Don’t Brag About Your Faith. Live it!
October 7, 2015
“Are you a Christian?”
That’s what the gunman asked the students at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. If they answered yes, he shot them in the head. If they answered no or didn’t answer, he shot them in the legs. (See You’re Going to See God for details.)
A crisis reveals what we already are
It is often said that a crisis never made any man. It only reveals what he already is. That thought is both comforting and frightening because we all wonder how we would react if everything we held dear was really on the line.
We wonder—would we have the faith to make it? Or would we collapse? All the things we say we believe—would they still be enough when the crunch comes? You never really know the answer until that moment arrives, as it did for the students in Oregon a few days ago.
Would there be enough evidence to convict you?
For most of us, the tests of life will not be so dramatic, but they come nonetheless. Many years ago I heard it put this way: “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” The application is always the same. Live so there can be no doubt.
While preparing this message, I found this headline: Syrian Christians Cry ‘Jesus!’ Before ISIS Mass Beheading. The story begins this way:
The Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) executed 12 Christians, including a 12-year-old boy, after they refused to abandon their faith and convert to Islam. The murders occurred on August 28 outside of Aleppo.
“In front of the team leader and relatives in the crowd, the Islamic extremists cut off the fingertips of the boy and severely beat him, telling his father they would stop the torture only if he, the father, returned to Islam,” revealed Christian Aid Mission. “When the team leader refused, relatives said, the ISIS militants also tortured and beat him and the two other ministry workers. The three men and the boy then met their deaths in crucifixion.”
Those of us who live in the West need to read stories like this, in part so we will remember to pray for our brothers and sisters undergoing such torture for their faith. Hebrews 13:3 reminds us to “remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.” By remembering those who have suffered so much, we are made strong in our own faith. We stand firm because they stood firm through their fiery trials (1 Peter 5:9).
We stand firm because they stood firm
It is against that backdrop that we consider James 2:14-17. Given the pressures to compromise our faith and the rising tide of persecution against believers around the world, we need to hear again the bracing words of James, the brother of our Lord. In a very real sense, he is asking us a question as vital today as it was 2000 years ago. “You say you are a Christian. Talk is cheap. Where is the evidence?”
Our passage begins with a question, moves to an illustration, and then draws a conclusion. Let’s see what James has to say about living our faith in a dangerous world.
I. A Serious Question
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (v. 14)
Let’s start with the little phrase “if someone says.” By putting the matter this way, James imagines a hypothetical person claiming he has faith in Jesus, but whose life offers no “works” of any kind. In the Greek “does not have works” is in the present tense, indicating an ongoing condition of the heart. James uses the word “works” to cover the vast range of things a godly person might do, from praying and preaching and singing and giving and testifying to serving and helping others.
Talk is cheap
Here is a person who boasts of something that apparently he does not possess. He says, “I believe in Jesus” but there is nothing there, nothing at all, nothing remotely Christian. He thinks he’s okay because he says he believes. But he does not show the love of Christ, and he lives like the pagans around him.
In many ways, the problem is in his lips as much as in his life. His mouth writes a check his life can’t cash. He apparently is completely unchanged by the gospel he says he believes. He might as well be an unbeliever because, for all intents and purposes, that’s what he is. You can find people like this in almost every church. They are apparently unchanged by years of church attendance, hundreds of gospel sermons, and stirring worship services.
His mouth writes a check his life can’t cash
What good is that sort of religion? It’s useless! It’s empty, vain, pointless, and self-deceived. There isn’t one good thing to say about this man and his faith. He does no good for himself or for anyone else.
Can that faith save him? No, because it’s really no faith at all. Remember that his problem is not just his lack of works. It’s that he makes a claim for himself that is not true. We see this all too often in the church. The people with the loudest mouths often have the emptiest lives. They jabber endlessly about their faith, but it’s all bells and whistles, sound and fury, signifying nothing.
To help us understand what he means, James asks us to consider the strange, sad case of Mr. Big Mouth Christian.
II. A Shocking Example
“If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (vv. 15-16)
What sort of “works” does James have in mind?
Let’s begin with a simple observation. Coming to Christ ought to change a person from the inside out. Without much effort, we can imagine a number of changes that ought to be obvious:
Coming to Christ ought to change a person from the inside out
You don’t get drunk on the weekends.
You don’t sleep around.
You don’t watch porn.
You get serious about the Bible.
You sign up for a missions trip.
You become a generous giver.
You clean up your potty mouth.
You start hanging around fired-up Christians.
You look forward to going to church on Sunday.
You pray for your friends to come to Christ.
You make spiritual growth a priority.
You cheerfully endure mockery from those who don’t know Jesus.
