How to be a God-Pleasing Show-Off (James 2:14–26)

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In need of evidence

If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound? This famous philosophical thought experiment raises questions regarding perception and observation. More specifically, if something cannot be witnessed, is it real?

As Christians, we face a similar thought experiment: Is salvation real even though we can’t see it happen? 

We know, because of God’s Word, that when we placed our faith in God’s Son we were declared righteous by God. In a single moment, the Judge of the universe, against whom I rebelled, pounded his gavel upon his divine desk and declared me “not guilty.”

But if God’s gavel falls in the heavens, and no one is around to hear it, does it really make a sound? Did it happen? How can I show you that I’m saved?

A former pastor of mine once wrote: “Faith is like calories: You can’t see them, but you can always see their results.”

We can’t see saving faith it, but we should be able to see its results.

In the second half of James 2, the author presents his readers with three types of faith—dead faith, demonic faith, and discernible faith. The first two are undesirable as they fail to do what only the third accomplishes, that is, make visible our otherwise invisible faith thereby confirming with our lives the confession we make with our mouths.

Dead faith

Let’s begin with the dead faith in verse 14. Like a car with a dead engine is useless, so also a Christian with a dead faith. They are unproductive, fruitless, and unable to accomplish what they’re supposed to be accomplishing. 

James begins with two rhetorical questions that assume negative responses:

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him (2:14)?

For people who claim to have faith but whose lives remain unaffected by that faith, they are either unusable or unconverted. 

James illustrates his point next:

If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that (vv. 15–16)?

The answer: It’s absolutely no good! Well-wishes keep nobody warm. Platitudes fill nobody’s stomach!

Thus, James concludes:

Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself (v. 17).

A claimed yet invisible faith is useless. It’s a dead engine in the vehicle of the Christian life, making the individual a useless testimony for God and unproductive in the work he has prepared for them to do. It’s no good; it’s dead.

This was me for years. I was young when I trusted Christ, but there was a season in my adult life where that faith became largely invisible and useless. I remember during that time unbelieving friends actually asking me about my faith—talk about an evangelistic opportunity!—and I was reluctant to even talk about it. They had the greatest need of all and I was too self-absorbed to take it seriously. 

That’s the autobiography of a Christian with a dead faith! Useless, unproductive, insensitive, and, unseen. 

Demonic faith

As much as we want to, with God’s help, avoid a dead faith, so too we want to avoid what James talks about next: A Demonic faith.

But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works” (v. 18a).

James is anticipating an objection here, a foil who is attempting to minimize the difference between the two concepts. “You do your works, I’ll do my faith. It’s all good.” 

Essentially, the objector is asking others to take their word for it: “I love Jesus. I’m saved! Trust me. I don’t need to show you anything to confirm. Take my word for it!”

James responds (v. 18b): “Show me your faith without deeds [that’s impossible; you can’t see something invisible] and I will show you my faith by what I do [by my works, my changed life].”

Notice both men have faith; they’re both believers, but they’re arguing over how you can tell, how invisible faith can be confirmed; how it is evidenced to the world around them. 

You believe that aGod is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder (v. 19).

Again, the objector is saying that their claim to believe should be enough evidence. James, in an extreme example, points out that demons could hypothetically make a similar claim, even though we know they aren’t saved. So, the claim doesn’t prove anything!

The point here isn’t to dissect the faith of demons, but, instead, to recognize the folly of thinking that, for a Christian, a collection of theological information is sufficient to show-off your faith to the world.

Mere profession of biblical truth does not adequately demonstrate salvation anymore than knowing lots about my wife proves I love her. I could just be a creepy stalker collecting facts as I watch! It’s my actions, flooding out of my otherwise invisible commitment to her, that makes my love visible, noticeable, and confirmable. 

A demonic faith is all confession of truth without subsequent action. It’s informed but invisible.

Obviously, we want to avoid a demonic faith as much as we want to avoid a dead faith. So, what should faith look like?

Discernible faith

That’s where James goes last as he gives two biblical examples of a discernible faith.

But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless (v. 20)?

You want proof that faith is made visible through the works it produces? The first example James gives is that of Abraham, the revered patriarch:

Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar (v. 21)?

James is referencing the testing of Abraham recorded in Genesis 22, when God told him to sacrifice his son. By his obedience, James tell us, Abraham was declared righteous.

However, twenty years prior, in Genesis 15, after God had made promises to Abraham, he said “Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (15:6).

So, Abraham was declared righteous by God in chapter 15 because he believed God. Then, in chapter 22, he’s declared righteous again because he obeyed God. This is a perfect illustration of what James is teaching. Abraham was justified, saved, the same way we are: By belief. In Genesis 15 he trusted God, and he was totally, albeit invisibly, justified. 

However, when he obeyed God, like he did in Genesis 22, he was justified before humanity. His invisible faith was made visible. What was unseen was vindicated and confirmed in his work.

You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected (Jas. 2:22).

You’ve probably experienced in your Christian life what Abraham experienced here—a maturing, growing, perfecting, sharpening faith through obedience to God. You step out in faith, God comes through, and your faith is strengthened, completed, matured.

… and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God (v. 23).

