If you have your bible, please turn with me to James, chapter 2, verses 1 through 26.
My brothers, do not show favoritism as you hold on to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. For example, a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and a poor man dressed in dirty clothes also comes in. If you look with favor on the man wearing the fine clothes and say, “Sit here in a good place,” and yet you say to the poor man, “Stand over there,” or, “Sit here on the floor by my footstool,” haven’t you discriminated among yourselves and become corrupt judges?
Listen, my dear brothers: Didn’t God choose the poor in this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that He has promised to those who love Him? Yet you dishonored that poor man. Don’t the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? Don’t they blaspheme the noble name that was pronounced over you at your baptism?
Indeed, if you keep the royal law prescribed in the Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show favoritism, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the entire law, yet fails in one point, is guilty of breaking it all. For He who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ So if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you are a lawbreaker.
Speak and act as those who will be judged by the law of freedom. For judgment is without mercy to the one who hasn’t shown mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can his faith save him?
If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it? In the same way faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself.
But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without works, and I will show you faith from my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. The demons also believe—and they shudder.
Foolish man! Are you willing to learn that faith without works is useless? Wasn’t Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was active together with his works, and by works, faith was perfected. So the Scripture was fulfilled that says, Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness, and he was called God’s friend. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way, wasn’t Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by a different route? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.
When people think of James, the brother of Jesus, this is usually the passage they’re thinking of. And it’s kind of infamous. The Jewish philosopher Leo Baeck wrote that James is kind of a square peg that Christians hammer into a circular slot, since Paul in Ephesians, and everywhere, says that “We are saved by grace through faith, and not from works, so that no one can boast,” but James says “A man is justified by works and not faith alone.” Leo Baeck joked that James plays like a book written by someone shocked and horrified at everything Paul ever wrote, so it amuses Baeck that both authors even made it into the New Testament together.
I don’t have enough hands to count the times I’ve heard this text brought up in a discussion with somebody well-intentioned but confused. There are people, like a guy knew in high school, who insist that Jesus came to earth to reveal himself as the Messiah, and not much else. And every time I talk to this guy, the conversation goes about the same: I’ll talk about the way that the gospel writers frame Jesus as the fulfillment of the sacrificial system in the Old Testament. So the strange rituals in Leviticus – the ones we’ve all been told to be afraid of – didn’t exist just to exist.
Because according to Paul, and Peter, and every New Testament writer who covered the subject, they were never meant to save God’s people from God’s wrath. The Old Testament laws were what Paul refers to as “shadows of things to come.” So they were like the shadow your body creates across the pavement on a sunny day. Your shadow’s not its own thing. Your body creates the shadow when the sun shines over it. So the laws, the sacrifices, the rituals in the Old Covenant were shadows cast by Jesus himself. The Law points toward a righteousness we see more fully in Jesus. The sacrifices point toward a sacrifice that we see fully in Jesus’ death and resurrection. The purity rituals point toward a perfect purity that we see fully in Jesus himself. But the thing that saves us is Jesus; the Law was there to “usher us towards him.”
And this dude from high school would nod, and kind of bark out some variation of “Too complex. Jesus came to say ‘I’m God, worship me or I’ll kill you’,” and then he’d leave to go scour the internet for 9/11 conspiracy theory videos. So that guy would always point to James and say, “See, Jesus is the Messiah, and if you want to be his servant, you’ve gotta earn it.” The problem is that if James were anything like my high school classmate described, the Synagogue leaders wouldn’t have kidnapped him in the middle of a sermon and thrown him off the roof of the temple.
There were a thousand people at any given time who claimed to be the Messiah, and they all had followers. But the Synagogue leaders didn’t throw you off the roof for following somebody who claimed to be the Messiah. They threw you off the roof because they perceived that you were somebody whose teachings threatened to draw people away from keeping the letter of the Law. That’s when they’d run to grab a ladder and an angry mob.
So James got murdered for teaching the same things that got Paul murdered. He got thrown off the temple-roof for teaching that the Law of Moses had been fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and that the salvation that Israel had been waiting for since the time of Abraham came through faith in Jesus Christ and absolutely nothing else. So we’ve gotta read this like James reads it, not like your weird aunt who keeps trying to get you to join her cult.
So what’s actually going on is that James has come to a point in his life where he just doesn’t have the patience anymore for people who say “You can show me your works, but I’ve got my faith.” He isn’t talking about Paul, here. He’s not taking a jab at being “saved by grace through faith.” James is taking a potshot at people who want to believe the gospel without believing the gospel. You know what I’m talking about? He’s taking an ax to the roots of the kind of “faith” that’ll never get you thrown off the temple-roof. Because James has a word for the sort of faith that doesn’t move you to serve the Lord by serving your neighbors: It’s called “Unbelief.”
