Drew Williams, Pastoral Intern
I would love to be a gardener. There is something so nice about the idea of planting things, watering them, working the soil, and seeing growth and life happen. I love the idea of being able to eat fruits and veggies that come straight from our yard. It’s something about the reminder that even though I planted and watered, I have no idea how to force a seed to become a beautiful tomato or zucchini, and so it’s all a gift of grace from God who designed delicious things to grow using only sunlight and water and dirt and still carry so many nutrients for eating.
Unfortunately, I have a black thumb.
Like many people, my wife, Megan, and I tried to plant a little vegetable garden when quarantine started. We figured we’d be around more and able to attend to it and not forget to water it for 17 days like the one set of flowers I tried growing last year.
We got soil, we got pots, we planted seeds, we watered. We watched. We waited.
We got 4 beans and 2 mini-cucumbers.
And 2 cucumbers!
We planted thyme, and dill, and tomatoes, and basil, and marigolds.
But, nope. Just 4 beans and 2 cucumbers.
We planted all the other things, but nothing else produced any fruit. What good is that?!
We all know about the types of things that don’t work the way they are supposed to. Like skinny jean pockets for women. They can’t even fit a tube of chapstick. What good is that?!
Or crockpot recipes that tell you to brown the meat ahead of time and then have 4 other steps in the process where you need to add different ingredients throughout the next 6 hours. What good is that?! Crockpot recipes are supposed to be where I throw random frozen things into a pot and get an incredible dinner all ready for me when I get home from work!
What are some of the things you can think of that don’t work the way they should? Things that make you say, “what good is that?!”
Today’s scripture actually talks about something that doesn’t work the way it should, and it’s also the most-contested passage in all of James.
In fact, this passage is the reason that Martin Luther wanted to completely cut out the book of James from the Bible 500 years ago! Let’s see what all the fuss is about
Oof. Well, that’s heavy. James comes right out of the gate slamming on the so-called “faith” of people who don’t demonstrate their faith through the way they live.
And now we see why this is such a hotly co ntested passage. It sounds a lot like James is saying that you can only be saved if you do good things, and that seems to be directly in opposition to all the other spots in the New Testament that say the only thing we need to be saved is to believe in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. Many of us can quote back Romans 10:9 that says, “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
So isn’t James wrong? Should we even listen to him? Maybe we should just ignore this part, since it seems to go against what Paul talks about in all the other spots of the New Testament about saving faith.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what a lot of Christians choose to do, but if we follow suit we’ll miss the incredible truth that James is teaching here.
But to get to that, we’re going to need to understand exactly what James is talking about.
James uses the word for “faith” 16 times in his letter, and 11 of those instances are in this passage. So what does James mean when he talks about “faith”?
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless[d]? 21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,”[e] and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.
25 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? 26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
James talks about a “faith” that is not accompanied by deeds, and he asks “what good is that?!” The implied answer is that it’s not good. It’s no good. It’s good for nothing. Then he asks, “can SUCH faith save anyone?” And the implied answer to that is, “No, that kind of “faith” can’t save.”
In this passage, James says that “faith without works” is useless (2:14, 16), it cannot save (2:14), it’s ineffective (2:20), and it’s dead (2:17, 26).
He gives that example in verse 16 about saying things that “sound” helpful and holy to someone in need, but not actually DOING anything to help them…what good is that?! And this sounds eerily similar to his whole argument before this about not showing favoritism and dishonoring the poor with our actions. Pastor Chris taught on that last week, and I’d encourage you to go back and listen if you haven’t had the chance.
But I already hear the response to this section of James:
“But I have faith in Jesus! I believe he’s my Lord and Savior!”
James would agree that we should have faith in Jesus, but he’s pushing beyond mere simple trust or believing the right thing.
“Even the demons believe in God!”
James’ point in this passage is that this “faith” is, in biblical terms, no faith at all.
Faith that does no work
Wait, what are you saying? Are you saying that I need to do good things to be saved? Isn’t that called “works righteousness” and isn’t that wrong?
Yeah, you’re right! Wow, you all are super astute students of Scripture! I’m glad you’re tracking along, because James is NOT saying we need to earn our way to God.
In fact, the main pushback we hear about this passage is when people hold up James 2:24
“A person is justified by WORKS and not by FAITH alone.” (Ja 2:24)
Which seems to stand in DIRECT contrast to when Paul says
“A person is justified by FAITH and not by WORKS of the law.” (Rom 3:28)
What’s going on here? Aren’t they completely disagreeing?
No, they actually aren’t. See, Paul wants us to avoid the danger of thinking that works are a necessary basis or means of our salvation. Paul was writing to correct the people who said “You’ve got to do such and such and keep the Jewish practices and traditions in order to be saved by Jesus.” Paul says, “No! Keeping the law doesn’t save you. Jesus does!”
But James is coming at the same issue from the other side. He’s writing to people to correct the wrong assumption that works are not necessary as evidence of our salvation. He’s trying to correct people who think that as long as they say they believe in Jesus, then they can live their life however they want, since what they do doesn’t matter. James says, “No! That’s not even real faith! Real faith produces fruit!”
It’s important to realize that James isn’t making up anything new here. This is exactly what Jesus is talking about when he is preaching the Sermon on the Mount and he’s talking about how you can know the content of a person by the fruit of their life. He says, “every good tree bears good fruit, but every bad tree bears bad fruit” (Matt 7:17).
It’s the same thing that John the Baptist is talking about when the people ask him what they’re supposed to do in order to turn back to God. He says “You want to actually know you’re in repentance and turning back to God? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance, because every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit gets cut down and used for firewood.” (Matt 3:7-10)
Fruit is the evidence of our faith.
And trees without fruit? What good is that?
