But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. (James 2:18 ESV)
When you read or hear this verse, what comes to mind? Have you ever thought about how your faith is demonstrated through your actions? What kind of works demonstrate our faith?
In the same breath as the line above, James points to Abraham's offering up of his son Isaac as a demonstration of faith through works. Just think about what that entails. Here you have a dude who has been given a promise from God that all the nations will be blessed through his offspring. Abraham does his thing to make it happen and Ishmael is the result. God does His thing to make it happen and Isaac is the result. So Abraham now pours all of his passion for God's purpose into the vessel God gave him to bring about the promise. But he still doesn't get it. The promise isn't in and from Isaac, the promise is in and from God. So God required Him to get back to where they began their relationship. Back to the Abram in Ur of the Chaldees. Back to the Abram that left everything to go to a place he had never seen simply because God said so. Back the Abram that walked completely by faith and lived in tents as he made his way to the promised land guided only by God's step-by-step directions. Abraham's faith in his son Isaac got in the way of all that so he required that he sacrifice his son. Abraham believed God would raise Isaac from the dead in order to fulfill the promise. He had come back to the place where he trusted fully and completely in God and when He did God provided the ram for a sacrifice instead of Isaac.
We have a similar struggle. We believe God's promises and then we go and pour ourselves and our efforts into ways to bring those promises about. This is not the way God desires for us to trust in Him. All of the things we set out to do by our own knowledge and strength are useless to bring about God's promise. It is only in wholehearted devotion and faith in God that the promises are fulfilled. Our greatest work is to be willing to sacrifice all of our plans and ideas.
All too often our works tend to focus on what looks impressive to others and makes us feel good about doing good. We study scripture and books. We give our money and our time to ministries. We build programs that people can come and be a part of. But are these works that come from faith? I think not. Works that are rooted in faith to not lead to self gratification and aggrandizement through church systems and programs.
There is a whole lot of "self" being built up in the church.
- we build bigger buildings with better sound systems to impress humans
- our fellowship halls are named after humans
- our bibles in the pew are in memory of humans
- we put humans in charge of committees
- we pay humans to minister
Works that come from faith are demonstrated by doing things where there is no return to us.
- Helping others who cannot help us back.
- Feed the hungry
- Serve widows and orphans
- Take care of immigrants and homeless
- Turn the other cheek.
- Give your life for a band of folks who will likely abandon you at your greatest hour of need and pretend like they never knew you.
- Be the last in line.
- Forgive the unforgivable.
- Love the unlovable.
These works take faith because the results cannot be seen with our eyes and touched with our hands. They lead to a change of heart, deep down inside of those we serve in this way. If we want to see God's promise come to fruition we must have works that are rooted in self-denying, God dependent faith. We've given our devotion to things: denominations, institutions, buildings, rituals, liturgies, professional pastors, and Sunday morning "services". We trust in the "things" that we've built in God's name but our devotion and trust should be to God and God alone. That is the very core of our faith and the beginning point of works that are counted as righteousness. When we can clearly see how much the things we build are for the glory of man, why do we kid ourselves into thinking that they are pleasing to God and are counted as acts of faith? God will not share His glory with anyone. So if there is any hint of glorifying man in what we do it is questionable as to whether it is faith that is working or just our own selfish ambition.
Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? (James 2:21-25 ESV)