Big Idea: How can you tell if you’re right with God? You can tell, not simply by what you believe or what you say, but by how it’s changed your life.
I’m going to make a bold prediction. Today’s sermon may be one of the most important you hear in your entire life. I don’t say that because I’m predicting that my own preparation and delivery are so important. I say it because the topic is so important. What we’re going to talk about today has huge implications for our lives, not just right now but for eternity.
There aren’t many passages that keep me up at night, but one does. It’s when Jesus says this:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:21-23)
This is terrifying. According to Jesus, there are going to be a lot of surprises one day. I have a distant memory of showing up to something — and for the life of me I can’t remember what — thinking that I had a valid reservation. When I showed up, though, I discovered that I had the wrong day, or that my reservation was invalid. It was disappointing, but not that big of a deal, given that I can’t even remember the details anymore.
But Jesus says that one day many people are going to show up and finally meet him. They’ll be all excited thinking that this is the day that they’ve been waiting for. But Jesus will say, “I don’t know you.” Jesus tells us that there are going to be many, not a few, who are going to be surprised on the day of judgment. Why? Because they had assumed that they were okay. They even did great things in Jesus’ name.
They were orthodox; they said the right things; they were fervent; they were zealous. They prophesied in His name; they cast out devils; they did many wonderful works. And they were praised of men; they were in fact regarded as outstanding servants. So they were perfectly happy about themselves, quite assured about their whole position, and they never suspected for a second that there was any fault to find in them… They had no doubt about themselves; they were perfectly happy; they were quite assured. It had never crossed their minds even to contemplate plate the possibility that they could be anything but Christians and saved people, heirs of glory and of eternal bliss. And yet what our Lord says to them is that they are lost… There can be no doubt about it, the day of judgment is going to be a day of many surprises. (Martyn Lloyd-Jones)
Isn’t that terrifying?
And so we need to ask ourselves: How can we know that we are right with God? We don’t have to wonder. We can know, and James is going to help us figure it out today. There’s not a more important issue for us to get straight. And so let’s look at what James tells us, and let’s consider what it means for our souls.
How can we tell if we’re right with God? We can’t tell by two things, but we can tell by one thing that really matters.
True Faith Is More Than This
According to James, true faith is more than a couple of things. It’s so important to understand this, because a lot of us tend to rely on these things. And yet James says they’re not reliable. If we think we have true faith based on them, we’re in danger of being self-deceived. We’re in danger of thinking we’re okay when we’re really not.
What are these two things?
True Faith Is More Than What We Say
Look at what James says in verses 14 to 16:
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 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? (James 2:14-16)
The scenario that James offers is a real one. I don’t think it was hypothetical at all. Remember that the church back then, just as it is today, was made up of both poor and rich. It’s not hard to imagine that some of the people in the church would have been having a hard time making ends meet. I’m not talking about having to cut their cell phone bill or not eat out as much. We’re talking a lack of the basic necessities of life, like having clothes to wear or enough food to eat.
When this scenario plays out, as it does even today, how do we react? James pictures someone saying the right things — wishing that the person has what they need — without doing the right things, without helping to alleviate the situation. Let’s not be hard on this person’s words. They say exactly the right thing. They pronounce a blessing on their poor Christian brother or sister. It’s not that their words are wrong; it’s that the words are a cover for neglect and inaction.
Let’s make it real. Imagine that someone came in today. It’s been a bad week. They were in an accident on Tuesday, their car is totaled, and it looks like insurance isn’t going to cover that car. We all try to comfort our friend, saying, “I’m so sorry.” That’s a great thing to say, by the way. We should be sorry. But eventually someone turns to us all and says, “I’m $200 sorry. How sorry are you?”
What James is telling us is that if our faith is all about saying the right thing, that’s not good enough. We can say the right thing, but unless there’s evidence that what we say changes how we act, we’re deceiving ourselves. We can come to church every week and say the right things to each other, but that’s not enough. True faith is more than just saying the right things.
But that’s not all.
True Faith Is More Than What We Believe
Every week we confess a statement of faith. This is important. It’s something I love that we do, because we need to be reminded of the truths of Scripture. It’s essential that we believe the right things, because truth matters. But according to James, believing the right things isn’t enough. In verse 19 he says, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe-and shudder!”
What James says is shocking. Every week, when we read our confession of faith, the demons could join in and heartily affirm the same beliefs. This is stunning. The demons are monotheists. The demons are Trinitarian.
They know the truth of Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension, and coming return. Some, no doubt, can quote the Nicene Creed—that Jesus is
God of God, Light of Light,
Very God of Very God,
Begotten, not made,
Being of one substance with the Father,
By whom all things were made.
Some demons are great theologians, having been unseen interlopers at Nicea and Chalcedon and Worms.
In fact, some demons have better theology than we do! (Kent Hughes)
And yet they shudder. The word means uncontainable, uncontrollable, violent shaking from extreme fear. Why are they afraid? Because they know that right theology isn’t enough. You can have all the right theology in the world. It’s important, but it’s not enough to save you.
