The phrase “thoughts and prayers” has become a joke in many minds, and we Christians are to blame. For outsiders keep seeing ostensibly Christian leaders time and again say “thoughts and prayers” and then… do nothing. Opioid epidemic? Thoughts and prayers. Mass shootings? Thoughts and prayers. No clean water in Flint? Thoughts and prayers. Thoughts and prayers… but nothing really done. And so instead bitter jokes float around among many non-Christians, pointing out the irony of us saying we’ll pray but doing nothing tangible. I do love this next one though. But again, the subtext of these jokes is that we Christians ought to spend time doing as well as thinking and praying, which I know many churches do already, but not all of us and not always. While you can read these jokes as attacks, that’s not really the point. Rather, these jokes lament… that so often Christians are quick to say blessings and so slow to actually be a blessing. When you study theology, one of the key terms is orthodoxy: it means right belief. Orthodoxy as opposed to heresy. What James is calling for here is ortho-praxy: right action. Orthodoxy, right belief; orthopraxy, right lifestyle. Because James writes this letter to experienced, mature Christians, he trusts their beliefs are orthodoxy already. And so instead, James focuses on orthopraxy when he reminds them and us in our final verse today: “faith without good works is dead.”
James’ first explanation of what he means is a hypothetical that, ironically, is exactly what the modern world accuses the Church of doing today. “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and you say to them, ‘Go in peace. Keep warm, and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not provide for their bodily needs, what good is that?” If your faith is quick to say blessings but slow to be a blessing, is that a real faith, or is it make-believe? If you claim that Jesus is Lord of your life, yet your life never changes in any noticeable way because of Jesus, is he really your Lord? As another example, consider abusive parents. Their words declare love for the child. Their actions do the opposite. And either the child confuses love and abuse for the rest of its life, falling into hurtful marriages and abusing its own children. Or the child realizes that what its cruel parents say and do are very different, and it will recoil in horror from them. When words and actions do not line up, something’s got to give. A similar cognitive dissonance is what happens when our Christian words and actions do not line up. Faith must overflow into a life of righteous and compassionate deeds. Because faith without works is dead.
James continues, “You believe that God is one: you do well.” That phrase “God is one” is the ancient Jewish equivalent of Christians today saying, “Jesus is Lord.” It’s the most basic, essential articulation of orthodox belief. So James says, “You believe God is one. That’s good. You know your fundamentals. But even demons in hell believe that, yet they shudder in fear.” If you read the gospels, quite often the people around Jesus do not realize he is the messiah. But when Jesus casts out demons, even as they rage and tremble the fiends admit the truth: the demons declare Jesus is the Son of God. James’ point is that the lowest demon in hell knows more spiritual facts than you or I ever will. The devil can quote the Bible from memory better than you or I. Every demon saw the pearly gates once already, while you and I can only imagine. Yet God rejects wicked spirits, because knowledge alone is not enough. What you do with that knowledge matters. I could know more about throwing a baseball than the entire MLB. But if I never step onto a baseball field, what good does my knowledge do? You could have a heart attack next to the world’s greatest cardiologist, but if they just stand there watching, what good is their knowledge? This danger faces all mature Christians: substituting learning about Jesus for following Jesus, doing lots of Biblical study and zero Biblical living, reading great Christian thinkers yet being a terrible Christian doer. Knowledge is good. But knowledge alone will not save you: what you do with that understanding matters too. And “faith without works is dead.”
“But!” some of you may be thinking, “This sounds horrible! It sounds like works righteousness! It sounds like you’re saying we earn our way into heaven. That’s the opposite of what Jesus says.” It’s a fair objection. That misunderstanding is why James’ letter gets such a bad reputation, why it’s so often avoided. Because if you read Paul’s letters, the Apostle Paul really stresses that all you need to be saved is faith, that God’s love is sufficient for salvation, that the grace of Jesus Christ is enough to save you. James, in contrast, seems to be preaching legalism when he says, “faith without works is dead.” So what gives?
