Book of James: “Faith and Works”

Sermon Series on the Book of James: “Faith and Works”
A Message on James 2:14-26

For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
August 20, 2017
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

James 2:14-26 (NRSV)

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So.

18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. 20 Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? 21 Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. 23 Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.

 

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Today we continue our sermon series on the epistle of James by looking at one of its more controversial parts, the section that deals with faith and works.

 

James, written by the brother of Jesus if you recall, believes that if one is a follower of Jesus Christ, then that person will perform works that are evidence of their faith. He sums it up well: “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

 

So, what’s the big deal about that?

 

Well, some people think that what James is saying implies what is called “works righteousness.” This is the thought that doing works, doing good things for others, gains points with God, and that when  you get enough points then you get to go to heaven.

 

How many of you remember S&H Green Stamps? It was an early forerunner of today’s “Plenti” program or credit card points or miles that can be redeemed for things.

 

The way it worked was that when you made purchases at stores that participated, they gave you these little green stamps. You collected those stamps, pasted them into little books, and then when to a S&H Green Stamps store or ordered from their catalog and used those stamps to pay for your purchase. Their catalogs and stores priced items by how many “books” they cost, and each book contained 1,200 “points.” There were even different denominations of stamps, worth one, ten, or 50 points.

 

I can remember when I was about 10 my mom bought me a sleeping bag with S&H Green Stamps. Man, I was so proud of that sleeping bag!

 

There are some folks who believe that salvation is like a loyalty program, a spiritual equivalent of S&H Green Stamps. If you did good and followed the 10 commandments, if you went to church and prayed before meals, and didn’t talk back to your parents, and washed behind your ears, then God would keep a record and if your get enough “points” then you could redeem them for a trip to heaven.

 

I thought that was as a kid. I had this image of God as a bookkeeper of my life and when I did something good I got a mark in my “good” column, and when I did something bad I got a mark in my “bad” column, and then whenever I died the column that had the most points determined whether I went to heaven or “h-e-double hockey sticks.” (I got in trouble if I said “Hell.”)\

 

As I got older and my faith started maturing spiritually my perception of God changed away from such a “works-righteousness” process to one based on faith and grace. We are saved by God’s grace, freely offered to us which we accept by faith.

 

Our works do not save us, our faith does. We cannot work our way to heaven.

 

James emphasizing works so much really raised the dander of the protestant reformer Martin Luther back in Germany in the early to mid 1500s.

 

Luther called James “an epistle of straw” and expressed his dislike for it by saying “…for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.”

 

Now he does have a point. Even though James is Jesus’ brother, Jesus is mentioned only twice in the whole letter. It has nothing about Jesus being crucified on the cross, about his resurrection from the dead, his ascension to heaven, or anything like what we find in the gospels.

 

But the main reason Luther didn’t like it was because he believed that one is saved by faith alone, and that James’ emphasis on works implied a works righteousness that conflicted with the teachings of the Apostle Paul.

 

Here are a couple of scriptures from Paul that talk about faith alone:

 

“…yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.” (Galatians 2:16)

 

Here’s another:

“But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” (Romans 3:21-22)

 

And yet another:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—  not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:8-10)

 

Now if you read those you can see where Luther might see how James could conflict with Paul’s writings.

 

Here’s how I resolve it.

 

I believe that it is by faith we are saved. Salvation is offered to us by God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is offered free of charge, the very definition of grace, and all we have to do is accept that gift through faith. We believe Jesus is the Christ, that he died for our sins, and accept him as our savior.

 

That being said, the result of our salvation should be works. If we comprehend even just a small part of how great a gift God’s grace is then our hearts will burst at the seams with a way to respond. To not have works after experiencing God’s grace is, well, it just ain’t right.

 

We should be kind of be like Snoopy in the Peanuts cartoon in that we will want to do the “Happy Dance” to express our joy, and in that joy perform works.

