Introduction to the Book of James: “What Real Faith Looks Like”

      A few weeks ago I had a phone conversation with a pastor in another town here in Southwest Louisiana, and he was talking about how there are well over 30 churches in their small community.  He said, “You know how it is down here; everyone says they are a Christian.”  I agreed with him; virtually everyone you run into in this area says they are a member of a church, and thinks they are going to heaven. But the problem is, they aren’t! 

     Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who DOES the will of my Father who is in heaven.”  In other words, there are going to be a lot of us who think we have saving faith, but don’t.  How do you know if your faith is genuine, Biblical, saving faith, or not? 

     The book we are going to begin to study today answers that question.  The Book of James shows us what REAL faith looks like.  Now I can tell you right off the top that there are some things that genuine, saving faith does NOT look like:

— it does NOT look like the person who supposedly makes a “decision” for Jesus at some point in their life, gets baptized, but then lives like they never met Jesus: boozing it up on Friday or Saturday night, sleeping around or living with someone they are not married to, and/or cheating people on the job.

– it does NOT look like the “religious” person who reads their Bible and goes to church every week, while they gossip about people, coddle those who have money, but totally ignore the elderly, widows, orphans, or the poor! 

     Real, Biblical faith, James tells us, is an entirely different thing.  In Chapter 2, James writes: “If a man says he has faith, but he has no works, will that faith save him?”  The answer is “no”!  If you have genuine, saving faith in Jesus, you will have works that demonstrate that your faith is real.  What does real faith, saving faith, look like?  Do YOU have it?  A lot of people in SWLA are deceived – are you one of them?  This book will show you. 

     The Book of James historically has been one of the most controversial books of the Bible.  For example, in Martin Luther’s preface to the German translation of the Bible that he was writing in 1522, he wrote:

“Therefore St. James’s epistle is really a right straw-y epistle, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.” 

So Luther thought James was an epistle of “straw”, because it seemed to him to emphasize works too much, and didn’t share the nature of the Gospel.  But although I agree with Luther on many things, I disagree with his evaluation of James.  In fact this book teaches us MUCH about the real nature of the gospel.  It shows us what REAL FAITH LOOKS LIKE in several ways:

— First of all, it shows us WHY we need to be saved – we have all broken God’s laws

— Second, it shows us HOW we are saved – by faith in Jesus Christ. 

— Finally, and in what is a great emphasis of the book, it shows us what you will LOOK like if you really are saved.  Let’s spend a few minutes surveying the Book of James by looking at these three ways that it shows us “What Real Faith Looks Like.”

I.  It shows you WHY you need to be saved

     Martin Luther said there was “nothing of the nature of the gospel” in the Book of James,  but I disagree.  It dramatically reveals to every one of us our pressing NEED to be saved. 

     It is easy to look at the Book of James and get lost in the deluge of practical admonitions and think it is just a practical “how-to” book.  But it is not.  Its practical admonitions will confront us week after week with our need to be saved – because we will see there is NO WAY can live up to the practical standards of this book!  It shows us very dramatically that we have all broken God’s laws, and have a desperate need of a Savior!

     The realization that we need a Savior is the greatest need of people in America today.  Most people have no sense of their accountability to God.  They think they are pretty good people.  When you speak to them while doing evangelistic surveys, they say things like: “I know I’m not perfect, but I haven’t murdered anybody; I think I deserve to go to heaven.”  But they don’t realize their great problem is that they have broken God’s laws; they stand guilty before Him and will be condemned for their sin. 

     Genesis tells us that Adam & Eve, the first parents, were tempted by Satan in the Garden of Eden, and they chose to ignore God’s commandment, and sin.  This has subsequently repeated in each of us since.  We have all inherited a nature corrupted by sin, and when we come to the time when we can make our own choices, every one of us chooses to sin.  We have all broken God’s Laws.  If you have any question about whether this is true, this Book of James will definitely show you that you have.

