Is this a contradiction to being saved by grace, through faith alone, especially as we read verse 24?
I want to answer, ‘No’! This is more about explaining what faith in God is about.
We will come to see that James’ idea of “works” is that they prove faith (they prove that faith really exists).
Paul, the great proponent of being saved by grace through faith, also, when it was needed, pushed people concerning living out their faith, E.G.
· “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12),
· “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-3);
· then by Paul’s own example … “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us (1 Thessalonians 2:8).
In any case, when Paul talked negatively about ‘works’, he was talking about the ‘works of the law’, e.g. circumcision, dietary laws & Sabbath rules, which sometimes became so constraining as to defeat the spread of the faith. Paul clearly advocated “works” of love and kindness, just like James, and Jesus before them.
So, what was James upset about? Why was he being so strong in his language?
· ? a misunderstanding about faith (just propositions and beliefs)
· ? complacency
· ? lack of urgency
· ? Allan Meyer talks about people who walk around with the appearance of a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign
· ? no evident self-giving
· ? no commitment to discipleship
· ? the devaluation of faith … in terms of its (general) relevance
Perhaps you would think that James might have gone easier on people under persecution, like the ones he was writing to, but that wasn’t the case.
You hear people say that faith is a ‘private matter’. James would certainly shake his head at that (in complete disapproval)! Faith in Jesus should absolutely be a public phenomenon! Faith can only be proved in the cut and thrust of everyday community and family life.
Does this teaching tend to negate the free gift of God, and just get us straining again … straining to gain God’s acceptance?
Again, I want to answer, ‘No’! We can’t work our way into God’s approval; so it must be something else.
God can’t love us any more than He already does. God can’t be any more ready to accept us.
Then, what is James trying to get us to understand??
The meaning of faith!!
We can make some statements about faith:
(i) Faith that remains only words or sentiments can be hypocritical, counter-productive and harsh. We believe, we’re okay, we just sit passively (as an observer, at best). James gives the example (in verse 15-16) of the person who is extremely poor and hungry. We encounter them, we greet them, we wish them the best – “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill”. But, eat what? Keep warm how? Go in peace where?
Christianity was imposed on the early convicts in Australia, without good results. This is because beliefs were often tied to harsh discipline and rigid judgementalism. The good things that have come out of Christianity have happened when expressions of faith have been practical, wholistically caring, and tuned into God’s Spirit. This has resulted in hospitals, schools, welfare agencies, trade unions, benevolent businesses, and mission agencies who serve the whole person. Actions do speak louder than words! Or Jesus famously put it this way, “Thus you will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:20).
(ii) Faith that is only a set of beliefs or a religious practice has no real depth. And with no real depth it doesn’t show itself to be real nor sincere. It is not really faith at all – not the faith that Jesus talks about anyway. True faith is not just about a set of beliefs or religious practices – true faith is about a … RELATIONSHIP!
People talk about the “Christian faith” or “Christian beliefs” or a “Christian country”, but none of these things can actually exist outside of a true and personal relationship with God. Faith cannot be imposed on others and then called Christian! Not without the personal relationships that have to go with it. People have to actually encounter Jesus for themselves, find a relationship with God, and then be filled with God’s Spirit … so that they can then change towards a likeness to Jesus.
(iii) Faith and works are two parts of the same whole. You cannot divide them; they are inseparable. This is just like love for God and love for neighbour are two parts of the same whole. They come from the same source … our relationship with God. Action is NOT an added extra to faith at our convenience. There is no such thing as a non-active faith or a passive faith.
Let’s see how James describes faith WITHOUT “works”: verses 17 & 26 = “dead” – doesn’t exist; verse 14 = no good or non-effective; verse 20 = “barren” – empty, void. If the “works” of faith are not present, the authenticity of one’s faith is brought into serious question.
But, you might ask, what “works” are we talking about?
“Works” of Faith
Well, we can best attempt to answer this initially by saying what we aren’t talking about!
a. These “works” are not behaviours that seek to pretend that we are who we are not … yet! People sometimes try to make themselves look good in the sight of others … to be appreciated, to be accepted, to be asked to do things. THIS IS THE PROBLEM OF SEEKING PEOPLE’S APPROVAL. We’re certainly not talking about this. People in this space need to relax, and then dig deep into the grace of God. Be yourself … allow God to do the work on you … let God be the Potter at the potter’s wheel … fashioning and forming. It’s what God thinks about us that is most important.
b. These “works” are not about rampant busyness! This is not about finding a whole lot of things that need to be done, and some other things beside, and doing all of them, all at once. This is usually more about self-satisfaction, or even done to cover how we really feel about ourselves. THIS IS THE PROBLEM OF HAVING A PERFORMANCE ORIENTATION. Again, people in this space need to relax, and dig deep into God’s love. God loves us for who we are, not what we can do. It is not so much what we can do for God, but what God can do through us.
