What is Saving Faith?

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February 21, 2021

James 2:14-26

Allen Burns

What is Saving Faith?

We are saved when we put our faith in the person and work of Jesus. Jesus takes our sin upon Himself and gives us His righteousness. The righteousness we receive from Jesus is perfect, eternal, complete, and abundant. We are saved by faith, and it is a gift of God’s grace.

In the past two weeks, we have seen that Scripture is abundantly clear, that there is no good work we may do to earn our way into heaven. Christ is our all in all.

Going to church does not save us. Reading the Bible does not save us. Giving to missions does not save us. Teaching Sunday School does not save us. Abstaining from alcohol, drugs, and watching bad movies does not save us. Trying to be morally pure does not save us. Being a community activist does not save us. Helping widows and orphans do not save us. And so forth.

We can all sit here and say, “Amen.” No good work saves anyone. We are saved by faith, by grace, in Christ alone. Amen, amen, amen. We all agree.

However, what if we meet a person who says they are a Christian. They say they are a Jesus follower. As we talk with this person, we discover they do not belong to a church, nor do they want to. They say that organized religion is wrong. They do not support missions. They have no interest in trying to be morally pure. They have no care for community betterment. Neither are they inclined to helping widows and orphans when asked. When we tell them they should live according to the New Testament’s commands, they respond by calling us a legalist. They claim, “I have the righteousness of Christ, and that is all I need.”

How would we respond? Would we say, “Amen”?

There is a great deal of confusion in Christianity over the difference between works unto salvation and works resulting from salvation.

Now that we have “thrown down the gauntlet” and declared without question that we are saved by grace, through faith, and that we are made perfectly righteous because of Jesus, let’s build upon that foundation.

We are going to take our time so that we do not dismantle the foundation of the Gospel. We are going to build upon the foundation of faith, grace, and Christ alone.

Main Idea

Our faith is not passive but active. The faith that opens the doors of heaven so we may dwell with God eternally is a faith that actively works in our lives.

Our faith transforms us from spiritual deadness to being new creatures in Christ. Our faith is multi-dimensional. When we only think of faith as that which justifies us, we are not grasping the full reality of the work of faith in our lives that the Bible describes. The faith required for our salvation also actively works in our sanctification.

The main idea of the sermon is this:

MAIN IDEA: Know the faith which saves us works in us to conform us into the image of Christ.

We will see three truths about our faith in Christ.

  • There is only one saving faith.
  • Saving faith produces good works.
  • Good works are the fruit of saving faith.

There is Only One Saving Faith

The first point we need to understand is that there is only one saving faith in Scripture.

The reason to title the message, “What is Saving Faith,” is because of James 2:14. James asks, can “that faith” save him? James implies there is a faith that saves and a faith that doesn’t save. James is distinguishing between two different faiths. Therefore, what we want to know is, “what is saving faith”?

For the saints of God, there is only one kind of faith and not many types of faiths. The faith which saves us is not a different faith for believing God answers prayer. There is one faith. We have one faith for getting saved. We have one faith for our sanctification.

The Ephesus church had trouble distinguishing between Jews and Gentiles. They thought there might be a greater reward for Jews, as God’s chosen people, than there is for Gentiles. Paul writes to them to expressly tell them that there is only one family of God and we all belong to the same family. He writes:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all. But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. (Ephesians 4:4-7)

There is not a faith for the Jews and a faith for the Gentiles. There is not one faith for the Old Testament saints and another faith for the New Testament saints.

The faith that the Apostle Paul speaks about in all of his epistles (e.g., Romans and Galatians) is the same faith that James speaks about in his letter to the churches. Jesus speaks of the same faith. The faith we need for salvation is the same faith of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Elijah, David, Habakkuk, Jesus, and the Samaritan woman at the well. There is one faith.

Therefore, when James asks,

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? (James 2:14)

He is talking about the same faith Paul speaks about in Romans and Galatians. On the surface, when James asks his question, it appears he is saying that we need works for salvation. However, James is not talking about getting saved. James and Paul agree about salvation by faith alone at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:13-21; Galatians 2:9). We will unpack what James is talking about after our second point.

