Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Faith & Deeds: Your Window to the World of Works

I am preparing this week to teach on the much debated passage, James 2:14-26. As I come to the text looking for God to show me what He has to say (and not what my own theological bent has to say) on the topic, the first thing that He has made clear to me is that my window on the world is--as everyone's--tinted.

If I ask a room full of evangelicals, "What do you have to do to earn justification through Christ?" There will come a swarm of answers affirming that I must "do" nothing but rather I must merely believe. The mantra of "grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone" would no doubt be touted, perhaps while fists pound in palms (ok, maybe not that extreme). Yet, it's clear that this passionate stance against works-based salvation is a product of our window on the world (and of course the baited way in which I formed the question [grin]). The shaddow from which we in the Evangelical movement are fleeing includes puritanism, fundamentalism, and a unique flavor of late-modern legalism that all amount to a great distaste for "works" emphases.

Martin Luther, too, rose against the "works" emphasized gospel of his day with a similar passion. So much so, in fact, that he is on record as calling the book of James an "epistle of straw" and perhaps even challenging its canonization. Luther was surrounded by a type of Pharisee-like legalism so strong that he polarized to the other extreme. That theme has been a back-bone of protestantism in general that sticks with us today.

Even more important to understanding the scripture at-hand, however, is not our own tinted windows on the world, but that of the Biblical authors that stand seemingly at odds: Paul and James.

Paul, a pharisee by training, faced largely the false-teaching of Judaisers and addressed those fallacies head-on in his epistles. This is made especially clear by his emphasis on the Law and circumcision. When we read Paul's words, "not by works, so that no one can boast" (Ephesians 2:9), bear in mind the boasting he describes in Romans 3:27, "Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith." In fact, Paul's opposition to the legalism of the Judaisers is very closely paralleled to Luther's opposition to the Medieval Catholicism of his day.

James, however, peers through a very different window on the world and on the Church(es) which he oversaw. Likely a carpenter like his father, uneducated, and close companion of Jesus during His earthly ministries, James (in exact agreement with Paul) saw the transformed life a crucial aspect of a justified person's faith. James faced a movement of apathy and intellectualism in the church--one that disregarded the actions of the body and focused on the knowledge of the mind. This is made especially clear by the works that James cites in his discourse on faith and deeds in chapter 2: giving to the needy (verses 15-16), surrendering all to God (verses 21-22), and trusting the Lord (verse 25). James does not enforce that justification is by works in the sense that Paul defined works--following the Law and being circumcised. In fact, James is recorded in Acts 15 as speaking out against legalism for the converted Gentiles.

So, getting back to our own window on the world, ask yourself: what positions does this "works based salvation" that I oppose really include, and what might it not? More importantly, what is James really telling his readers in their day and in their context... and what is he not?

Oh, and just so I don't leave a loose-end untied, Luther himself later resolved that "Faith alone justifies, but the faith which justifies is never alone" as he came to understand that faith in Christ will certainly manifest in works.

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  • Um, just a little correction: It was Calvin, not Luther, who said that final quote (I think in _Principles of Theology_). But despite Luther's problems with James, there's a great quote from Luther which expresses perfectly, I think, James's theology of faith and works - ironically, it comes from his preface to his commentary on Romans! The quote is:

    "O it is a living, busy active mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good things incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done this, and is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such works, however, is an unbeliever. He gropes and looks for faith and good works, but knows neither what faith is nor what good works are. Yet he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works."

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At April 21, 2009 6:04 AM  

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