, he’s going to do two case studies—Abraham, Rahab, a man and a woman. “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed.” I want you to pay careful attention to that word. We’re going to come back to it. Super important. “Completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says—”
And he goes back and quotes Genesis. Massive verse of the Bible. It echoes through the whole Bible. It’s a massive, massive concept and theme. And Abraham becomes for us this towering figure of faith. “‘Abraham believed God’”—there’s faith—“‘and it was counted to him as righteousness’—and he was “called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. In the same way”—second case study—“was not also Rahab the prostitute?”
If you’re here and you’ve done some things you’re ashamed of, the Bible talks about God loving people like you. This is the real problem with religion. The real problem with religion is, “Be a good person and save yourself.” You’re like, “I’ve been a bad person, what now?” Rahab was a prostitute. Do you know what it was like to be a prostitute thousands of years ago? No more socially acceptable than today. You think Rahab’s going to die, stand before the holy and righteous God of the universe, and God’s like, “All right, tell me what you did to earn your salvation?” “I was a good prostitute.” Uh, no. If God saves, that’s the most loving, and it’s the most hopeful, and it welcomes the worst sinner, like me.
“Was not Rahab the prostitute was justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” He says, “You know Rahab? She was a sinner. Everybody knew it. She wasn’t one of God’s people. And then God’s people showed up in town, and God’s people were in danger. They were gonna lose their life, so what Rahab did is she had a conversion, and she identified with God’s people, and she realized that her life was wrong, and she immediately started making some changes.” What he’s saying is as soon as Rahab converted, you could see it. Her life started changing. She wasn’t perfect, but she was different.
Friends, Christians aren’t perfect, but they’re different, and they’re on the path to perfection that ends with the resurrection, which is where they see their perfection.
What Rahab did is she endangered herself by helping God’s people escape. She identified with God’s people, she changed, and she served God’s people and God’s purposes. She didn’t just say, “I trust the Lord. Good luck getting out of town. Good luck!” She said, “I’m here to help. Because God loves me, I love you. Because God served me, I serve you. Because God was there for me, God is there for you. Because God got me out of the mess I was in, I want to help get you out of the mess you’re in. It’s God’s work for me and in me and through me to your benefit.”
He says, “What about Abraham?” And Abraham’s this great, towering figure of faith. Well, the story of Abraham is that he was to be a father, but he didn’t have a son. And so the promise was given that a son was coming, and the son would come through a miracle. A woman who couldn’t have a baby—she was barren and elderly—would give birth not just to a child, but to a son, a firstborn son, a beloved son, a son of a promise through whom would come a Savior named Jesus. And they waited a long time, and the promise was fulfilled, and the son was born, and he was loved.
As he grew to be a young man, God told Abraham, “I want you to take your son, your only son, your firstborn son, the son of the promise, the son that you waited for, the son that was born by a miracle, and I want you to offer him as a sacrifice to me.” A father would kill his son, all of this foreshadowing the forthcoming of Jesus. The Father would send his only begotten Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, we would wait a long time for him, and he would be born through a miracle to a woman who was a virgin and not otherwise able to conceive apart from the intervention of God. When born, he would be greatly loved, and he would be the Son of the promise from the line of Abraham. So, all of this points to Jesus.
What the Bible says in Genesis is that they went, and Abraham was going to sacrifice Isaac in obedience to the Lord, and that Isaac literally carried the wood on his own back, just like Jesus carried the cross to his place of crucifixion and execution. And in faith, Abraham was going to sacrifice his only son. And God intervened through the angel of the Lord, perhaps even Jesus, and said, “Don’t sacrifice your son. There’s an animal as a substitute. But on the Mountain of the Lord, it will be provided,” meaning there would be another day when the Father would send another Son who would carry different wood, and he instead would substitute himself for the salvation of sinners.
What James is saying, particularly to these Jewish Christians who are in the city of Jerusalem attending this large church, is, “What if Abraham would have said, ‘I have faith, but not works? I trust the Lord; I just don’t do anything.’” Faith is not just what we believe internally, it’s how we behave externally.
