I remember trading Valentine’s Day cards in grade school. Every kid brought cards for the other kids in the class. We had made cut out card receivers and hung them on the wall in our school classroom. Sometimes, they even included candy with the card. It was a good day at school.
Imagine being a little bit older than grade school, and imagine someone sending you a sweet Valentine card, someone who has said that they love you. But then, for some reason, they say bad things about you. They have said that they love you, but you now find out that they’re going around saying bad things about you. Furthermore, they find out that you’re in great need, and they just ignore you. I don’t know about you, but I would wonder if the love they expressed in the card really meant that much. They might have said one thing to me, but it seems like they were living another.
As is true with love, so with faith. The real thing makes a difference in how you live. In James 2:14–26, James tells us that true and saving faith always includes more than just thoughts — it inevitably shows itself in actions. The actions don’t save. The actions don’t apprehend the work of Christ that saves. The actions don’t create the faith that grabs hold of the work of Christ that saves. But the actions are the inevitable result of the faith that savingly trusts in Christ alone.
Consider this example: an imaginary animal casts no shadow. One very real difference between an imaginary creature in your young child’s playful mind and a real animal in your backyard or garden is whether or not it has a shadow. The imaginary one doesn’t. The real animal does. But that doesn’t mean that the shadow is the animal, it is simply the proof that it is the real animal. A real animal comes with shadows, and real faith comes with actions.
An illustration James gives of this point in the first half of chapter 3 is the way in which the Christians were speaking. Perhaps some people in the churches there were being foolish or prideful with their words. Perhaps their lives were not marked by holiness, but by sin. James wants these Christians to understand that such lives come from a different source than from one who has true saving faith.
As James reasoned (James 3:11–12),“Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh.” My Christian faith can’t leave my life unaffected. If it has, then I have reason to question whether my faith is real.
This is an unsettling thought. All of us in this life sin — Christians and non-Christians alike. But even if we were to stop today, we have already sinned. Only Christ has lived a sinless life, and it was His giving His life for us that saves us, not our morally reforming our own lives. His death receives God’s righteous wrath against us. His good life is accounted to us. Jesus saves those who have true faith in Him.
James says the Christian has true faith. A life marked by true faith will show itself in its actions — not perfectly, but enough to provide a real and true identification. The real Christian isn’t marked by a faith that produces no holiness of life. To prove this point in chapter 2, James uses two examples from the opposite ends of the spectrum: Abraham, the revered father of the faithful, and Rahab, a Gentile prostitute. Both claimed to have faith, and both had actions that evidenced their faith was real and true.
And so James wrote this warning. There is a faith that is useless, dead — and that is a faith not acted out. In chapter 2, he gives three examples to help them understand what he means. First, we find in 2:19 that any claim to know, that is, any claim to have faith that isn’t acted out characterizes the demons! That should scare us! In a second example, James points out in 2:20–24 that the father of the faithful had his faith made complete by what he did! And then, in 2:25–26 we find that even the most unlikely of the faithful, Rahab, showed her faith not simply by what she knew or said, but by what she did!
The story is told that when modern glass-encased skyscrapers first became popular, there was one office with glass walls in which the employees were terrified. The building manager visited the office, and tried to persuade them not to worry. Finally he got the structural engineer, who again lectured the employees on the sturdiness of the glass, but no sooner had he left, than people began pulling their desks away from the glass walls. Business in the office was disrupted. Finally, the structural engineer came back up, began to explain again, and exasperated at the obvious disbelief of the office workers, turned to walk out of the office. Then, all of a sudden, he turned and ran toward one of the glass walls. He hit it with his whole strength, and bounced back. When the man put his whole weight against the glass, when he evidenced the trust he professed with his whole life, the people then believed him.
The one who really believes, puts his whole life into it. That is what James teaches us. Is Christian faith all in our heads? Don’t believe it. Real faith acts.