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Anatomy of a Living Faith [3-5-23]

March 5, 2023

James 2:21-26

“Anatomy of a Living Faith”

Is it possible to believe in God and not be given eternal life? Is it possible to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and not be given eternal life? Is it possible to believe that what Jesus did he actually did and not be given eternal life? Is it possible to affirm the cross and the resurrection yet never be delivered from sin and never be given eternal life? Is it possible for someone to think and say they have faith and yet never be able to stand in the eternal presence of the One, True, and Holy God?

The answer to all these questions is a qualified yes. James writes about a dead faith. We talked about that last week in the message titled, “Autopsy of a Dead Faith.” That’s why he writes, in verse 2:17, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” Likewise, in 2:20, just to make sure we’re paying attention, he writes, “Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?” And then he wraps chapter two up with verse twenty-six, “So also faith apart from works is dead.”

So clearly the answer to our opening questions is a resounding, “Yes.” But why? What does it all mean?

How many of you know who Cheryl Adrienne Browne Hollingsworth is? C’mon, man, you’re killing me. {Put up picture} She was the first African American contestant in the history of the Miss America pageant {1971} Do you know what state she represented? Only the greatest state in these United States of America! What state? It’s only the state that has given us some of the smartest, hardest working, most attractive people in the land. Iowa. Plus great pork chops…and don’t forget ribs and bacon.

Several decades prior, the Miss America Pageant abolished rule number seven, which read, “Contestants must be of good health and of the white race.” All that changed when Iowa sent Cheryl Adrienne Browne Hollingsworth to Atlantic City.

Now, the point here is not to debate for or against beauty pageants. It’s not even to extol the greatness of the 29th state of the union. The point is the intersection of James 2:21-26 with these ugly realities of human nature.

My hunch is that many of the people behind rule number seven, its promotion and/or promulgation, as well as too many other manifestations of racism and bigotry…my hunch is that among these people many considered themselves Christians in a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. But according to James they would be wrong. How can you think you have a faith that saves, and yet reflect what is clearly wickedness in behavior and belief?

These are challenging verses. They warn against the illusion that because you hear truth and your mind affirms truth, that it’s enough. It’s only enough when you begin to produce truth in your living.

Let’s look at James 2:21-26:

Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” - and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

Before we get into the first example, here’s something you might want to write down:


In other words, you know it’s windy by the effects of the wind. You can’t see it – only its effects. You know there’s electricity running through the wires or through the buried cables only because you enjoy and appreciate its effects. You know there’s Wi-Fi only because you use the data and

programming it delivers. Saying I have faith is only true if there are effects.

That’s why, in weeks past, we’ve been encouraged by James to have a persevering faith. That means we don’t wilt or falter under trial or tribulation. That’s why, in weeks past, we’ve connected James with Galatians and the fruit of the spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. If we have been transformed by our relationship with Jesus Christ, then most of the time, in most situations and circumstances, these things will be the effect of that relationship. These things are all tangible signs of faith.

Listen to what Jesus says in Matthew 7:21-27:

“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.’

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”

It is the life pattern that validates or invalidates the claim to salvation. So says James – Faith without works is dead.

In his first example, James brings up Abraham from the Old Testament. Now, there’s a whole message alone in this story, but we’re going to have to be brief. Abraham was the first person called to believe in the One, True, monotheistic God. God promised to make Abraham the father of many people; a whole new people to worship and serve the One, True God. Now, Abraham and his wife didn’t have a baby…they didn’t have a baby…they didn’t have a baby, until, well on in years, they finally did. A boy. Isaac.

Remember, Abraham and Sarah were old. Real old. Until finally, the fulfillment of God’s promise to build an entire nation through them became reality.

Here’s where things get interesting. And it’s really important for the point James is making.

One commentator says, and this is really a great way to put it:

“The example of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son, through whose descendants God had promised innumerable seed to occupy the Promised Land and through whom the world would be blessed, has taxed the imagination of history’s greatest minds.”