So, what “works are there left? What “works” go hand-in-hand with faith? James gives two examples, and one other possibility:
a. The Obedience of Abraham (James 2:21-23 & Genesis 22:1-19)
Abraham was taken right to the edge. He was asked to take outrageous action (or so it seemed). Abraham was asked to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. When we read about this in Genesis 22, we notice a few important things. Firstly it is stated that this was a “test”. We might imagine that such a “test” was warranted, given that so many of God’s intentions were going to depend upon Abraham; nothing short of the conveyance of God’s blessing to all future generations!! Another important thing we notice in Genesis 22, is Abraham’s intuition that if he did what God was asking, all would be well. This is trust, which must always go with obedience … if we are going to be able to go out to the limit (like Abraham did). And all was well. God provided!
For Abraham, doing God’s will was the only thing he could do. To do the will of God is to do the “works” of faith. So, the “works” we are talking about, are those “works” which are originating in God, and which God wants to use us to perform. This is the will of God that already operates in heaven, that is so desirable for earth as well (Matthew 6:10). These are not things we think up ourselves, but rather what God is calling upon us to do. And, like Abraham, we trust God for the outcome. Abraham’s faith in God was real … because it governed Abraham’s life at every turn (i.e. his priorities and all he did).
I am always excited when I hear someone say that such and such is being put upon their heart. After this is tested through prayer and wise conversation, this becomes the primary “work” a person should be doing as the application of their faith. These are the “works” that we should be encouraging out of each other. This is why we need more small groups operating, so that there can be more intensive encouragement of calling and gifting (and more of a sense of working together).
What is it that God is asking you to do? This is the “work’ of faith for you. Abraham presented a great example of obedience based on trust. This exercise of obedience was also part of preparing Abraham for what God had planned for him up ahead. Faith in God itself cannot grow to where it needs to without being put it into action. We read in verse 22 that Abraham’s “work” of obedience led to his faith growing toward completion.
b. The Discernment of Rahab (James 2:25 & Joshua 2)
Discernment means spiritual intuition or insight; or just knowing what to do (especially under pressure). Rahab hid and protected the “spies”, who were God’s agents (preparing for Israel’s crossing of the Jordan), who would have been otherwise killed. Rahab had a moment of realisation and understanding that she responded to with great clarity. Here is a decision that has been remembered across centuries for its significance.
The “works” of faith might just be in a moment. A moment of decision; a moment of creative witness; a moment of just saying the right thing or being in the right place … so crucial to another person. This “work” of faith is about being tapped into God, and being able to easily follow His leading. The “works” of faith just start to come as natural responses. “Works” of faith are about being part of God’s purposes in the world.
Have you ever had that experience where someone has said something to you, or in your presence, that is just so helpful, even life-changing. It could have been God’s word directly to you … well, likely, it was exactly that. But this requires the sort of dedication that allows someone to be so tapped into God. This is a prayerful person, a good listener, a steady personality, a solid citizen, a mature brother or sister. Or so you would think!
But sometimes a clear “work” of faith may come from a least expected source; lest we ever think in terms of superiority. Despite Rahab’s stated lifestyle, a profession she may have been forced into economically, the faith that she had developed (on the basis of her reflection on God’s faithfulness to Israel) immediately led on to taking committed action (according to God’s purposes). And this … at some real risk! When Rahab said (Joshua 2:11b), “The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below”, she meant it, and acted on it.
So to answer the question … what “works” … whose “works” = it is God’s “works”!
c. A third possibility to is to respond to the callous attitude in verse 15. Rather than the empty sentiments expressed here, there would be a real outpouring of care … some practical solutions. For example, the early church experience (as outlined by Philip Yancey in Vanishing Grace, p.139). So the response in James 2:15 changes to, “Here are some clothes, a bed for the night, and a good meal”.
The Church at Work
The “works” of faith do not derive from human desires or frantic activity, but rather from a relationship with Jesus and a deep connection with God’s love for all people. People of faith are connected into relationship with God such that they naturally respond to God’s call to love, support, encourage and share with others. In the church, the body of Christ, where many people of varied personalities and gifts come together under the headship of Jesus, these “works” of faith should be done as a team … working in harmony and cooperation and with a humble spirit – all for the common good. However, Philip Yancey comments that most of his unchurched friends see the church in terms of like-minded people gathering to feel better about themselves, rather than being agents for change in a needy world (Vanishing Grace, p.138-9). So James’ challenge remains ‘edgy’ today.
“Works” in combination with faith, will progress us from going to church to being the church. For both Abraham and Rahab there were risks, and the need for trust. Together we can be better bear that risk, and encourage one another to trust.
Friendship with God
I am most taken with verse 23; and the concept of being God’s friend. What is the path to friendship with God?? This is what we have talked about, exampled by Abraham (who was called a “friend of God”). Friendship with God is about a relationship. Friendship like this is measured in mutual faithfulness. God loves us, and we love God. Such is the depth of this relationship, that we know how to live in the light of our faith. We instinctively do the “works” of God. We are prepared to be God’s channel of blessing to others.
Hebrews 13 (v.20-21) describes this relationship beautifully:
Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, 21 make you complete in everything good, so that you may do his will, working among us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.