Calvary Road Baptist Church

“THE BARRENNESS OF A PIOUS PRETENSE”

James 2.18-20

Allow me to begin this morning by rehearsing some of the important background of this letter written by James, the half brother of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the most prominent of the pastors of the church in Jerusalem.[1] Of course, his letter was written to Jewish Christians, so many of them having turned from their sins to Christ beginning on the Day of Pentecost under the preaching of the Apostle Peter. Their simple faith in the crucified Son of the living God, who rose from the dead after three days and nights, and then ascended to the God’s right hand on high, left them forgiven all their sins and new creatures in Christ. The occasion of the letter is almost certainly in response to the scattering of those Jewish Christians from Jerusalem following the outbreak of persecution roughly ten years after the resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ.[2] This is why the letter opens with the words, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad.” The words “scattered abroad” translates the Greek word diaspora, referring to those who have been dispersed.[3] In our own day, Jewish people still use the word diaspora to refer to Jewish people not living in Israel.

Though we are almost half way through James in our ongoing study of this first of the New Testament books to be written, the holiday season distracted us from any sense of continuity in our study, so I will take a few minutes to review. Though James makes no direct reference to the profoundly important declaration first made in Habakkuk 2.4, that the just shall live by his faith, that is echoed by the Apostle Paul in Romans and Galatians, as well as by the writer to the Hebrews, it is no surprise to me that the entire letter written by James is devoted to the profoundly important issue of faith.[4] Faith is the instrumental means by which the sinner lays hold of Jesus Christ for salvation from his sins. Faith is also the means by which the now forgiven Christian lives for and serves the Lord God Almighty. Therefore, when James became aware of growing confusion concerning this matter of faith among those he had once ministered to as their pastor, he wrote the inspired letter we have before us.

This letter written by James deals with the subject of genuine faith in three ways: In James 1.2-20, he sets forth for the consideration of his readers the tests of a living faith. He declares that living faith holds up to scrutiny with respect to the various testings it stands up to in a predictable way, and with respect to the various temptations it endures in a predictable way. Does the Christian with living faith, with genuine faith, triumph over every adversity and claim victory over each temptation to commit sin? Sadly, our own experience and God’s Word both shows that are not the case. However, genuine faith can and increasingly does triumph over adversities and demonstrate victories over temptations to commit sins. The fact that James writes about this issue is proof positive that false hopes exist, that counterfeit Christianity is real, and that many are thereby duped. James seeks to help. In the second main portion of James’ explanation of living faith, which we are part way through in our study; we are shown the fruits of a living faith. That is, real faith, genuine faith, what I like to refer to as living faith, gives evidence of its presence in a Christian’s life. In James 1.21-27, James explains to his readers that a living and real faith is evidenced by the believer’s reception of the Word of God. Does the Christian receive the Word of God perfectly at all times? Certainly not. That is why so much instruction is provided to show us how to properly take God’s Word into our minds and hearts. However, those who have living faith stand in marked contrast to those who do not have real faith, with respect to honoring and receiving God’s Word. Second, in James 2.1-13, we are shown that living faith shows mercy. Again, no one should be surprised by this, in light of our Lord Jesus Christ’s description of His own followers as merciful, in His sermon on the mount, where He said, “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.”[5] Not that anyone becomes a Christian by being merciful, but that those who trust Christ in a vital and saving way are by their relationship with the Savior made to be merciful and guaranteed to obtain mercy. The third fruit of a living faith, which we are examining a piece at a time, is that it is visible. Allow me to explain. Faith itself is abstract. That is, it is not something anyone can grab hold of. Faith is the right conclusion drawn from circumstantial evidence, and it is never a conviction stubbornly held against evidence to the contrary. Allow me to repeat that statement, because it addresses a commonly held error that many who are opposed to Christianity cling to with persistence. Real faith is not a groundless or unfounded conviction. Faith is shown in God’s Word to be the right conclusion that is drawn from circumstantial evidence.