In legalism, here is how salvation works. God is gracious and loving. So out of his goodness, God gives you faith in Jesus. This faith helps you live a righteous and loving life of good deeds. Those good deeds make you holy in God’s eyes, which means you are saved, get into heaven, however you want to call it. That’s a more legalistic view of salvation. Grace and faith are involved, but they matter mostly because they get you to the good deeds, which are what actually get you into heaven. But while that is one way to make sense of what James says today, it doesn’t mesh well with what Paul says nor with the Jesus we meet in the gospels. So here’s how salvation works according to the Presbyterian tradition and most others. God is gracious and loving. So out of his goodness, God enables you to have faith in Jesus. By having faith in Jesus, you are saved. Because you have been saved, you do good deeds out of gratitude. It’s not your goodness that saves you: you were saved only by the grace of God. But since God was so loving to you, you respond by being loving towards God and other people.
If it helps, think of the Christian life as a car engine. Under legalism, God’s grace and your faith power the engine of good deeds. And that engine of good deeds earns you into heaven. What I and most others believe, however, is that God’s grace powers the engine of faith, and faith alone—trusting in Jesus—that is the engine that propels you into heaven. And good deeds? Well, that’s like the exhaust coming out the back of the car: it’s not what moves you forward but is an easy way to see if the engine’s running. Your Chevy doesn’t move forward because the tailpipe shoots out fumes. But if there are no fumes coming out the back? Your engine probably isn’t working.
So when James says, “faith without works is dead,” he is not saying that good works get you into heaven. He’d still say that faith saves you by the grace of God. But if there are no good works? It’s probably not the strongest or healthiest faith. If you have faith, the byproduct, the side effect… is good works. Good works don’t save you. But they highlight the vitality of faith, point to its existence. Let’s circle back to James’ first two points. You tell a hungry, naked person that you bless them and pray they’ll be fed and clothed. Faith—if it’s a living faith—at that moment then overflows into helping that person, whether yourself or by getting them to someone else who can help instead. Or take his point that demons know much about God but still are vile. That is the case because, while the know facts about God, they do not trust in the Lord. In contrast, the faith of saints overflows into blessing others, good deeds that imitate God’s own mercy and that reflect a living faith. James’ third and final argument draws upon scripture, pointing to Abraham in Genesis and Rahab in Joshua 2. In both cases, the heroes had faith in the Lord. But that faith is celebrated in their stories only after it overflows into good deeds, into tangible acts that require those heroes to rely on God for their safety.
So… experienced, wise Christians that you all are, today’s sermon is a simple warning. The more you know about God, the longer you walk with Jesus… the more tempting it can be to leave faith in your head and forget to put it into action. It’s tempting to give forgiveness freely for your own sins yet fail to grant similar mercy to others. It’s similarly tempting to brush aside the wickedness of people we happen to like, whether Christian celebrities and politicians on TV… or a friend who maybe goes a bit too far sometimes but never bothers you, giving excuses like “Well, judge not” or “They’re a baby Christian, still learning the faith.” To that, James reminds us that a mature, living, healthy faith… overflows into good deeds. That if someone’s faith is real, if they truly trust in God… it should lead them to live a more holy and kind life. Not that their kind, holy life saves them or makes God love them more: that’s impossible. But rather that a holy, merciful, righteous life is a natural byproduct, side effect of the grace of God saving you by faith. Or as Jesus says in Matthew 7, “You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.” An apple tree may not bear fruit for a couple years and be fine. Yet if an apple tree never gives apples but only thorns, you’d start to wonder about the health of that apple tree, no? In the same way, James isn’t telling us who is or is not saved, isn’t telling us to judge who gets into heaven. That’s not your or my place. But James does remind us that a healthy faith overflows into a loving, righteous lifestyle. And as family in Christ, we can encourage each other to do better, so that our faith may grow stronger, that our witness to the world be more inviting, that the love of God may be seen by all who see us.
Lent starts this week, a time of spiritual discipline and fasting. I encourage you to take James as a challenge. What is one way you can live a changed life thanks to Jesus, one way you can live differently because of what God has done for you? Perhaps it’s volunteering. Perhaps it’s turning the other cheek instead of getting even. Perhaps it’s inviting a neighbor to Sunday worship or our two Lent classes. Perhaps it’s visiting the sick or shut-ins. What is one way you can show the world your relationship with Jesus has changed your life? These things do not change your status before God: you are always and forever a beloved child of the Almighty. But putting your orthodox faith into orthopraxy action… is part of what it means to be an adult Christian. We’ve come to church for years. We know our faith well. Now start living it. Amen.