I’ll give you a simple analogy. With every one of my kids, this happened. Summer comes, I’m in the pool. They don’t know how to swim, they need to learn, they’re terrified of jumping in the pool. OK, some of you didn’t have that kid. They jumped in the pool, and you had to be their rescuer, OK? My kids are more scared to jump in the pool. So, I would be in the pool having this conversation with every one of my children at some point when they were very, very little. “Jump,” and they would say, “No,” OK? “Jump.” “I’ll die.” “No, no, no, you can trust me. I wouldn’t lie to you and I wouldn’t tell you something wrong. Trust me. Jump in the pool.” Invariably, because I raised five small attorneys, the negotiation would go something like this. I would ask, “Do you trust your dad?” They would say, “I trust you, Dad.” “Then jump.” “No.”
OK, so here we are, edge of the pool, all right? “I trust you, Dad.” “No you don’t.” “I trust you in here.” “OK, that’s a good start. Jump.” If they never jump, do they trust me? No, because trust in here results in action out there. Once they jump, they really have faith in their father. Until then, they have faith in their footing. What he’s saying here is, Rahab trusted the Lord in here and you could see it out there; that Abraham trusted the Lord in here and you could see it out there; that when the Father asked them to jump, they jumped, and he caught them, and he cared for them, and everything was OK. That’s dynamic faith.
Now, here’s what happens. How many of you are armchair theologians? You’ve been looking forward to this week. You’ve been reading ahead. You’re all loaded for Community Group. Whoo hoo hoo, ready to go, OK? And you know—you know, “Oh boy, this is a big text. This is a theological text. A lot of books have been written, a lot of debates had, a lot of nerds blogging, can’t wait.” And your question is this: “Does James contradict Paul?”
How many of you, OK, be honest, you know that this is a debate? The denominations have split over it, churches have split over it, books have been written over it, debates have been had regarding it. Here it is. We go through books of the Bible. It forces us to deal with things that sometimes we wouldn’t get into. Praise be to God, here it is. Here’s the question, do James and Paul contradict? How many of you have heard this from somebody? They’re like, “I don’t believe the Bible. The Bible has a lot of contradictions.” OK, here’s what you do. First thing, you’re like, “Such as?” And then usually, here’s what you get, “Uh, I don’t know.” I’ve asked this for 20 years. Every time somebody comes up, “It has a lot of contradictions.” Oh, big claim. Ooh, big claim. Where? Where? Give me one. “Uh, I don’t know.” OK, you are a contradiction, OK?
The first thing you’ve got to ask is, “Where’s the contradiction?” And then go study it and see if it’s a contradiction. The accusation is made that herein lies a contradiction. James 2:24, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” We just read that. That’s James. Here’s Paul. Romans 3:28, “One is justified by faith apart from”—without—“works of the law.” Which is it? Which is it?
Let me give you an important analogy. I hope it’s a helpful analogy. You’re in a doctor’s office. The doctor’s got two rooms where they meet with patients. And you’re, let’s say, out in the waiting room and it’s going to be your turn. And you hear the doctor walk into one room and say, “You need to start jogging. You need to get up and start running. You need to be active.” Doctor walks into the other room, “You need to sit down. You need to stop running. You shouldn’t be active.” Contradiction? No, different patients. All right, this guy’s really heavy, and this guy broke his leg. So, this guy needs to run, and this guy needs to sit down. It’s not a contradiction when you consider the patient. Then the diagnosis makes sense.
James is writing primarily to highly religious people who don’t do anything, been going to church for a while, yawn, fill in the blanks, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Paul’s writing primarily to Gentiles. He’s out dealing with all these non-Christians and newly converted Pagans, and they’re all terrified. “Am I going to hell? Am I going to hell? Am I going to hell? What do I got to do? How much money do I need to give? Do I need to reincarnate? Do I need to slaughter a bull? Do I need to get baptized? Do I need to speak in tongues? What do I need to do?” And Paul’s like, “Jesus did everything.” “Are you sure?” “Yeah, I’m very sure. Jesus did everything.” “Well, what about if I just try some other stuff just in case he didn’t cover—” “No, don’t do that.” “What if I get circumcised? Will that help?” “No, no, probably not. I don’t think that God dying on a cross, and you going to the rabbi—I don’t think that’s really going to help.” Different patients, different problems, different treatments. If you’re writing to religious people who know everything and do nothing, you’re like, “Do something.” You’re writing to people who are doing a lot but don’t know that Jesus has done everything, they need to trust in what he has done before they worry about what they do. Paul is primarily focused on how we become Christians, and James is primarily focused on what it means to live as a Christian, that once Jesus’ life invades your life, it changes your life. So, you’re not saved by your works, you’re saved to your works by Jesus, and it’s ultimately his works through you.
