How to Live by Faith

Mindy Clemons, Lynn Haven UMC Adult Discipleship Director

As a church we have been reading through the Letter of James – a section each week – and exploring the letter’s How to Live instructions through Sunday’s teaching sermons and our mid-week Bible study. It is our hope that every member of our church is growing in faith by participating in this plan.

We have learned that James, the half-brother of Jesus and a leader of the church in Jerusalem, was writing to an audience of Christian believers. It’s important to know whose mail we are reading for the passage we are studying today: James 2:14-26 NIV.

James’ letter is pretty easy to read and is straight-forward about how we are to live our lives. One of his key themes is spiritual maturity. We’re currently in the second section of chapter 2, where James instructs the early Christians that the actions that follow their faith are critical to their spiritual maturity.

When James wrote his letter, people who said they believed were going on about their regular lives – unchanged by the gospel, maybe still worshipping idols or behaving immorally. They were not changed in any way by what they claimed to believe. This is still a problem in our society.

Let’s have a look at what James says about this:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder. You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.  James 2:14-26 NIV.

First let’s talk about FAITH. What is faith? Faith is a strong belief in God, complete trust or confidence in someone or something. Faith is a key doctrine of the Christian life. Faith is absolutely essential to what we believe.

You may be familiar with Ephesians 2:8-9, “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.”

We are saved by faith. It is a gift. It cannot be earned by what we do.

Another verse you may be familiar with is Romans 10:9: “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

Based on these verses we know that it is what we confess and what we believe that saves us. We can see clearly that we are saved by faith alone. Salvation is not something that can be earned by good behavior.

These verses explain HOW someone is saved. But James is writing to people who are ALREADY saved. He is writing to them about how their life should look BECAUSE they are saved. 

This is an important discussion, because if we are wrong in this matter, it might affect our salvation. We might think we are saved, but maybe we are not.

So how do we know if we are saved? Simply put, we are saved by faith that changes us. Because our faith changes us, obedience and good works then naturally occur in our lives.

Now that we understand what faith is and what it should do for a Christian believer, let’s now look at the comparison James makes between two types of faith – dead faith and dynamic faith.

First, let’s look at dead faith. According to James the primary characteristic of dead faith is that there are “no deeds,” no obedience to the instructions of scripture, no action. Dead faith is when someone says they believe (ie., they claim to be a Christian), but we see no change, no obedience, no good works coming out of their life.

James gives us some examples. In v. 15-16 James writes that to see someone in need and offer only words instead of doing something helpful is dead faith. It’s all talk and no action!

Then in v. 19 James tells us that to believe isn’t actually such a big deal because “even the demons believe.” This is a shocking verse. Even the demons know who Jesus is, but of course they are not producing good works and are not following Jesus. They have all the knowledge, but no action and no obedience.

A modern example of this is a high school athlete who says he or she wants to play their sport in college, but doesn’t show up to practices, eats poorly, etc. Or a student who says they want to a doctor or an engineer, but does not study, skips school all the time, and is not passing biology or chemistry

Anyone can tell if they are serious about their stated goal by how they live their lives, the choices they make, and what they DO.

Remember, the primary characteristic of dead faith is that it is all talk – all about correct beliefs – but it never becomes action. There are no deeds following what you claim to believe.

James tackles this subject because there were people in the Christian community who thought they were saved, but they weren’t.

There is a warning in Titus 1:16 about such people: They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. And as Jesus told us in Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven… I will say to them – depart from me, I never knew you.”

Again, this is a strong statement. Some people who claim to know God do not actually have a relationship with Him. As James asks in v. 14, “Can that kind of faith save a someone?”  The answer is no! Intellectual faith – simply knowing something – does not save you!

Let’s have a look at the second type of faith James writes about – dynamic faith. This type of faith has power and it results in a fully changed life. It involves both the intellect and the will.

Dynamic faith is more than just knowing something, it is choosing to obey. Where Jesus is present, there is new life – a changed life – and growth. Character is changed and good works ensue. No one can come to Jesus Christ and remain the same.