In other words, there are all kinds of different ways people have tried to

wrap their brains around this narrative. We know God stilled Abraham’s

hands before the knife could plunge into Isaac’s body…who, by the way, was probably between ten and fifteen years old…and instead God directed him to a ram caught in a thicket. So, that part ended well, and an important point was made. True faith is radical obedience. Knowing God’s promise and knowing all Isaac meant to the promise, Abraham was so totally committed to believing that God’s sovereign will would be fulfilled, he was obedient.

Here's a huge distinction to make:


This point is beautifully made by the word used in verse twenty-two, “You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works.” The word translated, completed, means “to perfect” or “bring to maturity.” Faith is not a one-and-done. I say I believe, therefore I’m saved. No, perfect faith is produced through consistent acts of obedience. Abraham’s faith was strengthened, matured, and deepened by the

continual presence of and perseverance through trials which he endured. It

was also evidenced in sacrifices made and losses counted. As you can see, this runs counter to the prosperity gospel and prosperity gospel-lite pushed by pastors, teachers, and authors within the American evangelical church culture. They say, God wants you to be healthy, wealthy, and successful. And oh, by the way, the way to achieve that is to buy my resources and donate to my cause. What would James say to these things?

Then there’s this observation:

Jesus is not the weak and needy God He’s portrayed as, begging people to ask Him into their hearts. He is a conqueror and King of Kings. Few things have been more devastating to the modern evangelical church than the “Sinner’s Prayer” altar call. It has been the leading source of false converts.

Do you hear the tension with Biblical truth, especially what we’re reading in James? Too many times, in too many places, people have assumed that because they raised their hand or signed a card, it was smooth sailing all the way to glory land. But nothing could be wronger from the truth.

You see, James describes for us what a living, vibrant, vital faith is. As

John Calvin observed, “James does not allow those who lack good works to be reckoned righteous.”

Here’s something else you might want to write down:


How do we know our faith is alive and real? By the life we live. It’s our attitudes and actions…our thoughts and our deeds…how we relate to our world and the people in our world. If we truly believe we have been given unmerited grace, then our lives will reflect it. Life begets life. In the midst of a fallen, broken, wicked culture, transformed people are possessed by a faith that works.

Do you know who George Washington Williams was? He was a soldier in the Civil War and in Mexico before becoming a Baptist minister, politician, lawyer, and journalist. {Show Picture} We share birthdays {10/16/1849} within one day of each other, so he was almost a brother from another century.

Do you know who Leopold II, King of the Belgians, was? He was a despotic

ruler who was responsible for as many as ten million deaths in the Belgian

Congo. This primarily happened over the control of coveted resources. Ironically, as stated in a story by National Public Radio:

How 'modern-day slavery' in the Congo powers the rechargeable battery economy.

My, how the more things change, the more they stay the same. Some people think a green economy and green energy are part of some idyllic future. The drive to electrify everything is devastating to people and the environment. There are always tradeoffs…always tradeoffs.

Anyway, back to Williams. He wrote a letter to Leopold II, King of the Belgians, in which he called him to task for his treatment of the people in his Belgian colonies. Williams is thought to be the first person to use the phrase, “Crimes against humanity.”

Here’s where his letter connects with James. In his conclusion, Williams states:

“Against the deceit, fraud, robberies, arson, murder, slave-raiding,

and general policy of cruelty of your Majesty’s Government to the natives, stands their record of unexampled patience, long-suffering and forgiving spirit, which put the boasted civilization and professed religion of your Majesty’s Government to the blush.

So, back to our original question. Is it possible to believe in God and not be given eternal life? What do you think?

Let’s close with this observation by commentators Craig L. Blomberg and Mariam J. Kamell:

“True, saving faith by definition means that the Spirit enters a person’s life to begin conforming them to the likeness of Christ. This transformation cannot be quantified, may be different for every person in detail, and regularly involves many fits and starts or forward and backward steps; but, over time, it does result in changed living.

Next week, we’ll wrap up James 2 with a closer look at Rahab the

prostitute. Until then:


To the Glory of God Alone

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