If you grow up in church – like I did – you develop a kind of second-sense for answering church questions. When the Sunday School teacher asks about how to treat people, go to the greatest commandment – “treat others as you’d want to be treated.” When the pastor asks a question during the children’s sermon, the answer is probably, “Jesus.” But no matter how much time we’ve spent listening to sermons or Sunday School lessons, some questions still stump us. Questions like:
“Can faith save you?” (James 2:14).
Even with all my church experience, this one leaves me raising an eyebrow. The answer seems like it should be “Yes.” Many of Paul’s letters are spent arguing for the power of faith. Take Ephesians 2:8-9, for example: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Can faith save you? “Yes!”
The way James is asking it, I’m not so sure “Yes” is the answer he’s looking for.
This deserves a closer look.
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say that you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?” (James 2:14).
Before he gives us a chance to answer these questions, James tells a short story. Here in Cherokee County it might go like this: It’s the dead of winter and a student at Andrews Middle is without a coat. He comes to class in short sleeves, his bare arms red from the wind. To make matters worse, he’s starving – the only meal he gets is the free breakfast at school, and that’s not near enough for a teenage boy.
You say to that student, “Go in peace; I’ll pray for you” – and then walk away, doing nothing.
Talk alone won’t “save” that young man from cold and hunger. Neither does talk alone secure our salvation. “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead,” James says (2:17).
Then… “No”? The answer to, “Can faith save you?” is “No”?
“But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith” (James 2:18).
Apparently James isn’t disregarding faith, because here he’s saying that faith and works are inseparable. It’s just that faith alone is someone who talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk. James defends this point with demons, of all things – demons like those in Matthew 8:29 who know exactly who Jesus is. “What have you to do with us, Son of God?” they ask Jesus. Those demons believed in Jesus as the Son of God, and they even said it out loud – but their actions (in tormenting two men and all the people who lived near them) didn’t point to a real faith.
I confess that this example makes logical sense to me – but it falls flat because I don’t have a lot of personal experience with demons. Evil, yes – but not demons who are talking to me about Jesus. If James asked me to show how faith and works are inseparable, I’d defend his point…
If you lived through the 1990s, you remember “posers.” Posers pretend to be something they’re not – like someone who wears a Nivrana t-shirt but doesn’t own Nevermind, or who carries around Thrasher Magazine but can’t land a kickflip.
In other words, someone like me.
I really wanted to be a skateboarder – but have you ever tried it? It’s hard, way harder than those kids you’ve seen make it look. I wore my skate shoes and baggy pants, I knew and used the terminology (“Nice frontside grind, man”), but I never could get it.
Trying and not succeeding doesn’t necessarily make you a poser… but something like this does:
One bored late-teenage night, my friends and I literally staged these pictures. I stood at the top of that halfpipe and told my pal Phil, “Take this so it looks like I’m about to drop in.” Then I balanced on the picnic bench so it looked like I was doing a 5-0 grind and got Phil to take another picture. Never have I ever had the guts to drop into a halfpipe. My meager ollie barely leaves the ground, nevermind getting all the way up to the height of that bench.
I am literally posing. I am a poser.
This is what faith without works is like: someone who says “I believe in Jesus!” but isn’t doing any of the “tricks” of the Christian faith.
So, “Can faith save you?” In an important way, “Yes” – it’s our faith in Jesus that saves us. But in another important way, “No” – if we don’t have any real action to go along with faith, then we might not have any real faith, either. We might be Christian posers.
This is what James means when it says,
“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).
That revelation leaves me highly motivated to act. I don’t want to be a Christian poser. I don’t want my faith to be the equivalent of a staged picture. I want to really be a Christian.
So then: what “tricks” should a Christian be doing?
James’ first example is a tough one to follow. Abraham, who was promised to be the father of a great nation, even in his old, barren age. Abraham, who was willing to take the literal embodiment of that long-awaited promised – his son, Isaac – and put him on the altar. God stopped Abraham short of sacrificing his son, but Abraham was fully prepared to do it (see Genesis 22).
That’s James’ first example of works that demonstrate true faith. Go, be like Abraham!
Is that as unhelpful to you as it is for me?
Thankfully, James gives another example – and it’s a really interesting one. It’s a woman, for starters – James’ first century Roman world wasn’t much on women’s leadership (or rights, for that matter). And yet James points to an Old Testament woman (and prostitute!) named Rahab (see Joshua 2). When Jewish spies came to Jericho, Rahab was willing to hide them and help them escape. It was a risky and very important act of hospitality toward strangers.
Hospitality toward strangers. Interestingly enough, Abraham is known for that, too.
There’s a story about three strangers visiting Abraham and his wife, Sarah (Genesis 18). Abraham runs out to meet them, welcomes them in, has a meal prepared for them – all before knowing they were God’s messengers.
By lifting up Rahab and Abraham, James lifts up two Old Testament figures who are known for their hospitality to strangers. Put that together with the short story about someone hungry and without adequate clothing… and it’s a pretty big hint about what “works” should go with our faith.
Huh. That makes me wonder… is it possible that the answers to our original question… are actually the stock church answers?
Imagine this question and answer from a children’s sermon:
“Can faith save you?”
Which isn’t as silly an answer as it sounds. Our faith in Jesus does save us; “by grace you have been saved through faith” (Ephesians 2:28). But faith in Jesus also means following the way of Jesus. It means being his disciple, doing as he did.
Now imagine this exchange between a Sunday School teacher and an eager student:
“Can faith save you?”
“Love your neighbor as yourself!”
If you really have faith – if you’re more than just a Christian poser – then you’ll be living like a Christian. And living like a Christian is best shown through acts of hospitality to strangers. Like Rahab, like Abraham, we love even the most undeserving of neighbors as we love ourselves. That’s our best “trick” to practice.
There’s no need to be a Christian poser, because there are plenty of strangers out there in need of hospitality. Go to your neighbors, your classmates, your coworkers, even people in church with you. There are folks out there everywhere who are in need of food or clothing or compassion.
Do you believe in Jesus?
Then go… and do.