We ensure that our cars, our central heating boilers, and our teeth are in a healthy condition.
But what about your faith? Is your faith in good working order?
What do we mean by ‘faith’?
- The sceptical view. Dawkins: ‘Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.’
- The popular view. In the movie Miracle on 34th Street, Santa Claus says: “Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to.”
- A royal view. In 1994 Prince Charles said that he would prefer see his future role not as ‘Defender of the Faith’, but as ‘Defender of Faith’.
What do the NT writers mean by ‘faith’?
- ‘the faith’
- Paul – Rom 3:28 ‘A person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.’
- James – Jas 2:24 ‘A person is justified by deeds, and not by faith alone.’
How do we account for this difference between Paul and James?
When Paul talks about faith, he is talking about a living, saving faith. And he would wholeheartedly agree with James that such faith entails practical deeds. Rom 1:5 – ‘the obedience of faith’. Gal 5:6 – ‘the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.’ Titus 1:16 – ‘They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him;’ 3:8 – ‘I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good.’
As for James, he has already used ‘faith’ in a Pauline sense (James 2:1; cf. James 1:18). So what kind of faith is he dealing with here? – a shrivelled, lifeless, so-called faith that is actually not the genuine article at all. It is, v14, faith that someone ‘claims’ to have; v20, a ‘useless’ faith; v26, a ‘dead’ faith.
But it is clear that James and Paul are not only using language in different ways, but also that they are confronting different problems. If one health professional advises her patient to eat less, and another urges his patient to eat more, is their advice contradictory? No, not if the first patient is obese, and the second anorexic.
Paul and James are not duelling against each other, but standing back to back, facing different foes.
Combating the problem of legalism, Paul insists that faith must precede works; don’t put the cart before the horse, otherwise you’ll end up in a grand muddle.
Countering the problem of quetism, James stresses that faith must be followed by works, otherwise it is not real faith at all; if your horse is not pulling a well-laden cart, then it is serving no useful purpose.
James gives a brilliant pair of illustrations – Abraham, vv21-24, and Rahab, v25. Abraham – a man, the father of the nation, of high social standing. Rahab – a woman, a Gentile, a prostitute. Both are renowned in Scripture for their faith (see Hebrews 11). But, asks James, what sort of faith did they have? It was a faith that resulted in action. They had a faith that was in good working order.
- Beware an idle orthodoxy, v19. It is chilling to think that the demons know perfectly well that there is a God. It is even more chilling to realise that they have a greater response to God than many professing believers: they tremble.
- Don’t try to separate what God has joined together. (Other examples: divine sovereignty and human responsibility; God as a triunity). Notice how James puts it in v18. He doesn’t say, “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my deeds without faith.” It is not faith or works. It is not even faith plus works. It is, rather, faith that works.
Whether it is by outrageous expressions of faith, as when Abraham offered his son Isaac on the altar, or by everyday acts of hospitality, which was, after all, James’ starting-point in this passage, let us make up our minds that we will not merely listen to the word, but do it; that we will show by our actions that our faith is in good working order.