10 Jan 2021


What characterises a Faith that Works?

Speaker:  Ps Luwin Wong
Sermon Title: What characterises a Faith that Works?    
Scripture Text: James 2:14-26

  1. It is not just Good Intentions.

 

 

  1. It is not just Good Theology.

 

 

  1. A faith that works is a faith of radical works.

Reflection Questions:

  • Good intentions fall short of saving faith. Wanting to be faithful is not the same as being faithful. Which best characterises your Christian life today? What will it cost to be faithful to Christ?
  • Sound theology is “essential, but insufficient” to constitute saving faith. What is making it difficult to align your “right knowing” to become “right living” in your life? Will you share it with a spiritual friend for prayer?
  • Do you agree that the character of saving faith is a radical faith? What will it mean to live radically for Christ? What needs cutting out/starting up in your life?
Scripture: James 2:14-26 (ESV)

14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

Transcript

Here’s the classic illustration about the nature of faith.

Charles Blondin was a 19th Century tightrope walker, nicknamed the daredevil of the Niagara Falls. Because he’s famous for walking across Niagara Falls on a tightrope. He did it a number of times often with different variations: blindfolded, in a gunny sack, pushing a wheelbarrow, on stilts, carrying a man (his manager, Harry Colcord) on his back, sitting down midway while he cooked and ate an omelette, or standing on a chair with only one of its legs balanced on the rope. This is the life of Charles Blondin.

Here’s the illustration:

After the tightrope had been fixed in place, Blondin started gathering a crowd to watch his daring and dangerous feat. “Come one! Come all!” he shouted into his bullhorn. “Watch me walk above Niagara Falls, balancing on nothing more than this little rope!”

As people started gathering, he passed around a sample of the rope so people could see how small it was. “One little slip, and I will tumble to my death in the waters below!” he shouted. “You never know when I might fall. The rope is getting wet, a wind is coming up. I don’t want to die, but today could be the day!”

As the crowd swelled even more, he shouted to those who had gathered, “Who believes I can walk across the falls and back without falling to my death below?”

Most of the crowd shouted that they believed he could do it. Many of them cheered him on to do it. So he climbed up onto the rope, and balanced his way across Niagara Falls. When he reached the far side, he turned around and came back. He didn’t slip. He didn’t fall. In fact, he barely wobbled or wavered. So when he returned to the safety of the platform, he motioned with his hands for the cheering crowd to quiet down.

“That was too easy!” he yelled. “That wasn’t a challenge for me at all! Let’s make it more difficult! Who believes I can do again, but this time, while pushing a wheelbarrow? If my hands are on the wheelbarrow, I will not be able to use them to balance on the rope. Shall I give it a try? Do you believe I can do it?”

The crowd cheered their approval “Of course you can do it, you’re the great Charles Blondin, we believe in you!”. So with the help of his assistants, he lifted a wheelbarrow up onto the rope, and then started pushing it across the Falls. He went more slowly this time, and even had a few wobbles, which caused the crowd to gasp and cry out with fear, but he made it to the other side and back without much problem.

The crowd went wild.

“That was too easy!” he yelled. “Who believes I can do it again, but this time, with another person inside the wheelbarrow?” The crowd roared their approval. “I would not only be risking my own life, but also the life of the person in the wheelbarrow,” Blondin shouted to the crowd. “With a show of hands, let me see how many of you believe I can do this!” Almost every hand in the large crowd was raised.

“Wonderful! I am so glad to see that you have such faith in me! I think I will give it a shot!” the man yelled. “Now … among all of you who raised your hand, do I have a volunteer to get into the wheelbarrow?” Every hand in the large crowd went down. “What?” said Blondin. “You’ve seen me walk across Niagara Falls twice. Successfully, without any problem, once while pushing this wheelbarrow! And most of you believe I can do it with someone else in the wheelbarrow with me! But when I ask which of you wants to get into the wheelbarrow, none of you volunteer? Do you really believe I can do it or not?”