Bill Hillman, a 32-year-old Chicago-based journalist, is an expert on the bull run in Pamplona, Spain. He even co-authored a book subtitled How to Survive the Bulls of Pamplona. But on July 3, 2014, just knowing about bull running, even knowing enough to write an instruction manual on bull running, wasn’t enough. A 1,320 pound fighting bull named Brevito lagged behind the pack just before entering the city’s bull ring at the end of a rain-slicked run in the annual festival. At the opportune time, Brevito gored Hillman in the right thigh and a 35-year-old Spanish man in the chest. Both men recovered, but the co-author of Hillman’s book ‘s told The New York Times, “We will probably need to update the book.”
Do you say the right things? Do you believe the right things? That’s a good start. But it’s not enough. You may in fact be in danger of fooling yourself into thinking you’re okay. But neither what we say nor what we believe is evidence of true faith. How can you tell if you’re right with God? You can’t tell simply by what you believe or what you say.
So how can you tell? Well, James tells us.
You Can Tell You Have Real Faith by How It’s Changed Your Life
After what James has said, and after the warning of Jesus, you may be wondering how you can know if you have real faith. James tells us. In verses 17 and 18 he says:
So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 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. (James 2:17-18)
In fact, he goes even farther. He gives a couple of examples of characters in Scripture who demonstrated their faith through their actions. We know from Scripture that Abraham was saved by his faith in God. Genesis 15:6 says, “And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” Later on in the Bible, the apostle Paul uses this passage twice to prove that nobody is right with God based on our actions, but on faith alone. It’s always been this way. But here James says that this genuine faith worked itself out in action. It led to Abraham’s willingness to offer God his only son if that’s what it took. Genuine faith results in works, James is saying. You’re saved by faith, but if your faith doesn’t change your life, it wasn’t real to begin with.
He’s mentioned Abraham, who is a key and respected figure. Then James goes to the opposite extreme and mentions Rahab, a prostitute. Abraham was a major Bible figure; Rahab was a minor participant. Abraham was the father of the faithful; Rahab was a foreigner. Abraham was the respected; Rahab was disreputable. Abraham was a man; Rahab was a woman. Of course, James is making a point. It doesn’t matter who you are. Genuine faith works in the same way.
When Rahab defended God’s people against her own people, James says, she showed genuine faith. You can say you have all the faith in the world, but until that faith results in action, you can’t say that you have genuine faith. It doesn’t matter if you’re Abraham or Rahab. Genuine faith results in works.
James goes even further. He says in verse 24, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” This seems to directly contradict Romans 3:28, which says, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” You can see the apparent contradiction here:
How do we reconcile this? Who is right?
The answer is that both are right. There’s no contradiction between what Paul says and what James says. Paul says that we’re saved by genuine faith in Jesus. But James says that the sign of genuine faith is that it results in real, measurable change in our lives. If we can’t see how it’s changed us, there’s a good chance that we never had genuine faith to begin with.
Hundreds of years ago, someone smart wrestled with this and came to this conclusion: “We’re saved by faith alone, but not by a faith that remains alone” (Philipp Melanchthon). That’s exactly right. Faith that doesn’t reveal itself in works — in a changed lifestyle that glorifies God and has compassion on others —is dead and worthless. We’re saved by faith alone, but we don’t have a saving faith if there’s no evidence of change in our lives.
Sometimes it helps to see the sort of thing that James is arguing against. I came across this quote from the comedian Louis C.K.:
I have a lot of beliefs .… And I live by none of them. That’s just the way I am. They’re just my beliefs. I just like believing them—I like that part. They’re my little “believies.” They make me feel good about who I am. But if they get in the way of a thing I want, I sure as heck just do what I want to do.
“I have a lot of beliefs…and I live by none of them.” That’s exactly the kind of faith that James opposes. It’s exactly the kind of faith that’s dead and useless. If that’s us, James says, we’re fooling ourselves. We don’t have any faith at all.
How can you tell if you’re right with God? You can tell, not simply by what you believe or what you say, but by how it’s changed your life.
I said at the beginning that this may be one of the most important sermons you ever hear, not because I’m going to do a great job, but because the topic is so important.
The reason it’s important is because there are people who once made a commitment to Christ, but it really hasn’t changed their life. They are banking on a decision they made on a certain date. They signed the deal. But really, it hasn’t changed their lives very much.
James says that if this is you, you’re fooling yourself. If you’ve really put your faith in Jesus, it’s going to change you. The Spirit is going to move into your live, and he’s going to start to make changes. You won’t be perfect, but you’re sure going to be different. You’ll move in fits and starts, and sometimes take backward steps, but over time you’ll see real change. It will change the way you see people. It will change your heart for God. It will cause you to struggle with sins you used to love. You won’t be perfect — we never are in this life — but your faith will start to change you. James says if you don’t see that happening, you may say you believe, but you don’t.
That’s real faith. That’s what’s available to anyone who wants it. Don’t settle for mental assent. Come and encounter the real Jesus. Receive his grace in your life, and you’ll never be the same.