That’s a pretty good list, but it’s far from exhaustive. You’ll notice I started with three “don’ts.” Peter does the same thing when he lists various practices newly-saved Gentiles no longer take part in: “living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry” (1 Peter 4:3). When that happens, your unsaved friends will ridicule you for not joining with them in their debauchery (1 Peter 4:4). If we wanted to, we could emphasize the things you used to do that you no longer do because you are now saved. That’s a perfectly good way to put it. Or we could talk about character change that reflects the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). Or we could talk about new habits of holiness—worship, prayer, praise, Bible study, and local church involvement.
James doesn’t mention any of those things. He focuses on how we respond when confronted with the practical needs of fellow believers. The phrase “brother or sister” means he’s thinking about needy Christians. These are the ones closest to us spiritually. They are close enough that we actually see them hungry and virtually naked. The Internet has turned the world into one village. We “see” suffering brothers and sisters every day via the media and the Internet. How do we respond?
We always have excuses when we don’t want to get involved
Here comes a suffering, starving, nearly naked brother or sister. We see them. We can’t help it because their plight is right before us. That’s part of the point. We see them just as much as the priest and the Levite saw the hurting man on the road to Jericho. They saw him and passed by on the other side. That’s an easy response. We’re busy. We’re tired. We’re behind schedule. We’ve got a meeting to attend. People are depending on us. We’re under pressure already. So we pass by on the other side for reasons that in themselves are not wrong. Eventually, along comes a Samaritan who helps the man by the side of the road. That’s the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).
But James asks us to imagine a response even worse than passing by on the other side. It’s one thing to see a need and simply walk away because you feel like you can’t get involved. But in this case, the Christian who brags about his faith doesn’t simply walk away. When he sees his suffering brother or sister, he actually says something. The translations handle it in different ways:
This passage ought to bother us
“Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!” (CEB)
“God be with you! Stay warm, and make sure you eat enough” (GW).
“Good luck to you. I hope you’ll keep warm and find enough to eat” (Phillips).
And my personal favorite, from the Living Bible:
“Well, good-bye and God bless you; stay warm and eat hearty.”
This is worse than what the priest and the Levite did. They went to the other side of the road, but they didn’t mock him with their words. How much worse it is to mouth pious platitudes while not caring one whit about hurting people.
What good is it? No good at all.
What benefit is it? None at all.
Sometimes it’s better to keep your mouth shut
The man is still starving.
The woman is still freezing.
Your hearty “God bless you!” rings mighty hollow in their eyes. God doesn’t like it either.
Sometimes it’s better to keep your mouth shut. To piously talk about mercy means nothing. You can’t eat good wishes. You can’t keep warm with cold compliments.
Don’t talk about mercy.
Don’t talk about mercy.
Get some soup and feed the hungry. Find some clothes and give it to the women dressed in rags. Your empty words mean nothing, they do nothing, and they help no one.
In case you missed it, let me summarize what James has in mind. There are many ways to show the change Christ has made in your life. Sometimes we will show it by what we don’t do that we used to do. That sort of change may irritate our unsaved friends because we no longer join them in their debauchery. Sometimes we show the change by displaying a character filled with love, joy, peace in place of anger, prejudice, and hatred. Sometimes the change will be seen as we actively pursue God through habits of holiness. All these things matter, but James wants us to know that how we respond to the needs of others matters just as much. Will we roll up our sleeves and get involved in healing a broken world? Or will we blather on with our Sunday School platitudes while the hungry are not fed and the naked are not clothed?
So this is very, very practical, and to be honest, it’s challenging and bothersome. It ought to be. If we can read this passage without feeling uncomfortable, we’ve missed the point.
III. A Sobering Conclusion
“So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (v. 17).
Where does all this lead? If we live like this, our faith is dead.
As dead as a corpse in the morgue.
Go back and look again at the immediate context (James 2:1-13). James has just challenged us about the way we treat the rich and the poor when they come to church. If we favor the rich, we are guilty of the sin of partiality. We are accepting people (or rejecting them) on the basis of how much money they have, what sort of clothes they wear, what kind of car they drive, how cultured they seem, who their friends are, what kind of job they have, how connected they are, and all the rest. That is to say, James is thinking about people like us.
If we want a faith that is alive and not dead, we can have it.
He’s thinking about pastors, elders, deacons, worship leaders, ushers, Sunday School teachers, small group leaders, children’s workers, youth leaders, and all the rest. That’s the context of these verses.
Here’s the shocking conclusion. You could be a Bible-believing pastor, with a degree from an evangelical seminary, you could preach orthodox theology, and yet your faith could still be dead. Fill in that sentence for all the other church leaders I just mentioned. I used the pastor as an example because that’s my category. That sentence more or less describes me. I could do all the right ministerial things and still have a dead faith.
