We said yesterday that it’s not simply enough to say, “I believe in God,” in order to be saved. Nor, for that matter, is it enough to say “I believe that Jesus died for my sin and rose again” in order to be saved. True faith always leads to a changed life, and that first and foremost expresses itself in love: love for God and love for others.
A “faith” that never grows to express itself in that way is not true faith at all. It’s merely empty words. As empty as saying to a needy person, “I hurt for you. God bless you,” and then walking away without doing anything to help them.
James then says,
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. (18)
It’s difficult to know how to take this verse, especially since we don’t know where the quotation marks should be. (There are no quotation marks in Greek.)
One way this could be read is that the “someone” mentioned is an outsider, a non-Christian, who looks at the so-called Christian who claims he believes in God but shows no love or compassion to those around. And this someone is saying, “Why should I follow your God? You have your faith, but I’m a much better person than you.”
The other way it could be read is that James is that “someone” and that all those words should be in quotes.
Either way, James is saying, “Do you really have faith? Prove it. Talk’s cheap. You say that you really believe in God, but how do I know? I can’t see your heart. All I can see is your deeds. And your deeds, particularly your lack of love for God and others, make me seriously doubt that you really have faith in God at all. Because if you really knew God’s love, it would eventually start to flow out from your life.”
And this, I think, is how we deal with the seeming contradiction between James and Paul. Paul says we are justified by faith apart from works (Romans 3:28). James says we are justified by faith and works. (2:24)
We are justified by God by faith alone, but we are justified (or “proven”) as true believers before people by what we do. Why? Because God can see the heart. People can’t.
The interesting thing is that James and Paul use the same person and passage to prove their points. James says,
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. (21-22)
The question is, who was he considered righteous by? By God? To an extent, yes. But more importantly, his outward actions proved to the people around him that he truly believed in God. They couldn’t see his heart. For all they knew, he was a total hypocrite. In fact, his previous actions may have made them think just that. After all, he had had so little faith earlier that he slept with his wife’s slave (with his wife’s permission) in order to have an heir. Why? Because he had started having serious doubts that God would give him an heir through Sarah like He had promised.
But when Abraham later was willing to sacrifice Isaac on the altar, even though Isaac was the one through whom God had promised Abraham’s family line would continue, it showed everyone around that Abraham really did have true faith. He had grown from the man who wavered and sometimes acted hypocritically into a man who truly lived out his faith.
That’s what James meant when he said,
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. (James 2:23)
When did Abraham believe God and have it credited him as righteousness. Before the sacrifice of Isaac? Or after? Well before. In fact it was before Isaac was even born. (Genesis 15:6)
God knew his heart right then and there. He knew Abraham believed him, and so he justified him on the basis of that faith. But that faith came to maturity and completion when Abraham put Isaac on that altar.
Like I said yesterday, maturity and completion of faith may take time. It may be a struggle, and it may be painful at times. But where there is true faith, there will always be progress, and eventually people will be able to see it.
What kind of faith do you have?