When professing Christians consistently disregard obedience to God and acts of mercy to their fellow man, their professions of faith are called into question. Genuine faith is evidenced by works spurred on by gratitude. Alistair Begg warns us that the greatest danger in our generation may be the vast number of people who take refuge in a false faith that rejects this truth.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to turn to James and chapter 2, and we’ll read from verse 14 as we pick up our studies in this very practical and somewhat uncomfortable letter of James, at least so far. James 2:14:
“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 fed,’ 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.”
Father, as we turn to the Bible, what we know not, teach us; what we have not, give us; what we are not, make us. For your Son’s sake. Amen.
Who would have thought that the twenty-first century would prove to be as dangerous as it is? At the end of the twentieth century, with the absence of the Cold War, with the dismantling of certain nuclear threats, the word on certain people’s lips was that we now have things under control, that there is no real need for further fear, and that we’re going to tackle dangers in the streets as well as dangers in high places. Well, of course, none of that has proved to be the case; the reverse has proved true. And in these opening seven years of a new millennium, we live in a world that is increasingly perilous. It is significantly tumultuous, and it is a mark of human existence that men and women’s lives are as fearful as they are.
If you simply Google “twenty-first-century dangers,” you will be able to spend the remainder of the day working your way through high-sounding academic papers and various dissertations related to the fact of these dangers—the dangers that are part and parcel of terrorism; that confront us by the advances in technology, not least of all in the medical realm, which make it possible to extend life and therefore to give us ethical dilemmas; the fact of disease itself; the renewed threats of nuclear holocaust as the major superpowers dismantle things and smaller powers avail themselves of them. Indeed, if one wasn’t careful and didn’t have a Bible to read and didn’t know that God was sovereign over the events of life, one might be tempted to curl up in a ball and simply relieve oneself of the pressures of daily life.
But the reason I begin there is because, as real as those dangers are and as significant as those issues may be, all of them, individually or taken together, pale in comparison to the danger addressed by James in these verses. What is that danger? It is this: the danger of having a faith that is false. Three times in the space of thirteen verses he makes it very, very clear. First of all, in verse 17: “Faith by itself … is dead.” Verse 20: “Faith without deeds is useless.” Verse 26: “Faith without deeds is dead.”
In other words, he sounds a warning note that has hints of Jesus’ words in Matthew 7. You may recall that in Matthew 7, in the Sermon on the Mount, at one point Jesus says to those who are listening, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” In other words, it is distinctly possible to be self-deceived. And to be self-deceived in the issue of faith is of eternal significance. James is not unique in this respect. Other Gospel writers, other writers of the New Testament letters do the same thing. For example, at the end of 2 Corinthians… You needn’t turn to it; I’ll read it for you. In 2 Corinthians 13:5, Paul issues this great exhortation: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?” In other words, he doesn’t simply assume that everyone who professes faith in Jesus has living faith in Jesus. You say, “Well, that might not be very kind.” In actual fact, it is exceptionally kind. What would be unkind is to have such a presumption and such an assumption as to sweep every false professor into the notion that because they have an interest in, an involvement with, faith at whatever level, they must somehow or another be part and parcel of God’s forever kingdom.
Now, in the context of the opening chapter… And some of this is reaching back in order that we might set the context wider for ourselves as we return to our studies. It is some three months since we studied here, James 2:13. But if you look at 1:22, James has reminded his readers that it is distinctly possible simply to “listen to the word, and so deceive [them]selves”—the danger of self-deception by simply coming along and listening, whether it is listening to the teacher in the synagogue, or whether it is listening to the one who brings the news of Jesus to bear upon their thinking. And having made this distinction, he proceeds, in verse 26, to address the individual who considers himself or herself as religious: “If anyone considers himself religious,” says James, “and yet doesn’t have a controlled tongue”—remember?—“doesn’t have a compassionate heart, doesn’t have a clean life, then they might want to take the test again.” Just to consider oneself within the framework is not sufficient. And James, because he loves those to whom he writes, warns them of what is a clear and present danger.