That’s why, in verse 23, he writes about Genesis 15:6, when Abraham “Believed God, and it was credited to him as Righteousness.” It doesn’t say “Abraham obeyed God, and God begrudgingly rewarded him accordingly.” Abraham believed God, and believing God changed Abraham. Your faith is the thing that causes you to do different things than you would have done otherwise. So when God asked him to sacrifice his son Isaac on the altar, he said “I don’t understand this, but I believe God.”
And when “Rahab the Prostitute” hid the spies sent by Joshua and then helped them get out of Jericho alive, she didn’t “earn God’s approval.” She believed God. And her faith caused her to do something different than she would have as an unbeliever. She helped Joshua because of her faith. She “believed God, and it was credited to [her] as righteousness.” And believing God changed everything about Rahab. That’s why the next time we hear about her, Matthew says that Rahab quit the Brothel and married an Israelite, and that she had a son named Boaz, who had a wife named Ruth, who had a great-grandson named King David (Matt. 1:5). God changes the future by changing us, and he changes us by producing faith in us. Like chapter 1, verse 18 says, God has “given us a new birth through the message of truth and “made us into the firstfruits of his ‘New Creation’.”
So what’s ironic about James is that he’s controversial because of the way he talks about “faith” and “works,” but – as you’ve probably noticed – that’s really not the point of this passage. James is talking about some of the “works” that genuine faith produces, and the specific works he has in his crosshairs throughout chapter 2 have to do with the way that the gospel changes our relationship with our money.
And the problem he’s addressing is pretty self-evident: The world shows favoritism toward the rich. If you’ve watched the news this decade, then I probably don’t have to convince you of that. But sometimes churches do the same thing. When we imitate our culture, we develop a tendency to center our ministries around the wealthy and leave the poor at the margins, like the world does. And that makes sense, from a numbers perspective. Because you’re not gonna get the sort of tithes from a family of four whose combined household income is 22,000 /year as you would from the guy whose family’s owned the oil field for 150 years. So ever since the Fall, the world has catered itself to the rich, or the powerful, and it’s tempting to “follow the course of the world,” on this one.
But “keeping the poor at the margins” among us is one of the ways that the world will try and bait us into opting out of imitating Jesus. Because when we keep the poor at the margins, James says we become “corrupt judges.” And in a real way, we become like the real-life “corrupt judges” who were infamous throughout the backcountries of Rome during James’s lifetime. They could be bought and sold, and their judgments along with them, so the poor never stood a chance in court. That’s why in Matthew 5:40, Jesus says, “When someone drags you into court to take your shirt, give him your garments as well.” Like, the poor couldn’t drag anybody to court. That wasn’t an option. Because whatever the courts said that they were, the actual realities at work in ancient Rome made it so that the courts worked for the rich, and that was just the end of the story.
So as a rich man, you could multiply your wealth by dragging farmer after farmer into court, essentially buying the verdict, and walking away with nearly everything they owned. Like, if they’re suing you for your shirt, that means they’re suing you for everything. And so when Jesus has a crowd of mostly “subsistence farmers” – that’s like families with small farms who produce just enough to live on – he gets up on a mount and he says “When the rich drag you into court to plunder you, don’t just let them walk away with your farm, and your produce, and your animals.”
The term used here for “garment,” or “coat,” or “tunic,” doesn’t really have an English word, but was kind of like your “long johns.” It was the first piece of clothing you put on. So if a rich man is suing you for your family farm, Jesus says, “Don’t just give him the farm.” When he’s taken the shirt off your back, don’t let him stop there. He says “Take off your long johns, fold them up, and hand them to him.” And then you’re naked, in front of the whole court, in front the bought out judge, in front of the rich man who stripped everything from you. Their culture was different than ours: Public nudity is illegal here, for good reason. It was just shameful. in ancient Galilee. When a rich man sued you to take away your livelihood and you stripped down to nothing and gave him your clothes, too, you’re saying “You’ve taken everything from me. Is that really what you want to do?” You’re inviting him to be a human again, in a world that treats him like a God.
