The Deception of False Faith (James 2:14-20)

The Deception of False Faith

The test of righteous works–James 2:14-26, part 1 verses 14-20 Dead Faith

One of the biggest concerns of genuine Christians is those they know who are lost. And of those who are lost, the ones they are most concerned for are those who think they’re saved, but are not–so-called Christians, make-believers, the self-deceived. Like the old chorus, if you’re saved and you know it, then your life will surely show it. It’s not true–of every person who claims to be a Christian, there are many today who have sadly embraced a false faith. They intellectually affirm Christ, the cross, and salvation–but their life doesn’t show it.

They made a decision once, they used to serve in ministry, they believe Jesus is God. Jesus said in  Matthew 7:22 to 23, “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not do all these things in your name?’” But Christ will say, “‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’” Their life didn’t show salvation . . . their faith didn’t work . . . they were self-deceived–they thought they were saved but were actually lost. They had a false faith.

And notice the very first word in Matthew 7:22–Jesus said there will be “many” who think they are saved, but are not. So two crucial questions–Do you have a false faith or a real faith? And how do you share the Gospel with a so-called believer who seems to be self-deceived? They think they’re saved, but their life doesn’t show it. Someone once said that faith is like calories–you can’t see them, but you can always see the results.

This is the major theme of the book of James, and where we now find ourselves in our study of this first and earliest New Testament epistle. Turn in your Bibles to James 2:14 to 26, as James arrives at the main purpose of his letter. If you are truly born again, you will behave uniquely—like Christ. If you have true belief, it will show in how you behave. If you are truly loyal to Christ, it’ll be obvious in how you live. If you are a genuine Christian, your conduct will be biblical.

James will say, “Faith without works is dead.” If your so-called faith in Christ does not result in a lifestyle of works, it is a fake faith, a false faith, a faith that does not save–a faith where you end up in Hell. In teaching his scattered and battered readers this very truth, James opens up a can of worms and introduces a massive theological and practical tension. The truths found in these verses caused reformer Martin Luther to call James a right strawy epistle. The truths in this paragraph have resulted in the tensions of libertarianism and legalism. The principles mistaught in this passage have resulted in heresy of the worst kind, making people think they’re headed to Heaven, when they are actually headed to Hell.

I find it telling that the first two books written in the New Testament were James and Galatians–James attacking those who might embrace easy-believism, and Galatians attacking those who might embrace works righteousness. Because James and Galatians appear as polar opposites, there are those who conclude that they contradict each other. They wrongly claim it must be an error in the Bible. One teaches you’re justified by faith. The other teaches you’re justified by works.

Paul teaches faith and James teaches works–how can that be? Who is right? Is it James or is it Paul? Which has the correct theology? How do we resolve these two seemingly polar opposite principles? One of my favorite commentators, D. Edmond Hiebert, helps us understand. Listen carefully to his brilliant comparison between James and Paul, faith and works. “There is no actual conflict between the teaching of James and Paul. Their teachings run parallel, but do not cross. They are not antagonists facing each other with crossed swords; they stand back-to-back, both confronting different foes of the Gospel.

“Paul is combating a Jewish legalism that insisted upon the need for works to be justified. James insists upon the need for works in the lives of those who have been justified by faith. Paul insists that no man can ever win justification [salvation] through his own efforts, but must accept by faith the forgiveness that God offers him in Christ Jesus. James demands that the man who already claims to stand in right relationship with God through faith must be a life of good works to demonstrate that he has become a new creature in Christ. With this, Paul thoroughly agreed.

“Paul was rooting out ‘works’ that excluded and destroyed ‘saving’ faith; James was stimulating a sluggish faith that minimized the results of a saving faith in daily life. Both James and Paul view good works as the proof of faith–not the path to salvation.” And James will tell you today that if your faith doesn’t demonstrate itself in the way you live your everyday life, then your faith is false. Faith without works is dead.