He also goes on to say that “if you are a bunch of snobs”—that’s a paraphrase—but he says, “If you are a bunch of snobs, if you prefer people because of their color or their background or their intelligence or their wealth or the absence of the same, then you need to take the test all over again too. Because the fact that you consider yourself to be a religious person, and yet there is no evidence of that religious expression in the life of God worked out in your community, it demands that you face the danger.”
Verse 14 of chapter 2, he’s advancing the ball a little further: “What good is it,” he says, “my brothers”—it might be equally “my brothers and sisters”—“what good is it, brothers and sisters, if any one of you claims to have faith …?” “Claims to have faith.” This is very important that you read the Bible as it is there, and it helps you. The King James, if you’re using it, is confusing on this, because it seems to be setting faith against deeds. That’s not what he’s doing. “What good is it, my [brother], if a man claims to have faith [and] has no deeds? Can such [a] faith save him?” What kind of faith? A professed faith that is false.
Now, when I find myself in my study saying out loud, “False faith,” I realized, I made a note to myself: “Make sure when you say that that you articulate it as best you can, because it may come out wrongly. It would be easy for it to get jumbled on the way out.” And it made me think of what it would be like to say “false face” if one had a lisp. Because “false face” comes out as “false faith.” “I see you have a false faith”—“a false face” if you have a lisp. This is not to embarrass anyone who has a lisp. It’s just to let you into the way my mind works. And so I sat for a little while at my desk going “‘false faith,’ but that’s a false faith, not a false face,” and so on.
But what it triggered for me was a recollection deep in my past. And that was at Halloween in Scotland—and please don’t write to me about Halloween—but at Halloween in Scotland, we would go to the store, and we would buy not a mask but a “false face.” That’s what we asked for. And it was a little plastic face—maybe Mickey Mouse or Minnie Mouse or whatever it was—and it had an elastic band behind it with the two things. I’m sure that it was the same here. And you wore that. Now, no one thought for a moment that you were Mickey Mouse. You were seeking to conceal the reality of what was behind by the falsity of what was before. But everybody could tell. There was no real reason for alarm.
But while that distinction is patently obvious and harmless, James is alerting his readers to a distinction that may not be so patently obvious and is actually incredibly harmful. He is addressing the possibility, the danger which is attached to that which closely resembles the real thing but still is spurious. It is fake. It is false. It is dead.
One of my friends in Michigan last year was so excited, because he was going to the Chicago Bears to see them play in Chicago. And although he and his English friend had no tickets for the game, they were delighted to let me know that they knew where to go in Chicago, and you could find these tickets, and really good ones, even, you know, three hours before the game. And he proceeded to purchase tickets at significant cost, which gave him magnificent seats. He put them in his pocket and went to brunch. And at brunch, as they ate and looked forward to the game, they congratulated one another on how smart they were not to have gone through the routine channels but to have been able to pick up these magnificent tickets. When they presented them at the turnstile, the gentleman said, “Please come with me.” And he took ’em into a side room, and a policeman gave them the ninth degree on where they had purchased these tickets, because they were false, and there would be no entry into the stadium on their basis.
Big deal. So you miss a football game. But if you think, if I think that we can, as it were, present a false statement of faith at the entryway to heaven and have it accepted, we’re not reading our Bibles. That’s what makes this so significant. That’s why this danger is so real.
I don’t think there would be many in this congregation right now who are in danger of thinking that by certain good deeds that we might do, that we would find acceptance with God. We might be devoid of that danger, and, of course, that’s good. But we may be dangerously unaware of the possibility of seeking to take refuge in a faith that is false.