For now, let’s keep in mind this first point, which is there is only one saving faith in Scripture.

Saving Faith Produces Good Works

Our second point is that the same faith that saves us and gives us the righteousness of Christ is the same faith that will produce good works in us after salvation.

Before salvation, we are spiritually dead. Dead people cannot do good works. That is why no good works by an unsaved person amount to anything of value. All of the good works of a spiritually dead person are as filthy rags or, as Paul says, rubbish.

At the time of salvation, God makes us new creatures in Christ. We become born again. The saints of God become able to do good works. We are able because God empowers us with His Spirit to do good works.

Let’s look at Paul’s writings, and we will see that Paul and James express the same principle about good works, but they use different wording.

Let’s begin with the passage we looked at last week. In this passage, Paul counts all of his good works as rubbish. He values what is given to him by faith, which is the righteousness of Christ.

More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith (Philippians 3:8-9)

Paul believes, as do we that we are completely righteous in Christ. The righteousness of Christ will allow us to attain the resurrection unto life (vs. 10-11). We are together alive, risen, and seated with Christ in the heavenly places. Our salvation is secure. We are perfectly righteous in Christ in the spiritual realm.

Listen carefully to what Paul speaks about right after telling us that is given by faith the righteousness of Christ.

Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14)

Paul receives the righteousness of Christ by faith, and the same faith causes Paul to press on until he comes face-to-face with Jesus. He presses on to the prize. Paul describes the pressing on as walking according to the Scripture (vs. 15-21).

The book which most people turn to when there is an objection to the book of James is Galatians. If we look carefully at Galatians, we will see that Paul talks about doing good works as a believer.

For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’” (Galatians 5:13-14)

Paul uses the same argument here in Galatians that he does in Romans (6:18-19) when he says that Jesus died to set us free from sin so that we may do deeds of righteousness resulting in our sanctification.

Paul closes out his encouragement to the Galatians to do good works by saying,

Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary. (Galatians 6:9)

Let’s turn to Paul’s letter to Titus. In chapter three, Paul again declares that our works do not save us.

But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7)

Amen. We are justified, which means made righteous, by grace. Our salvation is achieved solely by Jesus Christ, our Savior.

However, listen to what Paul says about doing good works after salvation. He begins by using the phrase, “this is a trustworthy statement.” Whenever Paul says this, he wants his listeners to pay attention.

This is a trustworthy statement; and concerning these things I want you to speak confidently, so that those who have believed God will be careful to engage in good deeds. These things are good and profitable for men. (Titus 3:8)

Those who have believed God will be careful to engage in good deeds. Belief in God, faith in God, produces good deeds (works). We are doing as Jesus says, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

We do good deeds before people, so Jesus gets the glory! God is working through us for the glory of His Son. Our good works are a testimony before people and the principalities and powers of the heavenly places. Our born again life is a testimony to all creation, seen and unseen, of the glorious work of Jesus!

Many people have memorized Ephesians 2:8-9. It is a very helpful verse when sharing the Gospel to help people know that salvation is by faith alone, and not by works.

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Right on the heels of the proclamation of salvation through faith by grace, Paul proclaims:

For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)

There are many more passages we can use to show that the Apostle Paul believes that the faith we have in Christ will produce good works. As we read the Scriptures, we need to recognize that many New Testament commands are not talking about works leading to salvation; rather, they are works that are the fruit of our salvation.

It is wrong to say good works save us. But, it is equally wrong to say that our faith will not produce good works.

There is only one saving faith.

Saving faith in Christ produces good works.

Therefore, good works are the fruit of saving faith.

Good Works Are the Fruit of Saving Faith

Let us now turn to James, who argues that good works are evidence of saving faith.

The primary theme of James’ letter is that we are to live out our faith as doers of the word and not hearers only. From reading the letter, we see conflicts between rich and poor and factions in the church. James rebukes and challenges the readers to get right with God. He wants the people to have a better grasp of the Gospel.