 

The group MercyMe has a song on their new album (or whatever you call them now) that is actually named “Happy Dance.” It’s a catchy tune with some great rhythms. The bridge of the song is:

 

We’ve got reason to get up
Reason to get down
He done traded our sin for joy
And now, that joy wants out
Happy dance

 

Our joy does want out. And I think the best way to express those is with our works, the things we do as an expression of our love for God and love for others.

 

As one author puts it, “Works are not the cause of salvation, but rather works are the evidence of salvation.” [Source: https://bible.org/seriespage/lesson-15-salvation-and-good-works-ephesians-210]

 

Now a note of caution: our attitude about these works is very important. We live in a quid pro quo type of world where we are willing to scratch someone’s back only if they in turn will scratch ours. We give only to expect something in return.

 

That’s worldly thinking, and that’s a sin. We should have good works with no expectation of getting anything in return. We should give them as a gift, freely and with no strings attached, the way God has given grace to us..

 

So what exactly are “good works?” Here’s a good definition: “loving acts of service to others.” It’s not just feeling love for others, but actually doing something. [Source: https://cccb.edu/blog/tag/good-works/]

 

Another article I read said that good works are things we do “…not to please ourselves, but to please Christ.”  [Source: http://www.teachingtheword.org/apps/articles/default.asp?blogid=6432&articleid=71821]

I like to think of it as using love as a verb and not as a noun. Verbs are action words, and our good deeds are actions as well. If we say we love God and love others, but our actions don’t back that up, then we’re talking the talk without walking the walk.

 

So my challenge for you this week is to “do something.” Consciously engage in good works as a response to God’s love for you.

 

Help out a neighbor by mowing their lawn.

 

Bring a smile to someone’s day by baking them a cake or cupcakes or cookies.

 

Volunteer to work in our mini-Methodist program which will be starting soon.

 

Call the elementary schools and spend some time each week with a child to help them learn how to read, or do basic math, or just have lunch with them to let them know that someone cares about them.

 

Help Juliana Travis out with her fundraiser for The Water Project by helping deliver whales to people’s yards.

 

Volunteer to help with our food pantry.

 

If your health limits your physical activity, find other ways to do something. Write notes of thank you and encouragement to people going through a difficult time. Call some shut ins (even those who aren’t church members here) and visit with them.

 

There are many, many good works to do. Prayerfully ask God to help you discern how and where to serve but be ready for the results, because they will probably move you out of your comfort zone. That’s okay. Step out on faith. Don’t be an angel of apathy. Do something.

 

I want to end today with a music video by Matthew West that emphasizes James’ words that faith without works is dead. It’s a song called, “Do Something.”

 

I woke up this morning
Saw a world full of trouble now, thought
How’d we ever get so far down, and
How’s it ever gonna turn around
So I turned my eyes to Heaven
I thought, “God, why don’t You do something?”
Well, I just couldn’t bear the thought of
People living in poverty
Children sold into slavery
The thought disgusted me
So, I shook my fist at Heaven
Said, “God, why don’t You do something?”
He said, “I did, yeah, I created you”

If not us, then who
If not me and you
Right now, it’s time for us to do something, yeah
If not now, then when
Will we see an end
To all this pain
Oh, it’s not enough to do nothing
It’s time for us to do something

I’m so tired of talking about
How we are God’s hands and feet
But it’s easier to say than to be
Live like angels of apathy who tell ourselves
It’s alright, “somebody else will do something”
Well, I don’t know about you
But I’m sick and tired of life with no desire
I don’t want a flame, I want a fire and
I wanna be the one who stands up and says
“I’m gonna do something”

If not us, then who
If not me and you
Right now, it’s time for us to do something, yes it is, come on
If not now, then when
Will we see an end
To all this pain
Oh oh, it’s not enough to do nothing
It’s time for us to do something

We are the salt of the earth
We are a city on a hill
We’re never gonna change the world
By standing still
No, we won’t stand still
No, we won’t stand still
No, we won’t stand still
No

 

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

 

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