Allow me to explain, once more. Fundamental to the western concept of justice under law is the principle that more than one objective witness must establish truth. This is reasonable, since who wants to be convicted by a jury based upon one witness’s testimony? This concept is first found in God’s Word, in Numbers 35.30, where we see that more than one witness was required by the Law of Moses to convict anyone of a capital offense. Deuteronomy 17.6, 7 and 19.15 also require two or three witnesses. One witness’ testimony was declared insufficient to convict a suspect of wrongdoing under the Law of Moses. The principle of two or three witnesses was also applied by the Lord Jesus Christ to matters of church discipline, in Matthew 18.16, and is a principle that God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ hold themselves to in the New Testament.[6] Therefore, while James does not call attention to this principle, per se, he does rely on the principle with regard to this matter of faith by insisting that someone who claims he has faith supply more than just his claim in order to be believed.

If faith is not real, and not genuine, it is rightly characterized as so much pious pretense. The last time we were in James, studying James 2.14-17, we saw that such uncorroborated faith cannot save, verse 14, and does not serve, verses 15-17. Turn to James 2.14 at this time. When you find that passage, please stand for the reading of that portion of God’s Word, after which we will then read our text for today, verses 18-20:

14     What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?

15     If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,

16     And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?

17     Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.

18     Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.

19     Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.

20     But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?

James drives home the truth that faith that produces no works, which is to say faith that cannot provide corroboration, which is another way of indicating it is a faith that cannot produce persuasive and convincing evidence of its vital nature, is not saving faith. James does this by providing for his readers three demonstrations of faith:

First, there is the demonstration of dynamic faith (18)

“Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works and I will show thee my faith by my works.”

James presents us with a hypothetical situation. The picture is this: To this point, he has been dealing with people about their lack of works, and they are understandably defensive about it. People are predictably sensitive when any disconnect between their profession of faith and their lifestyle is pointed out. All of a sudden, up walks someone else who is on his or her side and joins the discussion. The man then points to the reader and reassuringly says, “You have faith and James has works.” This should not suggest to us that the one man had only faith and no works while the other man had only works and no faith. What is established is the preponderance of the one or the other in each man’s life. The hypothesis centers around this third man coming in and trying to put down James for his works, as though implying the works that can be seen by others (since works is not an abstract concept like faith is) is somehow inferior to unseen faith. I suggest to you that James is anticipating someone entering into the discussion and suggesting that he may be trying to persuade us to work our way to heaven. The response? “Not we man, we are faith men.”

Does James try to deny such a charge? No, he does not, even though it is not true. If someone approaches me with an unfounded accusation of a fault, does it do me any good to deny it? Judgment is necessary when making such a decision, since frequently it will just degenerate into an argument. Proverb 26.4 advises, “Answer not a fool according to his folly.” You want to avoid the, “You did too.” “No, I didn’t.” “Oh, yes you did.” “Oh, no I didn’t.” . . . and on it goes. However, the very next verse reads, “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.” You have to exercise judgment, not being terribly surprised if you just cannot win with some people. Instead of engaging in a dispute, James calls for a test that will settle the matter once and for all. “Shew me thy faith without thy works and I will show thee my faith by my works.”

What is James counting on by suggesting such an approach to settling a disagreement? At the outset, let me suggest that James is counting on a little intelligence on the part of his reading audience. First, they are reading his letter, or are listening as it is read. As well, they have already been exposed to his admonition back in James 1.21: “Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls.” Those two things in their favor, since most people are too closed-minded to read God’s Word or listen as it is read and taught, we once again remind ourselves that faith is an intangible thing. Oh, it is very real, but you cannot see it. It is quite invisible. Think of faith as being in some ways like a root. If I walk up to a tree and look for the root, I cannot see it. However, I can see what the root causes . . . everything above ground is visible, but none of what is visible would be there if there was no root. James is saying that you can say you have faith all day long until you turn blue in the face, but you cannot prove it by saying that you have faith. Thankfully, I do not have to prove my faith by talking about it until I’m red-faced. You can just look at my life and find all the proof you want. Let me read you an extremely literal translation of this sentence by Spiros Zodhiates that serves to underline what I have said to you thus far: “Show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee from the works my faith.”[7]

No need to run around telling people that you are a Christian, just be about the Master’s business . . . living a clean life, witnessing to folks, and serving in the church. People will be convinced of the genuineness of your faith, and some will come to know Christ as the manner of your life witnesses to the truth of the gospel you proclaim.

