Believers, Place Your Bets!
© 4/15/2020 C. O. Bishop
We hear a lot of arguments regarding the twin subjects of faith and works. And that is what they really are: twins! Saving faith produces works as a rule. Works are proof of faith as a rule, but not always saving faith: they may only be proof that the one performing the works wants to please God, or even wants to be seen as righteous by his or her fellow-humans.
Here in James, the single verse (26) “26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” is one of the most misused and frequently misquoted passages in the Bible. Why? Because we tend to isolate that one idea, and thus sever it from the context in which it is given. Let’s back up to verse 12, at least, and see what is being discussed: Remember that James is speaking to believers. “12 So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty.“
13 For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment.
We all get one chance— one life—during which to honor God, and present our bodies a living sacrifice as a worship offering. Once it is over, only that which met this standard will have eternal value. Usually, we only have one chance to make a “first impression” with those people around us, too. Sometimes we are fortunate enough to be around folks long enough for them to see that we are not “stuck-up” or rude…but if that is what they really thought, when they first met us, they will probably not come back and give us another chance. Does God see us for what we really are, good or bad? Certainly He does! He is not governed by “impressions.” I am frequently amused by married couples’ testimonies that “when I first met ___, I didn’t like….” Their first impression was bad, but they grew to love one another and eventually were married. Their first impression was wrong, but could have cost them dearly. God sees the truth at all times. He is not the one we are trying to impress, or trying to not cause to stumble, or whatever.
As believers, we have already received God’s Mercy, at the Cross: We are in no danger of His changing His mind, and rejecting us. We are sealed in Christ until the day of redemption, according to Ephesians. But we need to reflect that fact, in reaching out to those around us in a merciful way. Can it backfire? Certainly it can! It did for Jesus, many times. After he fed the 5,000, in John chapter 6; the very next day, those he had fed were back for more; but he offered them the Bread of Life instead, and they immediately turned on him and began to argue, in John 6:30, saying “What sign showest thou then, that we may see and believe thee?” (What? He just fed the whole crowd on five loaves and two fishes, and you ask for another sign?)
We have had people ask for money for food, and when we gave it, we saw them immediately head for the liquor store. So, the next time, when someone asked for money for food, we took them to get food. In one case that worked very well…the woman involved was telling the truth: her husband and several children were waiting in an empty lot beside a school, and they were all very glad to see her show up with a large bag full of sandwiches and other food.
But in another case, the
fellow asked for food, and we offered to drive with him right then, and buy a
meal. He changed his request, saying he needed gas for his car. We offered to
go with him to get gasoline…the story kept changing, and we kept offering to
meet the stated need, until he was exasperated, and blurted “Can’t
you just give me some money?!” He was lying! He didn’t want any
of the things he claimed to need. We were glad we had not given him anything,
whereas in the case of the woman with the children, we were only sad that we
could offer no better help than food.
What is the Connection?
14 What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?
We need to see the connection between faith and works, then. James poses the question “Can Faith save?” The real issue is “what kind of faith are we talking about?” Saving faith seems to be the issue, but there are other things we, as humans, call faith.
In responding to this passage, I would like to relate an argument I had with an unbelieving co-worker, nearly thirty years ago: He claimed that he could “create his own reality.” He claimed that his beliefs would control the reality that he experienced.
I replied that he did not really believe that, and that the untruth of his statement was made obvious by how he lived his life: He had to live with the same reality as everyone else. He “placed his bets,” so to speak, upon the realities of this world, the same as everyone else. I said, “If you are in the middle of the road and I tell you a truck is coming, you will get out of the road, just like everyone else. You will not ‘create your own reality,’ in which the truck will somehow not hurt you: You are betting on the reality of death, and saving yourself by moving out of harm’s way.” He had no answer, and the conversation ended. But that same rule is applied here, by James:
What you really believe is revealed by your works. If you really believe your house is on fire, you try to save yourself, your loved-ones and your possessions, unless you are suicidal, and desire to die. Where you “place your bets” is the best indicator of what you really believe.