Here’s how we can reconcile Paul and James.
First of all, Paul and James are friends, and friends don’t need to be reconciled. All right, you can read the Bible for yourself, but in Galatians 1, Paul says, “Yeah, I took a long trip to go see James in Jerusalem.” You only travel a long way to go meet with somebody you get along with and you’re friends with. Galatians 2, Paul says, “When I became a Christian, I felt like I was supposed to be a pastor. I needed somebody to examine me, and approve me, and lay hands over me, and commission me, and ordain me,” so he says in Galatians 2, “So I went to Jerusalem to meet with James.”
James is like Paul’s pastor. These guys get along fine. Throughout Acts, Paul keeps making long journeys to go back to Jerusalem to meet with James. They’re friends; they get along fine. And Paul’s not afraid to have a conflict with somebody. He does with Peter. He says, “I put my finger in Peter’s chest because I told him he was a racist and he wasn’t acting in accordance with the gospel, and we had a good conflict.”
It never says that about Paul and James. They get along fine. They meet all the time, not to figure out their arguments, but so that Paul can report to James what God is doing, and also James could give some counsel and wisdom to Paul, because if you want to learn something, who better to meet with than Jesus’ brother who’s a pastor? So, we can’t just look at the words they say. We need to look at the relationship that they have.
Number two, James emphasizes horizontal faith; Paul, vertical faith. Paul’s is, “How do you get in right relationship with God?” And then James’ focus is, “And once you’re in right relationship with God, how does that affect community, relationships, loving people, serving people, and helping people.” Once you’re connected to God, God wants to connect you with people so you can love and serve them the way that he’s loved and served you, and that his love and service for you and in you would flow through you.
Number three, James emphasizes the end of salvation and Paul the beginning. So, Paul is saying, “You start your relationship solely by trusting in all that Jesus has done,” and James is saying, “And 40 years later, when you’re looking back on it, you see that your life changed. You can see it. I met Jesus and my desires changed, my mind changed, my life changed, the way I spent my money, the way I invested my time. Man, there was a lot of change there.”
If you come to me and you ask me, “Pastor Mark, how do I know if I’m a Christian?” I’m going to ask you two questions: “Do you know Jesus?” And the second question will be, “What has he done in your life?” And if you say, “I don’t know Jesus,” then you’re not a Christian.” If you say, “I do know Jesus.” OK, then look at your life. You say, “Well, I made a decision for Christ at a youth camp when I felt guilty 27 years ago.” What has he done in your life? “Nothing.” You didn’t meet him. You can’t meet Jesus and not change. You can’t meet Jesus and not change.
Number four, James emphasizes religious, lazy people, and Paul, lost people. Religious, lazy people are like, “Yeah, I was in a Bible study years ago. I think I got all my questions answered, put the book down, whatever. Yeah, I go twice a month. I try to park my chariot in the same place, but every once in a while, a visitor takes my spot, and I don’t know about that. And then I came in, and I don’t know, we had coffee, but the coffee was not that great. And I sat in the seat I usually sit in, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Mark yelled at me, but you know, the kids enjoyed it, so—and then we went home, and they passed the plate, and I thought that was funny. We’ll go again next year.” They’re just indifferent; they don’t care. Ritual has become for them routine.
Paul is talking to lost people. And sometimes, if you’ve been a Christian for a while, and you know that Jesus loves you, and your salvation is secure, and you’re not going to hell, and everything’s taken care of, you can forget what it’s like to live in the terror of, “You’re going to hell.” There’s some people that are terrified, like, “Am I going to hell?”
We had a gal like this in college. Every week at our college ministry, she would come forward crying, freaking out, shaking, asking to become a Christian, for months. You know, imagine, men, every day you come home from work and your wife is like, “Will you marry me?” You’re like, “We have been married 37 times.” “But I feel like we got unmarried today.” “No, look, we’re married, all right? We don’t need to put the dress on again. Like, we did that 37 times. We’re good.”
There are people who meet Jesus, and then they feel like, “I did something wrong this week. Now he hates me and I’m going to hell. I need to come back and get saved again, and get saved again, and get married again, and get married—” And Paul’s like, “No you don’t. Jesus is a groom who loves his bride. He’s not filing for divorce, and he’s not setting the house on fire. Take a deep breath, and move on with your relationship.”
