Monday, August 17, 2015

James: Faith and Works

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was James 1:22-27 and 2:14-26:

Today we conclude our series on the book of James, and I hope that you have enjoyed, or at least appreciated, hearing from James.  But even if you haven’t, I have enjoyed exploring James, and sometimes that’s the benefit of being the person who controls what gets preached.  I’ve always liked James, but had never done anything on the letter, and the more I have read and studied James over the past few months, the more I have come to enjoy James and to also realize that even in our 7 weeks on this letter, that we have really only begun to touch the surface of what James actually has to say to us.  But today we close with what has become one of James’ most famous passages, and the one that nearly got him banned from the Bible, and has gotten him banned from many Protestant pulpits and that is his claim that faith without works is dead.
This got James banned largely because of the influence of Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant reformation, whose distinctive moto about salvation was sola fides, by faith alone.  That is that it is faith that saves us not anything else.  Now the background of this is rooted in Roman Catholic theology and the idea of works righteousness, which says that doing good works in the world, will sort of earn us bonus points towards our salvation, sort of like doing extra credit work at school.  You might have a B+ on your regular assignments, but doing that one extra credit piece maybe will shift you up to an A-, and then your parents and God are happy and no one gets into trouble.  At the time of Luther, however, it was more than just about good works, because doing pilgrimages could count for this, as could the buying of penance, that is paying the church to have them issue you forgiveness for your sins, or for others sins, to buy years off of your time in purgatory.  And that doesn’t really even begin to delve into the depths of the what and the why.  But Luther said all of that was worthless, or saying that it had gotten way out of control is probably a better summation, and he said that it is not what we do that earns us salvation, it is God and faith alone that saves us.  So from that we have sort of come up with a battle of works versus faith.

Since Luther was planting his flag on faith, based on the writings of Paul in particular, he wanted to reject anything that seemed to be saying anything about works, and therefore wrongly interpreted James as promoting works righteousness and not only tried to ignore the letter of James but even tried to have it removed from the Bible.  He called it an epistle of straw, something that is gold in color, but does not match the actual gold of the gospels, and something that can and should be discarded.  And because of Luther, James has largely been pushed aside for nearly 500 years.  But is James actually arguing for works righteousness?  Does James make an argument that contradicts Paul’s claim that we are saved by faith alone, apart from out works?  The answer to that, I think is a resounding no.

As I’ve been saying all along, James is most concerned with how we live our faith out in our lives, about where the rubber hits the road, what are the results of having faith, because he says that just proclaiming faith is not enough.  As I said when we started on James, he writes in the form of a diatribe, which means there is a question posed by an unknown interlocutor, which is then answered by James.  This interlocutor says to James, “You have faith and I have works,” which means that there can be a separation between the two, as if they are different.  But James says that are not separate, and that while someone might claim that God is one, that’s not enough.  Now that statement that God is one, might not mean much to us, but it is part of the Shema, the most important prayer in Judaism, found in Deuteronomy.  We also heard it last week as part of our blessing of the backpacks, and it says “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is your God, the Lord is one.”  James says, congratulations that you can say that, but then adds “even the demons” can say that, but at least they shudder when they say it.  Today we might say people say “I’m a Christian” or “I’m saved” and that’s all that’s needed.  But James is saying that’s not enough.  Because if we aren’t living our faith out in our lives, then, James is arguing, that it reveals that we actually don’t have faith at all.  It’s like the old saying that showing up to church no more makes you a Christian, then being in your garage makes you a car.  And then he gives us two examples of faith lived out.

The second one is Rahab who James says was justified by what she did, which for those not remembering her story, which is probably most of us, and you can find her story in Joshua chapter 2, but she protects the Israelite spies who go to check out Jericho before the invasion.  Rahab has two strikes immediately against her.  The first is that she is a prostitute, and the second is that she is not Jewish, and yet she still makes a profession of faith that God is God of all, and then acts on that in protecting the two soldier spies.  That is she not only says something about God, but she does something to demonstrate that faith.  Another way to look at her story, based on what James has also said in showing partiality, is that to many, there is no way that Rahab, could be justified because of who she was and the sins she was committing, but James says her faith is deeper than those who are making that judgment on her.  And the second person whose works justify them is Abraham, although he is the first person that James lists.

Abraham was justified in his faith James says because he followed God’s instructions to sacrifice his son Isaac, so that both faith and acts were working in Abraham’s life, and thus the scripture was fulfilled that “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”  Now that passage also happens to be exactly the same passage that Paul uses in Romans 4 to argue that Abraham was not in fact justified by his works but instead by his faith, because Abraham was said to be righteous before he undergoes circumcision, the act that some wanted to claim was what granted Abraham righteousness.  Paul’s major argument was that if justification, or righteousness, is based on works then it is something that we can claim as our own and boast about, not something that is given freely to us by God.  And Paul wants to make the argument, as do we as Protestants, that God’s grace is freely given to us, there is nothing we can do to earn it or deserve it. We are saved by faith alone, not by our acts.  But, even though it might appear that James is arguing something different, and using the exact same passage to do it, in fact he is not, because Paul and James are in fact discussing different things.

In his commentary on the letter of James, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, whose ideas about faith and works are very important for us, said that James and Paul are not talking about the same idea of faith or even the same idea of works.  Wesley said that “James's justification by works is the fruit of St. Paul's justification by faith.”  James is arguing that those who say they have faith, but do not do have works, do not have the fruits of the Spirit in Paul’s words that come as a result of faith, they are not transformed in how they live, they do not actually have faith.  Their faith is dead.  It’s meaningless.  It’s worthless.  Its mere words that are thrown out to the universe but have no actually purpose or belief.

