The Big Brawl: James Versus Paul
So this week we are continuing to look at the nature of what we bring before the world as Christians, the good news of Jesus Christ. If I could summarize the past two weeks in just a few words, here’s how I’d do it: the gospel is the greatest news on earth because salvation is available to everybody, and nobody has to earn it. More precisely, nobody can earn it. That’s how I think I’d put it.
But God still requires a great deal from us. If he didn’t require anything, everybody would be saved, nobody would be damned, and preaching would be pointless.
Now, last week I put heavy emphasis on a truth we can so easily twist or miss altogether. Though God expects much of us, there are two critical points: (1) Nothing we can do is impressive to God. He doesn’t need anything from us. He’s the Creator. He’s infinitely higher than we are. And therefore salvation is by God’s grace through faith; (2) the power to accomplish the changes God expects in our lives is from God. So, God calls us to salvation, and God restores, God resurrects, God transforms.
Now, even though I said in that message, “God still expects much of us, and truth faith can do nothing but produce works in our lives,” we have a tendency to hear something else. The tendency is to think, “Daniel said we don’t have to do works! Heretic.” In fact, I said just the opposite. True faith produces the richest kinds of works. True faith produces a quality of work that cannot be achieved in a person who’s simply doing the grind, hoping to impress God by their striving, though inwardly they’ve got a real bad attitude.
So today is not at all a tempering of last week’s message. I don’t want to slow down the breaks on anything that was said last week. We are saved by faith. Period. But I want to complement last week’s message with a Biblical picture of what real faith looks like in a Christian’s life.
I Follow James, I Follow Paul
You know, I was thinking this week about Paul’s opening rebuke in 1 Corinthians: “it has been reported to me...that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”
In the past when addressing this text, I’ve used it to address denominationalism, “I follow Luther, I follow Wesley, I follow Calvin, I follow Campbell.” But there’s perhaps a more direct point in that text for you and me.
How often are James and Paul pinned against one another, and rather than finding harmony between them or speaking to their individual points in context, we run to James to discount what somebody is saying about Paul. Here’s how it usually goes: Somebody says, “We are saved by faith only. Paul said, ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.’” And then the other person says, “Well James said, You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?”
Do we believe the same Spirit guided Paul and James to say what they said? If yes, then the caution is to not feel compelled always to run to James to explain what Paul says. We aren’t Jamesites. We believe that we are saved by faith—that’s what the Bible says everywhere. It says everywhere we are not saved by works. AND we believe that works are always present in true believes. Paul and James are not saying two different things. May I repeat that? Paul and James are not saying two different things. Turn to your neighbor and say, “Paul and James are not saying two different things.”
So this morning, let’s spend a few minutes looking exegetically at what James is saying, and then let’s look at a key Scripture from Paul concerning faith that affirms the same stuff James says.
What is James Saying?
Go to James 2:14. Let’s just read it. “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?” So right off the bat, James tells us what’s happening here. Whoever this person is, he’s not somebody of whom God would say, “That person has faith.” He says it of himself. This is the opposite of Abraham: “And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” The Lord saw Abraham’s faith and verified it.
So James gives the most practical example ever. The point is, you can say you have faith, but if you literally disobey everything God asks of you, then obviously you don’t believe him. Here’s the example: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (vv. 15-16).
If I say, “I hate seeing you cold and wish you were warm,” and there’s an extra coat laying next to me. Do I actually wish you were warm if I don’t offer the coat? Of course not. It’s just words.
What if I said there was a bolt of lightning ready to strike your exact position. And you said, “I believe you,” but you just sat there. I’d be like, “Well, then I guess you want to die?” And what if you said, “Of course I don’t want to die! Don’t be silly.” And then I said, “But there’s a lightning bolt about to strike you on the head, which will probably kill you.” And then you said, “I believe you.” Imagine an exchange like that. That’s the picture James is trying to give. God has a brilliant will for your life, filled with eternal promises. And you obviously don’t believe his way is the best way if you continue without action.