Number five, James emphasizes works that complete faith; Paul emphasizes works that compete with faith. There’s a big difference. Works that compete with faith are religious routines, and traditions, and rituals, or just morality, or spirituality that compete with faith in the finished work of Jesus. There’s a difference between works that compete with faith and works that complete faith. I didn’t just marry Grace, I live with her. That completes our covenant. I read it to you, but it’s in James 2:22, speaking about Abraham. Hear it again. “You see that faith was active along with his works and faith was completed by his works.” So, they’re talking about different kinds of faith. Paul says, “There’s a bad kind and a different kind of works.” Paul is saying, “There’s a bad kind of works that competes with faith. We don’t believe in that.” And James is saying, “But there’s a good kind of works that completes faith. We really need that.”
I’ll show it to you. So, let’s just put the two texts up there where everybody freaks out. James 2:26, of course written by James, and then Ephesians 2:8–10, written by Paul. And almost all the Christians I’ve ever met quote Ephesians 2:8–9 skip verse 10. OK, so read it with me, James 2:26. OK, what word? What’s the first word? Big word. Say it a little better. What’s the first word? “Faith apart from works is dead.” What comes first? Faith, then works. You don’t work your way into faith. Your faith works itself out in your life.
OK, now what does Paul say? And this is one of the most dynamic summaries of Paul’s teaching. “For by grace.” You didn’t earn it, didn’t deserve it. Here’s the good news: that means you can’t lose it. God gives you something you don’t deserve, you can’t do something to disearn it. (I think I made up a word, but—) You can’t. If you didn’t deserve it and you have it, you can’t do anything to lose it because you didn’t earn it in the first place. It was a gift. “By grace you have been saved.” Past, present, future. Conquered Satan, sin, death, hell, the wrath of God. It’s all taken care of. Take a deep breath. Yay, Jesus! Thanks a lot.
“For by grace you’ve been saved, through”—big word. What’s the big word? “Faith.” Trusting in Jesus. “And this is not your own doing.” It’s not your works. “It is the gift of God—” Jesus’ works, “not a result of works,” your bad religious works that compete with faith, “so that no one may boast.” “I’m a good person. I save myself. I reincarnated. I used to be a cow. “I got baptized. I went to Mecca. Blah, blah, blah. I speak in tongues. I’ll give you more money. I’m a holy man.” No. No one may boast. You didn’t do anything to save yourself. Jesus saved you, and you trust him. You say, “Is that it? Is that it? Ephesians 2:8–9. Jesus did it all. I’m saved. There’s nothing that he asks of me. Yay, I just sit down, and read books, and wait for the Rapture. Whoo!” Is that it?
Another verse. “For we are his workmanship.” Point number one, Jesus’ work for you on the cross through the empty tomb. Workmanship. Jesus is working on you, changing your desires, changing your nature, changing your proclivities, changing your budget, changing your mouth, changing your lifestyle, changing your orientation. “Created in Christ Jesus for good—” Not bad works that compete with faith, good works that complete faith. Not works that you’re trying to make yourself a Christian, but works that show that you belong to Christ. It’s Jesus’ work for you. It’s Jesus’ work in you. It’s Jesus’ work through you. It’s all Jesus’ work.
Somebody comes along and says, “Boy, you’ve really changed.” “Well, I still got a lot of work to do, but thankfully Jesus is working on me.” “Hey, you really were loving. You were gracious. “You were kind. You were generous. You responded differently.” “Yep, Jesus is working on me, and he’s working through me. “And I’m not changing because I have to but because I want to. “I’m not changing so that he’ll love me but because his love is changing me.”
Do you see the difference? You’re saved by grace through faith in Christ alone to good works that God has prepared in advance for you to do. And we don’t do those works—giving, loving, praying, serving, growing, helping, trying, caring—out of legalism, “You need to do this!” but out of love, “Jesus has done that for me. Jesus is doing that in me. Jesus wants to do that through me. He loves me, I love him. That’s what I want to do. I want to be like him.” That results in great joy, the greatest joy of all.
Let me summarize it for you. Internal devotion to God, which is faith, produces external devotion to God, which is works, because a good tree bears good fruit.
Non-Christian, religious person, moral person, you’re not a good person—you’re a sinful person. There’s nothing you can do to fix yourself and please God. You need to stop whatever you are doing and start trusting in what Jesus has done. Christian, God has prepared good works for you to do. There are people for you to love. There are people for you to talk to about Jesus. There are things for you to learn. There are ways for you to grow. There are desires that need to be changed. There are mindsets that have yet to be altered. There is generosity for you to share. There’s a kingdom for you to serve. There is a mission for you to be a part of. And Jesus invites you to join him in this wonderful, glorious, good works of the gospel, moving through the nations of the earth, starting in the lives of his people.
