Summary: How can you know for sure if you are a Christian? James has a pretty good idea . . .
Is Your Faith Alive or Dead?
Suppose I were to stand before you today and hold up this object (in this case, a piece of chewing gum) and tell you that it is a piece of gum. How would you know that what I am saying is true? You could assume that I am telling the truth because you know that I am generally truthful. You could observe that, as I open the wrapper, the contents appear to hold a piece of gum. If you were close enough, you could smell the gum. If I had enough pieces of gum or you didn’t mind sharing, we could all taste the gum to see that it was indeed gum. The point is that, beyond my statement that this is a piece of gum, you would have to either take my word or test the evidence in order to know for certain what is true.
This is the kind of argument James uses to talk about saving faith in our study today. If you were to consider the book of James to be a series of tests for Christians, then this particular passage would be the test of a genuine salvation. By describing the difference between faith that is false and faith that is genuine, James helps believers reach a deeper understanding of what it is that God expects of those who claim the name of Jesus.
What is the difference in either case? I believe we will see today that it is not enough to simply take one’s word regarding salvation. I am reminded of Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:21a, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (NKJV). It is not enough to simply know what it takes to be a Christian – real faith is shown by the way we live and the things we do on an everyday basis.
A LOOK AT “DEAD” FAITH (vv.14-20)
James begins by asking an important question, “Can faith save him?” Let’s begin by considering that question. What he seems to be asking is, “Can a person be saved simply by saying he is a believer?” You and I would probably agree that the answer is at best questionable if not an outright “No.” We have all seen people say that they are Christians when even a passing glance at their lives leads us to believe otherwise. This is exactly the kind of thing James was addressing when he asked his initial question. Genuine saving faith is more than just saying that you are a Christian.
The argument continues with a hypothetical illustration in verses fifteen and sixteen. Consider these things: (1) the people in question are believers, not strangers; and (2) they have real, long-term needs. None of us here today would look at this and say, “Hey, this is only a passing thing. God’s going to take care of you. Hang in there!” At least I hope we would respond differently. Remember, these are not strangers. They are a part of the body of Christ.
So how well do we fare in light of these words? Are we taking care of our own? Sometimes I think we are guilty of writing a check and moving on with our lives, rather than taking the time to care for a brother or sister in need. When needs go unmet in the household of faith, then the church has a serious problem. Before we can ever expect to care for the world, we must first care for our own members. Otherwise, our faith is dead.
Verse seventeen states James’ case succinctly. Faith alone, without works, is dead. His statement sounds like a terse version of 1 John 3:18, “My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth” (KJV). If we say that we are believers, then we ought to be moved with compassion for our brothers and sisters.
I suppose I was one of those weird kids who actually enjoyed diagramming sentences in junior high school. One of the reasons was probably the personality of my English teacher, Mrs. Susan Steelman. I will never forget Mrs. Steelman’s approach to teaching prepositions and a particular mishap that still stands out in my mind today. Mrs. Steelman explained that prepositions can denote place, time, or ownership, and she began to demonstrate this by using the sentence, “The teacher is _____ the desk.”
She stood behind her desk and we all said, “The teacher is behind the desk.” She moved to one side and we intoned, “The teacher is beside the desk.” The exercise continued with Mrs. Steelman on all sides of her desk, even under it, which was quite amusing. The coup de grace came as she stepped on her chair and proceeded to mount her desk for the grand finale, “The teacher is on the desk.” I was already cheering in my mind, when, by some misfortune, Mrs. Steelman missed her step and landed on her backside on the floor.