Faith vs works

Pentecost 14

James 2

Marian Free

In the name of God who asks only that we accept God’s love and to share that love with others. Amen.

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say 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.”

There are many things I value about this Parish. One is the welcoming, friendly community, another is the faith and commitment of its members, another is the way in which everyone seems to enjoy our worship, yet another is the way in which people provide feedback about my sermons. Last week someone said that the sermon was good, but that I should complete the story this week. By that he meant that I should deal with the passage which we read this morning from James. That is, having claimed that God’s love is not dependent on anything we do or don’t do, I should perhaps speak about James’ statement that faith without works is dead. The statement seems self-evident, but it is in fact quite contentious, so I gladly take up the challenge.

To be quite honest, I don’t know much about James, except that this particular passage is often quoted in the argument about faith and works – are we saved by faith as Paul argues, or does our faith need to be demonstrated by our works as claimed by James? This was one of the major issues of the Reformation and until recently remained a sticking point in Lutheran/Roman Catholic relations. (Luther argued that humankind was justified by faith alone whereas the Roman church claimed that justification had to be animated by charity. Luther’s argument depended in large part on his reading of Romans. The Vatican tempered Paul’s theology with reference to James). Luther was particularly scathing about the letter of James saying that it was “really an epistle of straw”.

Interestingly, Luther wasn’t the first person to question the value of the letter. From the earliest days of the development of the Bible James was not an obvious choice for inclusion. One of the earliest collections of books accepted as canonical – the Muratorian Canon, does not include James. In the fourth century Eusebius mentions that James is one of the “disputed” books and Jerome writes that James had been accepted into the church “little by little”. The letter (if it is really a letter) contains a lot of practical advice, such as can be found in the book of Proverbs, but it tells us very little about the gospel.

It has been argued that the writer of James was the same James whose representatives caused trouble for Paul in Antioch. There was a question as to whether or not non-Jewish converts were required to observe the Jewish law in order to be fully included in the new faith and Paul argues quite fiercely that they do not and he does so on the basis that from the time of Abraham, God has justified believers according to their faith and not according to their works. On this basis Paul contends that Jews and Gentiles can be included in the people of God. IIf it is the same James, it may be that he is putting into writing an argument between himself and Paul that is on-going.

Certainly, these verses in James appear to be directly challenging a key platform in Paul’s theology – that is that justification is through faith and not through works. In Romans and Galatians in particular, Paul argues that a person is justified (that is, made right, before God) by faith and not on the basis of anything that they have done to earn justification. Abraham believed and it was reckoned to him as righteousness he writes. James, also using Abraham, argues that faith without anything to show for it is dead.

James sounds convincing but the difference between the two points of view is quite subtle. Paul would have been horrified to think that a believer could ignore the plight of another member of the community or of anyone in need. In fact, all his letters address the issues of how believers should live together and in Galatians he says: “whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith” and Paul, like James, takes the community to task for giving the rich precedence over the poor.

Where the two differ is in regard to their belief as to “what saves?” James asks “Can faith save you?” to which Paul would answer a resounding “yes”. Paul is convinced that we are saved not on the basis on what we have done, but on the basis of what God has done for us in Jesus. This being the case, it is clear to Paul that what is required from a believer is not a certain standard of behaviour, not a quota of good works, but faith – trust in God, an acceptance of God’s saving power. Paul would argue that our being saved or not saved does not depend on good works, but rather on our complete surrender to the goodness and mercy of God.

This is both liberating and terrifying. If all we need to do is trust, how can we possibly know that we are doing is right? There is no standard against which to measure ourselves. If we are saved simply on the basis of our trust in God, what is to stop us being completely laid back and never doing anything or worse, abandoning all restraint and doing whatever we like? How will outsiders see that we have faith?

Paul’s answer to this is that we are to walk in the Spirit, to allow our lives to be completely determined by God, to surrender ourselves to God’s direction in our lives. If we are able to let go in this way, then good will certainly result, but it will be good of God’s making and not of our own. It will be good for which we cannot and would not claim credit for we would understand that the good that we do is the Spirit of God working through us.

Paul would claim that the external signs of faith are not works but the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. It is these characteristics that demonstrate the presence of God within. They will almost certainly lead to action, but action which does not issue from the presence of the Holy Spirit, while good, does not necessarily spring from faith. Paul would claim that being led by the Spirit means that we do not neglect to do good things, but that the good that we do is motivated by and directed by God.

It is easy to be seduced by action. It is tempting to believe that we can earn our way into God’s hearts. But the heart of the gospel is God’s saving love and the greatest demand that God makes is that we accept that love. The miracle is that is we allow God’s love to completely determine our lives, good will result, not only for ourselves but for all those around.


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