One of the great tensions for me as a preacher is figuring out how to talk about the importance of doing—of taking action in the name of Christ—while at the same time emphasizing we can do nothing to save ourselves.
Having faith that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins is central to becoming a Christian. Scripturally, there is no other way to re-establish the relationship with God that was broken by sin. We cannot do enough good deeds to overcome our evil; without faith in Christ’s work, we cannot even love God or others passionately enough to impress God into taking us back. We might as well claim we can jump high enough to get into heaven.
And yet, Christianity is a very deed-oriented religion. For example, in Matthew 25, Jesus describes the final judgment as being based on how we treat the hungry and thirsty, the poor, and marginalized people such as prisoners, the sick, and friendless strangers among us.
Counting today, we’re going to spend five weeks in the Book of James. With some help Aug. 5 from our new discipleship director, Melissa, I’m going to be spending a lot of time talking about our actions. You’ll hear me talk about how we speak to one another, how we use our resources, and how we reach out to each other in life-changing ways. But I don’t for a minute want you to think I’m telling you that good works will save you—salvation simply is a matter of believing in what Christ has done on the cross.
If this sounds a little confusing, at least we’re not alone. Because the Book of James talks so much about Christian behavior, early church leaders struggled with whether it should even be a part of the Christian Bible. As late as the 16th century, Martin Luther, the man who triggered the Protestant Reformation, was questioning the value of the Book of James.
His ambivalence was rooted in his times. He had watched the Roman Catholic Church enrich itself by selling something called indulgences. We Protestants sometime oversimplify what the Roman Catholic Church was doing, saying they were selling forgiveness for sins, which is not exactly true. The Roman Catholic priests were selling relief from what they called “temporal punishments” associated with sins that cause attachment to this world. I’ll not go into all of that in great detail, but suffice it to say that the selling of indulgences and other abuses by the Roman Catholic Church caused Luther to begin to emphasize very strongly the idea that we are saved “by faith alone.” Luther cited the writings of the Apostle Paul, particularly Romans 3:28: “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.”
Therefore, language like we’ve heard in our Scripture reading this morning, and in other verses in James, gave Luther heartburn that he could not attribute to his German beer and sausages. Verse 2:24 really bothered him: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Tossing the whole Book of James, or at least dramatically de-emphasizing it, probably did seem easier to Luther and others.
And yet, God has given us the Book of James, if you believe the Holy Spirit has guided church leaders through the centuries to an understanding of what Scriptures should be in the Bible. Christians are called to listen to these very works-oriented words and understand them in the context of other biblical words that emphasize faith.
I personally don’t find James’ words as confusing as Luther found them. I find them challenging, but they don’t trouble me. For me, understanding faith and works is largely a matter of understanding the order in which they arrive and which is dependent on the other.
Let’s try a few metaphors:
Which lives first, the vine, or the grapes? The vine, of course. In John 15:5, Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” Our faith in Christ makes us branches. But what is the purpose of being branches unless we’re going to bear fruit? Our fruit is our works, those behaviors and actions that make the world a more holy place.
Which would you prefer, a dead body or a living body? That one’s pretty easy, too. Without life in your body, you cannot get much done. Faith brings new life to the Christian body. Naturally, you’re going to do something with that new life. James is trying to tell us that if that new life doesn’t result in new, holy works, we may be mistaken about the relationship we think we’re in with Christ.
Consider the role of grits. As the story goes, a Yankee—excuse me, a person from a more northerly state—stopped to eat breakfast at a diner in the South. He ordered eggs, bacon and toast. (People from more northerly states don’t always appreciate biscuits.) When his eggs, bacon and toast arrived, however, alongside them was a white, mealy, gloppy substance, a little lake of butter pooling in a spoon-indented crater.
“Waitress,” he asked, “what is this? I didn’t order this.”
“Honey, those are grits,” she replied. “You don’t order grits. Grits just come.”
Faith is trusting God enough to ask, knowing you will receive. Forgiveness of sins and eternal life are what we were expecting on the plate. Our ability to do works, given to us by the Holy Spirit, just comes, and is evidence we have been served in full.
This understanding of faith and works is very Methodist, by the way. Luther may have struggled with the Book of James, but John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, loved it. Wesley emphasized our need to grow in faith, a process we call sanctification, and show evidence of our faith after we are saved. In 1742, Wesley wrote an essay called “The Character of a Methodist.” I’m going to rephrase Point 14 in modern English:
Whatever a Methodist does, it is done to the glory of God. A Methodist not only aims to do this, a Methodist actually accomplishes this, be it in business, at play or in prayer. It doesn’t matter whether the Methodist is at home or in public; this business of glorifying God goes on. A Methodist could be glorifying God while getting dressed, working, eating and drinking, or taking other diversions, and God is glorified because peace and goodwill are spread through every act to others. Here is the Methodist’s one invariable rule: Whatever you do, in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God.
I think the next few weeks will be challenging for us. Let’s ready ourselves not by the works we do, but by opening ourselves to a deeper faith. Let’s remind ourselves of what we already believe; let’s ask that God strengthen our belief.
It is my prayer that by August 12, we will be better Christians, with works that prove a living faith.