And the story goes, when he saw that no one in the crowd was willing to volunteer, Blondin’s manager stepped into the wheelbarrow himself. And Blondin pushed him across the Niagara Falls and back.

And the moral of the story is: On that day, how many believed, truly believed that Charles Blondin could push a man in a wheelbarrow on a tightrope across the Niagara Falls? And what does it mean to say you believe if you aren’t willing to get into the wheelbarrow?

Clearly, there is a difference between the ‘belief’ of Blondin’s manager and the ‘belief’ of the crowds, they exhibit different characteristics. They led to different actions. They are not the same.

There is a difference between the manager’s faith in Blondin and the crowds faith in Blondin.

And so it is with faith in Jesus. We all here, who identify as Christians, have at some point in our lives, expressed faith in Christ, professed faith in Christ. Today, James tells us that our faith are not all equal, our faith are not all the same. Some of our faith will work – it will lead to our salvation, because it is a genuine faith that we have. Some of our faith will not work – it will not lead to our salvation, because it is useless, dead faith that we have.

So the question before us is this: what characterises a faith that works? What characterises a faith that saves?

  1. It is not just good intentions.

First, a faith that works is not simply characterised by good intentions.

14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

It’s the equivalent of sending “thoughts and prayers” to people in a crisis.

The problem isn’t that it’s not well-meaning, the problem is that it does practically nothing. Thoughts and prayers won’t feed a starving child, it won’t save a drowning man,

and it certainly won’t rescue Gondor from the forces of Mordor.

No one is saying that saying “my thoughts and prayer are with you” is wrong. It’s not. It’s a good thing, if meant sincerely, it’s a good thing. But if you’re in a position to help, and all you send are thoughts and prayers, then however good they may be, they are not good enough. Thoughts and prayers are good, just not good enough.

We recognise the obvious truth in this. James applies it to the character of our faith. He begins with the rhetorical “What good is it?”, the implied answer is “ it is of no good”.

Friends, there is a type of faith that is not good enough. It does not work. It does not save. It is dead. Is the faith that you possess, saving faith? Does it work? Does it save?

A faith that works goes beyond pious sentimentality and good intentions. It is a practical faith. It doesn’t simply engage the heart, it extends the hand.

Which means what? It means don’t just say you really really want to take up your cross and follow Jesus. Take it up and follow Jesus. Don’t just say really really want to be more generous, open your wallet, get out your card and be more generous. Don’t just say you really want to start setting aside a quiet time each day for the Lord, just set time aside. Don’t just say you really want to stop being a workaholic and keep the Sabbath, the point is not to want it, the point is to keep it. Don’t just say you really want to start meeting up with someone to disciple them,  you really want to start serving in ministry, you really want to forgive your brother, you really want to remain faithful to your spouse, you really want to quit pornography, you really want to commit to a CG. Stop wanting these things, start doing these things. A faith characterised by wanting, is a faith that will be found wanting.

Wanting is right, wanting is good, but it is not good enough.

Try telling your girlfriend you really want to marry her, but never actually get down to proposing. See how long that relationship lasts.

Try telling your boss you really wanted to meet your KPIs, you just didn’t. See whether that gets you that performance bonus.

Try telling your prof that you really really wanted an A for your essay. See if that helps change your grade.

Good intentions, simply wanting, mere sentimentality, doesn’t work in any situation in life, why do you think it would work for our faith in Christ? James tells us plainly, it doesn’t.

14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Of no good. Can that faith save him? Of course not. 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them,  “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? Not good.

17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

A faith that works, a faith that saves, is not characterised merely by good and pious intentions, without corresponding action. That sort of faith is not good enough, it is dead. It will not lead to life everlasting.

  1. It is not just good theology.

18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?

Second, a faith that works, a faith that saves, is not characterised merely by good and sound theology. It’s not just about right feelings, nor is it just about right thinking.

