Faith and Works Sept 9, 2018
Show me your works! Faith without works is dead! Does James really value works over faith?
Some reading this passage from James could think that. The Great Reformer Martin Luther felt that way. He was a champion of the doctrine of salvation through faith alone. He didn’t like the whole letter of James calling it an epistle full of straw. When writing his New Testament he placed the book in the appendix. He thought that James teaching, especially about works, contradicted the teaching of Paul like in Romans 3:28 where it teaches that man is justified by faith not works.
We have to understand the context in which Martin Luther read these scriptures. During his life time the Holy Roman Empire – the Catholic Church in Rome – was the sole authority on spiritual matters. What the local church taught under the guidance from Rome was what the people believed. Most of the population was illiterate. The church preached and taught in Latin. Bibles were not readily available. The printing press and the Gutenberg Bible wouldn’t happen for decades yet. During these centuries the church created the practice of selling indulgences, the practice of receiving forgiveness and grace for a fee. How it started isn’t clearly known but the purpose was to raise funds for the Catholic Church. And it worked. Many priests taught that good works (and dollars) could save you. Curiously Martin Luther didn’t have a problem with the Church having an abundance of forgiveness and grace available for parishioners – just with the idea of selling it. He thought the church should give it away.
Luther didn’t have room for any confusion or compromise on the issue of works and salvation.
We need to understand the context that James was writing in. He lived in the first century A.D. He is talking to first and second generations of Christ followers. Some of those early followers thought that saying they were converted and true believer was enough and placed them above question. Many must have wanted to claim the freedom and liberty that grace and forgiveness gave them without living into their new life. Paul addressed this same issue in Ephesians. He asked us not to grieve the spirit by not living as a new creation even though believers were no longer under the law and everything now was lawful.
James firmly believed and taught that Salvation is a gift from God, not of works lest any man should boast. (Romans 6:23) There is no salvation apart from a belief in Christ Jesus and that he died on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. James is not speaking about earning salvation but what we do after we have accepted Christ as our Savior and became a new creation. His letter was written with good solid advice about practical Christian living. This advice is for people after they have accepted salvation, not instructions for obtaining salvation.
What James wanted us to understand was that after becoming a new creation in Christ we are to show it? Our lives should be different – a noticeable different. We are still sinners – but saved by the grace of God. We are still in a battle within us between the flesh and the spirit. We know who wins the war but that doesn’t stop the scrimmages. There is a constant battle being waged to destroy our testimony. James offers us strategies to fight this battle.
We must have faith – but faith in right God – not the idols of this world. Is our faith in 401Ks, family honor, our position, our church attendance, being a good person? James points out that our actions and deeds show how much faith we have and where we place our trust. He asks “Does your actions speak louder that your words?” “Should others do as I say not as I do?” “If you were on trial for being a Christian would there be enough evidence to convict you?”
James insists that we should let our works – not words alone – demonstrate our faith. James sites several examples – many we are familiar with. Abraham was justified by his faith and showed it by as he left his home and lived his life walking with God. The culmination of his demonstration of his faith was his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac. Rehab the harlot saved the lives of the Hebrew spies based on her faith in their God. The slender thread of crimson saved not only her but her entire family. You can look at Hebrews 11 to see other examples of our spiritual ancestors acting on their faith and having it counted for righteousness. Look at Abel and his better offering, Enoch who escaped death by his testimony, Noah who built a boat prior to any rainfall. Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and countless others. All before they had the witness of the cross and the scriptures to read and review.
James calls on us to continue and enhance this witness of our faith. We have so much more than those ancestors of ours. We have the teaching of Jesus, the eyewitnesses of the crucifixion, the letters of Paul and the other early church leaders and disciples. More importantly we have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit sent to us by Jesus to comfort and guide us.
In theory this should be easier than ever – except for the world we live in. These same advantages have caused even more descent and disagreement. We spend more time arguing about which denomination is better than what is actually being taught about the Bible. We place more value on what the world thinks of us than what God thinks of us. Are we the Pharisee or the tax collector? We store our treasure in the bank instead of heaven. We again look to personality and degrees for guidance rather than our own discernment. We have been taught that wealth is more important than our faith. That education is more important than biblical wisdom. That position and power is everything.
Jesus taught the opposite to his society and it is still true today. The kingdom of God is open to all regardless of this world’s value placed on individuals. Heavenly rewards are earned by what we do for others and how we advance the kingdom of God. What is valuable to us – the here and now or eternity?
James was speaking to self-proclaimed children of God. He challenged them to show their witness by more than just their word for it. He wanted others to see their faith by their attitudes and actions. He wanted their lives to reflect the fruit of the spirit from living in close communion with God. It should be obvious that we have seen the Savior.
I think this is what Jesus was implying when he proclaimed in John 15 “I am the vine you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit, for without Me you can do nothing.” Jesus wants us to stay close to the vine, to gain strength and vitality from the roots, to branch out and have new leaves and bear much fruit. Jesus is the good Gardener and he will prune out the dead branches that don’t bear fruit. It is expected that once we are part of the family tree that we would show new life and produce fruit for the kingdom.
What is our fruit to be? Read Galatians 5 “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Are we reaping discord or love? Are we reaping discontent or joy? Are we reaping war or peace? Are we reaping sorrow, injustice, hurtfulness, pride? What are our works producing? We don’t live in a vacuum. All of our actions and inactions, all of our words spoken and unspoken, have an effect on us and others.
As it is written we will sow what we reap.
The best news of all is that we have acceptance and forgiveness available 24/7. All we have to do is ask for it and it will be given to us pressed down and running over. Each day can be a new start for producing fruit with the works that we can perform in service to our Lord and God showing whose we are by our word and deeds.
The question I have to ask myself is “What am I producing in my life? Am I doing what I have been called to do? Who do I look to for validation of my actions and attitudes?” I have to acknowledge that I am indeed a work in progress and that every small act of mine done in Christ’s name shows my faith to the world and helps to build the kingdom of God.
Will you join me in growing a beautiful garden with abundance of fruit in our church and community? I look forward to growing and blossoming with you.
SHARING OF JOYS AND CONCERNS
Wesley UMC Marshfield – fire
Ongoing listening sessions on a Way Forward
Lord we come before you with many cares and burdens. So many of us are not living fully into the fruits of the Spirit that you promised us with our salvation. Help us to let go and let You lead. Strengthen and comfort us as we show our witness to a lost and dying world. Let us start each day fresh and revived in your love for us. Open our hearts to your calling. Open our eyes to see the need around us. Open our ears to hear the voices crying in need. Open our hands to help others. Guide our feet to go where we are needed. Let us live close to the vine so our branches will bear much fruit remembering that we may be the only Jesus someone sees.
Let us begin our quest with the prayer you so lovingly taught us: Our Father who art in heaven ……