There are a number of theological issues that separate Christians. Denominations have been formed and split over some things that I would consider very trivial matters of theology. Now obviously someone considered them important enough to part company with another group of believers and I don’t want my interpretation of the Bible to seem as if it is the only possible conclusion. I believe what I believe because I have thoroughly researched things and there are many intelligent men and women who have also researched these things and reached different conclusions. This doesn’t mean that we stop believing what we believe because other people believe differently. Instead, I just say this to note that everyone should believe what they believe because they have searched for answers and studied on their own, not believe I said it or some well known theologian said it.
My point is that even though we’re all Christians, we disagree on a number of theological issues. What James addresses in chapter 2 is perhaps the most important of all theological issues however because it concerns our salvation or rather our method of salvation. This issue is very misunderstood or misinterpreted or just plainly gotten wrong.
The passage in James 2 that we will look at this morning is the passage that tripped up Martin Luther and caused him to dislike the book of James and made him place it at the end of his German translation Bible. Because the Catholic Church that Luther was breaking away from taught that salvation was earned through acts of penance and by various other actions, he had a hard time reconciling James 2 with his understanding of salvation.
Before we even get to our passage, let’s lay out some groundwork that will help us understand this passage better. The problems of James 2 shows us what happens when we take scripture out of context. There are no contradictions in the Bible so if one passage appears to contradict another, we need to figure out what the problem is and reconcile it with what is clear from other Bible passages.
Salvation is a gift of God and is not earned. Ephesians 2:8-9 makes this clear:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.
Personally, I don’t know how to twist this verse to make it say anything other than what seems clear. We don’t earn our salvation. There is absolutely nothing that we can do to cause us to deserve salvation. There is nothing we can do to pay for our salvation once it has been granted. There is no requirement that one must do in order to maintain their salvation. This is a gift. God gives it with no strings attached. It is not granted with the expectation that we will be a certain level of good after being given salvation. This is a gift, it is not earned.
Now, how does this thought relate to the stance of our denomination as well as many other denominations that teaches that salvation can be lost? First off, I believe that there are many warnings in the Bible that teach that salvation can be lost. Those who contend that salvation can’t be lost must explain away these passages, often stating that these are just circumstances that will never be realized. Like, if I could fly to the moon, I could eat all of the green cheese up there. I’m never going to fly to the moon so I’m never going to eat the green cheese. People who argue that salvation can’t be lost argue that passages that sound like it might be possible are hyperbole and will not in fact happen. They are merely meant as warnings to keep prevent people from sinning.
But back to the real issue of salvation being a gift and what it means as far as losing it. There are a lot of people who believe that one can lose their salvation through acts of sin. I believe that this is also wrong and I don’t believe that the Bible teaches this. It obviously encourages us to live righteously because sin harms our relationship with God. A life of sin can also be an indication that a person is not truly saved and thus there are several warnings with regard to this.
I don’t believe that there is any imaginary line that says you’ll lose your salvation if you sin this greatly or if you sin this many times. God’s grace is big enough to forgive the greatest of sins before a person became a Christian, why would it possibly not be great enough to forgive even the most heinous sins that a Christian commits after they are saved?
So, then if salvation is a gift and it is not lost through sin, how can it possibly be lost? The answer is through faith. Let’s look at verse 8 again – “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith…” God’s grace is given to us as a result of faith. Or putting it another way, we accept God’s grace through faith.
We need to keep accepting God’s gift of grace. If it some point we no longer have faith that God saves us, it is at this point that our salvation is in question. We should not be fearful that we might accidentally lose our salvation just because we have some doubts however. Everyone has doubts and sometimes they can be pretty serious doubts. I’m talking about full fledged rejection of God and everything to do with Him. I personally believe that if you reject God and walk away from your faith in this manner, that you’ll never come back. I believe that this is what Hebrews 10:26 is talking about.
If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left…
There is no straddling the line, saved, not saved, saved. Once a person has rejected God, they do not come back. If you’re hearing this or are the slightest bit worried about your salvation, I don’t believe that you have lost it as someone who has given up their faith won’t even think about it again.
