Faith and Works
Formations: September 9, 2018
Scripture: James 2:14-26
What good is it? Now, there is a disturbing question for religious people. For some, religion is part of their family heritage, for others it is a social connection providing status and behavioral guidelines. For others, religion is the connection to life after this life. But when you read the gospels and the New Testament letters, the idea of religion is reshaped into a personal relationship with God through his Son and a daily lifestyle based on God’s love and grace.
The connection between works and faith is found throughout the Old and New Testaments, so it is important when studying any biblical text to pay attention to the cultural setting, the immediate circumstances and the background of the writer. For instance, today we are reading James, the half-brother of Jesus, who was not a trained scholar of the Jewish law, but became a respected leader of the Jerusalem church. The church struggled with the conflicting ideas of whether to continue to adhere to Jewish laws and rituals, or to recognize the old laws were preparatory to the coming of Messiah and the inclusion of non-Jews as God’s people. Jesus, by example as well as his teachings, revealed God’s grace at the core of being God’s people. It was no easy feat to go beyond generations of legalism all the way back to Abraham and present Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promise for all the world. But this is exactly what James accomplishes.
Martin Luther read James out of his contemporary religious tradition of theology that taught religious rituals, repetitious prayers, buying indulgences to erase sins and loyalty to the institutional church as the way of spiritual life. Luther was overwhelmed by his guilt and a system that failed to give him hope … and then he found God’s grace. Luther saw James as teaching salvation by works. Luther’s joy in Christ was shaped by the Apostle Paul: “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” (Ephesians 2:8-9). So Paul lays out the foundation of salvation as God’s gift, which we can never earn or deserve, based on the incomparable love of God.
With James we discover what this gift of salvation means for our lives in this world. Philosophy and debate are good stimuli, but faith must have a practical application. James challenges: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?” (v. 14). You are saved by faith so, now that you are home free, why worry about this broken temporary world? Why bother with sacrifice, compassion, generosity, helping other people or an interest in ethical living? The foundation of God’s promise to Israel as his chosen people had two vital components: God’s love and living by God’s law. First, God chose Israel out of his grace. Second, Israel was to model God’s love in their living as his people. Keeping the laws and observing the rituals was never intended as earning God’s love. Instead, they were to model for the world this radically different idea of God and the life-changing difference such faith could produce. Both Paul and James understood this and together were presenting the complete picture of Christianity. When the modern “church” fails to be a significant witness to our failing and lost world it is because we have ignored the critical truth that salvation is by faith in Christ and the result must be Christ-like living.
We may look back at that first century world and find fault with their corrupt politics, prejudices, immoral religious practices and violence as a political strategy, but we are no different for all our so-called advances. James’ message is timeless: As followers of Jesus Christ, we must capture the attention of this self-destructing world. Faith in Christ must involve more than attending a worship service, putting money in the offering plate and participating in special events. Being involved in programs is a good thing, but what do you do outside the Sunday events? How do you live in the outside world? Israel had specific laws about respecting property, caring for the poor and aliens in their land, living a moral lifestyle and caring for the land. In other words, God’s gift of life is a treasure, so live accordingly.
Jesus kept getting in trouble with the Jewish leaders. They spent their lives studying, debating and defending God’s laws. They became protectors of the traditions and guardians of their religious self-importance, while treating the world as God’s rejects, unworthy of his love. God’s intention was that Israel be his witness to the world – and his intent for the church is the same! James wastes no words: “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith” (v. 18).
Because many of James’ readers were of Jewish background, he reaches back to Abraham, their “Father in faith” for an illustration of faith producing a dramatic and unusual action (Genesis 22:1-14, 22). The sacrificing of children to pagan gods was not unusual in Abraham’s day. God tested Abraham’s faith by telling him to sacrifice his only child, Isaac. The distraught father surrenders to God’s demand and, at the last moment, God stops Abraham and provides a ram for the sacrifice. This key story in Israel’s history provides the ultimate example of faith in God, resulting in obedience and then God’s provision and reward for faithfulness. James writes “Abraham was justified” by his works: “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness, and he was called the friend of God” (v. 23). James also uses the story of Rahab the prostitute who hid the Jewish spies in her home when Israel marched against Jericho (Joshua 2:1-13). He describes her “also justified by works” (v. 25). Rahab is named in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:5). Both of these stories carried weight with James’ Jewish readers. His point is powerful: faith is proven in our actions.
Human nature and our culture push us in the direction of achievement and earning rewards. Add to this our ability to get what we want by questionable methods. Faith in God, though, is a matter of the heart and active integrity. We live as we believe. Beyond what you claim to believe there must be integrity, honesty, compassion and generosity. The world may be momentarily impressed by words, but they will take notice of our actions.
The current decline in church membership and attendance is connected to our pious declarations, unsupported by our actions. While Jesus was a wonderful verbal teacher, what caught the attention of people was his compassionate actions among the poor, sick and outcasts of society. Jesus went beyond detailed religious laws to live out the love of God. Hear James. Show the world the wonderful hope of God’s grace by the way you live every day. Only then will they hear and understand.
Retired after almost 50 years in pastoral ministry, Michael K. Olmsted enjoys family, supply preaching and interim work, literature, history, the arts and antiques.
Formations is a curriculum series from Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc. through NextSunday Resources.
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