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What does a Christian look like?

What does a Christian look like? What is the archetypal image of a Christian? James 2 is concerned with this question. Its a controversial chapter that deals with what a Christian looks like. And it blows away a myth. That myth is that “Faith is what I think”. (Mark Dever)

As I said it's been a controversial chapter. The great church reformer Martin Luther didn't get on too well with this. He was the champion of Protestantism – reforming the church from its errors in the Roman Catholicism of 450 years ago.

He observed two key foundations for Protestants:
  • 1.Authority – that it rests with the Bible not with Rome or the Church
  • 2.How we stand before God – that this rests on faith in Jesus blood not my works.
[Thank to Carl Trueman for this clarity]

This is known as “Justification by grace, through faith”. It is the cornerstone of true Christian faith. That we are counted perfect by God, because Jesus died in our place.

And when Luther read the passage we're studying tonight he blew a gasket. He famously called James a “right strawy epistle”. That is to say – something that should just be discarded. And of James 3v1, where James warns few people to aspire to be teachers... Luther is said to have remarked “I wish he'd taken his own advice”. Luther wasn't a fan. So the question is – does this passage contradict everything else... or had Luther not quite understood it. Well, I hope we'll see that there is no contradiction.

Actually James' words are vital for us – they sound vital warnings about the way we live, and about the way we speak. He sticks a big “handle with care” label over our lives. We have to understand that James was a provocative writer which is where some of the problem comes from – he does use Biblical phrasing in slightly strange ways. But, he does it to make a necessary point. And his issue – is what does real faith look like. And one of the key reasons for this is that James writes to suffering Christians. People who suffered for being Christians.

And James wants to be sure that they suffer for real Christian faith. Something he describes in 2v1. “The Faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory”.
Its possible to suffer for calling yourself a Christian without actually being one. But its a bit stupid to do that.

James has two key things to say here.
  • 1.Faith is more than assent – illustrated by demons.
  • 2.Faith is active – illustrated by Abraham and Rahab.

First then: Faith is more than assent.
V14, he poses the question - “What good is faith without works?” Is that, “saving faith”. Is it saving faith to wish a hungry or naked believer well, v16, without meeting their need? V17 – No! Faith without works is dead.

Charles Spurgeon said that “If you want to give a hungry man a tract then wrap it up in a sandwich” - meet his need. And it probably works the other way around - “If you want to give a hungry man a sandwich, wrap it up in a tract”.

It has to be said that in leafy Surrey, in comfy Farnham need isn't all that great. But there are needs if we'll see them – there are those on our courses who are lonely. There are many international students far from home who need a friend. And are going to need some help adjusting to our strange British culture.

And we shouldn't be too spiritual about things. It's good to say something, but sometimes we need to take action. If you meet someone at church who says they need someone to look after their kids so they can sort out a problem... should we really just say “I'll pray for you” or should we offer to look after their kids for the evening, or go and fix the problem? What would be more helpful?

James senses a protest, v18, “someone will say”... “You have faith, I have works”... so he requests to see their faith apart from their works and says he'll let his faith be seen by his works. He says – real faith shows in the way you live.

Now, what he is not saying is anything here about evangelism. It's not even on his radar at all. So he's not saying you can evangelise by just living in front of people.

Words are absolutely essential to communicate the faith to people. James knows this – he's writing a letter. This has nothing to do with the erroneous quote “preach the gospel always, use words if necessary”.... Its an error on two counts. One, Francis of Assisi probably never said it. And either way – it's simply not true, Biblically.

Evangelism requires words. Preaching the gospel always requires words – what James is talking about is the way that real faith outworks. And it is more than what we think.

Here's the shocking illustration of his point. V19. He says “you believe that God is one”. I am glad, James responds. But even the demons believe that God is one. They believe that God is Trinity. And what is more, the demons even shudder before God. Actually, if you read the early chapters of Mark's gospel the only people who recognise Jesus are the demon-possessed people – and they are very scared of him. But they're not saved people.

But demons do not have “saving faith” - do they? Of course not. Their hearts, their lives are in utter rebellion against God. But, O, they have a fairly decent theology. They know who God is. And they hate him. And it shows in the way they rebel against his Word.

If faith is assent to who God is. Mental agreement. Simply, what we think. Then we are deeply misled. Demonic faith can tick boxes. Demonic faith knows who God is. Faith like demons - “demonic faith” - even shudders before God. But it doesn't save. V20, “demonic faith” is useless.

Here's the rub of this first point – true faith affects how we relate to God's people.

* In pairs check these references and ask “How does true faith effect the way we treat God's people?” How might we be in the wrong, by the way we live? Look at 1v27, 2v3-4.

Secondly, Faith is active.
We've already begun to touch on this. But we need to take it further. James gives us two illustrations in v21-26.

First from Abraham – known as “the man of faith”, and secondly Rahab – whose faith is also commended. Both are in the hall of fame, the crowd of martyrs in Hebrews 11.
James asks – v21, was not Abraham justified by works? And the same question in v25, was not Rahab justified by works. We should instinctively respond. No, by faith!!
But then we must remember that “Bible words have Bible meanings” and let us consider what James the Provocative is saying.