Today, we will exposit the first half of this paragraph—and next week, the second half. What does James say in verses 14 to 20? James will expose dead faith, a false faith, un-saving faith, a faith which will land you in Hell and not Heaven? Let’s read it together.

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? 15If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 16and 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? 17Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. 18But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” 19You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. 20But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?” (James 2:14 to 20). Now make certain you grasp the crucial, underlying theological truths these verses expose.

A  Genuine salvation is always by grace alone, through FAITH alone, in Christ alone

You do not work for, or even choose, salvation. You are chosen–Christ does the work. You were dead, blind, condemned–and Christ makes you alive to see and be forgiven. Salvation is a gift from God, given by God to undeserving rebels who resist His will. Warren Weirsbe writes, “Faith is a key doctrine in the Christian life. The sinner is saved by faith (Ephesians 2:8–9), and the believer must walk by faith (2 Corinthians 5:7). ‘Without faith it is impossible to please God’ (Hebrews 11:6); and whatever we do apart from faith is sin (Romans 14:23).” Someone has said that faith is not ‘believing in spite of evidence, but obeying in spite of consequence.’ When you read Hebrews 11, you meet men and women who acted on God’s Word, no matter what price they had to pay. Faith is not some kind of nebulous feeling that we work up–faith is confidence that God’s Word is true, and conviction that acting on that Word will bring His blessing.”

B  Genuine salvation always produces WORKS (the fruit of a transformed life)

John MacArthur writes, “It is possible James was writing to Jews who had jettisoned the works righteousness of Judaism but, instead, had embraced the mistaken notion that since righteous works and obedience to God’s will were not efficacious for salvation, they were not necessary at all. Thus, they reduced faith to a mere mental assent to the facts about Christ.”

As you deal with lost family and friends, help them understand they have no right to believe they are saved if they do not see a change in their own life. A sinner is saved by faith, without works, but true saving faith will always result in works. Being a Christian is not merely a matter of what you say with your lips–it involves what you do with your life. The statement in verse 14, “Can faith save him?” ought to read, “Can that kind of faith save him?” James is exposing a false faith–a faith that is mere intellectual ascent and not a faith of life-dependance.

You do not show your faith in Christ only by great deeds of achievement, like those listed in Hebrews chapter 11, but by the things you say and do in everyday life. I meet people in our community, I meet new people at FBC, I know some folks in my neighborhood, and I have relatives whose faith keeps me up at night praying–that’s right, some of you are to blame for my lack of sleep. Is your faith factual or fake? Is it real or rogue? Legitimate or a lie? Many of you also agonize over family, because you are super concerned over the genuineness of their faith in Christ.

James will be blunt this week and next. He will tell you that knowing and accepting the truth about Jesus Christ is not saving faith. Faith means surrender and dependence–you put your life in Christ’s hands. You trust only in Him for salvation and for everything in life. You exchange all that you are for all that He is. Those with saving faith know Christ personally, follow Christ faithfully, desire to obey His Word daily and love Christ passionately–more than their spouse, children or parents. John MacArthur writes, “We must clearly and forcefully counter the deception and delusion that knowing and accepting the truth about Jesus Christ is equivalent to having saving faith in Him.”

C  Genuine security is a certain doctrine, but assurance of salvation is a life DIRECTION

Every born again Christian is secure in their salvation–once saved, always saved. No one can snatch you out of the hands of Christ (John10). Christ is the one who saved you and Christ is the one who holds you secure. Those He chooses, He glorifies (Romans 8)–you’re stuck. But the experience of security, how we know we’re secure, is not found in praying a prayer, or making a decision, or believing sound doctrine about Christ—no.

