Faith and works

Read James Chapter 2; secondary text Romans 6:5-23

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. – James 2:18

The second chapter of James is about how our faith must translate into actions that reflect what we believe. James begins with the concrete example of the sin of partiality—when we honor or respect certain people more than others for superficial reasons. When we show partiality our actions reveal what our hearts truly believe; that some people are more valuable or important than others. While we might never say it out loud, our actions demonstrate our beliefs. James uses the sin of partiality to show the outermost symptom of a heart that is out of step in loving Jesus. Like tracing the symptoms down to their origins, James digs in to uncover why our actions would be out of line with what we say we believe. 

What leads us into the sin of partiality is not taking Jesus’ words to love your neighbor as yourself seriously (2:8-9). Jesus calls this the royal law because the whole law can be summed up in this one command. If we love our neighbor as ourselves, we will honor our parents, we won’t commit adultery or rob or murder or oppress others because we wouldn’t want to be treated that way ourselves. 

But what might seem strange is that James is talking about the law at all. In 1:8-13, James says that we are doing well if we keep the royal law, but if we show partiality we are convicted by the law as transgressors. It is easy to think when we are in Christ the law no longer matters, but this is not true. Israel was given the law to enter into relationship with a holy God, but the law only highlighted their sin and their enslavement to it. On the cross, Jesus broke the power of sin over us (it no longer is our master) and the penalty of sin (the wages of sin is death) so that we might become obedient from our hearts to Christ (Rom 6:16-19). Our relationship to the law now is as Spirit-empowered children of God who obey his law because we love him. Jesus says if you love me you will keep my commandments (Jn 14:15), so while the law no longer condemns us, it is still our instructor, teaching us how we grow in Christlikeness and revealing our sin. When James says that if we keep the law of Christ we are doing well, he is saying that if we love others as ourselves we are demonstrating our love through our actions, actions that cherish the word and commands of our Savior.

But James goes deeper still. If the sin of partiality is the outermost symptom and underneath it lies a disregard for the law of God, the root of the problem is thinking that we can have faith without works. If I say that I love the Boston Red Sox and am a huge fan, but have never watched the games, don’t know the players, or care about their record, it would seem like I am actually not a big fan. The same goes for our faith. Many claim to be big fans of Jesus but do not read his word, follow his commands, or grow in our love for him. 

James closes with two examples of people who demonstrated their faith through their actions, Abraham and Rahab, and interestingly their actions both involve sacrifice. To put our faith into action means being sacrificial with ourselves and things. Abraham was willing to sacrifice his home and even his own son because he believed in God and trusted him. Rahab sacrificed her safety betting that Yahweh was the true God, she was willing to sacrifice her life to be proved wrong. Sacrifice is a great litmus test for determining if we are living out what we believe in concrete ways because Jesus was the sacrificial one who gave up his life so that we might know him and become like him. When we are living a sacrificial faith, we are living out a faith that works. 

Reflect:

What kind of people do you find yourself showing partiality towards?

How seriously do you take putting your faith into action? What kinds of things do you prefer to show your faith through? Where do you generally shy away from following God even though he commands it?

In what ways can you grow in imitating Jesus through sacrificial love and practicing the royal law?

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