Next, there is a demonstration of demonic faith

Verse 19 reads, “Thou believest there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.”

It is important for us to remember who James is addressing his comments to. We know that he is writing to Jewish Christians. Therefore, we can be certain from this verse that they believe there is only one God. After all, had they not been taught from infancy that there is only one God? What James writes here echoes what is called the shema (a word that means hear), and refers to the formula of Jewish orthodoxy found in Deuteronomy 6.4-5, which was appointed to be read or recited by Jewish people every morning and evening.[8] This is the shema in English: “Hear, O Israel: Jehovah our Elohim, is one Jehovah: and thou shalt love Jehovah thy Elohim with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” Let me read to you the literal Greek of James 2.19, again provided by Spiros Zodhiates: “Thou believest that God is one, thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.”[9] Off hand, if the local ministerial alliance is any indication, and by virtue of the interfaith committees of Jews, Christians, and Muslims that we see from time to time on television, one might be led to conclude that these guys must be brethren then shouldn’t they? After, all they believe in one God. Good heavens, they are monotheists!

James does commend them for believing in only one God, which is important, but he goes on to show that even that belief in one God is not to be confused with saving faith. Believing in one God, therefore, is necessary, but it is not sufficient. How does James do this? After his commendation for acknowledging the reality that God is one (no atheism or polytheism here), he goes on to observe that the devils also believe the same, using the Greek word that is regularly used in the gospels for evil spirits, and is frequently translated demons.[10] I ask you, how can anyone be proud of himself for believing in God when the demons of Satan do the same? Does it do them any good to believe in only one God? It does them no good at all, since their destiny despite being creatures who believe in God is still an eternal damnation in the lake of fire. I assert this based on our Lord’s own words in Matthew 25.41, where He said concerning His future judgment of those who die without faith in Him, “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.” Obviously, many who are consigned to everlasting fire, including the devil himself as well as his demons, believe in God.

As an additional and interesting matter of fact, James illustrates that the faith of the devils is actually superior to someone who simply believes in God. The verse concludes by declaring that the demons have the sense to not only believe, but also to tremble. I submit this is because the demons know the power and might of the Almighty God whose plan and purpose they so vigorously oppose. In great contrast to the demons, the average man on the street who says he believes in God is so blind to the truth and danger he is in that he has no concept of reverential fear toward the God he will someday stand before in judgment, Who is an all-consuming fire.[11] For that matter, we must sadly admit that very few Christians show proper respect to the Lord God Omnipotent. However, that is another message.

Finally, there is a demonstration of dead faith.

Verse 20: “But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead.”

James now makes a strong appeal to these readers. He begins with the phrase, “But wilt thou know.” He is saying, “Will you know?” The knowledge James is trying to impress upon his readers is easy to grasp, if one will just by an act of will open his heart to receive it. Someone who claims, “I just cannot believe what you say,” is being disingenuous. Isaac Newton could believe this. Johannes Kepler could believe this. Lord Kelvin could believe this. Nicolas Copernicus could believe this. James Clerk Maxwell could believe this. Michael Faraday could believe this.[12] Therefore, the issue is not whether one can believe the truth, but whether one will believe the truth. James continues, “O vain man.” This is a very strong statement. The word “O” in Greek is very rarely used and is very emphatic.[13] The word “vain” translates a Greek word that means empty, and is used of a man who cannot be depended upon, whose deeds do not correspond to his words, hence of boasters.[14] What are you doing when under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit you describe a man in this way? Are human beings not described elsewhere in God’s Word as vessels? The Christian is to be a vessel that is constantly overflowing with the Spirit of God.[15] What then is an empty vessel? An empty vessel is an unsaved man. James is saying in so many words, “Won’t you get it into your head, unsaved man, that a faith which does not produce works, is a dead faith?”