I can obviously make an entire sermon on this subject but let’s finally take a look at our passage in James to tie things in more.
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
James continues to discuss the need to help those who are in need. As I said earlier, taking this passage out of context makes it sound as if we are not really saved unless we are also doing good deeds. What James is talking about is a progression of faith however.
Every election we hear politicians talk about what they will do if they are elected and all of the good things that they will accomplish for the people that elect them. Now, I know that some cynical people will say that these politicians will say anything that will get them elected and they have no intention of following through. I’d like to believe that most really are well intentioned but once they are elected they realize that things are not as easy as they thought and many quickly give up on campaign promises.
This is what James is talking about here. We can’t just talk a good Christian game. If you love the Lord, you better act like it! I know plenty of Christians who will do absolutely anything that they can in order to help the church. They serve on commissions, they teach, they mow the lawn, and do a thousand other things because they love the Lord and they want to serve. Then there are other Christians who want to be a part of the church but they are passive. They observe the worship service and they show up at events as participants rather than helpers. And lastly there are Christians who intermittently make it out of bed on Sunday or away from whatever they are doing in order to come to church or some other event.
What James is saying is that whatever is most important in our life is gong to naturally be reflected by what we do. You can talk a big game but your deeds have to back it up. If you love the Lord, it’s going to be reflected in what you do.
How do I know that this is what James means and that he’s not talking about earning salvation? For one, because it would be contradictory to what Ephesians 2 says that we already looked at. And two, because Paul says the same thing in Ephesians 2 using different language. Let’s look at what Ephesians 2 says one more time but we’ll read one more verse this time.
8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Paul says that we were created to do good works. James says that works are to accompany faith. There is no contradiction at all!
But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
There are millions upon millions of people in America who believe they are going to heaven. They believe this based upon two things – they believe that God exists and they believe that they are relatively good people. Their faith is not in God but rather in themselves. They believe that they are good enough for heaven, that they are worthy. Even though they believe in the existence of God, they know absolutely nothing about Him other than some generic beliefs like that He is loving.
The truth is, as James reveals, demons have a greater belief in God than millions of people who believe that they are going to heaven. The difference is that the demons know the truth and that their belief in God is not the kind of faith that is a saving faith.
This is another tripping point in the matter of salvation. What does “faith” mean? We hear it all the time – believe in Jesus and you will be saved. This isn’t the message that we are told to preach however. Most people “believe in Jesus”, that He was a real person, that his life is chronicled in the gospels. There are a few who argue that He is no more than a myth but most of even the most liberal scholars acknowledge that Jesus existed.
But that isn’t what it means to believe in Jesus. It is more than believing that He existed as Romans 10:9-10 says That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.
This is what it means to “believe in Jesus” to believe in the forgiveness found in His death and resurrection.
You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.
In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
James finishes his argument by giving examples from the Old Testament of people who put their faith into action. Once again, taken out of context this sounds like Abraham and Rahab earned their salvation through their actions. But a greater understanding of the Old Testament tells us just the opposite. Abraham and Rahab did great acts of faith and they were rewarded for their faith. But the Old Testament is by and large a story of failure. Time after time even the greatest characters fell short of God’s standard which was the whole point of why Jesus had to die on the cross. If anyone could earn salvation on their own through works, Jesus didn’t need to come and He didn’t need to die on the cross.
Faith and deeds is often looked at as an either/or issue but it is absolutely a both/and. Abraham’s deeds didn’t save him. He was still a sinner and he still needed forgiveness for his sins. He needed Jesus to come and die. Today, we don’t do good deeds to earn our salvation or to prove that we are saved. They should be a natural outflowing from us because we are saved and because we love the Lord. Good deeds will serve as proof that we are saved but they are never a part of the salvation process nor are they required to keep one’s salvation. Instead they should naturally be evident in the life of every believer. This is the argument that James makes here and the same one