Sunday, September 03, 2017

Sunday Scripture - James 2:14-19

James 2:14-19

2:14-19 – There are some who look at these verses, and at the dichotomy it describes between faith and works, and are instantly reminded of the incessant refrain of the Apostle Paul. In Galatians (as elsewhere), Paul insists that our salvation is based on faith alone, and not on works or deeds. So at first glance, it looks like James is directly disagreeing with Paul: “Faith without works is dead!” But we don’t base our theology on a mere surface-level glance at Scripture. On closer reflection, it becomes clear that these two writers, both of whom were inspired by the Holy Spirit, are each writing with slightly different issues in mind. Paul is confronting a Judaizing tendency within the early church, in which some Christians were saying that it was necessary for salvation to keep all the rules of the Old Testament Law—even for Gentile converts. Paul argues strenuously against this, and builds his theology on the understanding that it is not anything that we do that earns our salvation, lest we could take credit for it; it is all based on what Christ has done, and our only part is to receive this in faith. James, however, appears to be attacking a different perspective; a perspective that Paul never championed. His interlocutors seem to be saying that faith in Christ need not be accompanied by good works at all. But this can’t be an attack against Paul’s theology, because the Pauline letters are brilliantly clear in their portrayal of true Christian faith being a reality that must necessarily be lived out in practical action. So who is James writing against? The probable answer is that a few Gentile converts had taken Paul’s message, misunderstood it, and applied it in a reductionistic manner that fit with Greek presuppositions about the nature of the human person. Since only the spirit matters, and not the body (or so many Greeks believed), then only the spiritual act of faith is what matters in the Christian life, not the outward forms of whether one performs good deeds or not. This position is clearly problematic, even heretical; and it’s certainly not what Paul taught. In most of Paul’s letters, the entire second half of each epistle is taken up with very specific admonitions about our outward, practical deeds of obedience in the Christian life. In any case, James is clear and direct in his rebuttal . His point is simple: if you claim that faith is what saves you, then you’d better be sure that your faith is real. And real faith, as is evidenced throughout Scripture, is faith that works. Real faith is not just an act of intellectual assent; it’s a wholehearted, life-changing commitment, a transfer of loyalty to God’s Kingdom that changes the whole of how we live. If you believe Jesus is the Son of God in the same way that you believe in the law of gravity, then you do not have real faith. Even the demons believe in Jesus like that. That’s not saving faith. Saving faith is a renewal of one’s whole being through the work of the Holy Spirit; it is a transformation that includes not just our intellectual beliefs but our whole enterprise of daily living. Real faith will show the evidence of its identity in the way that we live. To use James’ example, real faith will care for the poor in outreaching, practical ways. Why? Because real faith is a union of our hearts with the God of love, who cares for the poor with compassion, yearning, and fountains of grace. If our faith is true faith, then God’s heart will be expressed through our actions. So if you don’t have deeds, then you don’t have faith. Pretty simple.