What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.James 2:14-17
The great contentious question in Christianity, at least since the Reformation, has been are we saved by faith alone or by faith and works. As usual in human experience, the disagreement here was perhaps more evoked by the question of paid indulgences than by deeper theological reflection. As, unfortunately, with many human conflicts, it was about the money. In October 2016, the Lutheran and Roman Catholic communities issued A Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification reflecting a common understanding of this doctrinal conflict that largely contributed to the division of western Christianity. Paragraph 15 states:
In faith we together hold the conviction that justification is the work of the triune God. The Father sent his Son into the world to save sinners. The foundation and presupposition of justification is the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. Justification thus means that Christ himself is our righteousness, in which we share through the Holy Spirit in accord with the will of the Father. Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.
In brief, the basic position of Martin Luther has prevailed. “By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.” This being the case, what do we make of the teaching from James that if faith does not have works it is dead?
So often when we were younger we heard of the “Protestant-Catholic” dispute over James in simplistic “either-or” categories. The Catholic perspective was that for Protestants good works didn’t matter. It was merely a case of declaring Jesus as one’s personal savior that brought justification. For Protestants, the Catholic position seemed to be that one’s interior dispositions made little difference. It was merely a matter of “praying, paying, and obeying.” Access to the truth of the matter, of course, lies in the refusal to descend into “either-or” thinking.
When James says that “Faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” he is not elevating works above faith but describing “dead” faith. We know the truth of what he is saying by experience. In our individual and shared lives we spend countless hours speaking about the important of meditating, of compassion, of attending to the needs of the poor, of loving someone or something to the degree that we would give up our lives for them. And yet, how consistently do we put these aspirations into action? How exactly do they manifest in our work?
If we think we have faith in something or someone, but that faith does not influence what we do, then we don’t really have faith. In a culture such as the United States that claims to be founded on Christian faith, how alive is that faith when the beatitudes are not at all reflected in our public life and policy? How alive is our faith when the social policies of much more secular nations are more in accord with the call of the gospel than are our own?
In today’s passage from James 2, the author illustrates his point with the person of Abraham. Although Abraham, “our father in the faith,” is, according to St. Paul, justified and made righteous by faith, that faith is reflected in his willingness to sacrifice his only son. James says, “You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works.” I wonder if, in some interpretations of this letter, we don’t overemphasize the first phrase of the above sentence over the second. By speaking of faith and works as active along with each other, the text suggests that these are different modes of being from each other. In the second half, however, it says that “faith was completed by his works.” That is, faith is not complete until it is incarnated and enacted. Faith is not merely cognitional. It is one’s way of being-in-the-world. So, it is a way of being, of thinking, of feeling, and of acting. So profound is Abraham’s faith and so determinative for him that he is willing to kill the one who is most important to him and, in doing so, forsake what he has come to see as God’s promise to him, if that faith demands it. It is of the very nature of faith in God that our lives and our work are above all a response to that faith.
A reason that we can perceive a conflict between faith and works is that we tend to live a somewhat schizoid existence. We see “our works” as somehow separate from ourselves. From the faith perspective, however, our works are the incarnation and completion of our faith and the expression of our very being. The “work” of Jesus is the life of Jesus and the manifesting of his life with God. “I do only what I see the Father doing.” So too with us. We are called more and more to live and to work from faith in God and in God’s call to us to complete, uniquely, God’s work in the world through the works of our hands.
Recently I’ve come to understand that it is not moral lapses that constitute my greatest sins but rather my failure to do what was mine to do at the time. A couple of years ago, as what was then perceived as an important common congregational project was in danger of dying from inaction, a person who has become a close friend challenged me about it. He said, “If you could do what you want to do about this, what would that be?” Much to my surprise I had an immediate answer. He then challenged me by saying, “Then what’s keeping you from doing it?” I had been lamenting a vacuum, but up to that moment had done nothing about it. So, with his help and that of others, I began to work hard to serve this common project. As the world measures, this effort was not a great success. And yet, unlike other moments in life when I failed to act, to work, I have no regrets whatsoever.
I’m not a person who lives, for the most part, in regret. And yet those regrets I have are not mostly about things I have done, but rather about things I have not done that I could have done. For the most part, I regret not doing what my faith impelled me to do, and thus failing to complete my faith. As human, we are beings-in-the-world. It is the gift of faith that justifies us, but that faith dies without becoming incarnate in works. It is not the works that save us; they are the expressions of our gratitude for being saved, for being chosen by our Creator to do a work in and for the world.
By Small and Small: Midnight to Four A.M.
For eleven years I have regretted it,
regretted that I did not do what
I wanted to do as I sat there those
four hours watching her die. I wanted
to crawl in among the machinery
and hold her in my arms, knowing
the elementary, leftover bit of her
mind would dimly recognize it was me
carrying her to where she was going.
Jack Gilbert, Refusing Heaven