How we know we are saved is through assurance of salvation–and assurance is only experienced through the direction of your life. Are you obedient to Christ (1 John 2:4)? Are you headed toward Christ or away from Christ? Are you following Christ or yourself (John 10:27)? Are you obeying God’s Word? Do you want to please the Lord or please yourself? And do you want to obey, to gather, to serve, to worship, to give–is that your life direction? Or are you indifferent, excusive or passive? Sure, you have a Jesus bumper sticker. Yes, you wear a cross—awesome. You own a Bible and have an FBC T-shirt. But does your life follow Christ through His Word?

You only know you are secure–you only have assurance by the direction of your life (John 10:27). “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.” Get it right–salvation is by grace through faith in Christ alone. It is the gift of God. But when it is saving faith, that faith produces works, a life direction of following Christ. Good works are the expression of your new nature, created at your new birth. You will not exercise perfect obedience, nor perfect repentance, nor perfect living–but good works will be present in and through your life. You can honestly say, it costs you nothing to become a Christian, but costs you everything to live as one.

James has been exposing true faith all along in this powerful letter. A real Christian will seek to express joy in trial, take responsibility for their sinfulness in temptation and not blame others, seek to obey the Word of God as a way of life, be a doer of the Word, and desire to treat everyone with the love of Christ and not merely the rich or celebrity. Today, examine your own heart–test your own faith and also learn how to share Christ with the almost Christian, the so-called saint, the make-believer–how?

#1  False faith–what they SAY  Verse 14

Is it possible for you to say you believe in Christ, but still not be saved? Here’s the apex of James’ letter–verse 14. “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?” No man can be saved by works–but equally, no man can be saved without producing works. The one thing that James cannot stand is profession without practice. James is asking, what good is it to carry around a driver’s license if you can’t actually drive? People may call themselves Christians, go to church, have a Bible, affirm Christ is God who died on a cross. But James asks, do you have any genuine results that prove to anyone that your confession is authentic?

Verse 14, they say they have faith. James is teaching that if somebody claims to have faith in Christ, but his or her life doesn’t show the results of faith over time. That faith is most likely phony. No one can claim to know Christ but not produce any works, any fruit or any service. When people say they have faith, but they have no works, that is deadly. Genuine Christians not only should, but will produce genuine good works. They will repent, they will serve, they will love others sacrificially, they will help, they will give, they will share and they will obediently submit to God’s Word and Christ’s lordship.

The New Testament is so clear, and Jesus is pointed–every true believer produces fruit. John 15:2 and 6, “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit. . . . 6If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.”

So James 2:14, the first question James asks is, can saving faith exist without resulting in works? The Bible says no. Notice verse 14, James is addressing believers, “My brethren.” These are most likely fellow Jews who are so repelled by the false faith of works righteousness, and are so reacting against keeping the Law to be saved that they have overreacted, saying errantly that works are not even the result of salvation.

So in this scenario, there is a person who claims to have saving faith but no works. This person would most likely believe in the existence of God, Scripture as the Word of God. along with the messiahship of Christ and His atoning death and resurrection. The theological accuracy of this person’s faith is not in question. The real issue is verse 14, which says he “has no works.” The verb James uses for has no works describes someone who continually lacks evidence to support his claim of faith. I say I am a Christian, but there is no evidence–no particular type of works is specified. But the context tells us these works are behavior conforming to God’s revealed Word that is pleasing to Christ.

Some of the godly works James has already mentioned in this letter are endurance (1:3), perseverance under trial (1:12), purity of life (1:21), obedience to Scripture (1:22 to 23), compassion for the needy (1:27), and impartiality (2:1 to 9). Later James will teach on control of the tongue (3:2 to 12), humility (4:6 and 10), truthfulness (4:11), and patience (5:8). There will be fruit–good works.

James ends with a question—”can that faith save him?” James is not belittling faith, but debunking the idea that just any kind of faith can save you. This question is asking, can that kind of faith save him? And the question James asks in Greek grammatically demands a negative answer. “Can that faith save him?” No, it cannot save. A profession of faith that is devoid of godly fruit, service, or loving ministry (works)–that kind of faith cannot save a person. That kind of faith does not birth a Christian. Hear God right now–this is God’s authoritative Word. This is your eternal wake-up call. A profession of faith that is devoid of righteous works cannot save a person.