You believe that “God is one”. God is one is the opening words of the Shema, which is recited several times a day by the pious Jew. It goes “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” It summarises the central tenet of the religion.

In the gospel of Mark, when the scribes asked Jesus “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus didn’t immediately respond with “Love God and Love neighbour”. Jesus prefaced it by saying, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”

So, when James says “You believe that God is one”, he uses it as a shorthand for someone with good, sound, orthodox beliefs. This person who believes that God is one has good theology. He possesses sound doctrine. He is able to rattle off bible verses from memory, he can teach the bible accurately, he can spot false teaching immediately, he can debate theology persuasively. And all of that is good. All of that is very good. But all of that is not good enough.

19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!

You think Satan knows Jesus less well than you? You think the demons have a poorer grasp of the gospel than you? They were there when Jesus came, they were there when Jesus was nailed to the cross for the sins of mankind, the serpent was there when the story began, in the Garden of Eden.

I have no doubt that Satan will be able to preach a better sermon that I. Granted, the bar isn’t high, but the point is that I have full confidence in his theology. The problem with demons is not that they don’t know, it’s that they don’t care. The problem isn’t that they haven’t mastered the truth, the problem is that the truth has not mastered them.

You believe that God is one, good, but even the demons believe! It doesn’t turn them into the elect, their belief doesn’t save them. Why? Because a faith characterised merely by good theology, however good, is not good enough. It’s not a faith that saves, it’s a useless faith, it does not work.

Think about it.

Drivers that get into accidents because of speeding, they don’t believe the speed limit is 70? They do believe, they just don’t bother to abide by it.

Latecomers to church – and I’ve been guilty of this too – we don’t believe our worship service starts at 11:00? We believe right? It just didn’t matter enough to us.

The folks who got fined for violating COVID regulations, they don’t believe you have to wear your mask in public? They do believe, they just don’t obey.

In these instances, mere believing, without obeying, did not help; it didn’t work. Why does anyone think it will be different for the Christian faith?

The demons believe! They believe in God! They even shudder, but they ultimately did not bother, so they remain demons, not angels.

You see, a faith characterised by sound theology alone, is no different in essence to the faith of a demon. That’s the point James is making. You have right beliefs, you have good theology, good, now you are at least on par with a demon. The question is will you do better?

Will your belief save you? Will your faith work? Is your faith a faith that works?

20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?

It is not merely do you know, but will you do? For God has not simply given us content to absorb, he has given us commands to obey. He has not given us the truth simply to inform us, but to transform us.

A faith that is characterised merely by right feeling and right thinking is not sufficient, if it does not also include right living.

Which brings us to our final point: a faith that works is a faith that works.

  1. A faith that works is a faith of radical works.

To be more precise, a faith that works is a faith characterised by radical works.

Listen to the works that James offers us as examples of a saving faith, of a faith that works.

21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?
Was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?

Consider these examples. This isn’t come to church on Sunday, give 10% of your nett salary away, attend CG regularly, do quiet time everyday sort of examples.

This are life-changing, all-surrendering, self-forsaking works that characterises a faith that saves.

When Abraham offered up his son Isaac on the altar, it was before the Father Abraham had seven sons,  seven sons had Father Abraham jingle was written, at the time Isaac was his ONLY. Not just the only son, he was the PROMISED son through whom will come blessing to Abraham and ultimately to the world. His son was a big deal. And Abraham and Sarah was over 100 years old at the time, and it was unlikely that they could bear anymore children. Isaac was the one, the only one, the promised one. All of Abrahams hopes and dreams and blessings was bound up with the life of Isaac. And Abraham offered him up on the altar to God. He was willing to give up his beloved son, his treasure, his own flesh for God, when God told him to. That is the example of what saving faith looks like. It looks like a faith of radical works.