James wants the people to know that the Gospel is the means for our sins to be forgiven, and it is a life-transforming gift that enables us to bear good gospel fruit (character “Spirit” fruit, the fruit of the lips, and hands and feet serving fruit).

The gist of James 2:14-26 is in keeping with that theme. The readers are not to rest on making a profession of faith without being doers of the Word seeking to bear gospel fruit. Don’t say you have faith in the Gospel and ignore living by the fruit of the Gospel.

James emphasizes the need to have evidence by talking about demons.

You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. (James 2:19)

Do you say you believe in Jesus? Do you have faith? Demons believe. The demons believe Jesus is the Messiah. They call Jesus the Son of God. But, the demons do not have saving faith in Jesus. We know this to be true because the demons do not have gospel fruit. It is evident to all of creation.

But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? (James 2:19)

James quotes the same verse in Genesis (15:6) as Paul uses in Romans and Galatians.

AND ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS,” and he was called the friend of God. (James 2:23)

James believes that Abraham’s faith is credited to him as righteousness. We know James agrees with Paul at the Council of Jerusalem. And, like Paul, James believes faith produces good works. James uses Abraham as an example of faith. Abraham’s works are the fruit of his faith. Abraham’s talk of faith is evidenced in his walk of faith.

Paul emphasizes the insufficiency of works for salvation; James emphasizes that works are the evidence of faith. Both are true. James is telling his readers, just like Paul told Titus, If you are in Christ by grace, engage in good deeds.  

Paul addresses people who depend on the merits of their works to gain salvation. James addresses people who claim faith in Christ but are not walking with gospel fruit.

James is not talking about being justified before God by works. When we are in Christ, we are justified by God. God knows our heart, and we are justified in His eyes because of our faith in Christ. Instead, James says our faith is justified before men (show me, show you).

God knows Abraham’s heart. We cannot see Abraham’s heart, but we can know Abraham has saving faith because his life shows that God is busy at work to conform him to the image of Christ.

We are justified before God by faith, but our faith is justified before men by works.

Look at the example James provides.

If 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 be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? (James 2:15-16)

Let’s listen to the words of Jesus. With one word, Jesus helps us understand gospel fruit. Jesus describes the righteous, those who are righteous by faith, as those who have gospel fruit.

 “But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’”

“Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’” (Matthew 25:31-40)

Do not misunderstand what Jesus is saying. He is not saying that the good works of feeding the hungry, helping strangers, and visiting the sick are what saved people. The sheep are already righteous because of faith. Jesus is describing that those saved by faith, who are righteous, will bear gospel fruit.

Gospel Impact

Think about this carefully. When we get saved, we are born again. Our formerly dead spirit is brought to life spiritually. The Holy Spirit who raises Jesus from the dead is at work in us. We ought not to think that the Third Person of the Trinity will be inactive. He is God’s agent who works change. He conforms us to the image of Christ.

If there is one thing that is clear from reading and understanding the Bible, the Gospel impacts lives. Having an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ will impact our life. We are new creatures that God is conforming to the image of Jesus. The way we think, speak, and live will be different than before the Gospel impact.

David Platt, in his book “Follow Me,” describes the impact of the Gospel as being hit by a Mack truck on the freeway. You don’t show up an hour late to work, brushing yourself off, saying, “Sorry I am late; I got hit by a Mack truck on I-91.”

People who genuinely respond to the Gospel will be different. The change will be different from person to person. Some impact is not as visible and is subtle. When a person, old or young, becomes a Christian, there will be a life change of direction.  They will not be perfect, but they will be different.  They will not be all they should be, they will not be what they would like to be, but they will not be what they used to be!

As we look around in our culture, we see many people saying they believe in the Gospel; they call themselves Christians. Yet, there is no difference in their lives. Their life is the same as people that don’t believe the Gospel. They think, speak, and act the same as others not hit by the Gospel Mack truck.

For those of you who the Gospel has had no impact, we ask: Are you willing to recognize, you foolish people, that faith without works is useless? (James 2:19)