What does genuine saving faith look like? (James 2:14-26)

Recently an atheist website posted this graphic.[1]

 It’s an attempt to show all the contradictions in the Bible. Each arc goes from one passage to another which it’s claimed is contradictory. Below the graphic, 439 different contradictions are listed. I’ve heard some atheists getting excited about this graphic, wanting to get it printed and put it in the hands of every Christian they could. It’s interesting how keen some atheists are to convert people!

One of the contradictions listed, no. 150 : Is Salvation by faith alone? Includes: Romans 3:28, Ephesians 2:8-9 ≠ James 2:14, 2:17, 2:21-25.

For we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law (Romans 3:28). For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Yet here in James 2, we read verses like this: v17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead, v24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

So in Romans and Ephesians, Paul is teaching that we are saved by faith alone, but here James seems to be saying we’re considered righteous by what we do, not by faith alone. What can we say? Is the Bible hopelessly contradictory? Should all the churches across the world shut down? Should the thousands of new churches that will begin this week across the world, not even bother? Is the Bible hopelessly flawed?

None of these alleged contradictions are new discoveries. If you look closely at each of them you find that Christians have been writing about them for thousands of years. You can buy books that address all these supposed contradictions individually, all of them have reasonable and persuasive explanations.

We’ll come to the alleged contradiction between James and Paul later, but first we want to look at the overall question James is addressing in this passage, the question of saving faith. What does saving faith look like? There are lots of people who claim to be Christians across the world, but how do we know whether our faith is genuine? It’s an important question, Jesus says many will say to him on the last day…Lord, Lord, did we not do all these things in your name, and he will say “I never knew you. Away from me…” (Matthew 7:23). Clearly there are many who think they are Christians, but are not. How can we know? What does true saving faith look like? Let’s notice four things:

1. Saving faith is more than correct knowledge about God

V19 You believe that there is one God, good even the demons believe that… James says it’s good if we believe there is one God. It’s good to have correct theology, to believe the right things about God, but he says it’s not enough, even the demons believe right things about God, and they don’t have saving faith.

Jonathan Edwards preached a famous sermon on this verse, called: True Grace Distinguished from the Experience of Devils [2]. As part of it he says: Whatever clear notions a man may have of the attributes of God, the doctrine of the Trinity, the nature of the two covenants, the economy of the persons of the Trinity… if he can discourse…excellently of the offices of Christ…happily solving difficulties, and answering objections…If he has more knowledge of this sort than hundreds of true saints of an ordinary education … yet all [this] is no certain evidence of any degree of saving grace in the heart. (Jonathan Edwards)

It’s quite sobering to think about isn’t it? It’s good to love the Bible, sound doctrine, and good theology, yet it’s possible to know lots of correct things about God, yet not have true saving faith. Correct belief about God is important, yet saving faith is more than that.

2. Saving faith is more than ‘shuddering’ before God

V19 even the demons believe that, and shudder. The demons not only have correct belief about God, they even shudder before him. They recognise something of his true power and greatness, they recognise the reality of the judgment to come, yet they don’t have saving faith.

The Bible tells us how a Roman governor called Felix was afraid when he heard about God, yet he did not have saving faith: And as [Paul] reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed and said, “Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you.” At the same time he was hoping that Paul would offer him a bribe, so he sent for him frequently and talked with him. (Acts 24:25-26)

Felix trembles as he hears about the final judgement. It seems he has a sense of his own sinfulness, he’s concerned about what will happen to him. Yet he clearly has other things also pulling at his heart. Notice two things: one he puts Paul off, secondly he’s more interested in money than God – he’s hoping for a bribe. He’s afraid, and alarmed, yet he doesn’t have saving faith.

Many are afraid of dying, many are afraid of standing before a Holy God, a perfect God, a consuming fire. There’s no way we can hide our secrets from a God who sees everything. Many are afraid of the prospect of going to hell, of being separated from God for eternity. It’s not wrong to be afraid of what will be terrible. Yet you can shudder before God and not have true saving faith.

3. Saving faith involves trust in the Lord Jesus Christ (2:1)

To see who James is addressing here, it’s important to go back to James 2:1 NIV: My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, ESV: My brothersas you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of Glory.

