I am an avid record collector. I own a couple of record players, but do not have a decent player for my stereo in the living room. Last week I was volunteering at a community rummage sale and I came across an older, but fairly high end turntable. I was giddy as a school kid when I plugged it in and hit the play button. My heart sank when the turntable remained still. I quickly dismantled it and discovered the belt was broken. Further investigation revealed that the motor worked. The record player worked, but the turntable didn’t spin. No matter how well the motor ran, it didn’t matter, because the power didn’t transfer to meaningful motion. This record player sat on my desk all week while I was studying the book of James for last Sunday’s message. I believe that this is why that broken record player came to mind when I read James 2:14-17.
What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? 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? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.
If I believe in God and believe that Jesus died for my sins, but do not live as though it is true, then I am not all that different from the record player sitting on my desk. Part of me is working right, but there is no transmission of that belief into lifestyle. Mere belief isn’t saving faith. James explains that belief is good, but even the demons believe and they do not have faith. Faith is belief that shapes how we live our lives. In the example that James offers, a member of the body of Christ is in need. This is a person that Christ bled and died for. If we see them and our possessions are of greater value to us than our brother in need, then our worldview isn’t adequately shaped by our beliefs. If we aren’t moved to compassion by our family member’s need, then our faith may be little more than belief.
This passage has fueled centuries of debate as to whether or not we must work in order to be saved. The assumption that we need to work to be saved misses the point. We are saved by the grace of God through our faith in Jesus. Faith is more than belief. It is a life commitment. Faith is belief with a working drive belt, that brings the music of God’s kingdom to the world through the actions and words of his people.
We are not to look at our own actions and try to guess if we are saved. Rather, we are to look at the world around us through the lens of the teachings and grace of Jesus. It shapes our perception of our possessions, the temporary nature of this life, what is really of value, what our life goals are, and every other part of who we are. We begin to see the world as redeemed possessions of the almighty God and as brothers of Christ. This new view of the world will necessarily change our behavior. Saving faith acts because it is alive. Dead faith is mere intellectual acknowledgment.