Thursday of 18th Sunday after Trinity – James 2:14-26

| October 26, 2011 | 0 Comments More

James 2:14-26

Sola Fide!  Faith alone!  That was one of the rallying cries made by the Protestant Reformers in the 16th century.  The slogan “faith alone” was particularly popularized by Martin Luther in his violent reaction to the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church.

As a consequence, for some centuries now Protestants have been strongly tempted to separate faith from works, which is in reality not what the Bible teaches but antinomianism (a fancy word for meaning “against the Law ism.”)  The interesting thing is that the words “faith alone” occur only once, and that one time is here in James 2:24 when James says, “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only (alone.)”  Actually, to be fair, there is one other phrase that is close to “faith alone” and that is “faith by itself.”  This occurs in James 2:17 where James writes that “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works is dead.”

It’s true, as well, that Luther inserted the word “alone” after the words “a man is justified by faith” in Romans 3:28, when the word isn’t there in the original.  Luther also, at one point in his life, relegated the book of James to an appendix in his New Testament.

The fact is that while there are certain individual verses of the Bible that seem to suggest that justification is by “faith alone” there are others that equally indicate that good works have a role to play in our salvation.  Isn’t it odd that when the rich young ruler asks Jesus what good thing he must do to have eternal life that Jesus doesn’t say, “Nothing.  All you have to do is to believe in me”?  What Jesus actually says is, “If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.”  Or why does Jesus say in Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father in heaven”?  Or what about St. Paul himself in Romans 2:6, 7 (Romans – of all places!) who writes that God “will render to each one according to his deeds: eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.”

What is going on here?  What is going on is that in reaction to Roman Catholic abuses and errors, the Reformers emphasized faith over works.  But even this is not the real problem, which is that later theologians and Christians have mistaken the Reformers’ notion of faith (they themselves did not separate the two the way some Christians do.)  When faith is seen as an entire life of faithfulness that includes every part of us, then it is hard to escape the idea that we are justified by faith.  But when faith is transformed from an entire life of faithfulness into an intellectual belief called faith, then watch out!  The result will be antinomianism, because we are “under grace, not law,” and therefore don’t have to obey God’s Law.

James’ main point, I think, is a practical and not a theological one (in the intellectual sense of the word: I myself think that true theology ought to be and is supremely practical).  James is concerned that a faith without works is dead and that such a dead faith will not go out and live as we are commanded to live by our Lord.  James, the brother of the Lord, is quite clear in verses 14 and 17 that a faith without works cannot save a man.  Why, then, do we throw out what James has so clearly said, under the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit?  I think it’s because we’ve allowed our faulty theological systems to deny Scripture.

James’ words are strong.  He is saying that if you really have faith, then you will be faithful.  Period.  Furthermore, we might say that if we want the world to see our Lord, then we must be faithful and full of obedience and good works.  What good does it do when a Christian says he believes in Jesus Christ but doesn’t live like He has commanded us to?  Actually, not only does it do no good: it destroys true faith.  Remember the word hypocrite?  What else should we call someone who says he loves Jesus Christ and then absolutely refuses to feel the need to obey Him?

For those of who are concerned about the moral state of America, maybe we should examine the theology and works of the American church, many of whom are antinomian at heart.  Certainly, our politicians often publicly act this way: “I’m a good Catholic but I can’t force my view of abortion on other people” some of them say.  Of course, this view is really God’s view.

We have believed the lie that one can have faith without faithfulness, that we can say we love God without obeying His commandments.  Yet it is our Lord Himself who says in John 14:15: “If you love me, keep My commandments.”

You can keep your intellectual theology, if you insist on separating it from moral and practical theology – because I don’t want it.  An enormous number of biblical and theological scholars today in academics don’t use their knowledge of theology to obey God but to teach others not to believe His Word.  What good is their theology?  By some standards, I am a decent theologian, though theology proper is not my particular specialty (if I have one!)  But I’m convinced that in terms of head knowledge of God, Satan is a much better theologian than I’ll ever be.  He knows a lot more details about God than I will ever know.  He’s known Him a lot longer, and he has insights into how the Lord works that I can’t even see.  And yet in the truest sense of the word you and I are far superior theologians to what Satan can ever be for one simple reason: we believe and show our belief by our obedience (however imperfect.)

Please don’t ask me to make a choice between faith and works: I won’t do it.  I may not be able to tell you in great detail how Roman Catholic and Protestant theologies disagree; I may not be able to work out the precise role works have to play in our salvation.  But I do know that they are as essential as faith and are in fact an essential part of faith.  Because of this, I will seek to show my faith by my works, because one little thing I do know is that this pleases my Master who has told me to do these things for Him and that this is how I show my love to Him.

One final thought.  What if it turns out that we are justified not only by “faith in Christ” but even more by “the faith of Christ.”  Galatians 2:16 can be read both ways.  What if we are united to Christ by our faithfulness which is in reality the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, who perfectly kept the Law?  What if it is by His faith and faithfulness by which we are saved?  What if it’s not really about me, after all, but about the perfection of Jesus?

Maybe thinking about faith, faithfulness, works, righteousness, and salvation ought to begin not with me and what I’ve done but with God and what He’s done.  Maybe, just maybe, if we theologize this way, we will begin to please God more by proving more faithful servants who have received the fulness of His grace.

Prayer:  Father, I thank You for Your love to me, a sinner.  Thank You for the faith and obedience of Your Son, by whose perfect life and sacrifice I have been saved.  Increase in me my love of You, and give me the grace to show my love by my obedience in all things.

Point for Meditation:

  1. Reflect on the ways you may have used “faith” as a reason to not to obey.  Allow God to transform, through His holy Word, any misunderstandings you may have.
  2. In what ways have you shown a lack of faith by not obeying where God has commanded you?  Reflect on this in terms of both sins of commission and sins of omission. 

Resolution:  I resolve to hear again today God’s commandment to love Him by obeying Him.

© 2011 Fr. Charles Erlandson


CC Image courtesy of Librarian by Ian.Climacus on Flickr.jpg

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