James does not want anyone to go about his merry way thinking that a mere head knowledge type of faith is sufficient for personal salvation . . . it isn’t. Some have faith in faith. Others have faith in facts, thinking that knowing the truth will save them. The reality is that only faith in Jesus Christ saves, and He always and only saves sinners to work in and through them.[16] Those who do not work and through whom God does not work have embraced a false hope. Allow me to give you an analogy of this dead faith James is addressing. A man stretched a tightrope across the Niagara Falls and pushed a wheel barrel across and back. He then asked a young man if he believed he could do it again, to which the young man replied, “Yes.” Then the tightrope walker asked the young fellow to get into the wheel barrel and he would take him across. He said “No.” Thus, we see he had a declared belief that refused to go so far as to actually trust. Now, let me give you an analogy somewhat like living faith. I know of an incident in the park where a little girl would climb up onto the monkey bars. When her daddy said to jump, she would immediately just jump out into space and her daddy would catch her. Sometimes she would jump out facing daddy, and other times she would jump out backwards. She believed daddy would catch her and her belief resulted in action. She had a kind of faith in her father that extended to her being willing to actually risk trusting her father’s willingness and ability to show himself trustworthy. Faith that does not produce a corresponding change in the life of a person is not genuine faith. A person can jump up and down all day and claim to be a Christian, but if he has no corresponding work to back it up, I simply do not buy it. People can get mad at me if they want to and call me judgmental, but I am really not when it comes to this. I am simply exercising discernment based upon a principle established almost 4,000 years ago in the Bible, which demands corroboration to provide evidence when a claim is made. James encourages such a criteria when it comes to evaluating anyone’s claim that he has faith in Jesus Christ.

I have said it before, but let me say it again. It is possible for a child of God to behave like a child of Satan, but not forever, and certainly not without opposition from the Holy Spirit that brings on guilt for wrongdoing. Are you certain that you have been born again? You need to be sure. According to the Bible, you can be sure, though assurance is not the same thing as salvation. Some are saved, with assurance coming later. If you are born again and simply are so confused that you do not know how to straighten out this mess of a life you are in . . . let me tell you that there is hope. Until the day you die, God still may respond to your prayers and to you taking biblical steps to straighten out your mess. I can help you if you will let me. That is what pastors are for.

However, if you are not a Christian, you can be certain that God has no obligation whatsoever to hear your prayers, much less answer them, so long as you reject His Son, Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus, Himself, said, “No man cometh unto the Father but by me.” This is an important matter. No other issue in your life will rise to this level in importance. I urge you, do not delay, and do not rely on your own wisdom and judgment concerning this matter. Follow the example of the Ethiopian eunuch who was looking into this matter. When asked by Philip if he understood what he was reading, he said, “How can I, except some man should guide me?”[17] Whereupon he sought Philip’s help. When they parted company, the Ethiopian was a new creature in Christ, and he went on his way rejoicing. The same can be said of you if you will allow me to address the issues that concern you, answer questions you might have, and perhaps ask some questions you have not yet thought of asking. My goal will be to introduce you to the Lord Jesus Christ by faith, a real faith, a genuine faith, a living faith, a saving faith.



[1] Matthew 13.55; Acts 12.17; 15.13; 21.18; 1 Corinthians 15.7; Galatians 1.19; 2.9, 12

[2] Acts 8.4

[3] Bauer, Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), page 236.

[4] Romans 1.17; Galatians 3.11; Hebrews 10.38

[5] Matthew 5.7

[6] Matthew 11.2-5, where we see John the Baptist sending two to inquire of the Savior and the Savior provides six evidences to support His messianic claim, and 1 John 5.6-9, where the principle is seen in heaven. A third example is Revelation 1.1, where the Apostle was provided corroboration of the message given to him by the angel in the form of a sign, see Fritz Rienecker & Cleon Rogers, Linguistic Key To The Greek New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Regency Reference Library, 1980), page 811.

[7] Spiros Zodhiates, The Behavior Of Belief, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973), Part Two, page 23.

[8] Ibid., page 27.

[9] Ibid., page 26.

[10] Joseph B. Mayer, The Epistle Of James, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1990), page (411) 101.

[11] Exodus 24.17; Deuteronomy 4.24; 9.3; Isaiah 33.14; Hebrews 12.29

[12] Eminent scientists who embraced Christianity and the truths of God’s Word.

[13] D. Edmond Hiebert, The Epistle Of James, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1979), page 189.

[14] Mayer, page 102 (412).

[15] Ephesians 5.18

[16] Ephesians 2.10; 1 Thessalonians 1.3-10

[17] Acts 8.31



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pastor@calvaryroadbaptist.org