If you've ever believed something that you later found was untrue, you know that lies often leave a trail of damage in their wake.
Today on Truth for Life, we'll find out why self-deception may actually be the most dangerous and damaging deception of all. Alistair Begg is teaching Part 1 of a message titled, False Faith. Verse 14, as we pick up our studies in this very practical and somewhat uncomfortable letter of James, at least so far.
James chapter 2 and verse 14. What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?
Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 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? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. Father, as we turn to the Bible, what we know not, teach us. What we have not, give us. What we are not, make us.
For your Son's sake. Amen. Who would have thought that the twenty-first century would prove to be as dangerous as it is? At the end of the twentieth century, with the absence of the Cold War, with the dismantling of certain nuclear threats, the word on certain people's lips was that we now have things under control, that there is no real need for further fear, and that we're going to tackle dangers in the streets as well as dangers in high places. Well, of course, none of that has proved to be the case.
The reverse has proved true. We live in a world that is increasingly perilous. It is significantly tumultuous, and it is a mark of human existence that men and women's lives are as fearful as they are. If you simply Google twenty-first century dangers, you will be able to spend the remainder of the day working your way through high-sounding academic papers and various dissertations related to the fact of these dangers—the dangers that are part and parcel of terrorism, that confront us by the advances in technology, not least of all in the medical realm, which make it possible to extend life and therefore to give us the dilemma—ethical dilemmas.
The fact of disease itself, the renewed threats of nuclear holocaust, as the major superpowers dismantle things and smaller powers avail themselves of them. Indeed, if one wasn't careful and didn't have a Bible to read and didn't know that God was sovereign over the events of life, one might be tempted to curl up in a ball and simply relieve oneself of the pressures of daily life. But the reason I begin there is because, as real as those dangers are and as significant as those issues may be, all of them, individually or taken together, pale in comparison to the danger addressed by James in these verses.
What is that danger? It is this—the danger of having a faith that is false. Three times in the space of thirteen verses, he makes it very, very clear. First of all, in verse 17, faith by itself is dead. Verse 20, faith without deeds is useless. Verse 26, faith without deeds is dead. In other words, he sounds a warning note that has hints of Jesus' words in Matthew 7.
You may recall that in Matthew 7, in the Sermon on the Mount, at one point Jesus says to those who are listening, not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. In other words, it is distinctly possible to be self-deceived. And to be self-deceived in the issue of faith is of eternal significance.
James is not unique in this respect. Other gospel writers, other writers of the New Testament letters do the same thing. For example, at the end of 2 Corinthians—you needn't turn to it, I'll read it for you—in 2 Corinthians 13 5, Paul issues this great exhortation. Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith.
Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you unless, of course, you fail the test? In other words, he doesn't simply assume that everyone who professes faith in Jesus has living faith in Jesus. You say, Well, that might not be very kind.
In actual fact, it is exceptionally kind. What would be unkind is to have such a presumption and such an assumption as to sweep every false professor into the notion that because they have an interest in, an involvement with, faith at whatever level, they must somehow or another be part and parcel of God's forever kingdom. Now, in the context of the opening chapter—and some of this is reaching back in order that we might set the context wider for ourselves as we return to our studies—but if you look at verse 22 of chapter 1, James has reminded his readers that it is distinctly possible simply to listen to the Word and so deceive themselves—the danger of self-deception—by simply coming along and listening, whether it is listening to the teacher in the synagogue or whether it is listening to the one who brings the news of Jesus to bear upon their thinking. And having made this distinction, he proceeds, in verse 26, to address the individual who considers himself or herself as religious. If anyone considers himself religious, says James, and yet doesn't have a controlled tongue, remember?
Doesn't have a compassionate heart, doesn't have a clean life, then they might want to take the test again. Just to consider oneself within the framework is not sufficient. And James, because he loves those to whom he writes, warns them of what is a clear and present danger. He also goes on to say that if you are a bunch of snobs—that's a paraphrase—but he says if you are a bunch of snobs, if you prefer people because of their color or their background or their intelligence or their wealth or the absence of the same, then you need to take the test all over again too.
Because the fact that you consider yourself to be a religious person, and yet there is no evidence of that religious expression in the life of God worked out in your community, it demands that you face the danger. Verse 14 of chapter 2, he's advancing the ball a little further. What good is it, he says, my brothers?
It might be equally, my brothers and sisters. What good is it, brothers and sisters, if any one of you claims to have faith? Claims to have faith. This is very important that you read the Bible as it is there, and it helps you. King James, if you're using it, is confusing on this, because it seems to be setting faith against deeds.
That's not what he's doing. What good is it, my brother, if a man claims to have faith and has no deeds? Can such a faith save him? What kind of faith?