If you really believe that Jesus is your Savior, your Master and your Judge, then your actions should reflect that, as a general rule. So the logic follows: if you see someone else in need, what you really believe about your relationship to Christ and His lordship in your life will be revealed by your works. (Bear in mind the inherent question, “revealed to whom?” Does God know the truth? Or are we constantly having to again prove to God the reality of our faith?)
The kind of faith that produced a love-relationship with an unseen Savior should also produce a compassionate relationship with the visible people around us with their visible needs. 1st John 4:20, 21 agrees, saying, 20 If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? 21 And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also.
The demonstration of the reality of faith is to other humans, not to God. The kind of faith that does not produce appropriate works is called a “dead” faith. We are commanded by Jesus to love one another…a genuine faith should result in a genuine caring for those around us. We should love one another in practical ways, according to this passage.
And, What if we Don’t?
15 If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, 16 And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?
Such neglect is unprofitable and brings a negative shadow on the name of Christ. If we, as believers, don’t even care for one another’s needs, then how can we say we are “brothers” in Christ? Even unbelievers, as a rule, will care for the needs of their families, though perhaps in poor grace, in some cases. Usually, simple cultural norms will demand that a person care for their own immediate family members. Why, then, would it be acceptable to us to not take care of the believers with whom we share an eternal bond of kinship in the person of Christ? That lack, if founded upon a lack of concern, not just ignorance of the need, would show a non-functional faith, at least, and perhaps would give reason to suspect even the validity of that faith…leading us to verse 17, which is closing in on what we wanted to address in the first place:
17 Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.
Such faith, that does nothing to move the will, and causes no change in action, is a useless, non-functional faith. Is it valid? Only God knows! You see, this whole passage on “faith versus works” is couched in the question of “How can the World see faith? How can people see faith?”
God could see the faith of Lot, though no human could see it. When I first read the account of Lot, in Genesis chapters 13-19, I would definitely have supposed (in spite of his Godly Uncle Abraham) that Lot was simply an unbeliever, whose sins finally caught up with him. But God says, in 2nd Peter 2:6-9, that Lot was a righteous man! I certainly would not have come to that conclusion by observing his works, because, except for one feeble attempt to save the angels whom he thought were ordinary men, he was pretty much invisible, in terms of faith, because his works did not reveal his faith, as a rule. Even his sons-in-law did not believe him, when he tried to warn them of the coming destruction. So, the next verse makes it clear:
18 Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.
A man, a fellow
human, can only observe faith in action. We cannot see the hearts of
our fellow humans. We can only see actions. God says we need works to confirm who
we are in Christ, to those around us. Lot’s life was a wreckage that was not
only useless as a testimony to unbelievers, but produced enemies to the seed of
Abraham, lasting until today. Lot’s sons (by incest with his daughters) were Ben-Ammi
and Moab. The Ammonites and the Moabites were bitter enemies to Israel from the
beginning, and they still are, today, as they are the people of
Jordan, and the Palestinians. It is a sad thing, but “righteous Lot” left a terrible
19 Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.
20 But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?
“Doctrinal soundness” does not replace a living faith. “Orthodoxy” is simply a case of having correct opinions. One can know the truth, intellectually; accept it as fact; be able to recite a catechism or creed, and yet have no personal interaction with that truth. It is certainly possible to have “correct opinions” regarding theology, and still be absolutely an unbeliever.
But remember that James is speaking to believers. All he says, here, is that knowing the fact that “there is only one God” is not the same as having a living relationship with that one God. He gives the example of the demons, who have known God face-to-face, since before the world was created, and yet are eternally His enemies. They know all about the God of the Bible, and are terrified of their coming judgment. We know the bare facts, as we have been told them, but we are indifferent about the coming judgment, and acting as if it will never come.