[John Newton], in an earlier generation, referred to it as that “little something that looks like religion.” And he went on to describe the individual who appears “in church at the summons of the bell, to repeat words because other[s] … do the same, to hear what is delivered from the pulpit with little attention or affection, unless something occurs that is suited to exalt self, or to soothe conscience, and then to run with eagerness [back out the door and] into the world again.” It’s amazingly up to date, isn’t it? Here he is hundreds of years before, saying, “The thing that I’m facing in my congregation is this: that I have a vast crowd of people who come. Many of them listen with very little attention and very little affection. The only way you can get them to listen,” he says, “is if you will exalt their self-esteem or if you will seek to soothe their conscience”—in other words, in twenty-first-century terms, if you will tell them that they’re great and if you will tell them that they’re okay.
Why are there arenas this morning in the continental United States with thirty thousand people in them listening to preaching? I’ll tell you why: because the preaching says two things over and over again: “You are great, and you are okay!” And James says, “No you’re not, and if somebody tells you that you are, you’d better beware of that individual. Take the test,” he says. “What good is it if a man claims to have faith and there is no evidence in his life? Can that faith save him from hell?” It’s a rhetorical question, and the answer is categorically no, it can’t, and no, it won’t!
Do you see why it’s so dangerous to be in the place where the Bible is taught, why it’s so dangerous to be in a church where the pastor’s making an honest endeavor to teach the gospel, to explain that who Jesus is and what he has done is the basis of forgiveness and our only hope of heaven, and to press upon men and women the need to trust in that Jesus? Do you realize that there is less significance in the opposition of a pagan than there is in the lostness of a false professor who has just a little something resembling the real thing?
Now, to quote [Newton] is to recognize that this is not a unique and pressing contemporary problem. It’s been true in every generation: the presence of people within the framework of the external church who profess to be believers but who are not genuine believers. And here in the United States, we have vast numbers of individuals in inflated church memberships claiming that because they at some point in their life raised their hand or walked an aisle or trusted Christ, they are genuinely in Christ. They have no interest in the Bible, no zeal for their unsaved friends and neighbors, no call to a holy life. In fact, they are indiscriminately the same as their non-Christian friends. What does the Bible say about that?
Well, for example, the writer to the Hebrews is very clear. He says that God disciplines his children. And he says, “If you’re not disciplined, then you’re illegitimate children and not true children.” Who’s he writing to? He’s writing to the framework of the church, and he’s saying to them, “You’d better make sure where you stand in relationship to these things.” And James, having listened so clearly to his brother Jesus on so many occasions—initially without being a believer—comes to the same issue himself.
But I think our contemporary circumstances add a little touch of lime to this one. When you think about what we are confronted with on a daily basis in the media… For example, let me just give you three phrases that have become part of contemporary journalism in the first seven years of the twenty-first century. Number one: “faith-based initiatives.” Okay? Everybody heard about that before? Faith-based initiatives. The need, we’re told, for everybody to have equal respect for every “faith community.” And a preparedness to listen, often without reservation, to each person tell us about their “faith journey.” Okay?
Now, in one sense, there is no reason for alarm in relationship to the phraseology. But in every realistic sense, if you listen carefully to what underlies it, it is the notion that somehow or another, even the use of the word faith, whatever that faith might be… Faith in whom? Faith in what? Faith in faith itself. In other words, everything is validated on the basis of the notion of faith per se. That is not what the Bible is talking about concerning faith here.
What James is talking about is saving faith. It is faith in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the faith which brings a man or a woman into the confidence that although I have no basis upon which to stand before God, that because of what God has done in Jesus and because I have come by his grace to entrust myself to Jesus, that it is this, then, which forms the basis of my acceptance with God, and it is in my lifestyle that I give evidence of the basis for my faith.