A professed faith that is false. Now, when I found myself in my study saying out loud, false faith, I realized I made a note to myself, make sure when you say that that you articulate it as best you can, because it may come out wrongly. It would be easy for it to get jumbled on the way out, and it made me think of what it would be like to say false face if one had a lisp. Because false face comes out as false faith. I see you have a false faith. A false face, if you have a lisp.
This is not to embarrass anyone who has a lisp. It's just to let you into the way my mind works. And so I sat for a little while at my desk going, false faith, but that's a false faith, not a false face, and so on. But what it triggered for me was a recollection deep in my past. And that was at Halloween in Scotland—and please don't write to me about Halloween—but at Halloween in Scotland, we would go to the store and we would buy not a mask but a false face.
That's what we asked for. And it was a little plastic face, maybe Mickey Mouse or Minnie Mouse or whatever it was, and added an elastic band behind it with the two things—and I'm sure it was the same here—and you wore that. Now, no one thought for a moment that you were Mickey Mouse. You were seeking to conceal the reality of what was behind by the falsity of what was before. But everybody could tell there was no real reason for alarm. But while that distinction is patently obvious and harmless, James is alerting his readers to a distinction that may not be so patently obvious and is actually incredibly harmful. He is addressing the possibility, the danger which is attached, to that which closely resembles the real thing but still is spurious. It is fake. It is false.
It is dead. One of my friends in Michigan last year was so excited because he was going to the Chicago Bears to see them play in Chicago. And although he and his English friend had no tickets for the game, they were delighted to let me know that they knew where to go in Chicago, and you could find these tickets and really good ones even, you know, three hours before the game. And he proceeded to purchase tickets at significant cost, which gave him magnificent seats. He put them in his pocket and went to brunch. And at brunch as they ate and looked forward to the game, they congratulated one another on how smart they were not to have gone through the routine channels but to have been able to pick up these magnificent tickets. When they presented them at the turnstile, the gentleman said, Please come with me. And he took them into a side room, and a policeman gave them the ninth degree on where they had purchased these tickets.
Because they were false. And there would be no entry into the stadium on their basis. Big deal.
So you miss a football game. But if you think—if I think—that we can, as it were, present a false statement of faith at the entryway to heaven and have it accepted, we're not reading our Bibles. That's what makes this so significant. That's why this danger is so real. I don't think there would be many in this congregation right now who are in danger of thinking that by certain good deeds that we might do that we would find acceptance with God.
We might be devoid of that danger, and of course, that's good. But we may be dangerously unaware of the possibility of seeking to take refuge in a faith that is false. Thomas Manton, in an earlier generation, referred to it as that little something that looks like religion. And he went on to describe the individual who appears in church at the summons of the bell to repeat words, because others do the same, to hear what is delivered from the pulpit with little attention or affection unless something occurs that is suited to exalt self or to soothe conscience, and then to run with eagerness back out the door and into the world again.
It's amazingly up to date, isn't it? Here he is, hundreds of years before, saying, The thing that I'm facing in my congregation is this, that I have a vast crowd of people who come. Many of them listen with very little attention and very little affection. The only way you can get them to listen, he says, is if you will exalt their self-esteem or if you will seek to soothe their conscience. In other words, in twenty-first-century terms, if you will tell them that they're great and if you will tell them that they're okay. Why are there arenas this morning in the continental United States with thirty thousand people in them listening to preaching?
I'll tell you why. Because the preaching says two things over and over again. You are great, and you are okay. And James says, No, you're not, and if somebody tells you that you are, you better beware of that individual. Take the test, he says. What good is it if a man claims to have faith and there is no evidence in his life? Can that faith save him from hell? It's a rhetorical question, and the answer is, categorically, no, it can't.
And no, it won't. Do you see why it's so dangerous to be in the place where the Bible is taught? Why it's so dangerous to be in a church where the pastors make an honest endeavor to teach the gospel, to explain that who Jesus is and what he has done is the basis of forgiveness and our only hope of heaven, and to press upon men and women the need to trust in that Jesus? Do you realize that there is less significance in the opposition of a pagan than there is in the lostness of a false professor, who has just a little something resembling the real thing?
Now, to quote Manton, it's to recognize that this is not a unique and pressing contemporary problem. It's been true in every generation—the presence of people within the framework of the external church who profess to be believers but who are not genuine believers. And here in the United States, we have vast numbers of individuals in inflated church memberships claiming that because they at some point in their life raised their hand or walked an aisle or trusted Christ, they are genuinely in Christ. They have no interest in the Bible, no zeal for their unsaved friends and neighbors, no call to a holy life.
