James 2:14-26 – Part One

We’re currently studying the letter of James, which is all about the temptation to be double-minded: trying to be friends with God and friends with the world. Over the next three days we’re focusing on James 2:14-26.

Words and actions

The greatest lie of the twenty-first century has nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction, the carbon tax, or gifted bottles of 1959 vintage Grange. It’s never been the subject of an ICAC inquiry, and the media is happy to for it to be perpetuated day after day, without comment.

The defining untruth of our generation is not some grand political cover-up, but is far more subtle; far more common. It’s that seemingly innocuous 6-word phrase we hear so often: ‘your call is important to us’.

No it’s not! If my call were in any way important to you, you’d have answered it by now! Instead of making me spend 5 minutes trying to figure out which of the 6 billion menu options I want, before putting me on hold for half an hour listening to music that wasn’t popular even back when it was popular. Then giving me false hope every 60 seconds by stopping the music – only to hear another recorded voice say ‘thanks for waiting; your call is important to us.’ No it’s not! If my call were important, you’d have done something about it.

Another closely-related lie is the 3-word introduction to the letter I recently received from my bank: ‘Dear valued customer…’ No I’m not! If you really valued me as a customer, you’d have waived that $45 fee for an overdrawn account that wasn’t my fault, but caused by the EFTPOS machines not working at the supermarket. You don’t value me at all.

On the bank’s website, it says ‘we are committed to making our customers happy.’ No you’re not! You’re only committed to making your customers happy enough that we’ll let you continue to take as many dollars in fees as you can; but not so unhappy that we’re prepared to spend a month of our life changing all our automatic credits & debits so that we can switch banks. It’s a fine line to walk, but at least in my case they seem to be doing it brilliantly. But don’t expect me to believe I’m a valued customer!

We get annoyed when people don’t practise what they preach. Or when people say things but don’t really mean them. Take politicians, for example. Through our unreal expectations we set them up to make promises they can’t deliver. We’ve even come to expect them not to follow through on what they say. But when a politician is exposed as actually breaking a promise – we act all shocked & outraged. How could they do this to us? How dare they not follow through on what they said!

It’s common to us all: that sense of moral outrage and righteous anger that burns within us whenever someone’s actions don’t back up what they say. It infuriates us!

Is that how God feels about you? 

Faith without works (14-19)

That’s the question that today’s Bible reading hits us with.

2:14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?

What good is talk, or belief, if it isn’t backed up by action? If I say that I believe in God, that I follow Jesus, but my lifestyle & behaviour doesn’t verify that claim – am I kidding myself that I’m right with God?

Just as I’ve given some examples from our world of people who do this, James then gives us an example from his. An example which shows how pointless words and good intentions are, if not backed up by actions:

2:15-17  Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

James has those people in his sights who claim to have faith, without any external evidence. ‘I believe in God’. No you don’t! If you really believed in God, you’d live like it. There’d be changes; there’d be the fruit of the Spirit. There’d be something.

There are people who claim to be Christians, who are just like those automated on-hold messages: ‘My God is important to me. He has been placed in a queue, and he’ll be worshipped in the next available timeslot. Thankyou for your patience.’

No, says James, faith – that is, trust in God and loyalty to God – must be expressed in actions in order for it to be worth anything. In order for it to save us. Not to earn God’s favour, but to demonstrate that we have truly renounced our friendship with the world and instead become friends with God. Faith expresses itself in actions; you can’t separate the two.

James explains this by answering imaginary objections to his argument (in a rhetorical form known as diatribe):

2:18a But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” 

Surely faith and actions can be separated? One person might have faith, another might do good works; either is acceptable. But no, says James, they are inseparable, and challenges his opponent:

2:18b  Show me your faith without deeds

But you can’t, can you?

2:18c  and I will show you my faith by my deeds.

I’ll make my faith evident through my actions and behaviour. Belief by itself is meaningless, worthless.

James continues his imaginary dialogue by referring to the fundamental statement of Jewish faith, taken from Deuteronomy 6:

Deut 6:4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.

James uses this as an example of faith; he imagines an opponent who believes this:

2:19  You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

Good for you, says James. Even the demons believe that – and they shudder at the thought. Their belief impacts their behaviour. But does yours? 

To think about

Is your faith – your trust in God, your profession of loyalty to him – is that evident in your life? Or is it all talk? Are you bearing the fruit of the Spirit? Or are you living the way you’ve always lived? Are you a friend of God, or a double-minded friend of the world? Do you have faith without actions, or by your actions do you show your faith?

More tomorrow…

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