What Faith Does (James 1:19-2:13)
Big Idea: Real faith involves more than just believing. It involves obeying and loving.
I was trying to do a simple thing: to rent a car. I lined up in the cue and waited for my turn. As I waited, I watched the employees in front of me as they served the customers. They looked bored. Disinterested. Unengaged. It felt like we as customers were an inconvenience to them, and that they’d rather be somewhere else.
I don’t mean to be critical. I wouldn’t want their job. Serving the public is very difficult, and I imagine that their job can be very boring at times. But I do want to point out a discrepancy between what I saw before me, and what was hanging on the wall behind them. You see, on the wall was a mission statement. I can’t remember exactly what it said, but it was something like this one:
We aim to exceed our customers’ expectations for service, quality and value, catering to their individual needs, with a spirit of caring, knowledge, and a passion for excellence.
I remember looking at the mission statement, and at the employees, and back at the mission statement, and thinking, “We have a problem here.” It’s easy to hang something on the wall, but it’s another thing altogether to see it practiced in real life.
That’s not just a problem for car rental companies. That’s a problem for all of us. What’s true of car rental companies is also true of churches, and of individuals.
One of my favorite pastors, Ray Ortlund, talks about our need for both gospel doctrine and gospel culture:
If by God’s grace we hold the two together—gospel doctrine and gospel culture—people of all ages will more likely come to our churches with great joy. It is more likely that they will think, “Here is the answer I’ve been looking for all my life.”
But if we have a gospel doctrine without a gospel culture, all we really have is hypocrisy.
The same is true of us individually. If we believe the truths of the gospel, but it hasn’t really changed our lives, then we don’t have something beautiful and practical. We don’t have biblical Christianity. We need the truths of the gospel to really seep into our lives and to change us at the deepest levels.
So today, as we look at the book of James, I want to ask a simple question: What is real faith? What prevents us from thinking we have faith, but just fooling ourselves? According to James, real faith involves more than believing. It involves two things, and here they are:
Faith Involves Obeying
According to James, faith involves listening and hearing. We must hear God’s Word. We must receive it with openness and receptivity. Look at what he says in verses 19 to 21:
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
If you’ve been here the previous weeks, you’ll remember that James has been talking about suffering. In this section he tells us not to do what most of us feel like doing when we’re suffering. We’re tempted to mouth off, get angry, and vent. We want to give others a piece of our mind that we couldn’t afford to lose. We can begin to lose a listening posture before God and his Word.
When we suffer, we can stop listening to God. So James reminds us to “receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” I don’t know if you are aware how important this moment is. What you’re doing right now — listening to God’s Word as it’s preached — is no small matter. James says it’s essential. It has the power to save us. We must approach the task of listening and receiving with all the seriousness that it deserves. It’s one of the most important things we do.
It’s important, but it’s not enough. James goes on to say that we must listen, but we must also do more than listen:
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. (James 1:22-25)
It’s important to listen to God’s Word. But it’s not enough. According to James, we must take an extra step. We must put the Word into action. The tense of “Be doers of the word” is continuous. In other words, this is something that James wants us to develop as a habit. Every time we listen to God’s Word, we must take the added step of applying it to our lives. To not do so, he says, is the same as looking in the mirror, seeing that we have a dirty splotch on our face, and then walking away like everything’s fine. That would be ridiculous. We need to see ourselves accurately in God’s Word, and then we must take action based on what we see.
I was listening to a podcast the other week about developing a reading habit in 2017. The podcaster described his practice. He reads a mixture of books: books that he enjoys, books that are related to his work, and books that stretch him. But then he said something profound. If he has an hour to read, he spends 40 minutes reading, and about 20 minutes thinking about how to apply it to his life. It’s no use reading if we don’t take time to think abut how what we’re learning will actually change our lives.
What if we took the same approach to the Bible? What if, for every two minutes we spent reading the Word or listening to the Word preached, we took one minute to think about how we can obey that Word in our lives? James says that’s what genuine faith looks like. Genuine faith doesn’t just hear the Word, although that’s important. Genuine faith obeys the Word. It hears the Word, and then it does what the Word says to do.
Chuck Swindoll gives the illustration of a business owner who goes oversees and leaves us in charge of the domestic operation while he’s away. He says he’ll write regularly to give us instructions so that we know what to do.
The months go by. The letters keep arriving, and we read them. But months later the owner returns and finds the grass uncut, the windows broken, the staff unoccupied, and things in a general state of chaos. The owner finds you and asks what is going on, and here’s how the conversation goes:
“Letters? Oh, yeah—sure, got every one of them. As a matter of fact … we have had letter study every Friday night since you left. We have even divided all the personnel into small groups and discussed many of the things you wrote. Some of those things were really interesting. You’ll be pleased to know that a few of us have actually committed to memory some of your sentences and paragraphs. One or two memorized an entire letter or two! Great stuff in those letters!”