No matter how strongly you protest, nor how many Christian excuses you have–what you say is, “I am a Christian.” But what James says is, no you are not. A profession of faith that is devoid of righteous works cannot save a person. Again, it is not a few nice actions added to faith that can save a person—no. But rather that faith, when it is genuine and saving, will inevitably produce good works. Jesus was pointed in Matthew 7:16, “You will know them by their fruits.”

#2  Fake faith–what they DO  Verses 15 to 17

Is it possible for you to appear like a Christian, yet still not be saved? The one thing God cannot stand is words without deeds–profession without practice. So James chooses a vivid illustration of what he means, by comparing faith without works to words of compassion without corresponding acts of compassion, in verses 15 to 17. “If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 16and 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? 17Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.”

Fake faith is indifferent. Dead faith says nice words but doesn’t do anything. A poor believer comes to a church gathering without proper clothing and in need of food. The person with dead faith notices the visitor and sees his needs, but doesn’t do anything to meet the needs. All he does is say some sympathetic words—“Praying for ya!” What do they do? Nothing. Fake faith is characterized by false compassion. False faith is often hidden under the cover of spiritual words or verbal concern for those in need. But it is no more than a hypocritical sham.

The Greek paints a picture of a believer who’s without sufficient clothing and sufficient food for a long time. He’s deprived of the necessities of life. Food, clothing and shelter are the basic needs all Christians need to be ready to supply–not money, not comforts, not pets, not cars . . . but food, clothing and shelter. In the Bible, those without food, clothing or shelter are considered poor. In the Bible, those with an abundance of food, clothing and shelter are considered wealthy.

This person lacks clothes to keep him warm and enough food to function well. What’s the false believer do? What does fake faith do? Nothing. He just talks–“Go in peace, be warmed and be filled.” This is heartless. James is exposing an attitude of total disinterest in the welfare of others. “Go in peace” is a perfunctory, “God bless you.” And “be warmed and be filled” is like saying, “Let God take care of you.” All the while they have no intention of becoming the channel for the needed care.

The Greek verbs “go, be warmed, be filled” are actually commands, and the voice used makes them display an indifferent, cruel and sarcastic attitude you can’t hear in English. This is saying, in effect, “warm and feed yourself,” which the needy can’t. And “let someone else satisfy or fill you,” pointing to the fact that you are not going to. So James asks you this question in verse 16–see it? “What use is that?” The implied answer is it’s of no use at all–it is totally worthless.

Underneath this illustration were two prevailing attitudes–one Jewish and one Greek. The Jewish faith in the first century considered almsgiving the same as righteousness. They’d see meeting this need as essential for salvation. Some of the now born-again Jewish Christians may have overreacted and determined to not give anything to the neediest since they were no longer earning their salvation through giving alms to the needy.

The Greek philosophers had a different approach–to them, feeling sympathy toward the needy disturbed the serenity they sought to achieve through their intellectual thinking. So they’d ignore their feelings of pity, but graciously respond verbally in order to ignore the needy person, so that they didn’t disturb their serene calm. But James says, if you’re indwelt with the God of compassion in genuine salvation, then the Lord’s compassion will show through you toward others in actions, not just words.

What moves you to action? I meet Christians all the time, who are emotionally moved by a movie, a play, a song, a TV show, a ride, an experience, a restaurant, a food item, a video game, or the latest electronic gizmo. I also know some who are moved by the tragedies of distant strangers highlighted in the news. Yet those same believers show no concern for the plight of a neighbor or an acquaintance who is in real need. In our artificial, self-centered world, fantasy often becomes more meaningful than reality.

