Scripture: James 2:14-26
Back in the year 1789, John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, asked an important question: “What a mystery this is,” he said, “that Christianity should have done so little good in the world!”
This always seemed to me to be a strikingly modern question. It’s easy to look around at the state of the world, at the state of politics in the US, at the state of the church, and wonder whether the faith we claim has really made a positive difference in any of it. I’m sure some people would even say religion is the problem. Those of us who don’t want to go there might be tempted to blame all the Christians who aren’t like us for messing it all up. For what it’s worth, John Wesley thought it was because Christianity had been co-opted by wealth. In any case, it’s a question a lot of us are still asking.
But Wesley’s question is also a very old one. As early as 62 CE (depending on when the letter of James was actually written), 30 years into the life of the Christian church, we can hear this question being asked between the lines in our Bibles.
Last week, we began our sermon series on the book of James and read a passage from chapter 2, in which James asked pointedly if those of us who show partiality to the rich rather than the poor can really claim to have faith in Jesus. (In case you missed it, the answer was no.) The passage we just heard is the very next part of James’s letter, and as he develops his theme of being doers of the word and not just hearers, he asks another important question.
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?” In other words – what good is it if you claim to have faith but aren’t doing anything to show it? “Can faith save you?” he asks. The thing is that for all of us who have grown up as good Christians in Protestant churches, the answer to that question – “Can faith save you?” – is a resounding yes. Yes, we learn, our faith is exactly what saves us, or rather, it’s Jesus who saves us through our faith in him. Not anything we’ve ever done, not anything we ever will do, not anything we ever can do – none of these things will earn us our salvation, which is only available to us through faith. This was, in fact, one of the key tenets of the Protestant Reformation.
So this is a bit of an awkward question to find right there in the Bible and everything.
But James goes on with an example. Last week he asked us to imagine a rich person and a poor person walking into a gathering. This time, he says, imagine you come across a brother or sister in need, someone who is part of your community. You can see that they’re cold, that they don’t have enough clothes or blankets for the weather that is forecast. You can tell that they are hungry, that they haven’t eaten much today. So you stop, and maybe you feel a little pang in your heart, and then you say, “Well, stay warm and have a nice dinner!” and then you move on. (This is James’s version of “thoughts and prayers.”)
Faith without works, James says, is kind of like that.
I have to admit that this is a passage that always convicts me, because I find myself in this situation a lot. I’ll leave church on a winter evening to find people stretched out on our church doorstep, planning to deal with whatever weather and temperatures come that night. “Have a good night,” I say. Or someone will come to my office asking for help with a certain need that seems outside the bounds of what we would normally provide. “We can’t do that,” I’ll say, “but I’ll keep you in my prayers.” But enough confession time.
James goes on. You might try to say, he says, that one person has faith and another person has works, kind of like they are different spiritual gifts, but no, he says, it doesn’t work like that. “Show me your faith apart from your works,” he says, “and I by my works will show you my faith.” “Just as the body without the spirit is dead,” he finally concludes, “so faith without works is dead.”
As I told you last week, not everyone in Christian history has unequivocally loved the letter of James. Martin Luther called the letter of James “an epistle of straw,” meaning it was worthless, or didn’t hold up. “It has nothing of the Gospel about it,” he said. Again, Luther’s reform had as one of its core tenets the notion of sola fide, or justification by faith alone. If you’ve grown up Protestant, this should sound familiar – maybe even obvious.
Luther was solidly backed up by the Apostle Paul on this. In Galatians 2:16, Paul writes, “We know that a person isn’t made righteous by the works of the law, but rather through faith in Jesus Christ.” He follows that up in 3:2 with “Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?” And in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing – it is the gift of God, not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” Romans 4 is similar to Galatians – we could go on.
This is the understanding of Christianity and salvation we know and love – that there’s nothing we can do to earn our salvation, that we would never be able to do enough to earn our salvation anyway, that all we have to do is believe in Jesus and stop worrying about it. Right?
And yet James asks, “What good is it if you [just] have faith?”
And James says, “So what if you believe the right things – even demons can believe the right things. What about what you’re actually doing? What about how you’re living out what you say you believe and how you treat the people around you and the difference you as a Christian are actually making in this world?”
It’s easy to believe something. James wants us to do something about it.
I like to imagine James and Paul coming together for a theological showdown. James vs. Paul. Who (in the words of Iron Chef) will reign supreme?
Let me ask you this. If you had to vote right now, who would it be? How many of you are on Team Paul here? How about Team James?
How many of you refuse to buy into my false dichotomy here at all?
Probably it doesn’t come as that much of a surprise that both James and Paul would undoubtedly reject the idea of a showdown.
Let’s go back to what each of them has to say about faith and works. We read in Galatians that “a person isn’t made righteous by the works of the law.” Well, the focal point of Paul’s letter to the Galatians isn’t whether God expects us to do good things. It’s a fight over whether new believers have to convert to Judaism and be circumcised in order to follow Jesus. No, Paul says, they don’t, because salvation doesn’t rest on being part of one particular group of people or the ‘works’ that identify you as such.
He does tell us in Galatians 5 about the fruit of the Spirit, things we should expect to see evidence of in our lives as people of faith: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
In Ephesians Paul said that we are saved by grace through faith, and not by our works. But in the very next verse he says, “We are…created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
In other words, Paul is saying, we are saved through faith in Jesus Christ, and a new way of living in the world should be a natural expression of that salvation.
