Growth is the only evidence of life
by Jack Wald | January 6th, 2013

James 2:14-26

Rich Mullins – Screen Door

It’s about as useless as
A screen door on a submarine
Faith without works baby
It just ain’t happenin’
One is your left hand
One is your right
It’ll take two strong arms
To hold on tight
Some folks cut off their nose
Just to spite their face
I think you need some works to show
For your alleged faith

Well there’s a difference you know
B’tween having faith and playing make believe
One will make you grow
The other one just make you sleep
Talk about it
But I really think you oughtta
Take a leap off of the ship
Before you claim to walk on water
Faith without works is like a song you can’t sing
It’s about as useless as a screen door on a submarine

Faith comes from God
And every word that He breathes
He lets you take it to your heart
So you can give it hands and feet
It’s gotta be active if it’s gonna be alive
You gotta put it into practice

It’s about as useless as a screen door
On a submarine
Faith without works, baby
It just ain’t happenin’
One is your right hand, one is your left
It’s your light, your guide
Your life and your breath

Faith without works is like a song you can’t sing
It’s about as useless as a screen door
On a submarine

That is a lot of fun. It is a cute song and I love the cup rhythm. Rich Mullins died in a car accident in 1997 and I hope his passion for Jesus and his playfulness are creating some wonderful songs in heaven.

Screen Door is a cute song but it expresses how I have always understood the passage of James we are looking at today.

James wrote: (James 2:14-17)
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. This verse has created a lot of controversy in the church over the ages. What James seems to be saying is that faith is not enough. In verse 24 James concludes his examination of the faith of Abraham by saying:
24 You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.

What is controversial about this verse is that it seems to directly contradict Paul’s teaching in Romans and his other letters that we are saved by faith alone. In Romans 3:28 Paul wrote:
For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.

So preachers and scholars debate this apparent difficulty. But I have to say I have never had a difficult time understanding this passage and have never seen any contradiction with what Paul wrote. From my earliest years as a Christian it has been clear to me that if my faith is not alive and growing, then my faith is dead. It is as useless as a screen door on a submarine. For many years I had a poster in my room that showed a wildflower growing in a field and the caption on the poster said, “Growth is the only evidence of life.”

In the first few years of my life with Jesus I remember thinking about this. How do I know I am a Christian? In the US there were so many people who said they were Christians and yet it seemed clear to me that many people were not very serious about following Jesus. There were many people with a very casual attitude about the Christian life. It seemed they were Christians because that was the culture they lived in. And then, over time, I observed people who were followers of Jesus for a time and then drifted away.

When I read church history I read of the persecution of Christians over the centuries and every time there was a persecution, most of the people in the church denied their faith in order to save their lives and possessions. And so I asked myself what I would do if I was confronted with a choice between losing everything I had, maybe even my life, or denying that Jesus was my Savior and Lord.

James was writing to the church and in every church in the world there are those who have a living, growing faith and there are those who have a cultural, simulated faith. What I have observed over the years, James also observed and he wrote this letter as a warning to those who were going along with the flow, finding it convenient to be part of the church, but who were not attacked to the vine, who is Christ. They were sitting by the vine but they were not attached to it. They were in the church but not in a personal, living relationship with Jesus.

This is why I loved that poster that reminded me that “Growth is the only evidence of life.”

When I read James I resonated with his teaching. Faith without deeds is not really faith. It seemed obvious to me that making the decision to follow Jesus would make a difference in my life.

You can decide no longer to wear brown suits and begin wearing gray suits and not much will change in your life. You can decide to study psychology rather than philosophy and you will still be basically the same person. You can quit one job and begin another and still have the same character traits. But if you decide to follow Jesus, to live for Jesus and make him your master, then you will be transformed. It is inevitable.

It is not magical, but something amazing happens when you decide to become a follower of Jesus. At the moment you surrender to Jesus, the Holy Spirit begins to live in you. You become the temple of the Holy Spirit.

In order to understand how significant a change this brings into your life, you have to remember who the Holy Spirit is.

First of all, the Holy Spirit is God, the pre-existing creator of the universe. When Paul wrote that we are the temple of the Holy Spirit he was describing the amazing truth that each one of us becomes the dwelling place of God, in the same way that the Temple in Jerusalem was the dwelling place of God on earth. On Christmas we celebrated God becoming man, Emmanuel. But each day we celebrate the reality that God indwells those who are his children, his followers.

In Genesis 1 we read: (Genesis 1:1–2)
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

In the Genesis story of the creation of the world there was not yet life but there was potential. The Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. Already in the mind of God there were plants and animals, flowers and birds and insects and trees and fish, microbes and mammals, but there was not yet any of this amazingly abundant, beautiful, intricate, diverse life yet created.

And then God acted and the world was filled with his creative creation. This same creative power indwells us and works to transform our lives.

If this is so, you might ask, why are we not better people than we are? And the answer is, of course, that the Holy Spirit waits to work until we are in cooperation. God does not force change in our lives. We must cooperate with the Holy Spirit if we are to be transformed. Spiritual things cannot be forced. Spiritual growth is always voluntary. We have to choose to be transformed. We have to choose to follow God. We have to choose to turn away from the money, sex and power the world offers. But when we do, then the creative power of the Holy Spirit is unleashed in our lives.