What God had declared of Abraham invisibly, that he was righteous, was now clearly seen because of his actions. And, because of the discernibility of his faith, because he didn’t have a dead faith nor a demonic faith, Abraham was called God’s friend. 

You want to know how to be God’s friend? Obedience!

You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone (v. 24).

This verse is often taken out of context to support a works-based salvation. But the context doesn’t allow that. James is talking about justifying, vindicating, and showcasing our otherwise invisible saving faith before the courtroom of humanity. Anyone can claim to have faith. That claim alone, while perhaps truthful, is unconvincing! We have to see the faith in action to be persuaded and Abraham, the revered patriarch, is a perfect example.

The second example James provides is that of Rahab, the redeemed prostitute. 

In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way (v. 25)?

In the same way that Abraham, justified before God because of faith, was also justified before humanity because of works, so too Rahab.

Think back to Joshua 2. God’s people are in the process of taking over the promised land and the fortified city of Jericho was in their way. 

Then Joshua the son of Nun sent two men as spies secretly from Shittim, saying, “Go, view the land, especially Jericho.” So they went and came into the house of a harlot whose name was Rahab, and lodged there.

It was told the king of Jericho, saying, “Behold, men from the sons of Israel have come here tonight to search out the land.” And the king of Jericho sent word to Rahab, saying, “Bring out the men who have come to you, who have entered your house, for they have come to search out all the land.” But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them, and she said, “Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they were from.

“It came about when it was time to shut the gate at dark, that the men went out; I do not know where the men went. Pursue them quickly, for you will overtake them.” But she had brought them up to the roof and hidden them in the stalks of flax which she had laid in order on the roof. So the men pursued them on the road to the Jordan to the fords; and as soon as those who were pursuing them had gone out, they shut the gate (Josh. 2:1–7).

These were Rahab’s actions that James is saying justified her before humanity; her works that evidenced her preexisting but otherwise invisible faith. But, when did she become a follower of God. Well, we find out if we keep reading:

Now before they lay down, she came up to them on the roof, and said to the men, “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that the terror of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land have melted away before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. When we heard it, our hearts melted and no courage remained in any man any longer because of you; for the Lord your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath (vv. 8–11).

Word of what God was doing in and for his people had spread. Rahab had heard and believed. She believed that the “Lord their God was God” and was saved. But that invisible justification before God, as real as it was for Rahab, was made visible when she helped God’s people.

Notice the massive spectrum James is covering in the examples he chose. This is a literary strategy that serves as all-inclusive bookends. From A to Z! From Abraham to Rahab and everyone in between.

In the final verse of James 2, the author states his case clearly and summarily:

For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead (v. 26).

Faith and works are inseparable. The former is incomplete without the latter.

If God’s gavel falls in the heavens, and no one is around to hear it, does it really make a sound? Did it happen? If so, how can we tell? James gives us an answer: Our saving faith in God is discernible through the works it inspires. Anything less is dead or demonic; useless and invisible. 

What do we do if, after reading this text we start to think our faith may be more dead or demonic than it is discernible? Maybe, after looking into the mirror of God’s Word today you’re becoming convicted that, perhaps your invisible faith isn’t as visible as you may have thought when you woke up. 

What do we do, if that’s the case? If we sense we may be trending in that direction? Let me point us to a different passage for guidance.

I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God. So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent (Rev. 3:1b–3a).

What are we to do if we think our faith is too invisible and useless? According to Jesus in Revelation 3 there are four things we can do.

First, strengthen what remains. Is there anything in your life that is mature? That could be considered godly action and Christ-glorifying work? Strengthen it. Don’t try and build something new.

If you’re faith is dead or demonic, perhaps don’t remedy that by starting an online apologetics ministry! No, lean into what is already happening. You may want to ask a trusted Christian friend to help you identify what that is and advise you on how to strengthen it.

Second, remember the gospel. I’m convinced, faith can only become apathetic and cold and dead when a believer first loses their fascination with the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is too awesome, beautiful, humbling, and empowering otherwise. If you feel your faith is cold, remember the gospel. Write it out over and over striving to make it as simple and biblical as possible.

Read a book about the gospel. Read John. Read Romans. Become fascinated by it again. Share it! Remember the gospel.

Third, obey. You want to draw nearer to God as a friend? Take Abe’s example: Obedience. 

Fourth, repent. Once you’ve strengthened what remains, remembered the gospel, and began to walk in obedience, turn from sin in your life, confess it to God. Ask him to make your faith visible to the world around you; productive and useful. It’s how we become God-honouring show-offs.

And if you’re reading this and you’re in a sweet time of your relationship with the Lord—you honestly feel like your walk matches your talk and you’re showing off God’s love clearly for the world around you, then my encouragement to you is twofold: First, praise God! Thank him for that.

Second, don’t be selfish! Be around other believers who need to see that and can benefit from that discernible faith.

Our obedience, our actions as Christians, are the ways in which we show-off to the world around us the faith that they cannot otherwise see. My works vindicate, authenticate, and substantiate my salvation before a watching world.

And so, James calls us as his people to start showing-off, to keep showing-off, and to never stop showing-off. Let’s get to work! Not because those works save us, they don’t—only faith in Jesus Christ saves us—but because they demonstrate that salvation.