The true Church, like the Early Church in Acts 2, is known for its compassion in action. When fellow saints were hurting, there was spontaneous selling of property and possessions for anyone in genuine need. What moves you to action? First John 3:17 asks the same question—“Whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?” Professed compassion without produced compassion is phony–so faith is fake when it is nothing but an empty, verbal claim. This is a carefully chosen analogy, since true compassion is one of the evidences of true salvation. Faith without deeds is dead.

Look at verse 17–James makes false faith very clear. “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” The kind of faith that is never seen in practical works will not save you. Any declaration of faith that does not result in a changed life and good works is a false declaration. The great theologian, John Calvin wrote, “It is faith alone that justifies, but faith that justifies can never be alone.” When James calls false faith dead, he means it is useless, ineffective, impotent. It is the opposite of a living, effective and vibrant faith.

In verse 17, notice the word, “by itself.” Being by itself means alone. True saving faith can never be alone. The person with dead faith has only an intellectual or emotional experience. In his mind, he knows the doctrine of salvation, but he has never submitted to the Lord. In his heart, he was emotionally moved by Christ, but has never surrendered to the Savior. He or she knows the right words, but they do not back them up with works. They feel compassion, but don’t show it. They emotionally affirm Christ, but do not follow His words.

Listen–Christ is too powerful to be in your life and not show through. No church attender can come to Christ by saving faith and remain the same, any more than he can come into contact with a high voltage 220 wire and not react.

#3  Fictitious faith–what they BELIEVE  Verses 18 to 20

Is it possible for you to know all the right doctrines, yet still not be saved? Dead faith is a shallow conviction. False faith is an emotional recognition of certain truths about God. Fake faith is belief in God’s Word without submission to it. James now addresses anyone opposing what he just taught in verses 14 to 17 about true salvation.

He says in verse 18, “But someone may well say, ‘You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.’” James is talking to someone who doesn’t believe works demonstrate saving faith. He says, “You claim to have faith and that nothing else is necessary–that your faith can stand by itself and bring salvation. But you cannot show me your faith without works, without any practical evidence of it–because true faith always gives lifestyle evidence. You cannot demonstrate your kind of faith, because you have nothing to demonstrate it with.”

The objector says, “Faith is a fine thing, and works are fine things. They are both good manifestations of real Christianity.” But the objector does not possess both faith and works. The objector thinks it’s okay that one believer has faith and another has works. And the objector says, “You carry on with your works and I will carry on with my faith.” But James says, “No–I will have none of that. Real saving faith is only proven by works. It is not either faith or works. It is required that there be both faith and works.”

Then the objector adds, “I have faith and I have good doctrine.” So James answers with verse 19, “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.” James shocks his readers. Demons have accurate doctrine and are actually one step ahead of you–they’re terrified by the reality of the truth of God’s Word. Paul often confronted demonic forces in his ministry. In Ephesians 6, Paul admonishes Christians to “stand firm against the spiritual forces of wickedness.”

Yet some believers are shocked to learn that demons have faith. What do they believe? Demons are monotheists, that there is one true God. They know Scripture is God’s Word, that Jesus Christ is God’s Son, that salvation is by grace through faith, that Jesus died, was buried, and raised to atone for sin, that Christ ascended to Heaven and is now seated at His Father’s right hand. They know there is a literal Heaven and a literal Hell. They know of the coming millennium and all the end-time events and judgments.

But all of that orthodox knowledge, as significant as it is, cannot save them. Mere affirmation of doctrinal truth, even reformed doctrine, cannot bring a person to salvation. James is a little sarcastic here in verse 19–he says, “You believe God is one.” This is the celebrated truth of the Jewish faith, Deuteronomy 6:4, the shema–God is one. Then here is the sarcasm, see it in verse 19, “You do well.” Good job. But if you believe the truth of Deuteronomy 6:4, “God is one” without obedience to  Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might,” then your kind of faith, your doctrinal belief, is as worthless as demon belief.