     For example, in Chapter 3 it talks about the importance of taming the tongue.  James 3:2 “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect (mature) man, able to bridle the whole body as well.”  That is the standard that is set before us: control your tongue and be a perfect person.  But the problem is, NONE of us can do that!  None of us can live up to this standard — we all lose “the battle of the tongue”! James flat out says a couple of verses later: “no man can tame the tongue”.  ALL of us sin and lose this battle every day – which points out how utterly LOST we are.  Jesus said “By your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned.”  We know which of those two it will be: if it is up to our words, we will be condemned!   We have gossiped, and slandered, and cursed, and insinuated, and boasted, and flattered, and lied, and deceived, and spoken when we shouldn’t have, and NOT spoken when we should have – if there were no other Commandments in the Bible other than those regarding the tongue, it would condemn us all.  “By your words you will be condemned.” 

     Who here this morning can say: “I have tamed my tongue.  I never say anything I shouldn’t?”  Not one of us!  “No man can tame the tongue”!  It points out our desperate need for a Savior.  We need a Savior like Jesus: not Someone who points us to all the things that we have to DO in order to be saved, because we can’t do them.  We try to do good, but we fail!   We need a Savior like Jesus, who Himself lived the perfect life that we could not live, who “while being reviled, did not revile in return; while suffering He uttered no threats” – He DID keep His tongue under control!  He lived the perfect life that we could not live, so that He could die on the cross as the perfect sacrifice for our sins, so that if you would confess your sinfulness to the Lord, and trust His sacrifice on the cross to save you, He will forgive you your sins, and GIVE you His perfect righteousness, and you will be saved, NOT on the basis of what YOU have done for Him, but on the basis of what HE did for YOU by dying for you on the cross.  THAT is the kind of Savior we need – one who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. 

     Our need for a Savior like Jesus is shown to us verse after verse, chapter after chapter in this Book of James.  If we are wise, we will see our need for a Savior at every hand in this book:

— In Chapter 1 we see how we aren’t caring for orphans and widows the way we should, and how we have been stained by the world – and we see how much we need a Savior.

— In Chapter 2, we are shown how we have played favorites with the rich even in the church, and we realize how much we need a Savior

— In Chapter 3 the way that we sin with our words every day is shown to us, and we are reminded of how much we need a Savior

— In Chapter 4 we are shown how selfish and worldly even our prayers are, and we know we desperately need a Savior.

— In Chapter 5 we see how our luxurious living in the face of the poverty of the world condemns us, and it casts us on the mercy of God — we need a Savior! 

     James 2:10 says “Whoever keeps the whole Law, and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of the whole Law.”  If you spend much time at all in the Book of James, you will quickly see that you have stumbled in much more than ONE point!  You need a Savior – and so do I!  The Book of James makes that very clear. 

II.  It shows you HOW you can be saved.

     James does not merely show us the problem – it also shows us the solution.  It shows us that Savior whom we need.  Luther said it didn’t share the nature of the gospel, but I disagree: from the very first verse, James preaches Jesus to us.  It is true that James only mentions the name of Jesus twice in his book, but both times it is packed with meaning:

     The first verse says, “James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.”  It is Jesus who is the Savior.  He calls Him the “Christ” – “Christ” is the Greek word for the Hebrew word “Messiah”, the Anointed One God promised in Isaiah 53 who would bear our iniquities for us that we might be saved.  He is the “Lord” – the One whom we would turn from our sin to follow in personal commitment.  From the first verse, James says that the solution to our sin problem is having Jesus as our Lord & Savior. 

     Then Chapter 2 says “My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.”  His topic there in Chapter 2 is favoritism in the church, which is a sin.  But he also speaks there of how we are saved from sin: it is through FAITH in the “glorious Lord Jesus Christ.”  This is just what Ephesians 2:8-9 teaches: “By grace are you saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast.”  It is faith in Jesus, not our own good works, that saves us.