Because, since the Fall, the world has catered itself to the rich, or the powerful, but James says that “God chose the poor in this world to be rich in faith.” He says “God chose the poor in this world to be heirs to the kingdom that he promised to those who love him.” God turns our favoritism inside out. So James says, “If you keep the royal law prescribed in scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show favoritism, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” So James isn’t saying, “Eat the rich,” like the kids say. It’s not the French Revolution. He was inviting his readers to be the kind of community that the world had never seen before and couldn’t exist without the Holy Spirit working through our inadequacies to knit us together in a way that overcomes our greed, and our favoritism, and our prejudices.
So when James says, “What good is it if someone says he has faith but doesn’t have works,” he hasn’t changed the subject. He hasn’t switched from “wealth and poverty” over to “faith and works,” as an abstract concept. He’s still talking about the poor man sitting by the footstool at the church-house. Like he says in verses 8 through 13, sin is never “arbitrarily breaking some rules.” Doing “something” wrong is always doing Somebody wrong. There are a thousand ways to love your neighbor, but there’s at least as many ways not to. So if you don’t cheat on your husband, but you do cheat people at the business you run, I’m not sure how much comfort you should take in the fact that you’re technically not an adulterer. You might sin differently than your neighbor, but your sin is always sin against the God who knit you together.
So he says “If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it?” This is the same guy who didn’t stand a chance in a Roman court. It’s the same guy who’d get sat by the footstool when a crooked leader was in charge of the church-house. And if I never say the F word in my entire life, but I sit back while the world tramples him, James will not be impressed when I defend myself by saying “At least I don’t have a foul mouth.” Without missing a beat, he’d say “You might sin differently than your neighbor, but your sin is always sin against the God who knit you together.” And the name that James gives to this particular phenomenon is “Faith Without Works.” And it’s better suited for the dead.
So to quote the earliest Baptists we have anything written down about, we’re saved by “faith alone,” and that’s good news because the faith that saves us is never alone. Saving faith always shapes us over the course of our lives into the image of Jesus, like Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:18. And you have to be careful, because that’s the kind of faith that’ll get you thrown off the temple-roof. But it’s also the kind of faith that “turns the world right-side up.”
Like, from a modern standpoint, Jesus had a bad business model. His ministry was itinerant, so he was trekkin’ around the backwaters of Galilee. And instead of courting the elites for financial support, he intentionally ministered to bona fide poor, folks who had to beg for subsistence from folks who barely had it themselves. The problem with an approach like that. From a business standpoint, is that the destitute make bad donors, because they don’t have any money. They can’t bankroll your operations, at least not alone. But Jesus sought out people like the blind beggar, Bartimaeus and healed him. And then he invited Bartimaeus to join his caravan.
That’s counterintuitive; that’s another mouth to feed. But what would happen is that poor widows, like the one in Mark chapter 12, would drop their last two coins in the collection box. And two coins is nothing, from a “numbers” standpoint, but it was as much as she could give. And instead of making a big show out the handful of wealthy donors who flocked him, like Joanna from Luke chapter 8, or Joseph of Arimathea, Jesus would lift up the poor widow – and her generosity would become contagious.
So the folks who weren’t having to beg for subsistence started imitating the poor widows by giving everything they possibly could. And then eventually the wealthy followers of Jesus, like Joseph and Joanna, started imitating the poor widows by giving everything they possibly could – you see where this is going?
And eventually you get to a point where in Acts chapter 2, the beggars aren’t beggars anymore, because the believers gathered in Jerusalem after the resurrection of Jesus have started selling their land and pooling their resources to support the destitute among them. And eventually you get to a point where the destitute aren’t destitute anymore, because everyone who was able to followed Paul’s instructions in 1 Thessalonians to “Work so that you may have enough to give to those in need.”
And eventually, you get to a point in which Christians throughout the empire weren’t just supporting themselves and each other: By the mid-third century, they were supporting non-Christians at least as much as they were supporting other Christians: They started pooling more of their money so they could make additions to their houses – so they could double as free hospitals for the sick, regardless of whether they were Christian or not, or so that they could double as safe lodging for travelers.
And it got to the point where the pagan Emperor Julian complained, publicly, that the Christians were a tiny minority in the empire but they were supporting both their own people and the destitute pagans around them. So emperor Julian started turning pagan temples into food banks and homeless shelters just like the Christians had with their churches – so the followers of Jesus, under the leadership of James, and Paul, and Peter, and John, and their proteges, changed the empire. They changed the culture of Rome – they even changed paganism throughout the empire – not by crowding the government with Christians, like you might expect, but by serving their neighbors, their cities, better than their self-proclaimed opponents had the stomach to – because the faith that saves us also transforms us into something otherworldy.