Abraham he says offered up his son Isaac on the altar. And so his faith was completed, v22, by his works. What he is saying is that God counted Abraham righteous – justified him – v23. And this by faith – but faith was active, not just mental assent. James will not let us get away with thinking that faith is what I think. Abraham was a pagan from the land of Ur who threw his lot in with the promises of God.

He had active faith – even to put his son on the altar – trusting that God would one day provide. A ram was provided that day in the place of Isaac. But Abraham doesn't say – God provided, he says “God will provide”. As Abraham puts his son on the altar he looks ahead to God providing Jesus. The perfect sacrifice for our sins. The one in who we put our faith.

Rahab, v25, took in the messengers and protected them. All the people of Canaan had heard about the LORD's rescue of his people from Egypt. Like demons they agreed that Israel's God was great and powerful. And they even expected to be turfed out of their lands by the LORD.

Which they then were. They shuddered. They were scared. But Rahab is different. She's not self-righteous – she was a prostitute.

Incidentally, have you ever wondered what the messengers were doing in the house of a prostitute? Joshua 2 tells us that they'd just arrived from Shittim.... And Numbers 25 tells us that Shittim was the place that Israel had prostituted themselves with “the daughters of Moab” ...The messengers were probably curb crawling in Jericho. And Rahab was the woman they found. There's no self-righteousness here.

But Rahab does get justified. How? By responded to hearing about God's saving of Israel and trusting that he could save her too. Relying on God's promises. She lived in the place God was about to quite rightly pour out his judgement on... Canaan defined evil... but she put active trust in God to save her – its why she's remembered in the Halls of Faith.

[Thanks to Mike Reeves for these insights]

What Abraham the pagan and Rahab the prostitute put their faith in the promises of God and it made difference. The promises of God were not a badge they wore. The promises of God changed the way they lived their lives.

The application of God's word is not merely to read the Bible and pray. That is pretty much assumed whenever we find ourselves already reading the Bible.....
If when we read God's word we become less inclined to read it again that means we're hardening our hearts to it. And that's a very bad thing! No preacher makes that his goal. And neither should we as we read the Bible.

And prayer is a vital response to God's word but rarely the primary thing the word of God is attempting to do in us. Faith is not just what I think. The goal in studying God's word is not merely to understand it. We don't meet as a Christian Union so we can just understand God's word and fix our thinking. Though thinking matters!

If all we want to do is understand what God's word says then we're likely to end up with faith like demons – very badly deceived. And we are very capable of deceiving ourselves when we come to God's word.

The word of God is the promise of God. And those promises require active responses....

Repentance. Being humbled. Killing sin. Being corrected in how we live. Changing the inclination of our hearts. Pursuing purity. Not showing favouritism. Changing the use of our hands and feet. Being encouraged in our hearts. Becoming obedient to a command. Loving. Rejoicing. Being wisened. Having our hearts broken. Reveling in the promises of God. Mourning over our sin. Boasting in the Cross of Christ. Trembling. Weeping. And many, many more responses...
Hearing the Word of God is not an academic exercise. It is not merely comprehension of a text. It is an encounter with the voice of God. An encounter with God himself. And it will not do to simply understand and shudder. Demons do that. God's word is meant to effect change.

I remember, boldly thinking I was very humble in my first year at University – eight years ago. I agreed that God says he gives grace to the humble – so I wanted to think I was humble....

Recently I was listening to a University lecturer who is part of my church – and he observed that a fault many students make is not to ask for help when they need it.
Suddenly I realised that that was exactly my problem at the end of my first year at University. I was struggling on my course – but “humbly” kept my head down rather than admitting it and getting some help.

I thought I was a model of humility... but I was self-deceived. Incredibly proud. And so was missing out on God's grace to me. Faith effects the way we treat the promises of God. Faith in the promises of God change the way we live.
* Some examples of God's promises, in James, for you to consider in pairs. Ask yourselves – What is God's promise here? What difference is this promise supposed to make in my life? How must I change? 1v2, 1v22-24, 4v6, 4v14
Friends, faith is not just assent. Understanding the Bible will not save you. Faith in the promises of God changes the way we live. And if it doesn't then we better cry out to God to help us change – and we had better make the hard decisions to change! Luther was concerned that people might think that God accept people because they lived differently. James isn't saying that.

James knows that people get justified by God because the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of Glory died in our place. But James writes with due provocative language to shock us into action.

James will not tolerate people living as if “faith is what I think”. Saving faith changes lives. We stand before God on the basis of Jesus' blood, but if our lives are unchanged all the right words in the world wont save us.

The goals of the Christian Union are to live for Jesus and speak for Jesus. This passage doesn't say a great deal about how to speak for Jesus. But it says a lot about how to live for Jesus. And the way to live for Jesus is to get to grips with the promises of God in the Word of God and exercise active faith – to use the promises of God to effect change in our lives.

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  1. Just an observation... whenever people quote the "Assisi quote" positively, they say "Preach the Gospel always, use words when necessary"; when people quote it negatively, they say "Preach the Gospel always, use words if necessary"

  2. And when people make observations like that they always do it anonymously... :)

    To be honest, I wasn't bothered about quoting it particularly more than just clarifying that it's not what James is talking about.


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