Ain’t No Fish

Ain’t No Fish if There Ain’t No Flies

by Ed Jansen

James 2:14-26


One of the great joys in my life has been fly fishing. When I lived in Northern Michigan, one might say I lived to fish. You see, before I started fly fishing Dad had taught me to appreciate bait fishing because, as a youngster, he would take me out on our boat every spare moment he had. We’d troll the Detroit River for hours for Walleyed and Northern Pike and I loved it. So when I was introduced to fly fishing, I took to it naturally. Shortly after that, I also found out that for many, fly fishing was the ultimate experience in the entire arena of sport fishing. Not only did I love the sport itself, I also enjoyed the quiet of a cool stream on a summer’s day. It was a time I spent by myself with God secretly looking over my shoulder and smiling. (I think he was saying, “this is good…this is really good).


The mentor I had in this art form was a fellow by the name of Dave Bunker. As a boy, Dave had been raised in a culture of a by-gone era. It was a bucolic or folk culture. A man’s word was still his bond and women stayed home and raised the family. Being a committed Roman Catholic family, they put their faith in God to work and raised 14 children. Dave had a genuine need to put as much food on the table as possible before going to the grocery store. He became quite skilled at catching trout on the rivers, so before he agreed to take me fly fishing and let me in on some of his secrets, we would sit for hours and I’d listen to his fish stories. Some of them were quite humorous, while others were more fun for him to tell than for me to listen. But I listened, impatient as I was.


Finally the day came. He was going to take me fly fishing. I had purchased hundreds of dollars worth of equipment in anticipation of this great event. Well, the first day came and went. He called me just before we were about to go out and he said, “Today’s not a good day.” This happened several times until finally one morning he picked me up. We got to the river. He took one look and said, “We’re not going to do any good today, let’s go.”


I protested, “No! We’re here, let’s fish.” “Okay,” he said, “but we’re not gonna catch any trout today.” And we didn’t. This happened a couple of times and then that day came when I caught my first trout. As we approached the river, a smile came over Dave’s face. He was getting really excited and this excitement was rubbing off on me. He said, “Now today Ed, we’re gonna catch us some fish!” I looked at the river…it looked the same to me. I couldn’t see any difference, I thought he was just playing with me. Then he said, “Look!” and pointed over to a place on the river. A trout had just raised, ever so quietly and slurped up a bug. Then again, “slurp,” another and another. All over the river there were fish quietly feeding on these tiny flies. I learned later that these flies were called caddis. What we were in the midst of that day was a caddis hatch.


The first trout I landed was a 24″ German Brown which gave me a wonderful fight. And, you know what? From that day on I learned that little things can be the sign of something big. Well, today’s lesson in James is about this principle –Ain’t no fish if there ain’t no flies! James says it this way: “Faith without works is dead.” We will divide this study into three facets:


  • An Initial Clarification

  • An Expositional Study

  • A Conclusion of This Principle

Let’s begin:


Initial Clarification


24You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.

This verse in James 2 seems to contradict certain Pauline passages found elsewhere. The Church has been divided for nearly five centuries over the question of how one is saved. Some within the faith use this verse in James to support the position that salvation comes in what we do plus faith in Christ. Others stand on the Reformation theme of salvation through faith alone. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”  (Ephesians 2:8-9)


Regardless of what side you’re on, we must admit that genuine Christians on both sides of this question, can and do present a strong biblical case for their position. With no desire to ever compromise scripture, may I ask the question, “What’s the big deal here anyway?” “Why are so many of us divided on this issue?” I suspect when we get to heaven, we’ll slap our foreheads and say, “Dang! We were both right!” But for today, my Evangelical friends will shudder at such a thought. My Catholic brothers and sisters will NEVER concede as long as there’s a breath in them. And you know what? The prince of darkness is sitting back watching all of us and laughing. This is the very thing he loves to see happen; the Church divided.


Ask any bible believing Evangelical if a person can be saved apart from good deeds in their life and they’ll tell you, “No.” Ask any Catholic if they can earn their salvation outside of faith in Jesus Christ and they too will state emphatically, “No!” The only thing we disagree upon is so petty I hesitate to mention it. Well, here’s what we’re all arguing about: “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Here’s the bottom line. Every person going to heaven will bring with them two things: their relationships (primary is their faith/relationship with Jesus Christ) and their deeds which will be judged:


Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:12-15 NKJ)


(Some of the things a Christian does has no value because God didn’t initiate it or work through that person to accomplish His purpose.) If nothing else, let us agree that faith in Jesus Christ AND good works are essential in the life of every genuine Christian (whether the good works are the fruit of salvation OR the cause of salvation through a working faith).


 Expositional Study


1. Introductory Question

James raises the rhetorical question, “If a man claims to have faith but has no deeds……can such a faith save him?” James’ answer of course is, “No.” That kind of faith is not genuine, it’s artificial. The leaders of the Reformation used to say, “We are justified by faith alone, but not by a faith which is alone. (by the way, nowhere in Scripture is the term “faith alone” used except in James 2:24 which speaks of justification comes NOT from “faith alone.”) Evangelicals will say: “A genuine faith bears the fruit of good works.” Catholics will say: “Good works are a part of a genuine faith.” All can agree with both!


2. Characteristics of Genuine Faith

First, a genuine faith is alive and active: 15Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16If 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?” Christians are people of action with compassion. We’re supposed to be the real movers and shakers in this world. James wants us to get up off our couches and recliners and go out into the world and put our faith into action in the name of Jesus Christ. For God’s sake, help someone!


Second, a genuine faith is never independent of good works, but is in partnership with it: 17In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”  Remember we are merely called to be servers in the Kingdom. We work in partnership with God: He’s the cook, and we are His servers. We never have a genuine faith independent of God working through us.


Third, a genuine faith has visible signs. (There ain’t no fish if there ain’t no flies): 18But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” If a person’s life doesn’t manifest goodness in what they do, they can hardly belong to Christ. For example, we can’t merely profess to be a Christian and then not be a helpful neighbor. We can’t tell people we’re Christian, then beat our wives. Genuine faith makes visible to the outside world the very Spirit of God that dwells within us.


3. Examples of Genuine Faith

21Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. 25In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction?


Chuck Swindoll says, “James couldn’t have picked two more opposite people as proof that our works prove our faith. Abraham was the father of the Jews; Rahab was a pagan prostitute. Abraham was moral, admired; Rahab was a harlot, looked on with disdain. And yet both evidenced the same kind of faith. Abraham “justified,” proved his faith, by offering up his son Isaac, and Rahab demonstrated her faith when she risked her life to protect two Israelite spies.”


Conclusion of the Principle

26As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
Seeing faith in others is like fly fishing: Our good works is the sign of faith like the caddis hatch is to catching fish. When we see the caddis hatch, we know the trout will be biting. When we see God working through a person, we know they’re a person of faith. “Ain’t no fish if there ain’t no flies!”


I’d rather see a sermon
Than hear one any day;
I’d rather one should walk with me
Than merely show the way;
For the eye’s a better pupil
And more willing than the ear;
Good counsel is confusing
But examples always clear.
And best of all the preachers
Are the men who live their creeds;
For to see good put into action
Is what everybody needs.
I can soon learn how to do it
If you let me see it done;
I can watch your hands in action,
But your tongue too fast may run.
And the lectures you deliver
May be very fine and true,
But I’d rather get my lesson
By observing what you do;
For I may misunderstand you
And the high advice you give,
But there’s no misunderstanding
How you act and how you live.

– Edgar Guest


Love in Christ,
Ed Jansen


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