If I’m honest with myself, I don’t care for that conclusion. It’s not that it offends me. I can perfectly understand what James is saying, and I agree it’s true. But I confess it bothers me on some level that being a “good pastor” isn’t enough. Preaching well and leading well is a noble thing, but even if I somehow manage to do that, I can’t then blow off my obligation to care for the hurting people God brings across my path.
Decide now to live for Christ every day.
To be clear, James is not suggesting that caring for the hurting is the only measure of a living faith. The other things matter too. He’s not giving us an exhaustive list. But he is forcing us to realize we can’t hide behind noble religious activity as an excuse not to care for others.
It all goes together.
My faith is dead if I talk without caring.
My faith is dead if I preach without loving.
My faith is dead if I quote the Bible without applying it in my own life.
My faith is dead if I pray on Sunday and don’t show compassion on Monday.
My faith is dead if I give my tithe and spend the rest on myself.
Living Faith is Moving Faith
Just as I was writing those words, I saw this quote from Christian Hip Hop artist Princeton Marcellis: “My faith is dead if it doesn’t make me move.” I think James would agree 100%. Living faith is moving faith. That reminds me of Hebrews 11 with its long list of Old Testament heroes. They were men and women who lived and died by faith, across many generations, in many different situations. But their faith was active.
By faith Noah built
By faith Abel offered.
By faith Enoch walked.
By faith Noah built.
By faith Abraham left.
By faith Isaac offered.
By faith Moses refused.
By faith the people marched.
By faith Rahab hid.
Some saw great victories. Others suffered and were sawn in two. Some withstood the fire while others hid in caves. Some escaped the sword while others died by the sword.
But they were all approved by God.
Why? Because their faith moved them to action.
Active faith releases God’s power.
Passive faith is dead, useless, and empty.
Brighten the Corner
I can think of two ways to apply this passage. The first is quite simple. Don’t brag about your faith. Live it! If you have to tell me how great you are, how great can you possibly be? When Michael Jordan played basketball for the Chicago Bulls, he never bragged. You don’t have to brag when you win six NBA championships. In the same way, if your faith is strong, you don’t need to talk about it. You certainly don’t need to brag about anything you do for God.
My faith is dead if I talk without caring
If your faith is strong, you don’t have to tell us. We’ll know by watching you.
If your faith is dead, your words don’t matter anyway.
Here’s the second application. Ask God to use you this week right where you are. This afternoon I was listening to Christian music on my iPhone as I was riding my bike around White Rock Lake in Dallas. At one point, an old gospel song called Brighten the Corner Where You Are came up in the rotation. Written in 1913 by Ina D. Ogden and set to music by Charles Gabriel, the song gained popularity through the evangelistic campaigns of Billy Sunday. It has a catchy tune and a message anyone can understand. The first verse sets the tone:
Do not wait until some deed of greatness you may do,
Do not wait to shed your light afar;
To the many duties ever near you now be true,
Brighten the corner where you are.
And then comes the chorus:
Brighten the corner where you are!
Brighten the corner where you are!
Someone far from harbor you may guide across the bar;
Brighten the corner where you are!
I think James would heartily agree with those simple words. Don’t wait to do great deeds. Don’t postpone action until some heroic hour. Start where you are, as you are, shining the light, serving the Lord. Or said more simply, Brighten the corner where you are.
Don’t postpone action until some heroic hour
If we want a faith that is alive and not dead, we can have it. We must ask God for his help, looking always to Jesus, depending on the Spirit’s aid. Then we must start in Jesus’ name to brighten the corner where we are. You never know what burden you may lift, what tears you may wipe away, what life you may touch, or what soul you may guide safely home to heaven.
This sermon began with a sobering reminder of what happened in Oregon last week, and it ended with the hopeful words of a gospel song. How do we connect those two realities? I answer this way. Those students in Roseburg, Oregon had no inkling what was about to happen when they went to class that day. The Christians who died were given no advance notice. They had their own hopes and dreams for the future. They were thinking about their weekend plans. Some were no doubt thinking about a guy or a girl they would like to date. They were, in short, totally normal young people. Then the killer began to shoot and everything changed. God bless those young people who in the crisis answered “Yes” when asked, “Are you a Christian?” They paid the ultimate price for their faith.
For most of us, the tests of life will not be like that. But the challenge is the same for all of us. Get your faith in gear so no matter what happens today or tomorrow, you’ll be ready to stand up for Jesus. Make it your aim to brighten every corner with the love of Jesus. Decide now to live for Christ every day. Take your stand so when you are asked, “Are you a Christian?” no one will be surprised when you say yes.