By Steve DuPlessie
I want you to hear – and not misunderstand – this warning. It’s possible, it’s very possible, unfortunately it’s too possible that someone claims to have faith in God, claims to be a follower of Jesus. Raised in the home of followers of Jesus. Or maybe been sitting here at GNBC or in some other Christian church for a long time. Knows the songs. Knows the bible. Claims to have saving faith, but the reality is, you don’t have a faith that saves at all.
Well how do you know then? How can you tell if you have faith that saves?
And James answers, look for the fruit. James says, “I’ll show you my faith by what I do.” Faith always produces fruit. You can tell if faith is present based on whether or not fruit is present. This is exactly what Jesus said in Matthew 7…
“By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them” (Matt. 7:16-20).
When you see apples hanging from the limb of a tree, you say, “That’s an apple tree.” How’d you know? It has apples on it. It’s that simple. What is evident on the outside makes clear what is on the inside, so if you see fruit, then that’s evidence of faith. If there is no fruit, there is no faith. Faith always produces fruit. Now let’s be real clear here. James is not saying you need to add good deeds to faith in order to be saved. And good deeds without right belief is not saving faith.
James is saying that saving faith produces good deeds—deeds that flow from faith. It’s the overflow. So that’s our first truth about saving faith. Faith in our hearts is evident in the fruit in our lives. Now that truth sets the stage for the second jaw-dropping truth about saving faith that James illustrates.
People who claim to be followers of Jesus, but fail to help poverty-stricken neighbors, are in fact not saved. People who claim to be followers of Jesus but fail to help poverty-stricken neighbors are in fact not saved.
Now I know some of you just decided I’m nuts. Others are already writing your email response on your smart phones, but stick with me for just a moment. Is this not the simple and clear truth of James 2:15-16? Think about it. Look at verse 15…
“Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food…” James is talking about fellow believers in Jesus; charity starts at home.
There she is, at your doorstep, with barely enough clothing to cover her; she has rags on, not enough to keep her warm. And she has no food, literally no food for the day, no means to provide food. She is starving. Shamed, cold, miserable, and hungry, she stands at your doorstep, and you say, verse 16, “Go, I wish you well…” Literally “go in peace.” “… but do nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” The picture is pretty silly. Obviously, James says, verse 17, “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is … dead.” Dead.
So James tells us people who claim to be Christians and fail to help poverty-stricken fellow believers are in fact not saved. You can do cartwheels all around this text to try to find a way out, but that’s the glaring truth. James says someone who responds to a brother or sister in need … with a cold, loveless, merciless Ebenezer Scrooge heart like this clearly does not have faith that saves.
It’s the same thing the Apostle John, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, wrote in his first letter, chapter 3, verse 17…
“If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?”
And the very obvious answer is, “There’s no way the love of God can be in him, because if the love of God was in him it would bear fruit!”
Because there is no fruit—the fruit is mercy toward the poor—because there is no fruit, then it’s clear evidence there is no real, saving faith. Now I want to be very careful here; I want to walk you through two kinds of sub-truths here that are crucial, vital for our understanding this.
First, acts of mercy are not the “way to salvation,” the means by which you are saved from the penalty of your brokenness and sin. We don’t help the poor to be good enough so God will notice and say, “Wow, did you see that? She’s so kind, she’s so generous. I guess that good deed outweighs her sin on a cosmic scale of justice. So I’ll give her extra credit points, and a trophy for participation, and go ahead and save her!” No…
We don’t help the poor to earn salvation. Let me repeat that. We do not help the poor to earn salvation. Acts of mercy and kindness are not means to salvation. What is the means to salvation? Only the mercy and grace of God in Christ can save you. Only Jesus saves.
That’s grace. God’s unmerited gift of grace. God initiating, not waiting for us to turn to Him. Not waiting for us to do something … grace-worthy. God initiated, sent His one and only Son, Jesus to be our spotless atonement sacrifice, our sin-bearer.
That’s the good news of “Good News Bible Chapel.” That’s the good news of the Bible. That’s the good news of the gospel: Not waiting for us to get it right clean up our act, fix all our brokenness, make up for all the mess-ups; God initiates, punishing Jesus and gives us a gift of forgiveness, spiritual re-birth. He’s given us new life.
Who in here, chose to be born? … Who here, once dead, can choose to become alive? No one can. You have to be given life. That’s the whole picture that James has already painted for us: The mercy and grace of God are the means to our salvation. So here’s the difference: James is telling us … good acts of generosity, kindness and mercy are not the means of salvation, but good acts of generosity, kindness and mercy are necessary evidence, the fruit of salvation.
So what James does, whenever he talks about good deeds all throughout this passage, he’s talking about deeds not in the sense of somehow earning favor and right standing before God. He’s talking about deeds as the fruit of faith in God. And he’s saying mercy given to the poor is evidence of mercy received from God in our hearts. If the mercy of God and the gospel has transformed your heart, then you will not see someone in need and do nothing. That’s impossible! Mercy flows from you like apples from an apple tree! You’re all about mercy and kindness because God your Father is all about mercy and kindness.
Tim Keller, pastor of a great church in New York City, leads mercy ministries all over that city and around the world. I love this quote from him. Keller said…
“Mercy to the full range of human needs is such an essential mark of a Christian that it can be used as a test of true faith. Mercy is not an optional addition to being a Christian. Rather, a life poured out in deeds of mercy is the sign of genuine faith. If there is no mercy toward the needy, then there is no faith. Acts of mercy … are evidence of salvation.”