A majority of Americans claim to have some kind of religious belief. And the majority of those claim some version of the Christian faith. A 2007 pew poll says that 78% of Americans claim to be Christians. Of that group 51% claim to be Protestant, and 26% going to be evangelicals. Close to 26% profess to be Catholics. Of course statistics have their limits. And it is almost certain that the landscape has further changed in the last 7 years. This study tells us what people report about themselves.
But those percentages are significant. Found hiding in those numbers is a group of serious religious people. They are caught up in the fight against secularism. These people may find such numbers encouraging. Maybe things aren't so bad after all? On the other hand, people who are serious about Christianity may also find these numbers troubling. Why? Because there is a disconnect between the walk and the talk. Does anyone really believe that 78% of Americans are even trying to follow the teachings of Jesus? Perhaps that standard is too high. Do even half of these "believers" faithfully follow the teachings of their own sects?
This is not a new problem. When we read the Bible we encounter a similar situation. In the Gospel of John we read, “Now when [Jesus] was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.” (John 2:23-25, ESV)
In the original text of John chapter 2 something interesting is going on that we might miss in this translation. The word for “entrust” in v. 24 is the same word describing that the people “believed” in his name (Pisteuo- in bold above). We could translate it, “many people believed in his name…. But Jesus for his part did not believe in them.” Their claim to belief was unconvincing. And though we may be suspicious of religious claims, we do know what is going on deep in someone’s soul. But Jesus knew their hearts. He skeptical was about their faith.
In James 2, we read about a similar problem. Some of the believers of the early church professed their faith in Jesus, yet they treated the rich and the poor radically different. They treated the poor with contempt. This behavior was a kind of lie detector for their Christian profession. Their actions were inconsistent with their faith. He writes to them, “But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” It is not enough to have a claim of faith if your life doesn’t match up. And the great example is the faith of the fallen angels. They are good theologians and understand God. Even more than that, they have an appropriate emotional response, fear. They tremble before God. Which seems to be more than some of the folks reading the letter from James.
Last week at FGC we looked at Luke 8:26-39. In this passage we see an example of this demonic faith. It may have been the very incident that James had in mind. A man that was possessed by many demons falls down at the feet of Jesus. The voices that come from him are the voices of these evil spirits. And they express acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus and fear of the coming judgment day. “When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell down before him and said with a loud voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.” (Luke 8:28, ESV) You can listen to the sermon here.
This is an important concept for Americans. We seem content with a little bit of religion, and a little bit of Jesus, and a little bit of pop Christianity. But there is a kind of faith that isn’t worth much. The Bible talks about it in bitter terms. It doesn’t transform the life. It doesn't make you a christian, it makes you an actor. And it is little better than the faith of demons. Throughout the rest of Luke 8 we read about commendable responses to Jesus. Read the chapter for yourself. In fact, just before this passage (about the demon possessed man) he tells the parable of the sower. It is a story that vividly depicts the different kinds of responses to Jesus and his teaching. And only one really counts. It is the one the bears fruit. Unseen faith in the heart always produces visible fruit. Not perfection. Not sinlessness. But real fruit.
As for the other kind of faith, Jesus doesn’t believe in it. I wonder what he would say about America? I wonder what he would say about my faith, and yours?