How about Rahab? Consider Rahab. She lives in the city of Jericho in the land of Canaan. A pagan land, from birth she was taught to worship Baal and Asherath and Dagon. These are the gods who protected them, who provided for them, and everyone worshipped them. Rahab’s parents worshipped them, as did her grandparents, like their parents before them.

Then came two spies from Israel, who served a god called Yahweh. Their intention was to wipe out the Canaanites, to destroy the Canaanite culture and demolish the idols of Baal and Asheroth and Dagon. They intent to kill everyone in Jericho, everyone Rahab ever knew in her life. And they sought her help, and she did. And the police came looking for them, and Rahab hid them because she believed in Yahweh.

Rahab’s example isn’t quite in the same vein as going the extra mile to help a church friend in need, it isn’t about giving an extra 5% of your income to the development fund, it’s not about opening your home for CG even though it’s inconvenient, or coming to church even when you’re tired.

Rahab’s example is closer to this: take everything you ever knew, you entire culture, your way of life, your value system, everything you ever owned, every dream you ever had, every attachment to things that you hold dear, give them all up, tear them all down, cut them all out, for the sake of gaining God.

That’s the example that James gives us to characterise what saving faith looks like. A faith that works, is a faith of radical works.

But to call it radical is cultural, it’s not biblical. Because in the bible, this Abrahamic, Rahabian faith is normal faith, par-for-the-course faith, standard-issue faith, your run-the-mill, type of faith that saves.

Culturally radical faith is biblical entry-level faith.

Consider the words of Jesus to describe what it means to follow him.

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matt 16:24-25)

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26)

And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

Which of these verses give you the impression that biblical faith in Jesus is anything less than an all-consuming, all-surrendering, all-encompassing kind of faith?

A faith that works is a radical faith.

So you and I can choose to continue with business as usual, defining discipleship based on the standards set by the average Christian around us, pursuing a Christianity defined by the culture around us. Or we can take an honest look at the Jesus of the Bible, listen to his call to a radical faith, and dare to ask what the consequences might be if we really believed him and really obeyed him and really gave up all for him. For the God who gave up his only beloved Son for us.

I love how David Platt puts it,

he says: “not even dying a martyr’s death can be classified as radical when you are supposed to be following a Saviour who died on a cross.”

So what characterises your faith currently? Is a faith devoid of radicality? Is it a faith that is useless or a faith that works? Is it a faith that is dead or a faith that leads to eternal life?

Does your faith work? You don’t answer it by comparing your faith to the kind faith of displayed by professing Christians around you. You answer it by comparing it against the faith of the saints recorded for our sake in the Scriptures, we know their faith works, God has vindicated their faith. Do we share that kind of faith, a self-denying, cross-bearing, Christ-imitating, radical kind of faith?

Friends, basic Christianity is radical Christianity. Saving faith is a radical faith. That is why a faith that works must be more than pious intentions, more than sound doctrine; it must be a faith of radical works.

It is radical, but not impossible. For saving faith is accompanied by saving grace. A radical faith is empowered by an amazing grace. There is a message of grace for sinners in the gospel.

But saving grace does not lower the bar of saving faith. Amazing grace does not dismiss the call to radical works. Rather, grace trains us and empowers us to meet the bar. Friends, we share the same faith of Abraham and Rahab, and we share the same grace that is sufficient for our weaknesses, and so by his grace, we shall do the same works, the radical works, that characterises a faith that works.

 

Reflection Questions:

  1. Good intentions fall short of saving faith. Wanting to be faithful is not the same as being faithful. Which best characterises your Christian life today? What will it cost to be faithful to Christ?
  2. Sound theology is “essential, but insufficient” to constitute saving faith. What is making it difficult to align your “right knowing” to become “right living” in your life? Will you share it with a spiritual friend for prayer?
  3. Do you agree that the character of saving faith is a radical faith? What will it mean to live radically for Christ? What needs cutting out/starting up in your life?

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