A sermon by Rev Richard Keith on James 2:14-26 on Sunday 5 January 2020
Human beings are creatures that trust. We trust our senses. We believe the things we see, and hear and touch. We trust our instincts. We trust our friends. And many people trust in a being they call God.
Atheists, however, argue that this is stupid. No one, they say, has the right to believe in something that they can’t prove exists. But the truth is that we believe in many things we can’t really see or hear or feel. We believe in democracy. We believe we have the right to say what we think. We believe that crime doesn’t pay. We believe in money.
Fancy that. I mean if you look at a twenty dollar note and touch it, what is it? A sheet of plastic covered in ink. Worth what? A cent or two. But with a hand full of these I could buy a car. With a suitcase full I could buy a jumbo jet. Two suitcases full and I could probably buy Tasmania. With this worthless plasticky stuff that would melt in a fire. But you wouldn’t believe how many people would trust their lives to this stuff. Is that any more reasonable than trusting in God?
The Communists tried to destroy belief in God but who believes in communism any more? The Russians don’t. The Chinese don’t. Just a couple of old men in North Korea. Is atheism any more sensible than scientologists who don’t believe in sickness?
Everyone relies on something. Everyone puts their trust in something. Some people believe in dreams and illusions. Some people believe in things they can touch and see. But we believe in God, because when all other things that people rely on crumble and fall, God will still stand strong.
Today we begin looking at the Apostles’ Creed. The Apostles’ Creed is an ancient declaration of faith. Among all the disputes and controversies that divide the different branches of the Christian church, this creed is one of the few statements of doctrine that they all share. Despite its name, it was not written by the original twelve apostles. It was written first as a declaration of faith made by new converts at their baptism, and it was eventually called the Apostles’ Creed because of its claim to represent the teaching handed down by the apostles. Therefore, since it isn’t scripture, its claim to be the apostolic faith must be tested and explained according to the standard of scripture.
The very first article under the microscope is the very first of all in the creed. “I believe in God”, and this morning we are looking at James chapter 2 and asking the questions, What does it mean to believe in God? What is faith?
This passage tells us firstly, that faith is more than believing that something is true. Of course, you have to believe that something is true to have faith in it. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be real as long as you believe that it is. Some people, for example, believe in professional wrestling. Other people believe that Lotto is a good investment. It doesn’t have to be true. But you have to believe that it is. So to have faith in God, to believe in him means that you believe that he exists. As Hebrews chapter 11 says,
Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.
But James chapter 2 warns us that faith in God is more. As verse 19 says,
You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder.
James reminds us that the devil believes in God. His host of demons believe in God. In fact, surveys all over the Western world show that a large majority of people still believe in the existence of God. But they do not love him. They do not serve him. And they don’t trust him. They don’t rely on him. God is not the foundation on which they build their lives. They wouldn’t leave home without their keys. They wouldn’t leave home without their mobile phone. But they are happy to live their lives without God.
This is the kind of do nothing faith, this illusion of faith, this reflection of the real thing, that James attacks in chapter 2. From verse 14 James says,
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 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 fad,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
James isn’t attacking Paul’s teaching that we are saved by faith alone. No, James is clarifying what kind of faith it is that saves. The kind of faith that believes that God exists, that can tick off all the doctrines from the bible that it agrees with like filling in a survey form, and that can heartlessly watch people struggle to survive without the basic necessities of life, and do nothing about it, isn’t the kind of faith that pleases God, and it isn’t the kind of faith that saves. Faith without love, without compassion for others, that doesn’t even stop to help a fellow human being in need, is like sport without fun, is like marriage without romance, is like music without passion, is like body without the breath of life. That is, faith without love is a corpse-like faith, a faith that has died or was never truly alive.
But what is this living faith, this faith that saves? Well, James chapter 2 tells us secondly that living faith, saving faith is more than just trusting God. Although faith certainly does trust God. That’s the kind of faith that Abraham had. God had said to him,
Leave your homeland, leave your relatives and go the land that I will show you.
And Abraham had taken him at his word. Off he went with his wife, his nephew, his servants, his flocks, off he went to the land of Canaan. The Lord said,
To your offspring I will give this land.
Abraham knew what land he was talking about. He could look around at it. He could see it. Its dust filled his sandals. But he didn’t know what offspring the Lord meant. A nephew. Some distant relatives hundreds of kilometres away. The Lord said,
No, a son from your own body will be your heir. Look up at the heavens and count the stars and count them if you can. So shall your offspring be.
And Abraham took him at his word. Eventually when Abraham was a hundred years old a son was born to him and he named him Isaac. And the Lord said to him,
It is through Isaac that your offspring will be counted.
That is faith. Trusting God. Not just believing in God, but believing God and trusting his word. That is why Paul said that those who believe are the children of Abraham, because they follow in the example of the faith of Abraham, who believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Because this is righteousness, this is pleasing God, this is doing his will, trusting him and believing his promise. Believing the God who sent his son to say,
The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.
I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.
If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.
God is the God who promises. And faith is trusting God and believing his promise. But it is more. As James chapter 2 shows us living faith, the faith that saves, trusts God, believes his promise and then acts on it. Faith that works, faith that saves, works. It acts on its faith in God’s word by doing it. Faith that works works. It doesn’t just shut itself at home and pray for the needy, leaving up to God to do something about it. It gets off its backside and feeds the hungry. It clothes the naked. It visits the sick. It teaches the ignorant. It gives shelter to the homeless. Because the one who believes that God exists, who trusts him, who believes his word, is also committed to God’s way of love, the love that fulfils God’s commands. Faith is a commitment to a way of life according to the will of God. His will is love. His will is that you accept his love in Jesus Christ. His will is that you act on his love in Jesus Christ towards others. Faith means to choose God. Faith means to choose his love. Faith means to show his love to others.
This is the commitment that Joshua showed. When he renewed God’s covenant with Israel at the end of his life, he told the people of Israel what God said. He told them what God did. And said,
Choose this day whom you will serve. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.
And this is the commitment it takes to recite the Apostles’ Creed as it was originally intended. I suppose today after all these centuries, it looks like some kind of survey or some kind of test. “Now, let me see, I believe in God, I believe in Jesus, I believe in the Holy Spirit, and I believe in the forgiveness of sins, as long as we’re talking about God forgiving my sins. I suppose that means I’m in.” But in the very beginning it was the confession of a new convert committing their life to the Lord at their baptism. In a day when it was still illegal to follow Christ, when to fail to offer sacrifice to Caesar because of your faith in Christ still carried the death penalty, a man or woman stood by a river or by a well or by a bucket of water and said, “I believe in God.”
It meant choosing Christ and serving him rather than Caesar. To say “I believe in God” means more than that you believe certain things are true: the virgin birth, the death and resurrection of Christ, the second coming. To say those words means more than that you trust God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It means that you commit your life to him and to his will, that you believe his word and put it into practice in the hope of receiving the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.
This is what it means to say “I believe in God.” As Joshua said,
Choose this day whom you will serve. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.
So whom will you choose? Whom will you serve?