As Methodists we have been driven by Wesley’s emphasis on works being the natural outgrowth of our faith.  In Harper Lee’s book Go Set a Watchman, which is either her newest book or oldest book depending on where you want to place it against To Kill a Mockingbird, we find out that not only does Atticus Finch have some racist tendencies, but that they are devout Methodists as well.  My favorite quote from the book comes when Jean Louis and Atticus Finch are sitting in worship, and she says “immediately after the collection, [they] sang what they called the Doxology in lieu of the minister praying over the collection plate to spare him the rigors of inventing yet another prayer.” (p., 93)  Good advice.  But it’s a comment about the organist, that most closely relates to today’s topic when she says, he “was a Methodist of the whole cloth: he was notoriously short on theology and a mile long on good works.”  And now that I’ve talk about the book in a sermon, I can now write off the cost on my taxes as a business expense.  Doing good works in the world is part of Methodist DNA.   In fact, one of the major charges that was leveled against Wesley, and is still leveled against the movement, was that we had such an emphasis on works that we were, in fact, practicing works righteousness.

John Wesley was always much more concerned with orthopraxy, that is right action, then he was with right belief, orthodoxy, and that always leaves some people and some groups a little uneasy.  There are always people who want to say if you believe the right things and say the right things, and perhaps hate the right people, then you’re okay, you don’t need to do anything else, after all we are saved by faith alone.  But Wesley argued stridently, just as James did, that, in Wesley’s words, “It is incumbent on all that are justified to be zealous of good works.”  That is that we are not saved by our works, but because we are saved we have to do good works.  Wesley said that the only appropriate response to receiving and accepting God’s saving grace on our behalf is to work on that in the world.  That is what James is saying that faith without works is dead.  If you claim to have faith, then the works will naturally come out of that, and if those works are not coming out then you are missing the faith part with which to start.  Paul, I believe argues exactly the same thing.

In Galatians, another letter in which Paul uses the example of Abraham to say that we are saved by faith alone, Paul gives us the fruits of the Spirit which are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  As I said a few weeks ago, there are two things to notice about this list.  The first is that they are not individual; they are things that are done in relationship with other people, things done in community.  And the second is that they are things that we do.  “Be doers of the word not just hearers” James says.  How will we be judged, Jesus asks, by the fruits that we produce.  Or as a quote commonly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi says, “Preach the gospel. Use words if necessary.”  Faith without works is dead.

This week I was reading a history of confession within the church, which included a quote by Father Herbert McCabe, a Dominican theologian, who said “You are not forgiven because you confess your sin.  You confess your sin, recognize yourself for what you are, because you are forgiven.”  We don’t do works because they save us; we do works because we are already saved.  We do works because that’s what Jesus calls us to do.  In the gospel of Luke, when a lawyer asks Jesus what is the greatest commandment, Jesus says to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, which is the shema, and the second Jesus says is just like it, to love your neighbor as yourself.  That is what James says is the royal law, the law of freedom.  But then the lawyer asks who his neighbor is, and Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, which basically draws the idea of neighbor as broadly as possible, to even include our enemies.  And then what does Jesus say to him? Go and do likewise.

In the parable of the sheep and the goats in the 25th chapter of Matthew, at the judgment, people are separated into two groups, those who clothed the naked, and fed the hungry, and gave water to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger and visited those who were sick and in prison inherited the kingdom, and those who didn’t were sent to punishment.  And they ask Jesus, when did we do or not do these things, and Jesus says just as you did it to the least of these, so you did it to me.  Those who inherited the kingdom didn’t do it because they thought it would get them a reward, they didn’t do it because they had to do it, they did it because they couldn’t imagine doing anything else.  They were living their faith out.

In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, there is no cheap grace, or James might say there is no cheap faith.  It comes with a cost, or as Jesus says, pick up your cross and follow.  How often? Daily.  James tells us not to be mere hearers of the word, because those who only hear are like those who see themselves in a mirror but forget what they look like as soon as they walk away.  Instead we are to be doers of the word, because when we are doers of the word, then we are living out our faith, it’s not something which drifts away from us, something we forget, a mere chimera, but instead it becomes who we are, it becomes what we do, it becomes everything and it is how we become known to the world.  I’ve said this before, but one of my favorite quotes about the faith comes from the great mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal who said never trust anyone who tells you they are a Christian.  Why? Because if they were truly a Christian they wouldn’t have to tell you.  Or as Ralph Waldo Emerson said “Your actions speak so loudly, I cannot hear what you are saying.”

We are called to be transformed.  To be transformed by the power of Christ, by the freedom from the law, by the freedom to love and to serve, just as Christ loved and just as Christ served.  Faith without works is dead not because we are saved by works.  Faith without works is dead because we cannot have faith without works.  When we have faith, when we have been transformed, when we have taken up our cross, there is only one thing we can do, and that is to serve, that is to offer radical hospitality, that is to offer extravagant love, that is to offer all that we are and all that we have to God, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  If you show me works, James says, I will show you faith, or as Jesus says, we will be judged by the fruit that we produce, not because of those things, but because of the faith that they represent.  Go and do likewise my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the post. Wesley influenced many future leaders in Europe and America. For more on John Wesley and his ministry, I would like to invite you to the website for the book series, The Asbury Triptych Series. The trilogy based on the life of Francis Asbury, the young protégé of John Wesley and George Whitefield, opens with the book, Black Country. The opening novel in this three-book series details the amazing movement of Wesley and Whitefield in England and Ireland as well as its life-changing effect on a Great Britain sadly in need of transformation. Black Country also details the Wesleyan movement's effect on the future leader of Christianity in the American colonies, Francis Asbury. The website for the book series is Please enjoy the numerous articles on the website. Again, thank you, for the post.