When we studied the end of Acts and we looked at Paul constantly defending the faith and finally going up before Agrippa in the presence of Festus… And it does your heart good just to reread Paul defending the faith in all of these things before Festus and Agrippa and Felix and so on. And it’s in Acts 26, in case you want to read it for homework. Paul is right in the midst of his expression of faith in Jesus, and “at this point,” Luke says, “Festus interrupted Paul’s defense. ‘You[’re] out of your mind, Paul!’ he shouted. ‘Your great learning is driving you insane.’
“‘I[’m] not insane, most excellent Festus,’ Paul replied, ‘What I[’m] saying is true and reasonable.’” And then he draws the king in. He says, “The king”—probably pointing to him, to Agrippa—“the king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him.” In other words, “Festus, if you don’t want to listen to this, that’s okay. But I’m sure the king wants to listen to this. I can speak freely to him. I’m convinced that none of this has escaped his notice. You know, you may not be getting it, Festus, but I’m sure Agrippa is coming right along with me. ’Cause none of it has been done in a corner.” And then he addresses the king directly, and he says, “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.” And the king says, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to [become] a Christian?”
See, Agrippa understood exactly what Paul was saying. Paul was not saying, “Do you believe the prophets? Do you have some kind of faith? That’s terrific! That’s terrific! Maybe you could take some faith-based initiatives in your kingdom. You know, maybe you could describe your faith journey to a few people at a garden party or something. Maybe you could establish a little faith community.” No, no! Agrippa gets it clear: “I know what you’re trying to do Paul. You’re trying to get me to believe in this Jesus of Nazareth.” And Paul says, “That’s exactly what I’m trying to do!” Why? Because there is no saving faith outside of Jesus of Nazareth.
See? It is entirely logical, given the thesis. And that’s why James recognizes, “If I write to these people and they believe that simply because they’re saying the same words, singing the same songs, doing the same things, that somehow or another they’re in the faith, and they’re not, I will answer to God on the day of judgment, and their blood will be on my hands, à la the prophets in the Old Testament.”
“Well,” you say, “when are we getting to the conclusion? The introduction’s going on forever!” Well, soon. But we have to address, we have to make very, very clear the nature of faith itself, don’t we? Because what is the primary act of faith? What does it mean to have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ? Let me tell you what it isn’t: it is not the acceptance intellectually of certain propositions about Jesus. It includes the acceptance of those propositions about Jesus, but the propositions about Jesus in and of themselves, responded to intellectually, do not equal saving faith. Saving faith is essentially the entrustment—the entrustment—of our lives to Jesus as Lord and Savior. It is not the belief that we have been saved, nor is it even the belief that Christ died for us, but it is the commitment of ourselves to Christ as unsaved, lost, helpless, and undone, in order that we may be saved.
See, all that we bring to our salvation is the sin from which we need to be forgiven. We bring nothing in our hands. We come and we say, “Lost, helpless, undone, and in need of a Savior.”
In the ’60s, they had those big beanbag chairs. They’ve probably been resurrected by now. You could get the small ones, depending on your size or whether you had a girlfriend or not, and then you could get the larger ones. And they were very inviting. You could entrust yourself to them. You could just fall back into them. I didn’t ever see anybody make peculiar examinations of the physical properties of them, but they just entrusted themselves to them. And what James is referencing here is this: that when a man or a woman entrusts themselves to the Lord Jesus, when a man or a woman offloads their sin and discovers the forgiveness that Jesus brings, not only does Jesus forgive their sin, but he provides the Holy Spirit to live in our lives, so that “the grace of God”—Titus 2—“that brings salvation … teaches us to say ‘No’ to [all] ungodliness” and teaches us how to live life in a way that is pleasing to him. And so what James is saying is, “Since there are these two dimensions to it, what good is it if somebody just walks around saying, ‘I have faith, I have faith,’ and there is no evidence in their life? Can that faith save?”
That’s why it’s very difficult, you know, for people in this kind of area to become Christians. It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man or a rich woman to enter the kingdom of God. Because those of us who are rich have a hard time admitting that we’re lost, that we’re undone, that we’re helpless and we have no way of providing for ourselves.