“Okay, okay—you got my letters, you studied them and meditated on them, discussed and even memorized them. BUT WHAT DID YOU DO ABOUT THEM?”
“Do? Uh—we didn’t do anything about them.”
That would be ridiculous, but no more ridiculous than when we read God’s Word and don’t apply it. What’s real faith involves? It involves hearing God’s Word, but it also involves applying it, according to James.
But that’s not all. Real faith involves obeying, and:
Faith Involves Loving
Faith involves obeying. As we obey, our faith will work itself out in very particular ways. One of these is our relationships. Our faith will involve us loving and serving other people differently. Faith always expresses itself in love. If we say we have faith, but it doesn’t affect the way we treat the people around us, then we really don’t have faith at all.
And so James gives three practical ways that this will work itself out in our lives in our relationships.
Faith involves loving people with our words.
In verse 26, James says, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” This is going to be a theme that James develops, so we won’t spend too much time on it here. Suffice it to say that the words that come out of our mouth are a good indication of what’s really going on in our heart. An out-of-control mouth signifies means that we have a bogus faith. Our tongue really reveals what’s going on in our hearts.
A preacher was working around the church building one day. He noticed that one of the men of the church were following him around. He eventually asked the man, “Why are you following me?” The man said, “I’m just listening to hear what you say when you hit your thumb with the hammer.” That would be the real test of the preacher’s faith, not what he says in church on Sunday. The same applies to you. What do you say when someone cuts you off, or in the privacy of your home when you’re tired and annoyed? That’s the real test of your faith.
There are two more ways that our faith will work itself out in terms of our relationships.
Faith involves caring for those who need it.
In verse 27, James says that our faith will affect our relationships with some of the most vulnerable people around us. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).
Orphans and widows were among the most helpless people in Jewish society. They would have had no money-making possibilities, and therefore they would have been economically helpless. The orphans and widows in this passage represent anyone who is helpless in this world. People in this category today include widows and orphans, as well as immigrants, refugees, the disabled, and the homeless.
When we realize how much mercy God has given us, it will lead us to have mercy on others as well. Jonathan Edwards, the great American thinker and theologian, preached a famous sermon in which argues that helping the poor is one of the highest duties of a Christian. We’re not supposed to give the poor just a little from our surplus, he argues, but we’re to be abundant, liberal, and utterly generous in giving to the poor. He asks the question, “Where have we any command in the Bible laid down in stronger terms, and in a more peremptory urgent manner, than the command of giving to the poor?”
Now, we need to figure out how to do this wisely. But it’s simply not optional. One of the biggest tests of our faith is how we treat others in need. Are we, as a church and individuals, caring for the vulnerable around us? Or have we shut ourselves off, and decided to live with only ourselves in mind? If we have faith, James says, it will involve loving people with our words, and it will also involve caring for those who need it.
There’s one more way that faith will work itself out in our relationships:
Faith involves treating others without favoritism.
In the first 13 verses of James 2, he gives us a scenario that’s played itself out over the centuries. People are gathering for worship. People walk in the door. You see friends and people you recognize from other weeks that you’ve attended. The door opens, and two people walk in that you’ve never seen before. One is young, good looking, and well-dressed. It’s exactly the kind of person you think of as the ideal Liberty Village resident: fit, healthy, good looking, and well dressed. But another walks in, and it’s pretty obvious that this person isn’t from Liberty Village. You sense that all the clothes came from a thrift shop, and not one of the thrift shops that hipsters like to visit. The person has body odor, and is clearly not the kind of person you’re used to hanging around.
When the service is over, which one are you going to talk to first? James says that this is a test of the genuineness of our faith. “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory,” he writes (James 2:1). Why? James gives us some good reasons in verses 5 to 7. The poor, he says, are spiritually advantaged. God cares for the poor in a unique way. He was born to a poor woman. He announced good news to the poor. In God’s kingdom, there’s absolutely no distinction between the rich and the poor. If anything, the rich are at a spiritual disadvantage. When God looks at us, he doesn’t see our bank balance, but the condition of our hearts. When we see others the way God sees them, we will treat everyone with the same respect and love when they walk through these doors.
You see, real faith involves more than just believing. It involves obeying and loving.
We began this sermon talking about the employees at the car rental company who didn’t match the mission statement on the wall. We talked about the danger of being believers or even a church that has gospel doctrine but lacks a gospel culture.
How do we get real faith? The answer’s simple. We’ll never be able to manufacture a faith that obeys and loves like what we read about in this passage. The only way to get the kind of faith that James talks about is to receive it. Come to Jesus. Repent and believe in him. Ask you to change you from the inside out. As you draw close to the cross, and as the Spirit works in your life, he will transform you into the kind of person who obeys and who loves.
Real faith involves more than believing. It involves obeying and loving. Let’s ask God to give us this kind of faith today.