Look at verse 21. Here’s our example of Abraham again. “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.’”
This is critical. James indicates two separate occasions in the life of Abraham. First, he speaks of the time when God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on the altar. He says, “Abraham was justified by his works when he did that.” In Genesis 22, God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac; and when Abraham pulled back that knife on top of the mountain, God stopped him and said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”
So James is thinking of that story in Genesis 22. He says, “When that happened—when Abraham sacrificed Isaac to the Lord—the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’”
When does the Scripture say, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness?” Genesis 15, immediately after God promised to make Abraham into a great nation. God promised Abraham that his very own son would make him into a great nation. And Abraham believed God. And even James says, Abraham was justified at that moment. God could see the true belief, and it was counted as righteousness.
So James says, essentially, “The belief that made him righteous was thoroughly proven and fulfilled when he actually went to sacrifice Isaac.” So here’s the question: Why is Abraham’s belief that God would make him a great nation shown to be a true belief when taking a knife to Isaac? Because Isaac was the one by whom Abraham was gonna become a great nation! Abraham believed God so deeply and profoundly that he didn’t even think putting his only heir to death would keep him from becoming a great nation.
Isn’t that incredible? The Hebrew writer says, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead” (Hebrews 11:17-19).
James’ point in all of this is, “Abraham was made righteous because of his faith. But his faith was proven to be a righteous faith when God put it to the test.” His point is, had God said, “Your son Isaac will be the heir by whom you become a great nation,” and Abraham were to say, “I believe you,” and God were to say, “Now, sacrifice him to me,” and Abraham were to say, “No way. If I do that, then I won’t be a great nation.” If that were to happen, it could be proven that Abraham didn’t really believe God.
There is no such thing as a saving faith that sits still or remains stagnant. If we believe that Jesus said, “Go into all the world and share the gospel,” then we will go share the gospel in all the world. If we believe that the sexually immoral will not enter eternal life, then we will purify our lives. If we believe Jesus is the king, we will live like we are his subjects. If we believe Jesus is everywhere all at once, then we won’t watch films that he, sitting next to us, would desire us to turn off.
Let me reiterate last week’s reasons why we are not saved by works. (1) Our works are utterly unimpressive to God. Even on our best days, we fall short of the glory of God. No amount of works can save us. (2) Our works often contradict inner attitudes we are struggling to crucify. So good outward works may not represent what’s happening in here. Our works stink. (3) God made the promise to Abraham based on his faith, not based on law. We are saved by grace through faith, not as a result of works.
But! James showcases what saving faith looks like. Saving faith makes efforts to accomplish God’s will. Saving faith moves when God says move. Saving faith crucifies when God says crucify. No true faith just sits still. So, do you believe God? If so, you will be counted as righteous. But your faith will be revealed by your actions.
Now, as we draw near to a close, I want you to go over to the Scripture from Ephesians 2:8-9. Let’s read it. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
What are we saved by? Grace through faith. We aren’t saved by works. But! Have you ever gone on to verse 10? Read it. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
Coming to faith in Jesus Christ, being baptized, and committing your life to him because you believe he’s the king of the world—all that means, according to Paul, that you’re stepping into a place where Jesus says, “You’re my workmanship now. I’m going to carve and mold and shape you into a person whose life is characterized by good works.” That’s what the passage says. That’s the will of Jesus. We are saved by faith. But when we truly truly believe him, we are gonna be in a constant state of transformation into this new man that Jesus is making us to be.
When I look around this church, I see good works everywhere. I see sick people being waited on; shut ins being visited; moving families being packed up and unloaded and transported; young mothers being showered with diapers and food and gifts; men willing to step up and lead; people conducting Bible studies; generous hearts opening warm homes for fellowship. The good works here are rich. And they are demanded by God. And when we see them, it is evidence of the faith within us by which we are being saved.