Well, let me say it and say it as clearly as I can: do not mistake some general acknowledgment of God’s existence, or even the uniqueness of Jesus, as being evidence of saving faith. ’Cause if you look down at verse 19, to which we’ll come another day: “Even the demons believe” there is one God. They do that, and it makes them “shudder.” No, what you need to be doing is not simply assenting to the truth about Jesus but is also consenting to take Christ.
Remember in Sunday school we learned it: “Forsaking all, I take him,” or “Forsaking all, I trust him.” F-a-i-t-h: “Forsaking all, I trust him.” That’s it. That’s it. Forsaking all! All my good deeds, all my best attempts, all my everything. Forsaking all of that, I trust him. And when it happens, we look back on our lives, and we realize that 1:18 summarizes it wonderfully for us: “He chose to give us birth…” That’s God’s initiative. “… through the word of truth…” That’s his instrument. “… that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.” That’s his intention. And where this faith is real, there will be evidence. There will be evidence.
We’re not talking here about faultlessness. We’re not talking here about perfection. We’re not talking here necessarily about all of the plants in full bloom. But we are talking here about the indication that there is life, and the life reveals itself. “Watch out,” said Jesus,
for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they[’re] ferocious wolves. [It’s] by their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, … a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree [can’t] bear bad fruit, … a bad tree [can’t] bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
And it is then that he says the verse with which we began: “[And] not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Now, one of the great benefits of these past months is the wonderful cards and letters and signs of encouragement, and actually gifts. My teddy bear collection is enlarged in significant measure. And I also received just gifts you would never imagine. And I brought one down this morning to show you. This came from Colorado, and it’s a very nice piece of wood, and this is actually my wife’s. I haven’t given it to her yet, but I have a larger one for myself. It came marked “Mark 6:8,” where Jesus says, “Don’t take your purse with you. Just take only a staff when you go out.” And so, you can look for Sue at the mall. She’ll just be walking around with this. Don’t ask to borrow a credit card; she’ll simply have this with her. You’ll see me, because I have one that’s about this size. It was made for Goliath, I think, and it’s gonna have to be cut down.
But when I saw it, I said, “This is a perfect illustration.” It actually had a rubber band round it with something attached to it. But to look for any fruit on this is a profitless exercise, right? This is dead. This is no good. There are cherries on my kitchen counter. I could have brought some of them and found a way to tie them on and said, “You know, this is wonderful. These cherries grew on this.” And you would say, “Probably your medication has not been working as well as you hoped.” But if our lives look like this, no matter what we say, Jesus says, “We just throw it in the fire.” That’s the Jesus who died on the cross for people whose lives are so messed up that they needed a Savior.
You can’t have it one way or the other. You have to have it both ways. That the judgment of God is executed upon sin; it will be punished. That the mercy of God is revealed in Jesus, and he has borne the punishment of sin. And James comes and says, “If your life looks like this, I don’t care what you say. If a man or a woman claims to have faith and yet their life looks like this, can such faith save?” No.
That’s why I say this is the great danger in the world. The danger in the world is not terrorism. The danger in the world is that you and I would die and go to hell. That is the only thing you really need to fear. And let that fear drive you to Jesus, and Jesus will fill you with his Spirit and enable you to become the person he wants you to be.
You see, James is not saying, “If you will have a compassionate heart, if you will have a controlled tongue, if you will have a clean life, then on the basis of that you can make yourself acceptable to God.” What he’s saying is that when God comes to live within you, he’ll clean up your life, he’ll control your tongue, he will produce compassion within you. These will be the evidences. What is the basis of our acceptance? What Jesus has done. The evidence of our acceptance? In these things.
