Faith and Actions
In the two thousand years or so of Christian history, Martin Luther is one of the most important characters in the story. In the sixteenth century he led a movement that eventually became the Protestant Reformation; it ended up splitting the western Christian Church, not just into two factions, but into many. Nowadays, of course, all the various branches of Lutheran Christianity take their name from him, but many others look to him as well and acknowledge his influence. And Martin Luther did not like the Letter of James; he called it ‘An epistle made of straw’ – hardly a ringing endorsement. Why was this?
In the sixteenth century death was a very present reality, and people spent a lot of time worrying about whether they would go to heaven or hell when they died. How could they know they had done enough to earn a place in heaven? Martin Luther went into a German monastery at a young age and spent many years in study and prayer, but he could not get any peace on this subject. Was he good enough? Had he done enough good deeds to earn his heavenly reward?
Luther’s soul was in torment over this issue, until the day he noticed a place in the New Testament where St. Paul quotes from the prophet Habakkuk: ‘The just shall live by faith’. For Luther, it was as if a light came on in his soul: it was not about doing good works; it was about hearing God’s promise and believing it. Luther remembered the place in Genesis where God promised Abraham that he would have many descendants and, as the text says, ‘Abraham believed the Lord, and the Lord accounted it to him as righteousness’ (Genesis 15:6). That’s what I need to do, Luther thought: I need to believe God’s promises of forgiveness and new life through Christ, and put my trust in him. And for the first time, he felt an inner peace and a certainty that his sins were forgiven and that he was going to go to heaven. That, in a nutshell, was the message he spent the rest of his life spreading.
So it’s not surprising that Luther hated James. He loved the writings of Paul, because Paul taught what he called ‘justification by faith’, which Luther interpreted to mean that Christians are not put right with God by doing good works, but by faith alone. But then Luther turned to today’s reading from James and read these words:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?... So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead (James 2:14, 17).
Luther was horrified by this. All those years of torment about whether or not he had done enough to go to heaven threatened to overwhelm him all over again. To him, James was teaching ‘works righteousness’, not the gospel (or good news) of justification by faith. If he could have done so, Luther would have removed James from the New Testament. His opponents in the Catholic Church, on the other hand, loved James and quoted him often to show that Luther and those nasty Protestants had it all wrong: faith without works is dead, so you can’t be saved just by faith, you have to do good works as well.
Nowadays scholars have begun to suspect that neither Luther and the Protestants nor the Pope and the Catholics really properly understood what James and Paul were on about. And part of their misunderstanding was to forget that the New Testament was written by different people who didn’t always use words in the same way. What did Paul and James actually mean by those words like ‘faith’, ‘works’, ‘saved’, and ‘justification’? If they used the same words, did they mean the same things, or is it possible they had different ways of using the language?
A full answer to that question is beyond the scope of one short Sunday sermon, but let me just focus in for a minute on that word, ‘works’. What does it mean? Luther thought it meant ‘Living a good life so that you can escape from hell and go to heaven when you die’. It meant ‘earning your ticket to paradise’. But is that what James actually meant by it? When we look at the examples he gives, it seems doubtful. Look at verses 14-17 again:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say that you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 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, if it has no works, is dead.
So what does James mean by ‘good works’ in this passage? Obviously, he’s talking about practical things we do to help people who are in need; we might call it ‘compassion in action’. It’s not limited to that of course; later on in the chapter he alludes to Abraham not just believing God, but obeying him by being willing to offer his son on the altar, and to Rahab who believed God and helped the Israelite spies before the battle of Jericho. But I think it’s fair to sum up James’ teaching as ‘If you believe in God, then you will obey him, and the most important way of obeying him is practical love for others’.
If we had been around in the first century to press James a bit on this issue, he might have expressed it this way: Look, let’s suppose you’re sick, very sick in fact, and you go to a doctor for help. You’ve been quite worried about your health, but the doctor sets your fears at rest. “Yes”, he says, “I know you feel pretty bad, but this is not a fatal illness, and in fact I can help you feel better fairly easily. There are a few simple things I want you to do. I’m going to give you this herb to mix in with your wine after supper each night, and I’m going to suggest that you avoid this list of foods that are making you sick, and that you go for a good walk each day and get lots of sleep each night. Do those things, and trust me, you’ll feel fine in a few weeks”.
Now, James might explain to us, if you really believe and have faith in your doctor, what will you do? It’s obvious, isn’t it? You’ll put his teaching into practice and do the things he’s told you to! And you’ll do these things, not to avoid the death sentence – he’s already told you that it’s not a fatal illness - but because you genuinely believe that life will be better for you if you do them. And in the same way, if we truly put our faith and trust in our Lord Jesus Christ, then we will listen to the things he says and put them into practice in our lives – not because we’re scared of going to hell if we don’t, but because we believe that Jesus’ life and teaching show us the sort of life God designed us for.
So ‘good works’, for James, isn’t about a frantic attempt to keep as many commandments as possible so that we can be sure we’re going to heaven. ‘Good works’ is a reminder that if faith is real, it will always show itself in loving actions. And on this Paul and James both agree, because in Galatians 5:6 Paul says,
‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything: the only thing that counts is faith working through love’.
Did you hear that phrase? Faith working through love. If you have faith in Christ, it will lead to a life of loving God with all your heart, and loving your neighbour as yourself, just as Jesus taught us.