In fact, they are indiscriminately the same as their non-Christian friends. What does the Bible say about that? Well, for example, the writer of the Hebrews is very clear. He says that God disciplines his children. And he says if you're not disciplined, then you're illegitimate children and not true children.
Who's he writing to? He's writing to the framework of the church, and he's saying to them, You better make sure where you stand in relationship to these things. And James, having listened so clearly to his brother Jesus on so many occasions, initially without being a believer, comes to the same issue himself.
But I think our contemporary circumstances add a little touch of lime to this one. When you think about what we are confronted with on a daily basis in the media—for example, the need, we're told, for everybody to have equal respect for every, quote, faith community and a preparedness to listen, often without reservation, to each person tell us about their faith journey. Faith in whom? Faith in what? Faith in faith itself. In other words, everything is validated on the basis of the notion of faith, per se. That is not what the Bible is talking about concerning faith here. What James is talking about is saving faith. It is faith in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is the faith which brings a man or a woman into the confidence that although I have no basis upon which to stand before God, that because of what God has done in Jesus and because I have come by his grace to entrust myself to Jesus, that it is this, then, which forms the basis of my acceptance with God, and it is in my lifestyle that I give evidence of the basis for my faith. When we studied the end of Acts and we looked at Paul constantly defending the faith and finally going up before Agrippa in the presence of Festus—and it does your heart good just to reread Paul defending the faith in all of these things before Festus and Agrippa and Felix and so on—and it's in Acts 26, in case you want to read it for homework, Paul is right in the midst of his expression of faith in Jesus. And at this point, Luke says, Festus interrupted Paul's defense. "'You're out of your mind, Paul,' he shouted. Your great learning is driving you insane.' I'm not insane, most excellent Festus,' Paul replied.
What I'm saying is true and reasonable." And then he draws the king in. He says, the king, probably pointing to him, to Agrippa, the king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I'm convinced that none of this has escaped his notice. You know, you may not be getting it, Festus, but I'm sure Agrippa is coming right along with me.
Because none of it has been done in a corner. And then he addresses the king directly, and he says, King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do. And the king says, do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to become a Christian? See, Agrippa understood exactly what Paul was saying.
Paul was not saying, do you believe the prophets? Do you have some kind of faith? That's terrific!
That's terrific! Maybe you could take some faith-based initiatives in your kingdom. You know, maybe you could describe your faith journey to a few people at a garden party or something. Maybe you could establish a little faith community.
No, no, Agrippa gets it clear. I know what you're trying to do, Paul. You're trying to get me to believe in this Jesus of Nazareth. And Paul says, that's exactly what I'm trying to do.
Why? Because there is no saving faith outside of Jesus of Nazareth. See? It is entirely logical, given the thesis. And that's why James recognizes, if I write to these people and they believe that simply because they're saying the same words, singing the same songs, doing the same things, that somehow or another they're in the faith and they're not, I will answer to God on the day of judgment, their blood will be on my hands, all of the prophets in the Old Testament. We see in the Bible that not everyone who professes faith in Jesus actually has living, saving faith. A timely warning from Alistair Begg about the danger of self-deception.
You're listening to Truth for Life. Today we want to invite you to help the next generation nurture a living, saving faith. If you have a student in your family who maybe is headed off to college, how about including a copy of the New City Catechism in their next care package? The Catechism is a collection of 52 brief questions and answers that will remind your student of core Christian beliefs. It comes in a flip book format that's ideal for sitting on a desk or a nightstand.
It's perfect for busy time-pressed students. You can purchase one copy or multiples to give away when you go to truthforlife.org slash store. They're available for our cost of six dollars and shipping in the US is free. For younger children we want to recommend to you a book titled Little Pilgrim's Big Journey Part 2. This is an adaptation of John Bunyan's book, The Pilgrim's Progress Part 2. If you're not familiar with the fact that Bunyan wrote a sequel to the original Pilgrim's Progress, Part 2 is about a character named Christiana.
Like Christian in the first book, she undertakes her own challenging journey to the celestial city. This Part 2 story has now been retold for children. Your kids will enjoy the adventure of this captivating allegory that teaches about the ups and downs of the Christian life. If you requested a copy of Little Pilgrim's Big Journey Part 1, which we offered on Truth for Life earlier this year, don't miss requesting the sequel. Your children will love this next adventure.
Little Pilgrim's Big Journey Part 2 comes with a coloring book. Be sure to request both when you give a donation to Truth for Life. Just click the image on our app or visit truthforlife.org slash donate. Or if you'd prefer, you can call us at 888-588-7884. I'm Bob Lapine. How can you be sure that your faith is genuine saving faith? We'll find out tomorrow. The Bible teaching of Alistair Begg is furnished by Truth for Life, where the Learning is for Living.
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