Faith can be a fairly vague word, people use phrases like, keep the faith, and you’ve got to have faith, and can mean all sorts of things by it. In the Bible, faith means belief or trust in someone specific, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

That simple phrase, Lord Jesus Christ, summarises the gospel, the Christian message. Jesus is the Lord of glory as that verse says, yet all humans instead of living for his glory, live for our own. We rebel against the Lord of glory, and rightly deserve his judgement.  But in his mercy, God sent the Lord Jesus Christ. Lord can mean master or ruler, but it is also the word used in the Greek Old Testament to translate the name of God. Jesus is Lord in all of these senses. He is God himself. The second name in that title – Jesus, means saviour. The Lord God, became a human to be a saviour, to die for the sin of his people. Christ means messiah, the one God had promised he would send.

I was talking with someone recently who said they were a Christian, and we were talking about heaven. He told me he was hoping to go to heaven, because he’d lived a pretty good life, so God would let him in. I said to him, if that’s the case, why did God send Jesus to die? If we’re good enough to get to heaven by living a good life, why did God send Jesus to the cross? Our rebellion against God is more serious than we realise. We think of ourselves as good, but we’re not exactly unbiased judges. We selectively compare ourselves to others who seem worse than us in some areas. We fail to acknowledge how little thought we’ve really given to living for God, how self-centred rather than God centred we are. Our sin is serious, but there is hope – in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus Christ is the saviour of all those who turn from their sins, and put their trust in his death on the cross, as being for them.

Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ means admitting your complete inability to save yourself. To say in the words of hymn writer Augustus Toplady:

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy (Your) cross I cling,
Naked look to Thee (You) for dress,
Helpless look to Thee (You) for grace,
Foul I to the fountain fly,
Wash me saviour or I die.

It’s good to ask hard questions about our faith, to ask: is my faith more than just correct belief about God, is it more than just shuddering before God? Yet, there’s a danger in focussing too much on yourself, because saving faith is not faith in yourself, it is in the Lord Jesus Christ.  For every look at self, take ten looks at Christ (Robert Murray McCheyne). You can look at yourself and see how weak you are and how often you’ve failed God – it’s good to be honest about your failings, but focussing only on them will lead to despair, you need to look at the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ – see the sufficiency and power of his death and resurrection. Faith means admitting your own helplessness and Christ’s sufficiency.

You don’t need to have perfect faith, what counts is the direction of your faith. Genuine saving faith, involves trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.

4. Saving faith proves itself genuine through actions that demonstrate trust in Jesus.

James makes this point at least four times in this passage: v14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? The implied answer is no, v17 makes that clear: v17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead, v20 faith without deeds is useless v24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

So what are we to say here: is James contradicting what we saw Paul saying earlier, that we are saved by faith alone, not by our works?

It’s good to take note when we see things that may appear contradictory in the Bible. As Matt Perman noted recently: the appearance of contradictions is not a bad thing. Rather, it is a good thing because it stimulates thought…tension and the initial appearance of contradiction … cause us to think harder about how the two truths fit together. They cause us to probe more deeply and come to an even greater understanding… crying out “contradiction” when we see apparent contradiction in the Bible is lazy and superficial. [3]

It’s good for us, when we see verses that appear contradictory, because they make us think, and see things more clearly. Notice two important things here:

a) Different use of ‘justified’  – the word justified in the Bible normally means ‘made right’. So in Romans 3- 5 when Paul is talking about being justified by faith, he is talking about us being made right with God through faith in Jesus. Yet justified can also have another meaning. It can mean ‘proved right’, or shown to be in the right, that’s how we often use the term today, to justify your actions is to show that they were right. In 1 Timothy 3:16 the word is used to speak of how Jesus was ‘justified’ by the spirit, (there it is usually translated ‘vindicated’). Clearly Jesus did not need to be made right with God the Father, but he was justified or vindicated in that he was shown to be right through his resurrection. So here in James 2:24 when we read that a person is justified by what he does, and not by faith alone, it has that sense of shown to be right, not made right. Your faith is shown to be genuine by your actions.

You see that difference in the way James refers to Abraham. In Romans 4 Paul refers to Abraham, and shows how he took God at his word, believed his promise, and he was justified by his faith. Here James refers to another incident in Abraham’s life. Genesis 22 where Abraham is ‘tested’. His faith is shown to be genuine by his actions. he doesn’t just say he trusts God, he is willing to do what God says, even when that means risking the son he loves.

