The scripture tonight from the book of James is one of my favorite parts of the Bible. It’s one that you don’t hear about very often, because it makes people nervous.
You see, we like to hear statements more like that at Ephesians 2:8-9:
God saved you by his special favor [grace] when you believed [by faith]. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.
So we like to think that salvation is free, we don’t have to do anything! Jesus died and now we’re set. We can live however we want, do whatever we please, and be rewarded for it all in the end. The only thing we have to do is believe in God. That’s all faith is, right? Believing in God? Hey, this Christianity stuff is easy!
But the scripture you heard a few minutes ago goes in a very different direction. James tells us that faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
The point that he’s is making sounds like it’s contradicting a lot of the other stuff in the Bible, doesn’t it? Jesus himself said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” How can we reconcile that idea—the idea that we are saved simply because we believe, simply because of our faith—with the idea James puts forth—most succinctly a few verses after what we heard earlier—when he said, “We are made right with God by what we do.”
A man walks up to a vending machine, decides he’s going to buy a can of Pepsi. So he stands in front of the machine, slides in a dollar bill, and out comes a Pepsi can and some change. But when the man picks up the can, he instantly knows something’s wrong with it.
It was a Pepsi can, very clearly marked with the company logos and everything. It wasn’t dinged up or dented. The tab was still on top and it hadn’t been opened. By looking at the can you would’ve had no idea that there was anything wrong, but when he picked it up it was clear by its weight that the can was empty.
You see, faith is more than just an intellectual belief in something—just like a can of Pepsi is more than just an aluminum cylindar with a tab on top to open it. You’ve got to have some substance. Just like a Pepsi can is supposed to have some Pepsi in it, a true faithful life in Jesus Christ is supposed to be filled up with something more.
In Matthew 22, a lawyer wanted to test Jesus—lawyers seemed to do a lot of that in the Bible. He said, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
You see, faith can be pared down to two major things, and they pretty much correspond to the two points that Jesus made when he pared God’s commandments down to two points: You have to believe, and if you believe you have to do.
Jesus’s first commandment was to love God, that’s all the believing stuff. But his second commandment—of equal importance—is to direct the love of God toward your neighbors. To show your faith through works to fellow human beings who are in need.
When James said that faith without works is a dead faith, he wasn’t contradicting all that stuff about being saved by faith alone, he was expanding on it. The point he was making is that a living faith in God automatically results in good works, it’s a natural byproduct of really loving a God who showed such infinite grace that he actually gave his son so that you, and me could have eternal life.
And like we heard in our scripture from Luke tonight it doesn’t take much of this real faith to do wonderful things. Even faith the size of a mustard seed, Jesus said. Just a drop of Pepsi in that empty can, can do some amazing things.