Work That’s Smarter and Maybe Harder

Cancellation after cancellation. Yes, we find ourselves in a most unexpected time with the effects of the coronavirus. But if there’s one effect of cancellation after cancellation, it is time. With no March Madness to watch, we have perhaps some unexpected time, maybe more time than usual to consider. And the back end of James 2 has much for us to consider. 

When you think of the book of James, I’m guessing one verse might come to mind. Look at James 2:17. Yes, James tells us that faith without works is dead. So faith acts; it is alive. James 2 also shows us that faith sacrifices (think Abraham) and yes, faith risks (think Rahab, not your friend who still decided to go to Europe last week in the middle of the coronavirus craziness). 

Before reading any further, take a minute and read James 2:14-26. Faith in our hearts is manifested by the fruit in our lives. But what does active faith look like? How does our faith both make sacrifices and take risks? Before I jump in and give a few thoughts, I just want to give a disclaimer. These verses are packed with truth as you probably know. And you might think these verses are confusing or seem to contradict other passages. The possibilities for misunderstanding these verses in James 2 are many. That said, I want to help us see clearly and accurately what Scripture is saying here as well as how these verses in James fit within the entire metanarrative of Scripture. These verses should both significantly challenge and change our lives, but I don’t want them to confuse us. So where there’s confusion, pause and ask the Spirit to help us read the Word as the Word reads us.

Imagine seeing someone laying down, seemingly unconscious, on the sidewalk as you walk out to grab the newspaper in the morning. Are you going to walk up to them and ask them where they are from or when their birthday is? No! You’re going to make sure they are alive. So too is James as he exhorts us to have a faith that is alive and active. And yes, James too converses with an imaginary person in this passage, a person who claims to have faith but has no works. But don’t miss this. James isn’t addressing someone with an immature faith with that of a mature faith. James is saying in verse 14, you have an active, saving faith or you have dead faith, a faith that doesn’t even really exist. The answer to the question that James asks in James 2:14, “Can that faith save him?” is absolutely not! Saving faith overflows as an active faith. Saving faith bears fruit.

Now consider verses 15-17. Yes, these verses might sting a bit. Do they sound like the words of Jesus himself? Read Matthew 25:35-46. Yes, as we minister and serve the poor and needy, Jesus reminds us it is as if we are caring for Christ himself for that person bears the image of God. James is hinting here at the same truth. While acts of mercy are not the source of our salvation, acts of mercy do show our salvation. Friends, if we fail to help the needy, we must consider our great need before our Redeemer and how that need has been met in the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is this posture as recipients of mercy that we do extend mercy.

James continues to build this argument for an active faith in James 2:18-20. Yes, he continues to use an imaginary person, not that we would ever know anyone like he is describing (hear my sarcasm). Look at verse 19. James makes it crystal clear for us here that faith is not simply intellectually ascribing to something, like the demons do. Nor is it simply an emotional response of the heart based on the overplayed worship song of the year. But rather, faith reveals itself through obedience, through action. And for that, keep reading in James 2:20-24. Thank you, James for all of the rhetorical questions in these verses. And for not beating around the bush in verse 20. We get it – dead faith doesn’t save and doesn’t act, and living faith does save and does act.

Now, let’s address the elephant in the room. Read James 2:21-24. How can James say in verse 21 that Abraham was justified by his works? We must recognize that there’s both a positional righteousness we have before God (salvation) and a practical righteousness we have before God (sanctification/our daily lives of growth as Christians). When James refers to the “works” three times in verses 21-22, he is referring to the works as fruit of an active, saving faith. These are not “works” that earn salvation but rather reflect salvation. In the sense of Abraham’s faith that “…was completed by his works” (James 2:22), his faith is matured by his obedience. And so too with us right? The more we obey God and walk in actions of obedience, the more our faith grows. The growing fruit reflects the growing faith. The sacrifice of Abraham serves as an example of sacrifice for us. Now God of course, isn’t calling you to offer up your son on the altar, but what might God be asking you to sacrifice? Security of your job? Finances? Time? Other comforts? 

And in light of considering an active faith that does works and makes sacrifices, James closes the chapter with a punch. Yes, good ‘ole Rahab. Take a look at verses 25-26. Was she not radical as James describes her as a “prostitute justified by works” (James 2:26)? And yet, as she had received abundant grace, she took great risks “…when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way” (James 2:25). Rahab knew judgement awaited her, and yet she feared God and thus obeyed, taking a risk by allowing the Jewish spies to stay in her home. Rahab risked much so that God’s people might take Jericho and thus spread God’s glory. 

And so, how do we respond to these words and these examples? James has shown us that faith does works, faith makes sacrifices, and faith takes risks. Where do you need to examine where your faith is lacking in fruit? Where is God calling you to be obedient in good works, generous sacrifices, and significant risks? I’m not talking about coronavirus risks and works, but maybe. May all of us grow as people whose faith bears much fruit for the good of the church and glory of God. Now, go wash your hands, stay away from the coronavirus, and get to work.


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