Reading: James 2:14-26
Faith without works is dead; These words are pretty clear, and they are very important. It would be fair to say that there has been a great deal of debate about how we are to understand the relationship between faith and good works. This is a passage that many people must wrestle with, because it does not always fit comfortably with our theological views. James 2:17 was so challenging to Martin Luther’s faith that he declared James as contrary to the gospel, and he called it an epistle of straw.
The gospel that Luther speaks of, of course, is something that we can find in Paul’s writings. I could choose to read from a number of Paul’s epistles, but I choose to read from Ephesians 2:4-10
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Jesus Christ, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:4-10 NRSV)
When people think of Paul’s gospel, they often focus on being saved by grace, through faith — they often focus on how salvation is not of our own doing, and that we have nothing to brag about. This focus can lead us to doubt the focus that James gives to good works. One might fear that James by focusing on works makes Christianity about what we do, rather than about what Jesus did, and thus come to the conclusion that Luther came to.
It is not difficult to set up a narrative where Paul and James are at odds with one another. James is a leader of Jewish Christians, Paul is the apostle to the gentiles. When Peter behaved inappropriately at Antioch, no longer eating with the Gentile Christians, it was because James sent a delegation to Antioch. A friend of mine suggested that this implicates James a Judaizer, and thus that would make him Paul’s chief antagonist.
Of course I’ve mentioned before that I believe that the book of James is largely based on the teachings of Jesus — I believe that it is an early book, and that it is a witness to early Christianity. When I read the gospel, I notice that Jesus calls on people to behave in a certain way. The sermon on the mount, for example, deals largely with behavior — calling people to act in a way that most of us find challenging.
In Matthew 25:31-49, Jesus describes the Judgment of the nations, and when he tells the standards people are judged on, Jesus does not mention their beliefs, or their faith but the actions of giving food and drink to those who are hungry and thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and visiting the prisoner. James 2:15 echoes this when James asks: “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? So faith by itself, it it has no works, is dead.”
Just as I know people who follow the extreme example of Martin Luther, I know others who look at things like this, quote George Bernard Shaw and say: “Paul is the great perverter of Christianity.” These people say they want the Christianity of Jesus, and they point to Paul as the origin of a comfortable Christianity that does has nothing prophetic to say to the culture it is in.
I of course am a traditionalist. My Bible includes both James and Paul; and I have to find a way to accept both as authorities. The way I do this is that I believe that both are true, and that choosing one or the other is a false choice. I also believe that Paul’s critics, and too often Paul’s supporters misrepresent what Paul taught. Perhaps Paul and James argued about what it meant to have a Christianity that grew beyond Jewish culture; there are hints of such arguments in Acts and Paul’s epistles, but I like having a tradition that has some room for argument.
One thing I’ve learned about the Christian tradition is that heresy is most often found in creating a false dichotomy. The Orthodox position is, for example, that Jesus is both God and Human. If you defend the divinity of Christ at the expense of his humanity, you fall into heresy no less than those who argue that Christ is human and not divine.
I personally think of this argument about faith or works to be similar; if we choose one or the other, we lose something that is important to Christianity. If we reduce Christianity to a list of rules, customs, and behaviors, we risk turning Christian into an adjective that describes people who behave according to that code. If we say that Christianity is only a system of beliefs, but has no relationship to behavior, we risk becoming a group that discusses what we believe about the afterlife, but has little to offer for this life.
Personally, I think this argument would not have gotten off the ground if we didn’t focus on verses and short quotes, and instead looked at every epistle as a whole. Remember in James 1 when James said: “Let nobody say God is tempting me”, James reminds us that we are tempted by our own desires — I would say even our own thought patterns, and in the passage we read today, James tells us that Faith is shown by our works.
When I read Paul’s epistles, I see something rather striking; Paul tells us that Christ came to save us from our sin. This is very different from being saved from the consequences of sin, or to be saved from hell; to be saved from sin is to be saved from the power that it has over our lives.
There is something about sin that kills. Sin kills our relationships, sin kills our hope, sin is a destructive force in our lives. If we are truly saved from sin — then we would be truly saved from the destructive thought processes and behaviors that do so much damage. Paul’s salvation isn’t about what we do — but, this salvation is something that changes us — and it is as much of a change as being resurrected from what killed us.
Observe from the passage we read today, James tells us: “I will show you my faith by my works.” What we believe is powerful. What we say and do comes from the way we think — and the way we think comes from what we believe. If we say that we believe one thing, yet we act in a different way, how strong is that belief? I know that habits die hard — I know that Paul wrote of struggling against habits, but what we do and what we believe are linked together. Works most consistently come out of Faith — and a faith that one never acts upon isn’t much of a faith at all. Faith without works is indeed dead.