When we submit to Jesus and are filled with the Holy Spirit, our lives begin to change and the more we hold on to Jesus, the more we cooperate with the Holy Spirit, the more transformation in our lives takes place.

So if you are a follower of Jesus and if you are open to the work of the Holy Spirit in you, then you will change. You will be transformed. This is the good news of salvation: what we are today is not who we will be tomorrow. We live with hope because the Holy Spirit is working with us to change us.

This is why the poster I had hanging on my walls for so many years was and is important to me. If I am a follower of Jesus, I will be growing. If I am not growing, then I have to question if I really am a follower of Jesus.

If I cannot talk about how God has changed me in this last year, then I have to ask myself if I really am a Christian or if I am merely following the flow of culture that leads me to the church.

How do you evaluate your life to see if you are growing?

I go to the doctor to get a physical exam if I want to see how healthy I am. I stand on a scale and measure myself to see how much I weigh and how tall I am. How do I assess growth in my life?

Let me tell you what not to do. Don’t look around and assess how others act and measure yourself against them. If you do, you will find out how good you are relative to other people, but that will not tell you if you are growing. It could be you are not changing and other people are behaving worse. In that case it would appear you are growing but really you would not have changed.

When I want to find out if I am getting taller, I don’t go around measuring other people. I stand against a door or wall and put a line where the top of my head reaches. Then, next month or next year I stand again against the wall or door and draw another line at the top of my head. When I compare the two lines I can see how much I have grown. We have a door in our villa where we have marked the heights of our grandchildren each time they visit us.

In the same way, assess yourself against yourself. The evidence of growth in my life is not how good I am relative to other people. The evidence of growth in my life is how good I am relative to who I have been in the past.

I am not, by nature, a good person, but I had a roommate when I was in university who was and is a wonderful person. I remember once getting on the subway and I did so without having to pay the fare. I was congratulating myself and George, my roommate, looked at me strangely, wondering why I would want to cheat the subway system. George had a sense of honor that I did not have. I was stealing books and other things from stores and George would never have thought of doing that. George is, by nature, a much better person than I am.

There are people I know who do not believe Jesus is the Son of God but who are more hospitable, more kind, more fun to be with, more generous than many Christians I know. But that is not the point. Christians are not necessarily better than those who are not Christians; Christians are simply those who have been rescued and are on their way to the Kingdom of God.

We are not saved by our deeds. If that was the case, the people in the world who are much nicer and much kinder and much more generous than I am would be saved, but some of these very nice people have rejected Jesus as the Son of God.

On the other hand, if we are saved, we will inevitably become better people. Deeds will be part of our lives. I may never be as nice as some other people, but I will be a much better person than I was when I first submitted to Jesus.

With this in mind, let’s look at what James has to say.

14 What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

The point of this passage is that faith cannot be unconnected with deeds. A person who has faith in Jesus cannot walk down the street without caring for the people on the street. In our church we do not have to walk down the street to see people who are in need. We are a diverse church. We have national diversity, denominational diversity, and we have socioeconomic diversity. It is important that we care for the members of our community.

But let me say that caring for those in need is not really the focus of this passage. This is an illustration James is using to make a point and his teaching is not that we are responsible to help with the physical needs of every person we know or every person we meet.

Jesus himself did not help every person he encountered. Over the three years of his ministry, Jesus walked through the temple gate called Beautiful three or more times each year. And yet when Peter and John walked through that gate, sometime in the year after the death and resurrection of Jesus, a man who was crippled from birth asked them for money. This man was well known. This was his begging post and he had been carried to that gate for years by his family and friends. During the three years of his public ministry Jesus walked by him every time he went to Jerusalem for the annual festivals. Jesus walked past this crippled man many times without healing him.

The text from James is not a teaching that we are to help every person we meet who is in need. The point James is making is that faith that does not reveal itself in actions is not really faith.

Faith is like the wind. You cannot see wind but you can see how it affects objects it comes in contact with. When wind rushes through trees, you can hear the whistling noise it makes. When it rushes through a field you can see the leaves and dust it stirs up. Wind is revealed by how it acts in the world.

We cannot see faith but we can see how faith affects our actions. When you step outside and do not see leaves on a tree blowing, you conclude there is no wind. When you look at your life and do not see good deeds, you have to conclude there is no faith.

What is faith? Let me give you a definition: Faith is trusting in God when you do not know what will happen next.

What does faith look like? James gives us two pictures of faith, trusting in God when you do not know what will happen next.

The first is the story of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac on the altar.

I have to tell you this is a deeply disturbing story for me. I know that Abraham lived in a culture where children were sacrificed to the gods and it is in that culture that this story took place. But still, I have so many questions I want to ask God about this incident in the life of Abraham and Isaac. Given my reservations, it is still a great story that sets the stage for what God did for us on Calvary when God sacrificed his own son for us.

