James 2: Love, Grace, Faith, Works

Let us pray.

O Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow after us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

IN JUST A FEW MINUTES — right at twenty if you’re looking at your watch — we will stand together and affirm our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed. “We believe,” we’ll say, or perhaps “I believe,” and then we will enumerate the non-negotiable essentials of our faith as we have received it from the Fathers of the Church: not everything that can be said, but certainly that which must be said to avoid ancient heresies and their modern incarnations.

Πιστεύομεν — we believe — the Greek Fathers said; Credo — I believe — the Latin Fathers said. “Believe,” we all say in whatever languages we speak. But, what did that mean in the fourth century when the Creed was formulated, and what does that mean in the twenty-first century as we stand and proclaim it: what does it mean to believe? Do we mean that corporately, “we,” and individually, “I,” have examined the evidence for each of the tenets in the Creed and are convinced that each is logically rigorous, historically accurate, verifiably factual? Probably not, though that would be a very good thing to do. Do we mean that we find the ancient witnesses credible and compelling and that we are certain — based not least on the quality of their lives and the example of their deaths — that their deposit of faith in the Creed is trustworthy? Probably so. Do we mean — as some accuse us — that in spite of a total lack of evidence we cling tenaciously to this story not based on knowledge but upon a blind leap of faith? Certainly not. Our belief is not less than rational, but more than rational, not irrational, but supra-rational; it incorporates the highest reason of which humans are capable and then transcends it in a relationship with the Divine.

So, when we say “we believe,” we are giving more than an affirmation of our mental assent to a set of ancient theological doctrines. Yes, we believe — I would go so far as to say we know — that the Creed is objectively true, but “we believe” means far more than that. “We believe” means not just that we have a capacity for faith, but that we have faith in, that we are pledging our allegiance to, God — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — who is the subject of the Creed; it means that we will be faithful to him. “We believe” means that we accept this story as the story, as the only story that tells the truth about, and that makes sense of, creation, and that we willingly take our place in that story. “We believe” means that we look to this God and this story as the only source of our salvation. Belief, faith/faithfulness, and salvation: these go together: “For by grace you have been saved through faith” (Eph 2:8a).

We must be clear about this relationship among belief, faith, and salvation, clear about the meaning of each. When Scripture speaks of salvation, it means far more — not less, but far more — than merely eternal destiny and spiritual geography — everlasting heaven or hell — as important as that is. Salvation also means freedom in this moment from all the ways hell manifests here and now in human life: freedom from captivity to demonic spiritual powers; freedom from slavery to sin; freedom from fear of death and from death itself; freedom from bondage to the passions; freedom from alienation from oneself, from one’s neighbors, from God; freedom from nihilism and despair; freedom from a meaningless, non-storied existence; freedom from a flattened out, materialistic world. Salvation means freedom from. But, salvation also means freedom to engage in this moment with all the opportunities and blessings heaven offers in human life: to live fully and confidently; to develop and exercise the virtues of righteousness; to reconcile with God and man and to turn outward away from the prison of the self; to find and embrace the deep meaning of existence told in the great story of Scripture; to live in the realm of things seen and unseen, to be surrounded by and in communion with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, to take our place in the communion of saints. In the fullest sense, salvation means both freedom from and freedom to; salvation is both a present reality and an eternal destiny.

When I was younger, it wasn’t unusual to be asked this question by street evangelists or by those who knocked on your door on Sunday afternoon, tracts in hand: Brother, are you saved? If you pressed them a bit on what they meant, they might come back with another question: Well, if you were to die tonight, do you know where you’d spend eternity? These were good, sincere folk, and I don’t mean to disparage them. But, their notion of salvation was too small. Repent of your sin, accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior — whatever that means — say some form of The Sinner’s Prayer, and you are saved; your place in heaven when you die is guaranteed. Really? That’s all there is to it? I understand why James presents a challenge to that way of understanding faith and salvation.

James 2:14–17 (ESV): 14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith — dare I say, what good is it if someone says he believes and has said The Sinner’s Prayer — but does not have works? Can that faith save him? For James, the question he poses is a rhetorical nonsense question on the order of How many corners does a circle have? or What color is yesterday? For James, salvation is both freedom from and freedom to, both an eternal destiny and life in the kingdom here and now. To reduce it to less than that is to miss the point. For James, true faith, saving faith, living faith always manifests in the present, in the works that salvation frees us to do. There is no space between James and Paul on this, though some, including Martin Luther, have supposed so. Listen to Paul to the Ephesians:

Ephesians 2:8–10 (ESV): 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Yes, yes, yes: let me say loudly and clearly with Paul; we are saved by grace through faith and human works play no part in obligating God to save us. But, we are saved for good works which God has prepared for us to do. That is salvation as freedom from and freedom to, just as James presents it. And if those good works for which we were saved are missing, there is something seriously amiss. James says that such faith is dead.