     John Ryland grew up years ago in England as an extraordinary young man.  He read through the New Testament in Greek at 8 years old.  When he was 11, he read through the Book of Genesis 5 times – in Hebrew!  He was very gifted, and very “religious.”  His father was a pastor.  But despite all of these things, he had an unsettled feeling, for he knew that he was not right with God.  His family background didn’t save him; his religious readings and works didn’t save him.  But one day a young friend of his made it clear to him that he would never be saved by the things he did, but only by putting his faith in Jesus, and what HE did for him on the cross.  Ryland did put his trust in Jesus, and from that day, then he KNEW that he was saved.    

     This is what you must make certain of: that your faith is in Jesus as your Savior.  We are going to talk a lot about works here in the Book of James, because a person’s works may demonstrate whether they really are saved, but make no mistake: you will not saved by your works.  You must put your trust for your salvation in Jesus.  James emphasizes this: it is faith in Jesus that saves.   

     But James also emphasizes something else very important about salvation; something that many of us here in Southwest Louisiana need to hear: we are not saved by just making a “profession” of faith which doesn’t show itself with works.   Chapter 2 goes on to say in :14, “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works?  Can that faith save him?”  And the answer of course, is NO!  It can’t!  Real faith is much more than saying that you prayed a prayer in church one time and got baptized.  Real faith is more than knowing that you walked down an aisle and made an emotional “decision” some time in your past.  Real faith is much more than “getting baptized” or joining a church.  Real faith LIVES OUT the truth of the gospel by FOLLOWING Jesus as Savior and Lord. 

     It is significant that each time the name “Jesus” is used in James, he puts the word, “Lord” with it.  He is “LORD Jesus Christ” in 1:1; He is “our glorious LORD Jesus Christ” in 2:1.  And James says in :1 that he is not just an “adherent”; he says I am a “bondservant” of the Lord Jesus Christ.  In all these ways, James is saying that it is not enough to claim that you have “faith” in Jesus; if you really have saving faith in Jesus, you will follow Him as your LORD.  This Book makes it very clear that your faith will show itself by the way you live.  Chapter 2:17 says “Faith, if it has no works is dead, being by itself.”  :20 says “Faith without works is useless.”  In other words, if you have really come to know Jesus as your Savior, you will SHOW by following Jesus as Lord.  Which, quite frankly, exposes the so-called “faith” of thousands of people here in Southwest Louisiana as fraudulent.  Samuel Rutherford, a pastor in Scotland in the 1600’s, wrote that you could “scarcely light upon a man” in Scotland who didn’t claim to have faith.  It is that way here in Louisiana now.  You can scarcely find a person here who doesn’t say they believe.  But you can scarcely find the person who is really following Jesus!  James tells us that it is no good saying “I believe” and not following Jesus.  If that is the kind of faith you have, James says, that is NOT going to save you. 

     There is no “easy believe-ism” in the Book of James.  There is no “pray this prayer and live however you want” salvation that seems to be so common down here in the “Bible Belt.”  James teaches that you are saved by faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord, which, if it is real, will SHOW itself in the way you live. 

     Examine yourself this morning: is your faith in what Jesus did on the cross for you, or in your own religious works, to justify you before God?  And if you say your trust is in Jesus, are you following Him as your Lord?  Are you showing it by the way you live? 

III.  It shows you what you will LOOK like if you are really saved.

     If virtually everyone in Southwest Louisiana says they are saved, but they are not, what do those who are really saved look like?  This book of James shows us “What Real Faith Looks Like.”

     James makes it clear that we are saved by faith in Jesus, but it also makes it clear in Chapter 2 that you are not saved by having a “faith alone” – that is, a faith that is not REAL, and lived out in practical ways. 

     This book shows you what those practical ways are.  There are some books of the Bible in which you might be tempted to get lost in abstract theology.  James is NOT one of those books.  It is not composed of mere theological speculation.  It is practical:

— Chapter 1 shows how you will respond to trials if you really have faith.

— Chapter 2 shows how you will treat people if you have genuine faith.

— Chapter 3 shows how you will talk if you are really saved.

— Chapter 4 shows what some of your attitudes will be if you have real faith.