So why did Paul teach that we are saved by faith alone, not works? Because Paul was using words differently, and Paul was answering a different question. The question he was answering was, ‘Do you have to become a Jew in order to be a Christian?’ That was a live issue in the early Church: after all, the Jews were God’s chosen people and the Messiah was promised to the Jews, not to everyone. And what were the marks that showed you were a Jew in the ancient world? Well, if you were a guy you were circumcised, and you also observed the Sabbath strictly, along with the feasts of the Jewish calendar, and you ate only kosher food and obeyed all the food laws of Judaism.
We’ve seen that when James uses the word ‘works’, he uses it in close proximity to things like caring for the poor and needy. But when Paul uses the word, ‘works’, he usually uses it in a different context: those Jewish boundary markers - circumcision, keeping the Sabbath, avoiding ham and keeping kosher and so on. So when he says, ‘You’re not saved by works of the law, but by faith in Christ’, what he means is, ‘You don’t have to become a Jew in order to be a Christian. God’s chosen people is now a multinational community, and the thing that marks them out is no longer that they are circumcised and observe the Sabbath and keep kosher; no, the thing that matters is not these works of the law, but that we have put our faith in Jesus – and our faith, of course, is showing itself in love’.
Well, we could go on for a lot longer about these issues, and find out what Paul and James mean by ‘justification’, and the different ways they use the word ‘faith’, and so on, but there’s no time to do that this morning. We need to come back to the actual text we have in front of us, with this wonderful thought in mind: the faith in Christ that we profess is a transformational faith. To come back to our earlier illustration, Christ is the great physician, the doctor who heals us by bringing us not only forgiveness of our sins but also wisdom about how to live, and strength to put that wisdom into practice.
The great creed in ancient Israel was ‘Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God, the Lord is one’. James alludes to this in verse 19:
You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder.
If he was speaking to us Anglicans today, James might have said, ‘You believe that the Apostles’ Creed is true? That’s excellent! Mind you, the demons know it’s true too! The only difference is that it scares them out of their wits!’ In other words, faith is not just believing that there is a God, or believing that certain things about God are true. True faith is trust in God, and it will lead to a transformed life.
What sort of transformation? Well, now we can go back to the beginning of the reading for a concrete example of this. We’ve talked about ‘faith working through love’, and we need to remind ourselves that in the Bible love is not about feelings but about actions, actions based on the teaching and example of Jesus.
What do we know about Jesus? One thing we know about him is that he treated everyone as equal in the sight of God. He didn’t say one thing around the rich and another around the poor. He didn’t soft-pedal the hard bits of his message around the rich to avoid offending them, out of fear that they might not put their big cheques on the plate. No - he founded a community in which distinctions of rank and wealth and ethnic origin didn’t mean anything, and that continues to be his will for his church today.
So what does faith in Jesus look like? It means being a community in which everyone is treated with dignity and respect, whether they are rich or poor. In the world around us wealth is power, but that’s not to be the way it is in the church. Listen to James again:
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please”, while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there”, or “Sit at my feet”, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
Does this sort of thing happen in the Christian community? Indeed it does. Imagine a member of a church who is wealthy and powerful; perhaps this person has given generously to build the church building, or to repair it. Of course the other members are very thankful, but here’s the problem: the wealthy donor seems to think his generosity gives him two votes where everyone else has just one! He seems to think that the congregation is indebted to him, and therefore special attention should be given to his opinions in decisions that are made. Also, the minister should take special care not to offend this person in sermons, because if he leaves, the church will be in big trouble.
What does James have to say about it? Two things, very quickly:
First, he has difficulty believing that people who act in this way are actually Christians. He asks, ‘Do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? ‘ (v.1). How can you say you believe in him when you obviously don’t believe the things he taught and showed us?
Second, he accuses us of being ‘judges with evil thoughts’. Here the New Living Translation gives us a helpful paraphrase:
‘…doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgements are guided by evil motives?’
It isn’t very hard to guess what those ‘evil motives’ might be. Rich people are powerful, and it can be dangerous to offend them. But on the other hand, if we were to curry favour with them, they could be very generous - either to us as individuals, or to our church. So let’s bend a few rules, let’s compromise on a few principles, let’s not say so much about what Jesus has to say about the potential dangers of wealth – all in a good cause, of course! These are the ‘evil motives’ James is talking about.
Okay, let’s bring this to a close and tie it all together. This works on an individual level, and also in terms of the Christian community. Faith without works is dead. On an individual level, it’s not enough for us to say, “I believe in Jesus” and then not do the things that Jesus taught us. The real Jesus, the one who we read about in the gospels, taught us a certain way of life: a life marked by sacrificial love. This is the sort of thing that will change the world, because it will lead to real actions of compassion and mercy toward those who are in need. So let’s not argue about whether we’re saved by faith or works: let’s put our faith in Jesus, and do the good works he taught us to do, works of love and mercy toward everyone!
And it applies on a community level as well. The teachings of the Apostles’ Creed are tremendously important, and it’s wonderful that we stand up and affirm them every week. It’s also wonderful that every week we stand to hear the Gospel and say, “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ”. But we’re called as a community to practice that faith, and one of the most important ways we do it is by being a community in which there are no distinctions based on wealth, social status, racial origin and so on. Whether you are a millionaire or a welfare recipient, you matter to God, and you ought to matter to this congregation too. If you are able to give ten thousand dollars to our building project, that’s wonderful – but those who are only in a position to give a small gift are equally important, and their vote is just as important. Can I get an ‘Amen’ to that? That’s the sort of family Jesus wants us to be, right?
I told you James was radical, didn’t I? He was radical because he loved his brother Jesus, and believed the things he said. So this week, let’s work on putting our faith into practice by actually helping those who are in need, and by treating rich and poor alike. And when we come back next week, James is going to return to a subject he’s already raised with us once before: ‘taming the tongue’. Stay tuned…!