To understand how great an act of faith this was for Abraham, remember that he and his wife, Sarah, waited 25 years for a son who was promised to them by God. And by the time Isaac was born, Sarah was an old woman and Abraham was an old man. It was a miracle birth, a miracle child. They doted on this child who was physical evidence of the promise of God that Abraham would be the father of many nations.

Sometime after Isaac was weaned and was able to walk and talk, perhaps about 8 or 9 years old, God told Abraham to go up the mountain and sacrifice his son on the altar. Can you imagine the heartbreak and agony of Abraham when he heard this? And yet he obeyed. He demonstrated his willingness to sacrifice to God what was most precious to him.

They went up the mountain. Abraham tied up Isaac and laid him on the altar. He raised his knife and then God stopped him and told him to look at the lamb that God provided for the sacrifice. As I say, I struggle with this story. What trauma did Isaac carry with him as he remembered his father binding him and raising his knife to kill him? How could God ask Abraham to do this, even as a test of his faith.

Nevertheless, this story serves as a vivid reminder that we are to follow God even when we do not know what will happen next.

I have never been asked to sacrifice one of my children, but I have been asked to continue believing in God when terrible things have happened. Two years and ten months ago, when the parents at the Village of Hope, a home for abandoned children in the Middle Atlas Mountains, were deported, my heart was broken. I am chairman of the board of the Village of Hope and made about eighteen trips a year to VOH and I used to say I went as often as I could so I could visit my heart.

The authorities came on March 8 and gave only seven hours for the parents to say goodbye to their children. The children were crying as the only parents they had ever known were ripped from their arms. They were loaded on a bus and taken under police guard to the Casablanca airport, kept under guard for the night and then flown out the next day. Neither they nor I have seen the children since then.

Their deportation made 2010 the worst year of my life and my faith was dealt a crushing blow. How could I trust in God who allowed this terrible tragedy to happen?

There are many tragedies and difficulties we endure. Some people sacrifice a career in order to serve God overseas. Some people have sacrificed marriage. Some have watched someone they love die. Many people have left family behind to come to this country. Many people have sacrificed the easy and comfortable life they could have lived in order to live in a strange land, loving people in the name of Jesus.

And yet we do not give up. Despite my despair in 2010 I never stopped clinging to Jesus. Despite the sacrifices we make and the suffering and tragedies we endure, we do not give up. We hold on to Jesus and in the process our faith grows.

We are presented with a choice. Will we turn away from God because things have not worked out as we expected? Will we reject God because we have had to endure suffering? Or will we continue to hold on, without answers to our questions, living in a world where things do not always go our way?

Faith is trusting God even when we do not know what will happen next.

James concludes with a second story of faith. He told the story of Abraham, the father of our faith, and now he tells the story of a prostitute who somehow chose the right side in an upcoming conflict.

Rahab was sitting behind the secure walls of Jericho. This was a well-fortified city and the approaching Israelites had never laid seige to a city. They were untested and unproven.

When the spies Joshua sent met Rahab, she decided to protect them and put herself on their side. She lied to save them, at great risk to her own life, and as a consequence when the walls of Jericho collapsed and the city was ransacked, her life was spared.

James could have used so many others to demonstrate faith: Daniel, the heros of faith mentioned in Hebrews 11, but he skipped over them and used Rahab to talk about faith.

There was a coming judgment for Jericho. Jericho knew that Israel was approaching but the rulers of Jericho felt secure behind their walls. However, Rahab had heard the stories of what the god of Israel had done for them and she believed Israel would be the victor in the upcoming conflict. So she staked her life and her future on Israel and their god.

Faith is trusting in God even when we do not know what will happen next. We know a judgment is coming. We do not know when this will happen. We do not know exactly how it will happen. But we know it is coming and we are staking our lives on the reality of the coming judgment when Jesus will separate his followers from the rest of the world. We sacrifice now for a coming reality.

Faith is trusting God even when we do not know what will happen next.

This past week we moved out of our AMEP offices and into Villa 91. The main room is full of bookcases and books. We have begun getting the rooms ready for the bookcases and then will move those into the rooms and once again have a couple large, empty rooms.

In a few days we will have a list of the items needed for our sound and video system along with the cost of chairs and other essentials. The cost for all of this I estimate to be about 180,000 dirhams. I should have a more exact estimate by next Sunday.

On February 1 we will need to pay our rent of 25,000 dirhams. This is a huge increase for us and I sometimes ask myself if I have led RIC to something too much for us to handle. But then I remember how God led us to this point and I am encouraged to be strong and courageous and press on. I believe God has led us and so I am confident that he will provide us with what we need. Already there are people asking what we need so they can make a contribution.

This is my big faith journey at the moment and I have been encouraged to see how my faith has grown enough for us to make this move. For years I have wanted us to have our own facility but it always seemed too far beyond our reach. In the last four months my faith has expanded enough to move us into Villa 91.

Where are the points of growth in your life? If you are unsure, look to the points of stress and pressure. It is at these points that you will see growth taking place. These are the places where faith grows best.

When you find yourself in these stressful and sometimes painful places, continue to cling to Jesus and you will discover that your faith will grow, your character will be tested, you will see growth in your life, you will discover that you are attached to the vine, who is Jesus.