I know that in our Protestant milieu we are nervous speaking of works. But, Jesus wasn’t a Protestant, and he was not hesitant to speak of works. Hear him from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount:

Matthew 7:15–21 (ESV): 15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

And in a parallel account from Luke:

46 “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you? 47 Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: 48 he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. 49 But the one who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the stream broke against it, immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.”

Last week, Fr. Jack beautifully presented James as New Testament wisdom literature. So is the Sermon on the Mount. In both James’ epistle and Jesus’ sermon, the way of wisdom, the way of true faith and salvation, lies not just in hearing the word, nor even in just believing what is heard, but in hearing and doing. James asks the rhetorical questions: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” Jesus asks: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” They are the same questions.

What is the most fundamental work through which faith expresses itself? Simply this, according to James:

James 2:8–9 (ESV): 8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.

There it is; that is the work that proclaims our living faith and our salvation: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. That sounds familiar, doesn’t it? As we will proclaim our faith in just a few minutes, we also proclaimed our work — our vocation — just a few minutes past:

Jesus said:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets (Mt 22:37-40T).

What does love for neighbor look like? James doesn’t tell us directly; he tells us instead by the way of negation. Here’s what love of neighbor doesn’t look like.

James 2:2–4 (ESV): 2 For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, 3 and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” 4 have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

What a vivid picture James paints with just a few words: so many problems in such a short description. First, there is the man with the gold ring and the fine clothes who walks into — swaggers into? — the assembly. The word James uses for “assembly” is συναγωγὴν, synagogue, and it is a wonderfully ambiguous word. It might mean a place of study, prayer, and worship — a Christian assembly. It might mean the community center. It might mean a place of judgment, a people’s court; James hints at this a bit. And in walks the man with the gold ring and the fine clothes. The man himself is not criticized by James, but I wonder about his motivation. I can’t help thinking of the singer Jim Croce and his hit — yes, this will date me — Bad, Bad Leroy Brown:

Now Leroy he’s a gambler

And he likes his fancy clothes

And he likes to wave his diamond rings

In front of everybody’s nose

Maybe the man is not like that at all; maybe he is just oblivious to his fashion choices, which is another problem in itself.

Another man walks into the assembly, poor and in shabby clothes. Just as James didn’t critique the rich man, he doesn’t praise the poor man either. In a literary sense, both these men are just props, just a backdrop for the real drama. The presence of each, and the difference between them, provoke a response. The assembly pays deferential attention to the rich man — “You sit here in a good place.” — and shames the poor man: “You stand over there,” or “Sit down at my feet.” And there is the problem: not necessarily the presence of rich and poor together, not even the fact that there are poor in the assembly, but partiality. Instead of loving the poor neighbor, the assembly dishonors the poor neighbor. That is the opposite of the royal law.

Now, hear James again:

James 2:14–17 (ESV): 14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

Showing partiality to the rich, ignoring the needs of the poor, standing in judgment as if the royal law does not apply to you: these things put to lie one’s claim of faith in the Lord Jesus. While claiming faith, such a one has become again a transgressors of the law — of the full law. There is no fullness of salvation in that kind of faith, because the one who holds it has not yet been set free to do the works of faith that God has prepared beforehand that he should walk in them.

Do you know who holds that kind of faith, the kind of faith that believes the truth of every doctrine about Jesus Christ — the kind of faith that knows the Creed to be absolutely true — but who translates none of that belief into saving faith? The demons. Read the Gospels. The demons were the only ones who consistently recognized Jesus as the Christ and who fell down before him. James says as much:

James 2:18–20 (ESV): 18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?

James contrasts that foolishness with the wisdom of Abraham who, in faith, offered up his son Isaac on the altar. James contrasts that foolishness with the wisdom of Rahab the prostitute who, in faith, hid the spies in Jericho and led them out to safety. In this righteous old man and in this less than righteous young woman, faith was active along with their works, and faith was completed by their works. That’s the heart of James’ understanding of faith and works: the conviction that faith and works, works and faith, go together and cannot be separated in our salvation. Saving faith produces works which complete the faith that saves us. God’s grace — God’s prevenient grace — goes before all, giving birth to faith within us. And that faith, if it is living and active, flows outward into good works to the glory of God and the welfare of his people — good works that flow back to further strengthen and enliven the faith that produced them — a synergy of salvation.

If you want to see all this, follow the order of the liturgy; it gives us a wonderful theological roadmap through this mystery of faith and works and salvation. We hear the Great Commandment and the Royal Law, and we ask God to write them on our hearts. We proclaim our faith — our faithfulness — in the words of the Nicene Creed. We feast on the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ only by the grace of God. And then, having done all of this — having committed to love, having proclaimed faith, having experienced grace — then we pray:

And now, Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.

Love, faith, grace, work: this is our salvation, in this age and in the age to come. Amen.

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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