Sunday, June 6, 2010

Counterfeit Faith: Recognizing Fakes and Phonies Matthew 7:15-20 and James 2:14-26

Today was the pulpit swap where I went to lead worship at Belleview and Debbie came to Druid Hills to lead worship there. We truly enjoy the opportunity to spend time with the congregations that take such good care of us. Below is the transcript from Pastor Debbie's sermon this week.

Have you ever knowingly passed a phony five dollar bill? According to the United States Treasury Department, you may have. One of the reasons is because of a counterfeiter named Blinky, perhaps the greatest counterfeiter of all times. He made five dollar bills that defied detection. It was impossible, even for experts, to identify the real bills from his counterfeits. It’s estimated that hundreds if not thousands of the Blinky-made five dollar bills are still in circulation. A bizarre set of circumstances finally led to Blinky’s downfall. He decided to expand his operation and started making twenty dollar bills. He was arrested when trying to pass one of his phony twenties. In court, his lawyer challenged the experts to identify the phony bill from the real one. Immediately, they did so. Later Blinky discovered where he had made his tragic mistake. The bill he had used to copy his counterfeit twenty was itself a counterfeit!

REAL FAITH – Evidenced By Works
It’s a funny story, but there’s a real danger for us as Christians. How can we tell the difference between real faith and faith that is just a counterfeit? How can we make sure that the people around us whom we look up to as faith mentors have genuine faith instead of a copy of the real thing? Our Scripture lesson from James provides us with just such a way to distinguish between real and counterfeit faith. And the difference is this – James 2:26: “Faith without works is dead.” Let me say that again – FAITH WITHOUT WORKS IS DEAD! That’s the kind of faith that is counterfeit, that is useless.

James was writing to address a problem in the early church, one that still exists and causes problems even today – namely the mistaken notion that Christian faith is merely a matter of believing. When James talks about having faith what kind of faith is he talking about? He makes it clear that he is not talking about simple belief that something exists or mere intellectual assent – “I hear what you say and I agree with it.” For in James 2:19, we see that even the demons have that of faith in Jesus – they KNOW and UNDERSTAND and BELIEVE that Jesus exists, but that doesn’t mean that they have FAITH in him – they don’t OBEY him. The kind of faith that James is referring to involves commitment of your whole self to God. True faith involves a transformation of the heart as well as the head – transformation of one’s actions in addition to one’s thoughts.

Don’t misunderstand me. What we believe is very important. The content of faith is so important in fact, that over the centuries the church developed creeds like the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed to ensure that certain elements of the content of our faith survive. But faith is more than belief. Faith is lived out in works. Faith that is alive actively engages in doing the work of Christ. Faith is belief in action. This is what James means. Somehow people have gotten the idea that to “believe in God” doesn’t require any transformation of life. In poll after poll, people across America profess “belief” in God. We take that to mean that they are Christians with real faith – but for many of these people, their “belief” is only intellectual assent. They understand that God exists, but it does nothing to transform their life, change behavior or make a difference in their lives. Would the world really be in the mess that it is in if the one-third of us who profess to be Christians in this country were really Christians? The answer is “No.” What James is telling us is that true faith means being doers of the Word of God and not just hearers only.

FAITH AND WORKS – A Contradiction?
On the surface what James is saying here seems to contradict the writings of Paul and one of the great teachings of the church - “justification by faith.” What’s that mean? It’s another way of saying that we are accepted and forgiven by God, not because we are good or because we have earned it, but because God loves us and because of what Christ has done for us on our behalf. Our salvation is by grace alone. We are asked to believe it, to receive it. Sinners are justified or made right with God not by works. This teaching is even expressed in the songs we sing: “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.” “Justification by faith” means we cannot earn our salvation. We cannot buy it. It is a gift. God initiates it. Christ died for it. God completes it. Salvation is a work of God. This is clear, especially in Romans 3:28 – “Man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.”

But upon closer examination, we can see that the teachings of James and Paul are really not at odds. They are simply talking about faith from two different vantage points – Paul is speaking out against those who would think that their deeds could save them instead of their faith – and James is speaking out against those who confuse mere intellectual assent with true faith. James is not saying that we have to have works as well as faith to be saved – but rather that if we have real and true faith, it will naturally express itself in our actions. Works are the outward witness to an inward faith.

This is not a contradiction of the rest of Scripture. Look at the teachings of Jesus. In Matthew 5:16 we hear Jesus proclaim: “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your father who is in heaven.” And a few chapters later in our other Scripture lesson from Matthew 7:15-20, we see Jesus teaching that people are known by the fruit in their lives. Paul also echoes this in Ephesians 2:10: “We are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works” and in Titus 2:14: “Jesus Christ gave himself for us to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” What we are seeing is that every Christian saved through faith in the Son of God has a calling to do good works.

True faith results in deeds, but it is not the deeds that justify us or save us. We can not earn our salvation by serving and obeying God. It is our faith that saves us, and our obedience demonstrates that our faith is genuine. Our outward actions show that our commitment to God is real. Deeds of loving service are the verification of our faith in Christ. Look again at James 2:18: “I can’t see your faith if you don’t have good deeds, but I will show you my faith through my good deeds.” (NLT) True faith will transform our actions as well as the thoughts in our minds. Remember the old saying – “practice what you preach”? If our outward actions in life remain unchanged, then we don’t truly believe the truths we claim. For instance, if you “believed” that the pew you sat down in this morning was broken and wouldn’t have held you up, would you have sat down on it anyway? No.

Listen to these lyrics for “Screen Door” by Rich Mullins: “Faith comes from God and every word that He breathes. He lets you take it to your hearts 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 otherwise…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.”

Next week we will continue our examination of counterfeit faith by exploring one of the great standards for our faith and its importance in our lives- Holy Scripture. But in the meantime let us think on these things - Are there any works to show for your alleged faith? Any evidence to show what kind of faith that you possess? Is your faith real or is it a good counterfeit? “Faith without works is like a song you can’t sing; it’s about as useless as a screen door on a submarine.”

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