— Chapter 5 shows how you’ll use your money, and how you will pray, if you really have faith. 

     From first to last, this book shows us “What Real Faith Looks Like.”  For the next several months, Lord willing, we are going to compare our lives, to the standard of genuine faith that James displays for us.  James holds the “mirror” of God’s word up to us and says “If you are really saved, this is what your life is going to look like.”  Each one of us should ask ourselves as we walk through this book: Is this what I look like?  It will be very searching. 

     The author and playwright Tennessee Williams was once quoted as saying that he stopped seeing his analyst because “He was meddling too much in my private life”.  That’s pretty good, but I’ve got to tell you, one’s analyst is nothing compared to the Book of James!  It is going to meddle in your life big time – private life, public life, and everything in between — IF you take it seriously!  You are going to have a choice with this book: you will either face yourself practically and seriously, or you will harden your heart and walk away.  You got to do one or the other.  Of course, that is always the choice with the gospel.  You’ve got to either got to be willing to leave everything and follow Jesus, like His disciples did, or walk away sorrowful, like the Rich Young Ruler did.  There is no “middle ground” with the gospel.  And that’s how it is with the Book of James, too.  You will be faced with specific, practical choices to make in your life every week with this book, as it shows us “What Real Faith Looks Like.”   Some of us are going to see that we are on our way to becoming like what this book shows as genuine faith.  Others of us are going to say – if you are honest – I am not anything like this!  And it is going to show you that what you really need is to be genuinely saved! 

CONCLUDING CHALLENGES:

This book has SO much to offer. I want to challenge you to do several things as we get ready to study it verse by verse next week:

— first of all, BE HERE every service you can. 

— invite someone to come with you.  You undoubtedly know someone who would benefit from hearing the practical teaching of the word of God from the Book of James.

— read it for yourself each week, and make notes and pray about what you find here.

— I want to challenge everyone to do something very special: work on memorizing this book.  Just start with verse 1: “James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the 12 tribes who are dispersed abroad, Greetings …” 

  • Memorize it yourself
  • Get an accountability partner and check each other each week on how you are doing.
  • SS teachers, lead your class to memorize James – review it in class; have someone recite it.  Student teachers, have an incentive for your class members.
  • Moms & Dads, encourage your kids to memorize this book.  Give them a big reward if they will memorize the whole book: tell them you’ll buy them that iPad or take them to Disneyworld or whatever.  It will be worth whatever you do, to encourage them to put this marvelous treasure of the word of God into their lives. 

     Now I know some of you are going to say, I can’t memorize very well.  I know some of us are better at memorizing than others.  But let me challenge you to do this: at least start it, and see how far you can get.  What if all you ever memorize is the first chapter?  What if you never get past the first 3 verses?  That’s still better than you had before!  Ask God to help you; get an accountability partner, and see what you are able to do.    

— BUT: as important as memorizing this book is, I think James himself would say that the most important thing you can do with his book is not memorize it; but to APPLY it; to DO what it says.  Find those specific things that God says you need to do differently, and put those things into practice in your life.  Do NOT look at yourself in it and walk away.  Ask God to help you see yourself in the “mirror” of this book, and by His Spirit’s power, come away changed forever! 

— And the most important application you can make is to ask yourself, if you say that you are a Christian, is this what your faith looks like?  Some of you today can already tell: this is NOT what your faith looks like.  You realize that you have never been saved.  But through God’s grace, you can be, today.  Admit that you have broken God’s Law; put your faith in Jesus as your Savior and Lord, and commit yourself to follow Him and live your faith out like this book describes, with His help.  When you do that, you can know that you are truly saved – because this is “What Real Faith Looks Like”!

About Shawn Thomas

My blog, shawnethomas.com, provides brief devotions from own personal daily Bible reading, as well as some of my sermons, book reviews, and family life experiences.
This entry was posted in Book of James Sermons: What Real Faith Looks Like, Sermons and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Introduction to the Book of James: “What Real Faith Looks Like”

  1. VFlue says:

    Thanks for putting these sermons in print.

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