You see, the problem that James is addressing—we’ve got three minutes to go, so the plane is now hurtling towards the ground—but the problem that James addresses is not the problem of open opposition. It’s the problem of false profession. In many ways, open opposition is a lot easier to handle, isn’t it? You go out, and somebody says, “Church? I couldn’t stand church! The Bible? I don’t want to read the Bible! Jesus? I don’t want to hear a thing about Jesus!” Well, at least we’ve got clarity, don’t we? Say, “Good. Well, let’s have a conversation about this.” But what’s most dangerous is the person who’s sitting in there saying, “Oh yes, church for me, absolutely! Yes.”
Well, look at the questions he asks. Two questions: “What good is it … if a man claims to have faith [and] has no deeds?” Answer: no good. “Can such faith save?” Answer: no. Illustration. What’s his illustration? “Well,” he says, “imagine that somebody is cold and hungry, and one of you says, ‘I hope you have a great day; keep warm and stay well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs. What good is that?” No good at all. That’s patently obvious, isn’t it? Words in and of themselves cannot address hunger or the cold.
And so the logical conclusion in verse 17—a conclusion to which he’s about to return, but here we end—he says, “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” Professions of faith unaccompanied by the life that God produces in our lives is absolutely useless. It’s very blunt, isn’t it? Shocking! It’s an unavoidable challenge: “Is my profession of faith real?”
“For it is,” says Paul, “by grace” that we are “saved, through faith,” and that not of ourselves; it’s “the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” We’re not saved by them. We’re saved for them. Or as Luther put it, “It is faith alone that saves, but the faith that saves is not alone.”
I urge you today, if you are in any doubt about these things: throw yourself back on Jesus. Cast yourself on his mercy, and ask him to produce fruit in your life. He’ll do it. He promised. But mere knowledge of this fact will not bring about the change.
For the last four months now, “Have you taken your medicine?” has become a routine phrase around my house. And Susan has invented various ways for me to know whether I have or I haven’t, so that I can turn the bottles upside down when I’ve taken it, so that when I come back into the bathroom, I’ll know that I’ve taken it—except that when I come back in the bathroom, I can’t remember whether it was upside down because I was supposed to take it or whatever it was. And so I suppose I could just sit in the bathroom and look at it and believe it: “I believe that this will do this.” Otherwise, I trust the physician: “He told me that there would be a lasting benefit if I would take this.” But until I take it, all of my intellectual assent, unmatched by the entrustment of myself to the prescription, will not bring about any change.
I don’t bring this word to you this morning because I believe that Parkside is full of false professors. I bring it to you because it’s the next four verses of James chapter 2.
Let’s pray together:
Father, we thank you for the Bible, and we pray that we might become people of the Bible, that we might search the Scriptures to see if these things are so, that we might become a congregation that, as grateful as we are for those who teach us, that we might listen to their words very carefully and pour them through the sieve of Holy Scripture, so that we become those who are obedient to your Word, and not just because someone said so.
I pray for those who are uncertain about faith in Jesus, that they might come to trust in him as a Savior and Lord and King. For those of us who are rattled by these things because our light is dimming and our attitudes are fading, that these might be a spur and a goad to follow hard after Christ, to ask him to forgive us and to enable us to let our light so shine before men that they might see our good deeds and glorify you, our Father in heaven. We thank you that all of our acceptance with you is on account of what Christ has accomplished.
And may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God our Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit rest upon and remain with each of us, now and forevermore. Amen.
 Matthew 7:21 (NIV 1984).
 See James 1:26–27.
 See James 2:1–14.
 John Newton, “Of a Living and a Dead Faith,” in The Works of the Rev. John Newton (London, 1808), 2:559.
 See Hebrews 12:4–11.
 Acts 26:24–28 (NIV 1984).
 Titus 2:11–12 (NIV 1984).
 Matthew 19:24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 7:15–21 (NIV 1984).
 Mark 6:8 (paraphrased).
 Ephesians 2:8–10 (NIV 1984).
 See Acts 17:11.
 See Matthew 5:16.
Copyright © 2022, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.