Genuine Faith will Change Our Life
If our faith is a real, saving faith, it should be changing our motives, and our behavior. We don’t “make that change” in order to “prove our faith.” Genuine Faith changes us, from the inside out, and proves its own validity.
goes on to discuss Abraham, whom God
justified by faith (Genesis 15:6), but whom men justify because of his works. The scripture that says he was justified by his faith,
found visible proof in his
21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?
22 Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?
The word “perfect”, here, means “completed”…fulfilled. If we compare Ephesians 2:8-10, we can see
that while we are saved “by Grace, through Faith,” and specifically not through (or by means of) works,
verse ten makes it clear that we are
“His workmanship, created unto good
works, which He has before ordained that we should walk in them.” So
the fulfillment of our faith
and God’s Grace, in re-creating us in His own image, is that we are to walk in the good works that he
ordained for us ahead of time.
23 And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. 24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.
Remember that the word “justified” means “declared righteous.” Bear in mind Who it is, doing the real justification, and who the observers are in this context. In Romans 5:1, Paul states that we have been justified by faith, and that, as a result, we have peace with God. So, looking again at verse 18, we remind ourselves that, in this case, the persons questioning our faith are fellow humans. We can only demonstrate our faith to other humans through appropriate works. Our fellow humans “declare us righteous” based entirely on what they can see. So, in verse 24, we are “justified” or “declared righteous,” on the basis of works, where humans are the judges. We were declared righteous entirely on the basis of Faith, where Jesus is the Judge. (We don’t even like to think of Jesus as being the Judge, but He says He is, in John 5:22) Romans 5:1 addresses our justification before God. James 2:24 refers to our justification before Man. Does it matter? You’d better believe it does! (Remember Lot!)
25 Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? 26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
It somehow seems appropriate, in this context, to remember that “dead”, in scripture, usually has some sort of “separation” in view. A body, separated from the spirit of the person to whom both belong, is considered a dead body: no longer functional. A faith that is separated from the works that should accompany it, is considered a dead faith…not functional. It does not mean that such a person has never been accepted by God, necessarily. There are examples in the Old Testament and the New Testament, of people whose faith faltered, and their testimony was ruined, and who, in some cases, lost their physical lives because of their subsequent disobedience. (Lot, Balaam, Samson, Ananias & Sapphira, Demas, etc.) But in each case, it seems clear that they were real believers who simply fell into a pattern of disobedience… and it cost them heavily.
Place your Bets!
Remember that salvation tract (The Four Spiritual Laws) people used to hand out, which began with the statement (true, by the way) that “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life!”? Well, here’s the other side of that idea: “Satan hates you and has a TERRIBLE plan for your life!” Now, if you walk with Jesus, staying close to the Great Shepherd, you need have no fear of the Evil One, at all: He is a defeated enemy. But the Enemy does have an agenda:
- Satan desires to destroy your fellowship with God, through distractions, through neglect of feeding on the Word, neglect of prayer, and through overt sin.
- He desires to destroy your Joy and Peace, through all of the above.
- He desires to destroy your testimony, as bitterness and cynicism begin to replace Joy and Peace, and your works show to others the deadness of your faith.
- Finally, if he can draw you far enough away from the Shepherd, he desires to destroy your life, either through the destructive results of the bad decisions made in the flesh or through the consequences of overt sin.
God does not need you to “prove your faith” to Him by works. But your works are the result of what you really believe, and are a pretty good indicator of where your heart really is today. They reveal where you are currently “placing your bets.” They should reveal to you how you are doing, spiritually, and they definitely will let your neighbors, friends and family make decisions about the reality of faith in your life.
Look in the “Mirror of God’s Word, and see yourself! Look at where you are “Placing your Bets,” and see whether that is how God wants you to respond to Him.
So you really believe prayer is important? Then place your bet that way: pray! Do you really believe Jesus is the Master? Then obey Him! Do you really believe you should be feeding on God’s Word? Then do so! Do you really believe you should share your faith with others? Then do so! Where you “place your bets”–what you actually do–reveals what you really believe.
The Lord Bless His Word, and His people as they seek His Face.