James and Paul knew each other, they preached the same gospel. They were both together at the council in Jerusalem when the church was working through what role the OT regulations should play in the lives of Gentiles who were becoming Christians. James would have almost certainly known that Paul spoke of being saved by faith alone. It’s possible as one commentator suggests that James even uses those same words he knows Paul uses to make a point that would get our attention. Paul spoke about being saved by faith alone, but he also spoke about showing your faith through your actions. James is saying the same thing here.

The truth is that, though we were justified by faith alone, the faith that justifies is never alone (it always produces fruit, “good works,”…a transformed life) (JI Packer).

We see this again in v25: the example of Rahab the prostitute from the book of Joshua. Rahab is saved by her faith in God. She turns from trusting the Canaanite gods, and instead puts her trust in the true God. She is justified or made with God through her faith. But her faith is shown to be genuine by her actions. She identified herself with gods people, helping the spies who came to her land, even at the risk of her life. Her faith was not just intellectual, it was a living faith that showed itself in what she did.

b) Different situations being addressed. When Paul is speaking in Romans, about being justified by faith alone, he is addressing those who think we are accepted or rejected by God based on whether we keep the law. Paul is saying no, if it’s on what we do, all except Jesus fall short, we can only be saved on the basis of what Jesus has done. On the other hand James is addressing those who are saying they have faith, so it doesn’t matter how they live. James is showing that how you live matters, it shows whether or not your faith is genuine.

In his commentary on James, Daniel Doriani describes two people he’d met.[4] One was a truck driver who said to him: I understand that Jesus is the Son of God. I know I’m a sinner, and I believe that Jesus died on the cross for my sins. But I’m a married man and a cross-country driver. I have girl friends in several cities, and I don’t want to give them up.

The second man he mentions is a lawyer who often visited church and was interested in obtaining eternal life. He too admitted that he was a sinner and needed a saviour. He believed that Jesus is the Son of God who died and rose again for all who believe. However there was one thing he did not like in the Bible, and that was the teaching about giving. He said there was no way he was ever going to tithe. He was planning to earn a lot of money as a lawyer, and did not wanting to be giving a large part of it away.

Both of them believed true things about God, yet both had other ‘gods’ or idols pulling at their heart. They might try to say: we’re saved by faith alone, it doesn’t matter how we live. But James won’t let either of them get away with that. He says faith without actions, without deeds is dead, it’s useless, it’s not saving faith.

It’s possible these men haven’t yet fully grasped the gospel. If they fully grasp what Jesus did in dying so that they could be free from sin, yet they persistently refuse to take hold of what he has done to help them change the way they think about marriage and money, the question has to be asked – do they really have saving faith?

What about you? Do you have real saving faith? Or do you have areas of your life, where you are saying to God, I can’t give that up, there’s no way I’m going to do what your word clearly says?

Saving faith is not perfect faith, but it will be repenting faith: faith that recognises areas of sin, and seeks God’s help to be turning from those areas, putting trust in Jesus to forgive you and change you.

A lot of people claim to have faith, but is your faith genuine saving faith in Jesus, that shows itself in the way you live? Or is it dead, useless faith, that won’t save you?

Faith is a gift from God, but it’s a gift we can ask for. I love this prayer from a father to Jesus: I do believe! Help my unbelief (Mark 9:24). You don’t have to have perfect faith, but ask God for a growing genuine faith, a faith that takes God at his word, and shows itself in actions that honour the Jesus you claim to trust in.

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8 responses to “What does genuine saving faith look like? (James 2:14-26)

  1. Pingback: Article: Saving Faith « Christian Lenses

  2. Thank you so much for this article. I wish every believer would examine themselves at least once a year. It’s so easy for us to feel secure in our salvation due to the “easy-belivism” that is rampant in this country.

  3. I add my thanks for this article. After reading Jonathan Edwards’ sermon and having its harsh light shone into my conscience, I have to admit I felt utterly lost. Looking on responses to his sermon to see if there was any weakness in it (how strongly our self-reliance fights for preservation) I found this blog and I’m humbled and glad for it. Although I don’t agree with one aspect which is currently a hotbed of debate of theological debate (tithing), I whole-heartedly embrace the message laid out here. May God grant me the faith that is genuine and ever-growing and the grace to look to Christ 10x for every once I see myself. Thank you.

    • Thanks very much Jon. May God grow your faith and mine, and may we both grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

  4. Sorry the sentence should read: “Although I don’t agree with one aspect which is currently a hotbed of theological debate…”. Cheers.

  5. Harvey Colasino

    great blog! Put our faith into action! God bless you so much 🙂

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