James then gives more evidence for this view by bringing up one likely example and one unlikely example of faith, Abraham and Rahab.
Abraham is the father of the people of God, and he’s the one that James’ Jewish readers would have considered to be the patriarch of their faith. He’s the one that God made a covenant with (see Gen 12:1-3), who God blessed to be a blessing and who lived a life of faith and was considered righteous because of it.
James says, “you know Abraham, how he trusted God and followed him so long, that by the time he had been following God for like thirty years, he agreed to trust him even when it seemed like God wanted him to sacrifice his own son, the promised kid that God promised him!”
James makes the case that Abraham had faith the whole time, but THAT faith found it’s ultimate significance and meaning in the way he lived his life of obedience.
Then James brings up the unlikely example, Rahab (see Joshua 2). Rahab was an innkeeper in Jericho who let the spies from Israel hide and then escape, knowing that they would lead all of Israel back to fight, and ultimately destroy, the city of Jericho. However, she did it because she believed that the God of Israel was indeed the God of the whole world. Her faith produced the fruit of her actions.
And the fact that James talks about both Abraham and Rahab really gives us the clue for his main point. By including the celebrated ancestor of the Jewish faith next to an obscure Gentile woman of sketchy moral character, James is saying that true faith produces fruit in every kind of person, whether they’re a patriarch or a prostitute.
This is because the focus shouldn’t be on us. People have been bent out of shape about this passage for centuries because we think it’s saying that OUR faith is no good if WE don’t have good deeds and then we get all worried about whether WE are following Jesus right or not.
And James is saying we don’t NEED to DO anything to EARN our way to God on our own power, and we don’t need to muster up the “right beliefs” to have faith, because
Living faith is a gift from God and produces fruit.
It comes from God!
Just a few verses before this (James 1:17-18), James comes right out and tells us that “every good and perfect GIFT is from God…and he CHOSE to GIVE us birth, that we might be FIRSTFRUITS.”
Three verses later (James 1:21), he says “humbly ACCEPT the word PLANTED in you,
Living faith is a gift from God. It’s a seed planted in you. And what do seeds do? They grow into plants! And this passage is driving home the point that plants that don’t have fruit…what good is that?!
Living faith is a gift from God, and it produces FRUIT. That’s just what it does.
We don’t need to do things to EARN our way to God, because this isn’t about OUR faith or OUR works. It’s about GOD’S faith in us that he plants in us like a seed and helps it to grow in the soil of our hearts.
We don’t need to DO things to earn our way to God, but we GET TO do all sorts of things as God’s living faith, planted in us, transforms us.
Luther himself summed it up best when he said “This faith… it is impossible for it not to be doing good things incessantly.”
Faith works. Living faith is a gift from God and it produces fruit. That’s just what it does!
Pastor Chris said it this way in a sermon a couple years ago, “fruit happens.”
When we simply accept the word of truth that God plants in us, it takes root, grows in us, and overflows out of us in works of service, transforming us along the way and showing God’s faith at work in and through us.
Just like when you plant an apple seed in the ground, you’ll eventually get an apple tree, and eventually get more apples…by its nature, living faith creates works, and the works show how alive the faith is.
And you might ask, how do I know if my faith is alive?
Jesus would answer, look for the fruit.
Is your faith only about intellectual assent? Thinking and believing the right things?
Or is your faith alive, penetrating and transforming every part of who you are?
Maybe you’re looking at your life, and you notice all kinds of fruit from God pouring out of you for the sake of those around you, and we get to praise God for that! You GET TO serve others and you GET TO go deep in community and you GET TO learn more about Jesus as you follow him daily.
Or maybe you’re looking at your life, and you’re not sure you see much fruit. You’ve been following Jesus for a while, but your life isn’t very different from when you started. You’re not experiencing the living faith that produces the fruit of deeds and works that God brings through you to impact those around you.
The good news is that Jesus can help with that! Mark chapter 9 tells the story of a father who is struggling to trust that Jesus can actually bring about the healing he desperately wants, and he says, “I believe in you, Jesus, but help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)
If you want to start experiencing the living faith that is a gift from God that produces the fruit of the works that God has prepared for you to do all you have to do is ask! Ask him for help and humbly accept him. Isn’t that good news?
There’s even more good news:
Paul teaches in Ephesians 2 that God has created us to do good works, which he has prepared in advance for us to do. (Eph 2:10)
God has not only given us the gift of planting his faith into us, but he’s also prepared the things for us to do as the fruit of that living faith.
And do you know what fruit has inside it? Seeds.
Isn’t that incredible? God has put his faith in us, planted it as a seed that then grows and transforms us, producing the fruit of works of service that carry seeds that he will then plant into the hearts of other people we interact with.
God uses US to plant his seed of faith into others!
James is coming down so hard on dead faith because he knows how incredible the living faith from God is! And since faith isn’t something we have to muster up, but is a gift from God, we can always turn to him and ask for his help to remove the rocks in our hearts and enrich the soil of our lives so that living faith can grow in us and transform us into the image of Jesus!
And so, what should we do to start reaping the fruit of the works that God has prepared for us? Well, God has already prepared the things he created us for, so all we have to do is ask him.
What is the next small thing that God wants you to do to bless someone or serve them?
Mother Theresa said that the way to change the world isn’t to do great things, but to do small things with great love.
So ask God, “What next, Lord?” Ask him to bring to mind someone he’s prepared for you to bless, and then ask “what’s the next small thing I can do to bless them or serve them?”
The more fruit that gets produced from our living faith, the more seeds get planted into the lives of those around us, not because of anything we’re coming up with, but because God is so gracious to give us the gift of faith and then cause it to grow and produce fruit, and then use US to plant his faith into others.
Isn’t that good news? Praise God!