I remember at the beginning of our look at the book of James, Joe described how reading James is a bit like opening yourself up for a bit of a beating. That’s been my experience as we’ve been exploring this book these past few weeks. James isn’t trying to gently woo his listeners with his sweet words. He gets right to it and calls us all out on the gap between who we say we are on one hand and how we act on the other. Throughout the letter you can see that it matters dearly to James that people who follow Jesus are consistent in what they believe, what they say and what they do.
In the history of the Western church, the letter of James hasn’t been given quite as much space or weight as say, some of Paul’s letters. Part of the reason for this could be that James is a shorter letter, closer to the back. Part of it could also be that it’s not always a pleasant thing to have someone call you out, which James consistently does. Part of it is also certainly has to do with Martin Luther and the Reformation. Those of you familiar with church history will know that in the middle ages, many people in church leadership used their influence to twist and distort the gospel message so that people were told they had to either do actions to show repentance or to pay money to earn God’s forgiveness or for entry into heaven. People who had a lot of money could buy big forgiveness by donating to church building projects. You can see how in this system, poor people wouldn’t have too much of a hope for being made right with God. In response to this, one of the big things that Martin Luther, one of the leaders of the Reformation, taught as one of the cornerstones of the Christian faith is that believers never need to pay or do anything to earn God’s forgiveness or his salvation. Instead, forgiveness and salvation are always God’s free and joyful gift.
You can then imagine how when Luther is sitting down to read the text that we read here today, he might be especially triggered by verse 24: “You see, a person is justified by what he does, not by faith alone”. Martin Luther called James “an epistle of straw, compared to the others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it”.
It’s worth noting though, that if you’ve got your ears open to it when you read James, you’ll hear almost the entirety of Jesus’ sermon on the Mount scattered throughout the letter. Also, in other parts of the church, not influenced as directly by Luther, the book of James is given a prominent place. The indigenous people in Guatemala make more images of James than any of the other, better known biblical characters. Surely, James has a lot of the nature of the gospel in it.
For James, the gospel or the good news is that we worship a God who always follows through on his word. God is always consistent. God always follows through on his word, and his words are made complete and proved true in what he does. When God makes a promise, he always keeps it. When God says he will do something, he always does it. We can see this most immediately in the creation story. God speaks, and things come into being. There is no gap between God speaking and the action of it being made. God says, “Let there be light” and there is. Light comes into being right away. God speaks the whole world into being. God says a word and the thing is created. His words are followed right away by his action. For James, people who call themselves children of God will come more and more to be like God in this way. For James, God’s people must be people whose actions line up with their words and their beliefs.
That’s no small thing, is it? There a lot of cynicism and doubt about this, about words and beliefs translating into action. We can often see that cynicism come out with politicians and campaign promises. If they get elected into office, will they do what they said they would? When someone consistently doesn’t do what they say, we have a hard time trusting them. Words and actions are meant to go together.
Think about the promise for action implicit in saying, “I love you.” There is a world of action tied into those three words. And consistency between those words and the actions that follow them is what proves whether those words were real, whether they mean anything. When words aren’t followed with action, they are emptied of their meaning. Look at this example James gives in verse 15. “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing, what good is it?” The words, “keep warm and well fed” only have meaning and life when they are acted on. To use an analogy from James in verse 26, the words are like the body, and the action is the breath of life. The words are dead until the action of providing warm clothing and cooking and serving a hot meal brings them life, makes them real.
For James, consistency in belief, word and action is essential for followers of Jesus. This is the thing. Talk can be cheap. What proves whether talk has worth is the action that follows it. It’s easy to say stuff. Its not easy to live out the promise implicit in our words. It’s easy to say, “I care about the environment” but it’s hard to live that out in your daily choices and actions. When I made my wedding vows to Joe, the promise took all of 30 seconds for me to say, but it will literally take my entire lifetime to live out and the way I live will either show whether I meant what I said and whether my words were true. Words don’t stand alone. The same is true, James says, for our faith. James says it’s easy to believe in one God, that’s not what what makes or breaks you as a disciple. James says even the demons believe there is one God, and they shudder.
What would you say is the biggest criticism for people who believe in Jesus? Hypocrisy. Being two-faced.
When someone who says they are a Christian treats rich people better than poor people, it reveals that what has a grip on their hearts is not so much the love of Jesus that seeks out and embraces those on the margins, but instead what has more of a grip is the desire to be in league with the people who have power. When someone says they believe in God but then take advantage of someone in business, it reveals what is really has a grip on their heart, that they don’t trust God to provide what they need. When someone says they believe in Jesus, but consistency speak poorly of other people, it reveals that they don’t really love others as they love themselves the way Jesus does. When someone says they are a Christian, but they consistently do not let God’s love transform the way they treat others, engage in business, navigate conflict or forgive others, their claim is proved false. The words “I believe in God” necessarily overflow into actions that line up with those words.
Now that being said, being a follower of Jesus is a process. Living into the words, “I believe in you God, I trust in you, God, I love you, God” are words that will take our lifetime and words that we need the empowering of the Holy Spirit to live. We need to grow into these words and will always be growing into them. And there is space for that. There is grace for that and forgiveness for that. But words that are consistently contradicted by our daily actions, words, and attitudes of our hearts without any growth or desire to change are just that—they’re only words.
Verse 22 gets at the heart of what James is saying. James is describing how Abraham’s faith in God translated into an action that required total trust and submission. James says, “you see that his faith and his actions were working together and his faith was made complete by what he did.” Actions complete our faith.
James also gives the example of Rahab for someone whose' faith is made complete by what she does. James makes a point o f naming the fact that Rabab was a prostitute. In other words, she might not be the first person who comes to mind when you are thinking of a righteous person. The point is that her trust in God translated into an action that required her to live out that trust. That she offered protection to the spies revealed what was in her heart—her posture of trust to God even at great risk to herself.
James isn’t trying to make an argument that you have to do things to earn being made right with God, or to earn his love. What he is saying is that true faith in God will always translate into a transformed life. James is saying that when you say you believe in God, those words don’t stand alone. They must be completed by action. When you invite someone over for dinner, it doesn’t end with the invitation. It’s made complete when you knead the dough, grate the cheese, chop the toppings, fire up the oven, cook the pizza, welcome those you invited into your home, and dig into the pizza together. In the same way, James says our faith in God is made complete when our actions work together with our faith. When we give our money and time to provide food for people who are hungry, when we actively seek out someone on the margins in our community and welcome them in with friendship, when we don’t laugh along with a joke that degrades other people, when we say ‘no’ to the endless desire for more so we can say ‘yes’ to generosity. Our faith in God is made complete when our actions work together with our faith. James is saying that followers of Jesus mirror him in that their words, actions and beliefs are consistent with each other. Speaking in a bit more theological language on this, John Calvin describes it this way: He says “Faith alone justifies, but faith that justifies is never alone."
You might remember that in John’s account of Jesus life, John describes Jesus as the Word who became flesh and who dwelled among us. It’s like John is drawing our attention to the fact that God made words and actions to go together. God is not just a Word. He doesn’t just pass down wise words to his people from the distant heights. When God says the words “I love you”, those are not words that he takes lightly. He doesn’t say those words to get something from you. He doesn’t say those words only when its working for him. He lives out those words. He puts flesh on those bones. Jesus lives those words out by laying aside his power and his glory and being with us. He lives those words out through friendship, shared meals and his presence, through laughing and weeping with us. He lives those out by seeking after the ones who are far from him and drawing them in. He lives them out by laying down his life for the sake of those he loves. That’s what it looks like for faith and actions to go together.