Dynamic faith leads to action, it is the choice to act and live differently because you believe the Word of God is true. This obedience is not an isolated event. It continues throughout the whole life.

James tells us that we will know when someone is really a believer when we see how they live their life. Dynamic faith is demonstrated by action, by works.

James 2:20-25 gives us two examples of dynamic faith – Abraham and Rahab. In both cases their stories are marked not by fancy doctrine and what they “knew” or believed. Their stories are marked by what they did – by how their faith affected their actions, their choices and their life story.

A portion of Abraham’s story is told in James 2:21-23:  Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend.

You can read Abraham’s full story in Genesis 22, but here’s the summary: Abraham believed God and that made him in right standing (righteousness) before God. Because he believed God, he was willing to obey some difficult instructions. Abraham demonstrated his faith by action – he was willing to give up his most valued treasure, his only son. Abraham held nothing back from God. Obedience did not save Abraham, it proved he was already saved.

James then references Rahab, v. 25: In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? 

You can read Rahab’s story in Joshua 2 & 6. Her story is very different than Abraham, but her faith is just as dynamic! Rahab, a prostitute, heard stories about the God of Israel, and she believed it was true! Because of this, she risked her life to shelter Israeli spies and to care for them in a time of danger. She had faith and took action that was costly to her. She demonstrated that her faith was real by the choices she made.

Rahab is often identified as “Rahab the prostitute” in Scripture. I want to point out that Rahab’s story may have started there, but that is not who she became. She met God, had faith, demonstrated that faith with costly actions – and she became someone completely different. Her life was saved, she eventually married an Israelite, became mother to a son, and her lineage includes King David and Jesus Christ. Rahab is held up here in James and also in Hebrews chapter 11 as an example of someone with great faith. She is a great example that where your story starts is not where it has to finish. The end of your story can be different – through faith.  

Hebrews chapter 11 references numerous examples of great people of faith, including Rahab and Abraham. These stories highlight what these people did, the actions they took, and the way they lived their lives.

Let me share with you this quote from John Calvin: “Faith alone justifies, but faith that justifies is never alone.”

True faith is always followed by action. We believe and it changes how we live. Faith is obeying in spite of the consequences, no matter the cost.

Let’s consider a modern metaphor to help us better understand the difference between dead and dynamic (alive) faith:

Imagine a bride and groom on their wedding day. They say “I do,” right? They do not say, “I believe” or “I hope,” but “I do.” And what happens at the end of the wedding? The bride and groom are announced to the audience with their new identity as husband and wife, then they leave together to start a new life, together. Ok, now imagine the guy doesn’t leave with his new wife. Instead he goes back to the house where he was living with all his single guy friends, and he takes up his old single life again.

Can you imagine that? That’s not how marriage works!

Married couples start a new life together. It is different than their lives before the wedding. There are different priorities such as caring for each other, giving up things for the sake of the other, and working as a team. If the guy just went back to his old single life, it would be like he never got married. His vows, his words of commitment would have been empty (dead). His wife might say, “I never knew you,” and get the wedding annulled.

In Christianity, the day we believe is like saying “I DO” to Jesus. That is just the beginning of the relationship!

Sometimes people think that they prayed a prayer to accept Jesus and that is the end of the story. They go back to their old way of life. James is saying “NO” to this! The day you believe is just the beginning of your story.  After that day we need to live the rest of our days in relationship with Jesus, and we need to let our relationship with Him change who we are, our priorities, how we spend our time, and how we treat people.

You don’t want to be the one to whom Jesus says “I never knew you!” So ask yourself, what kind of faith do I have – Dead or Dynamic?

Is your faith only intellectual, a matter of words? Or has your faith in God changed your life? Has it changed who you are – your character, your priorities, the way you treat people? Has it changed the way you live, your actions?

If your faith has not changed you – it might be a dead faith.

Today can be the day you say “I DO” to Jesus. It might be the first time you have said that or it might be a day of vow renewal for you. You can say “I DO.”

Do you truly believe in Jesus, find your identity in your relationship with Him, and want to prove your obedience thru your good deeds for God’s kingdom? If so, say “I DO!”