“Mostly Dead”

September 16, 2018
Jonathan Rumburg
James 2:1-17


I promised I wouldn’t use a certain quote today—which if you don’t remember is from Lovett Weems who said… I’m kidding!

I did find some new material, and it comes from the 1987 cult classic film, “The Princess Bride”, which is a movie parable where we encounter a fairy tale adventure about a couple and their true love.

Also woven within this adventure is the story of a man on a quest to avenge the murder of his father.  (And now some of you are saying to yourself, “My name is Indigo Montoya. You killed my father.  Prepare to do.”)

The antagonist within it all is Prince Humperdinck, who becomes a stand-in for all that is wrong in the world.

Along the way the story makes its way to a medicine man named Miracle Max, played by Billy Crystal.  It’s in this encounter where we find help for our text and topic for today.

Check it out. (Scene from the Princess Bride shown here.)


         While physical death is not the subject I want to talk about, I have shown you this clip to begin considering what are the criteria for when death occurs.  I do this because, in a sense, that’s what the biblical writer James is doing in our passage for today.

But he’s not talking about dead people; he’s talking about dead faith.

James gives the shorthand version of his criteria in verse 17: “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

But in the preceding verses, he spells it out more clearly.  James’ criteria for dead faith includes:

  1. Acts of favoritism and partiality that result in dishonoring the poor within a Christian context (vv. 1-7)
  2. Failure to keep the whole law, but instead choosing bits and pieces—a practice that does not honor the divine law behind it all: love your neighbor as yourself. (vv. 8-12)
  3. Showing no mercy (v. 13)
  4. Paying lip service to one’s faith and not expressing that faith through good works (vv. 14-17)

But all of that can be summed up in his declaration that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

Now, to be clear, these criteria for declaring faith dead aren’t given to help us make judgments about other people’s faith; rather, they are for self-diagnosis.

They are to help us take an introspective examination of our faith life to see if it is dead.

The good news is that if we do this—and we find it is—we can be 100% certain our faith is only mostly dead and not all dead.

How do I know?  Because the last time I checked, none of us here is all dead.

With the help of the Holy Spirit, James’ signs of dead faith can enable us to resuscitate our faith when it is mostly dead.  Because as Miracle Max says, “There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.”

Move 1

“Mostly dead” is exactly the right phrase to use as we consider all this because unlike when a person physically dies and no longer communicates, people with dead faith keep right on talking, even when they’ve stopped being mostly alive, as the case may be.

The late Ethel Barrett, who was well-known for her skill in telling Bible stories to children, wisely said, “You have a tongue in your head and two tongues in your shoes, and no matter what the tongue in your head is saying, the tongues in your shoes tell what you’re doing and where you are going. And the awful truth is that the tongues in your shoes have the last word.”

Barrett is saying, what we do tells more about the state of our faith than what we say.

And that indeed is what James meant when he said, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”


         Now some will make a theological argument that what James says about good works contradicts what Paul says about faith.

Yes, in Romans, Paul declares, “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” (3:28)

And in Galatians, he says, “And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.” (2:16)

Now you will never hear me say the Bible doesn’t contradict itself—because it does.  But it contradicts itself not because it’s errant, but because it’s teaching different lessons, to different people, in different times and in different places.

Which is what Paul is doing in the texts I mentioned.

Paul seems to contradict James because Paul was talking about when we are still in the dimness of sin, where faith plus nothing else but the grace of God brings us to new life.

James is talking about after we’ve come to new life in Christ and we let that new life die by not walking the talk.

Or, as Ethel Barrett again so eloquently put it, “Coming to faith and then not expressing such in works makes as much sense as whamming a ball over the fence for a homer and then just standing there at home plate.”

Paul is as clear as James that works matter in the Christian life.  As we heard last week, Paul writes in Ephesians, “For we are what [God] has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” (2:10)


         Faith and works belong together.

We might think of being in a rowboat with the word “faith” on one oar and the word “works” on the other oar.  When we row with either of the oars alone, the boat goes only in a circle, getting nowhere.  To actually go anywhere, both oars need to be used together

Move 2
Now, unlike James, I’ve used a lot of metaphors here.  But James understands the importance of being able to visualize his point.  Which is why he says, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (vv. 15-16)

That’s the lip service, not good works, James is warning against.

But James would not want us to think of works only as addressing obvious needs that present themselves to us.

And neither does James offer his criteria of dead faith as a general and theoretical document.

Rather, he is responding to a specific scenario.  And that is love for all.

In verse two James is addressing what he has seen happen when a wealthy person comes “into your assembly” — that is, into his readers’ specific church community.

He has seen the rich person offered a seat of honor, while a poor person is shunted to the side.  In doing so, James says, the church members involved are dishonoring the poor.  It’s an attitude of favoritism.


The good work James is preaching for is to respond to everyday situations and people in ways that reflect the values of Jesus—love your neighbor as yourself.

Yes, such a command is hard—and it’s getting harder each day when we see how others treat others, how we read how others talk and post and tweet about others.  There is little love happening.

Which is why we—those who know of the love of Christ—must be more intentional than ever in sharing it with others, faithfully, through good works.

“There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.”

The clip from The Princess Bride, and the quote from Miracle Max (and not Lovett Weems) is a helpful reminder that a cornerstone of the Christian faith is resurrection.

Even dead faith can come alive again.  Indeed, that was James’ aim in issuing his criteria for knowing when faith was dead— so that believers would get living again and become doers of faith through good works.

So may revive our faith—no matter its state—by reminding ourselves that Christ calls us to love unconditionally—even recklessly—our neighbors—which is everyone—even the Prince Humperdinck’s of the world—the people who don’t deserve it.

And we invoke that love through works of faith.

Because after all, it’s the true love of Christ that will revive the “mostly dead” faith of our world.  Amen.

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