And James is certainly not saying that faith is irrelevant. He says “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” He’s not pitting faith and works against each other. He’s telling us that they are inseparable – not that we are saved by our works themselves, but that if our faith doesn’t result in changed hearts and lives, then maybe that’s not really faith at all.
So in other words, kind of the same thing.
I suspect that part of the problem lies in what we mean by faith in the first place. If faith simply means I believe something, intellectually, if all I have to do is check a box or sign on a dotted line that I accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, if faith means I say a certain prayer and get my ticket stamped for heaven – then I’m not sure that’s the kind of “faith” that even Paul thinks will save us.
But what if by faith in Jesus Christ, we mean actually acknowledging him as Lord of our lives – in a way that means following where he calls and living like he did? What if faith means trust that Jesus’ way of life is the way that leads to real, true, and eternal life, even when it’s hard? What if faith means where we stake our claim in this life and the one to come, what kind of future we invest in; what if faith means what we dare to choose and what we dare to risk?
And maybe the other part of the problem lies with what we mean by saved. If all we mean is getting into heaven, then that’s one thing, but what if, like Wesley, we define salvation as the whole process of being re-shaped into the image of God in which we were created, growing in love and holiness over the course of our lives?
Because then being saved through faith starts to mean a lot for the way we live our lives in the world – the way we love, the way we give, the way we speak, the way we live in community together, the way we treat the most vulnerable among us.
Those things aren’t the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae of faith. They’re actually part of what faith means.
And yet maybe here I’m veering into the dreaded works-righteousness (dreaded for all good Protestants, that is.) Because it’s not a big leap from what I’ve just said to tallying up our good works and good deeds and putting them next to the bad ones and seeing if we’ve ended up in the black or in the red, and calling that proof of our faith. The truth is we can believe in something without living it out perfectly; we can love someone and not always act like it; we can be committed to a person or a way of life and sometimes fall away. We can have faith and not always be faithful, and grace means God is never just sitting up there in heaven doing the math.
One of the interesting things about this passage from James is we just might actually be able to hear the remnants of an ancient conversation with Paul (or Paul’s followers). Scholars disagree on whether that’s actually the case or not. It is notable that both James and Paul use the example of Abraham. In Galatians and Romans, Paul uses Abraham as an example of someone who was justified by faith alone. He’s referring to the story in Genesis 15 where God tells Abraham to look up at the night sky and try to count the stars. That’s how many descendants he will have – even though he and his wife Sarah are old and childless. Genesis 15:16 reads, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Before he had done anything, he believed God.
But James sees that verse being fulfilled in another way. You know how much Abraham believed God? he asks us. Abraham believed God so much that even when he and Sarah did finally have a son, Abraham was ready to give him up when God said the word. We can certainly have lots of conversations about what kind of faith it is that makes you ready to sacrifice your own kid on an altar – but for James, Abraham’s belief in God’s promise didn’t mean a whole lot until he had to put his money where his mouth was.
For what it’s worth, I do kind of like to imagine that James and Paul are talking here. Not a theological showdown, but a conversation. Paul says we are saved by faith, and not through works. James responds, “Yes, AND – what we actually do is inseparable from our faith.” And Paul says, “Yes, of course, but let’s not delve into works righteousness, here,” and James says, “No, of course we can’t earn our salvation by racking up points, but let’s not think that nothing is expected of us, either.”
The thing is, I think I need both sides of that conversation.
My faith became real to me when I heard God inviting me into this life of service and solidarity with the poor and self-emptying, when I realized that it was through all of those things that real life was to be found. That’s when faith became not just something I should have, but something I chose, something that compelled me. I can’t stomach an idea of faith that promises something without demanding anything. John Wesley once called faith without works “that grand pest of Christianity,” and I’m inclined to agree. So if I had had to raise my hand earlier, I think I would have been on Team James.
But sometimes I really do fall into this trap of thinking it’s all up to me, that I really can be one person who changes the world and that when I don’t it means my faith is lacking. The truth is I can’t clothe every person or feed every person or comfort every person on my own. And sometimes even when I can, I’m going to fall down on the job. And it’s at that point that I need some Team Paul in my life – someone to tell me it’s not my job to save the world or myself. Jesus already did that. My faith does tell me that.
It’s never been James vs. Paul, faith vs. works. My faith comes to life in my works. My works give form to my faith.
We are saved by God’s grace through faith – faith that puts its trust in God, faith that chooses God and the people God loves again and again, not because we’re earning something or keeping score, but because faith is meant to be not just thought, but lived.
And I believe that that’s the kind of faith that can make a difference in this world.
 John Wesley, Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity. https://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-116-Causes-of-the-Inefficacy-of-Christianity
 In the Interpretation commentary (First and Second Peter, James and Jude) Pheme Perkins writes that “The particular formation of the slogan being rejected in this section, ‘faith without works,’ seems to be dependent on the Pauline assertion that people are made righteous through faith in Christ, not through works of the law” and suggests that “the slogan seems to reflect a secondhand Paulinism” (p. 112) – i.e. people misuing what Paul had written. In the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary (Vol. XII), Luke Timothy Johnson writes, “It is very unlikely that James was responding to Paul or that Paul was responding to James.”
 John Wesley, The Mystery of Iniquity, https://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-61-The-Mystery-of-Iniquity