The demons believe. More–they “believe and tremble.” The word for “tremble” means to bristle, to shudder, or to shiver. Demons believe in God and are terrified. They’re more than intellectually convinced that Christ is the only way of salvation–no, they are fully aware of their eternal torment that awaits them in Hell and they shudder. Shudder is a Greek word commonly used to describe trembling because of fear.

Demons believe in God accurately–they know Christ is the only way. They know the reality of Heaven and Hell, but their belief, their faith, does not save them because they did not submit to Christ. They did not exchange all that they are for all that He is. Christ is not their life nor their first love. Yet even though they believe, they do not obey. Even though they know the truth, they do not repent. Even though they know Christ is Lord, they will not submit. The demons are intellectually convinced of the existence of God. They tremble before Him, but their intellectual belief nor emotional reaction does not alter them in the slightest. Their faith is not saving faith, because it didn’t result in works.

A churchgoer, someone who calls themselves a Christian, someone who prayed a prayer of salvation in the past can be enlightened in his mind, even stirred in his heart and still be lost forever. True saving faith involves something more, something that can be seen and recognized. What is it? A transformed life. Verse 20, “But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?”

I will ask you, just like James asks you—are you willing to recognize this truth? The Greek word willing is to have a desire which leads to action. Are you willing to act on this? If not, James says you are foolish. Foolish paints the idea of empty or defective, and identifies everyone who opposes the truth that true saving faith produces works of righteousness.

James ends part one with faith without works is useless. Useless carries the idea of fruitlessness. Again, like what Jesus said in Matthew 7:19, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit, is cut down and thrown into the fire.” A fruitless life is certain proof it does not belong to God and is unacceptable to God, because it does not have His divine life within, which always shows works without.


A  A life absent of WORKS is a dangerous LIFESTYLE to remain in

I am afraid for a few of you here, and some of you listening. It is right, sound, biblical to ask, is there any fruit in your life, any service through your life, any ministry towards other lives, any consistent acts of dependence upon the Spirit, and regular repentance from sin?

Can you say that Christ has impacted others through your life, so they either came to Christ or become more like Christ? Is your faith saving faith, or is it false faith? Currently, can you genuinely say that your faith is demonstrated by any good works?

B  A life without FRUIT lacks ASSURANCE of salvation

When God saves you, He secures you. You cannot lose what the all-powerful God has given. You cannot become unsaved. But to know whether you are secure or not requires assurance, and that only comes through a life of dependent, ongoing obedience. Security is God’s decision–assurance is your direction. Are you following Christ? If you are, then you will become like Him, a servant. Like Him, fruitful. Like Him, ministering to others. Like Him, doing works of faith. Like Him, obedient.

Every true Christian has times of unfaithfulness, sin, and barrenness. It is during those short seasons you are in danger of losing your assurance of salvation, for during seasons of unfaithfulness, sin and barrenness, the blessings of peace and confidence from the Spirit are forfeited. Now security of salvation is permanent, based on the Lord’s sovereign power to keep those who belong to Him. But assurance of salvation is temporal and can fluctuate, since assurance is a blessing granted only to those who are obedient to the Lord.

There are people here this morning, when they die, in spite of times of unfaithfulness, we will know with absolute confidence, they are with Christ in Heaven forever–simply because their life was Christ’s. “To live is Christ”–all was done for Him. Fruit was everywhere. Good works was a way of life. Christ was seen through them. But there are a few here this morning–when they die, we will not know where they have gone, because faith without works is a false faith.

C  A life missing GOOD DEEDS needs to be given the GIFT of faith

One more time, it is faith alone that justifies, but faith that justifies is never alone. Salvation is a gift from God and when He saves you, He transforms you internally. When you’re born again, you want to follow Him, please Him, serve Him, give to Him. If that is not your heart, cry out to Him to give you salvation by faith. Christ is free to receive, and when you have Christ, He will be your everything.

Let’s pray.

About Chris Mueller

Chris is the teaching pastor at Faith Bible Church - Murrieta.

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