Mars Hill, we’ve got so much work to do. We’ve got churches to plant, buildings to buy, people to disciple, hurting people to help, poor people to feed, church planters to fund. We’ve got new services to kick off. We need Community Group leaders, Redemption Group leaders, elders, and deacons.
Don’t sit back in your seat and be like, “Oh, it sounds like he’s preaching works.” No, he’s preaching love—love for Jesus, love for his people, and love for the world compels us to action. It’s the same love that got Jesus off his throne, got Jesus into history, and got Jesus caring, and loving, and seeking, and saving, and serving. And it’s not us, it’s Christ in us, the hope of glory. It’s Christ in us, the hope of glory.
Don’t have two categories, Jesus and me. No way! It’s Jesus through me. Jesus through me. All glory to him, all joy to me, amen? Now you know why you’re here. Now you know why you were born. Now you know why you have the experiences you do, and the gifts that you do, and the opportunities that God has set before you, because he has good works prepared in advance for you to do.
Here’s the good news: he doesn’t need you, but he loves you just like a good dad allows the children he loves to participate with him in the things that he does. Our loving father loves to have his kids go to work with him. We get to see what he’s like, and what he’s doing, and where he’s working, and what he’s building, and who he’s changing. And we learn more about our Father, and we get to see the family grow, and we get to share in his joy, and we become more like him as we work alongside him. And he doesn’t force us to work with him because he’s using us. In fact, we make his work much harder. But he invites us to walk alongside him and to work with him because he loves us, and he wants us to love what he loves, see who he is, and does what he does. Amen?
At this point, we’re going to give you something to do. We’re going to collect our tithes and offerings as we give generously to the God who gave generously to us. We give because we’ve received. We’re going to partake of Communion, remembering the broken body, shed blood of Jesus, that Jesus’ finished work is the basis of my salvation.
As we partake of the elements, we’re to remember his broken body and shed blood. And as we take it into us, we remember that it’s the life of Jesus that comes into us, so his work for us becomes a work in us. And then as we leave here, it’s that his work would continue through us. And lastly, we’re going to give you an opportunity to help some people in need because that’s what Christians want to do, amen?
Pastor Sutton: Howdy, Mars Hill Church and our extended family of Mars Hill Global. Pastor Sutton Turner here in Awasa, Ethiopia. I want to introduce you to Zodu. He was sponsored as a child at the age of 9.
Zodu Takeye: I’m Zodu Takeye, and I have grown in Addis Ababa. In Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. And by the age I came to 9, I was a shoeshine boy in the streets of Addis. I was a shoeshine boy, and this local governmental offices came to our village and told our father, “If you have a kid with an age of less than 10 or 9, he can register in this project and can attend the school.” My father rushed to the church with me, and the churches accepted me.
Pastor Sutton: Now, was your father a Christian or were you a Christian at this time?
Zodu Takeye: No, no. The church taught us from the Bible, through Sunday School. And after learning more from the Bible, I have accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Savior.
Pastor Suttonn: Wow, praise God. So, tell us all the things that have happened to you since that point in time, what you’re doing now.
Zodu Takeye: Now I’m an employee in Compassion International Ethiopia as a partnership facilitator.
Pastor Sutton: How much has your life changed?
Zodu Takeye: Words can’t express. Just think of me 9 years old, receiving that much responsibility, with that shoeshining box. It’s heavy, it has different materials, and on the street. And after spending the whole day, I may or may not get even a small amount of money. And currently, thanks to God, above all I know Christ, which is the bread for my life. And besides that, today I am serving in Compassion Ethiopia, and for my subsistence, I earned good. And there weren’t—words can’t express the difference while I was a shoeshine boy and now.
Pastor Sutton: If you could talk to someone through the camera that was considering sponsoring a child, what would you tell them?
Zodu Takeye: These children are images of God. They are the image of God, and so by praying for these individuals, by telling they are loved, by sharing what they had, it’s a blessing for the individuals who you can sponsor. And I will say for them, it’s a blessing to sponsor a child.
Pastor Sutton: Thank you. And I praise God that what Jesus has done in your life and he’s only just begun, because you’re a very young man. So, thank you.
Note: This sermon transcript has been edited for readability.