God gives us a new birth through the Holy Spirit and makes us into the first harvest in his New Creation. We are ambassadors from a different kingdom, that operates on different terms than this world does. Because the “new birth” that God’s given us changes our relationship with our money. Jesus said that it’s “easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven,” but the Holy Spirit turns “rich young rulers” into generous disciples.
So over the centuries, the earliest churches came to embody the mercy that God had shown them in Jesus Christ so that everyone around could see it, be floored by it, and be changed by it. And James is speaking as an apostle of this Jesus, and as an apostle of Jesus he wants us to know that his brother was God in the flesh, and that he came to earth not just to “teach us a new way to live,” but to heal us from the sin and the brokenness that’s separated us from himself since The Fall.
So our fundamental problem is not that we’re “rich and greedy” and we need to “give away our money” so that we can have a relationship with God. That is not the takeaway from this passage. It’s that if we’re “rich and greedy,” that’s a symptom of our deeper problem; our greed is a symptom of our “Fallenness”; it’s one of the ways that our sin “works itself out in public.” If we show favoritism and discriminate against the poor, we are behaving predictably, because our hearts are upside-down. We’ve grown accustomed to the brokenness of the world, and we’ve learned to work it to our advantage, and that is one of the things that the Bible calls “sin.”
So what we need is to repent of our sin and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ. Because when we “repent and believe the gospel,” James says that God “gives us a new birth by the message of truth.” And when God “gives us a new birth,” he slowly changes what’s “inside” us, so that instead of piling up our money, instead of looking for ways that we can beat out our competition and “climb to the top,” we start seeing our stuff as God’s stuff and we look for ways that God can use us to share God’s stuff with our neighbors. We start putting our ambition and our industriousness to use on behalf of our brothers, and sisters, and friends, and neighbors – and enemies. Because that was the most otherworldly aspect of the early church, as far as the pagans could see, right? You’d expect somebody to be generous to their friends, but because of the “new birth” that was given to us in Jesus Christ, we are generous to our enemies in ways that couldn’t possibly make sense to them and don’t even particularly make sense to us.
But I want to sidestep all the dangers that usually come with preaching a passage like this by being as clear as I can possibly be: Going home and revising your budget so that you make regular, costly sacrifices on behalf of the battered people that you meet in the world will not save your soul. Because the “good works” that James is talking about here are not something that “buys your salvation”; they are The Thing That Grows Out of Your Salvation.
Mount Zion Baptist Church is a church filled with generous people. Like, you threw Elyse and I a pounding last week. And I assumed that meant we were gonna get a bunch of fists thrown at us but instead we got a bunch of gifts. So nobody has to yell at you to be generous with your money, or your time, or your friendship, because God has already done a remarkable work in molding you into “a compassionate and generous people.” We work as “saved people.” And as saved people, God creates the faithfulness that works through us. He’s “given us a new birth by the message of truth,” and that “new birth” turns our relationship with money right-side-up.
That also means that what James is saying works two ways: The generosity that God creates in us is the result of our salvation, not the thing that saves us. And whatever generosity you pour out on other people as a lost person is still the generosity of a lost person. I don’t want to assume that everyone in here is a follower of Jesus. I don’t want to assume that every person in the room already “believes the gospel.” So if you’ve never thrown yourself on the mercy of God to be saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus on the cross, it’s important to understand that your generosity to the poor doesn’t “cancel out” the rest of you. If you’re banking on “your good outweighing your bad,” you should bank on something else.
Because your good probably does outweigh your bad. But that isn’t the way that “the scales” work. Joining the kingdom of God isn’t a process where you step up to the scales and then an angel checks to see if you volunteered with enough nonprofits to counter-balance that unfortunate magazine subscription you got. No amount of generosity will outweigh your contribution to the brokenness of the world.
So you need the same thing James needed, the same thing the Rich Young Ruler needed: You need the God you sinned against to become a human, live the life you should have lived, and die the death that you should have died because of your sinfulness. And the good news is that’s what happened. So you can stop trying to earn your way back. You can throw yourself on the mercy of God, and God will crucify your sin with Jesus and then raise you up with him, forgiven – fully, and freely, and forever – for everything you’ve done. You’ll be adopted into God’s family. So you can work harder out of gratitude than you ever could have worked out of fear. So I’ll be down at the front as we start to sing. Come talk to me. I’d love to walk you through the process of “throwing yourself on God’s mercy.” I’d love to walk you through the process of being “adopted into God’s family.” I’d love to walk you through the process of “turning over the keys” to the Holy Spirit so he can turn you right-side-up again.