What It Means To Believe: The Nature of Genuine Faith
Rev. Bryn MacPhail
What does it mean to "believe" in something? As Christians, we claim to believe
a number of things about God and humanity. But what exactly do we mean when use the
The word "believe" can be used in at least 2 ways: First of all, there is a belief
which refers to the assent of the mind
that something is true. But that assent does not have any effect on the action of
the person involved. For example, I may be intellectually convinced that cigarette
smoking will be harmful for my body, yet I may continue to smoke. My belief then,
has not affected my action. This is a belief which rests only in my mind and never expresses
itself through my will or my actions.
Secondly, there is also a belief which can be termed "total belief"
. In "total belief" a person's whole life and every action is dictated by what they
believe. To use another example: my belief that 2 + 2 = 4 dictates every financial
transaction that I make in a day.
In the same way, Christian belief is not merely the acceptance of certain propositions
about Jesus Christ. Christian belief is the commitment of our whole life to the conviction
that Christ died for us, and that He desires us to "do the Father's will".
This total belief, often called "saving faith", combines belief with action
. And as James will show us, it is only
this kind of belief that can be called genuine faith.
James begins his argument for genuine faith with 2 rhetorical questions: "What use
is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith
James then illustrates his point by saying that if we see "a brother or sister is
without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace,
be warmed and filled," and yet do not give them what is necessary for their body,
what use is that?"(v.15, 16).
James, by his illustration, is attempting to demonstrate that this type of faith is
of no use at all. And James' conclusion in verse 17 is that, "faith, if it has no
works, is dead".
What is this? "Faith without works is dead"? Doesn't the apostle Paul insist that we are saved by faith alone
? In Romans 3:28 Paul says "we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart
from the works of the law". It appears that James is seriously contradicting the
rest of the New Testament Scriptures that teach that we are saved by faith alone
The truth is, however, there is no real contradiction between James and Paul, and
I'll tell you why.
In Romans, Galatians and Ephesians--when Paul talks about justification by faith alone--Paul's
subject matter is the nature of justification
. Paul is telling us how
one becomes a Christian.
James, in his epistle, is speaking of something slightly different. While Paul focuses
on the nature of justification, James focuses on the nature of faith
. James is telling us, not how one becomes a Christian, but what
a genuine Christian looks like.
While the Bible clearly teaches that Christians are saved by "faith alone", James
correctly reminds us that we are saved by faith which is not alone
That is to say that works is to faith, what branches is to a tree. If I was to say
thing in my backyard was a tree, you would not be surprised to hear me talk later
about pruning branches or raking leaves in my backyard. Because even though I never
mentioned branches or leaves in my backyard, you know to include them in your understanding of a tree. So James wants us to know that good "works" is part of the very nature
Does this mean that we have worked for our salvation? Not at all. Paul tells us in
Ephesians that even the faith required for salvation is a "gift"(2:8). Salvation is a gift from God--we do nothing to get it. However, when given
the gift of salvation we are simultaneously given the gift of faith. And with faith,
James tells us, comes the natural growth of works. True faith manifests itself in
works. If it doesn't, it isn't genuine faith.
James now brings forth an imaginary objector who has what we call a "laissez-faire",
"I'm OK, you're OK" attitude regarding faith and works. The objector says "You have
faith, and I have works"(v.18).
At this point James explodes and says, "Show me your faith without works, and I will
show you my faith by
James gives us a striking example of belief without works in verse 19: "the demons".
That's right. There is not a demon in the universe who is an atheist. In fact, I
imagine that their theology is probably more orthodox than my own. But do you know
what? It doesn't do them an ounce of good. Why? Because they refuse to do the will of the Father
. The demons could easily recite the Apostles Creed just like us--and mean it! But
it does them no good. James says that they "shudder" at the truths about God. Literally
they "bristle up" like a frightened cat.
James then states his conclusion again: "faith without works is useless"(v.20). His
point is that there is a faith which is not genuine faith.
Sadly, there are multitudes in churches across the globe who Sunday after Sunday say
their creedal "I believe's," but lack the type of faith that compels them to follow
Christ at all costs. Real belief is more than bare assent to truth. It is a belief
that involves the will. Real faith manifests itself in actions.
Soren Kierkegard once told a parable highlighting the problem of faith without works.
The parable was about a place called "Duckland":
It was Sunday morning in Duckland, and all the ducks dutifully came to church, waddling
through the doors and down the aisle into their pews where they comfortably squatted.
When all were well-settled, and the hymns were sung, the duck minister waddled to
his pulpit, opened the Duck Bible and read: "Ducks! You have wings, and with wings
you can fly like eagles. You can soar into the sky! Use your wings!".
It was a marvelous, elevating duck scripture, and thus all the ducks quacked their
assent with a hearty "Amen!" . . . and then they plopped down from their pews and
The point of this parable should be obvious: in the lives of many churchgoers today,
there is a discrepancy between profession and action, between professed faith and
works. Non-Christians refer to this practice as "hypocrisy". I think their point
in identifying our hypocrisy is to say "Why should we believe in what you say, when you obviously
Our problem is that, quite often, our actions betray our convictions. Too many of
us listen to rousing sermons that tells us that we can fly, and for some reason we
choose to "waddle" home.
When James uses the examples of Abraham & Rahab he is showing us what genuine faith
should look like. Verse 21 asks "was not Abraham justified by works when he offered
up Isaac his son?".
"Justified by works"? What's going on? Before we again become confused it is important
to notice that the quotation in verse 23 is from Gen.15:6, "Abraham believed the
Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness". That is important because the
offering of Isaac occurs in Genesis, chapter 22--some 7 chapters, and 30 years after God
had declared Abraham righteous. So Abraham was not literally justified by offering
Isaac--he had been 30 years earlier--Abraham merely demonstrated that his faith was
genuine by his actions.
James explains further in verse 22 that "his faith and his actions were working together
, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected".
The same can be said for Rahab. If you didn't know the story you might be tempted
to think that Rahab's actions justified her. But listen to what Rahab says in the
book of Joshua, "we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea . .
. the Lord your God, He is the God in heaven above and on earth below"(Joshua 2:10, 11). Rahab
had heard of Israel's God and BELIEVED that He was "the God in heaven". And that is why she helped the Israelite spies. Rahab's actions
simply flowed from her convictions. They flowed from her faith.
I truly believe that James would be shocked if anyone suggested that he was arguing
for salvation by works. He simply saw faith and works as inseparable. James' argument
is that works is an essential component of faith
My favourite phrase in this passage is in verse 18--where James says, "I will show
you my faith by my works".
It is not good enough that we hold "beliefs" about Christ--we must act on them. Too
many of us are content to say, "You have your beliefs and I have mine".
James challenges us to live our beliefs
. Our beliefs should transform us. We should be different people because of our beliefs.
People should look at the way we live and see
Contrary to popular belief, faith is not a "private matter". Faith is something that
must be visible
. That doesn't mean that our faith is obnoxious--just visible.
Abraham's faith was visible. Rahab's faith was visible. And our faith SHOULD also
be visible. According to James, if its not visible--if your faith is not evident
to your spouse, your neighbour, your co-worker--then your faith is useless
As Spirit-filled Christians, we have the potential to fly. So let us resolve to stop
Let us heed the words of Francis of Assisi: "Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary,
use words". Amen.