Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you? Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?
I can already hear one of you agreeing by saying, “Sounds good. You take care of the faith department, I’ll handle the works department.”
Not so fast. You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove.
Do I hear you professing to believe in the one and only God, but then observe you complacently sitting back as if you had done something wonderful? That’s just great. Demons do that, but what good does it do them? Use your heads! Do you suppose for a minute that you can cut faith and works in two and not end up with a corpse on your hands?
Wasn’t our ancestor Abraham “made right with God by works” when he placed his son Isaac on the sacrificial altar? Isn’t it obvious that faith and works are yoked partners, that faith expresses itself in works? That the works are “works of faith”? The full meaning of “believe” in the Scripture sentence, “Abraham believed God and was set right with God,” includes his action. It’s that mesh of believing and acting that got Abraham named “God’s friend.” Is it not evident that a person is made right with God not by a barren faith but by faith fruitful in works?
The same with Rahab, the Jericho harlot. Wasn’t her action in hiding God’s spies and helping them escape—that seamless unity of believing and doing—what counted with God? The very moment you separate body and spirit, you end up with a corpse. Separate faith and works and you get the same thing: a corpse.
Over the years my understanding of the faith/works divide has changed a bit. That change has come from studying James and Paul. These two men, I have learned, are saying the same thing even though we try to tear them apart.
Did you know that there were some in the early church that didn’t want to include this letter by James in the Scriptures because they felt that it was too focused on “works”?
Honestly, there are some today who secretly wish that they had left it out. Why? Because it would make things so much easier. We could get away with not living the faith but simply saying magic words.
Is James arguing that works saves us? No. Absolutely not. What he is saying is that faith will animate our lives to good works. That is, faith makes us more like Christ. True Christian faith is not something that we can just talk about. It’s not an idea or mindset or a perspective. True Christian faith is a way of being.
A way of being is something that includes all of who we are. It’s mind, body, and soul. There is no pulling it apart.
Some will say, “So what you’re saying is that if we don’t have good deeds then we are not saved? That really flies in the face of ‘by grace through faith alone’ does it not?” This is the very charge that James faces squarely when he says, “You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove.”
You see, it really is a chicken and the egg kind of thing. If we have faith we will be changed. There will be transformation which results in the fruit of the Spirit. What is that? Well, we find that in Paul’s letter to the Galatians where he writes, “But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.”
Too often, too many think that faith in Christ is nothing more than a get out of jail free card. But, that’s not how it works. Authentic faith in Christ means that we are seeking to live with the mind of Christ, which in turn means that we are seeking to live and love like Christ.
If we are not growing in the way of love, then we are not following Christ.