James 2:14-18 In Romans chapter 3 the apostle Paul says that we Christians “hold that a man is justified by faith APART from the works of the law” and that “by works of the law no human being will justified in God’s sight.” But today we hear James, the leader of the apostolic church say that “faith without works is dead”.
Well, which is it? Are we saved by GRACE ALONE THROUGH FAITH ALONE IN CHRIST ALONE as we Lutherans and other evangelical Christians insist? OR—are the Catholics of the East and West right when they say that we are saved by faith AND our works?
This most important question concerning our salvation divides visible Christendom. Evangelicals and Catholics each claim to take their position on the Word of God-- but sadly end up in very different places.
And I say sadly because both evangelicals and catholics think that faith in Jesus is important. Eastern and western catholics do not denigrate faith in Jesus. Evangelicals think that good works are important and each day are engaged in countless works of mercy and charity throughout the world.
And yet there is this division among Christians despite our Lord’s prayers that all his people would be one people united in one faith under one shepherd. And so what then—if any-- is the solution to this problem?
The solution is found in God’s Word to us today in the epistle lesson where, by the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, James explains the nature of a true and saving faith in Jesus.
The crux of the matter is this: is saving faith merely intellectual knowledge of the person and work of Jesus—is it empty words that we say--or is it something much, much more? And he uses a little illustration to answer that question:
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 is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 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? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
Does the name Dennis Rader mean anything to you? What if I identified him as the BTK killer? One of the most evil men who have ever lived—and yet, all those years he was terrorizing Wichita Kansas, he was a member of, and even congregational president of, Christ Lutheran Church—saying in the words of the creed: I believe in God
While that is an extreme example, most of us, if not all of us, have had the unhappy experience of talking to someone who assures us that they are a Christian like we are-- all the while they are living a grossly immoral, unchristian life.
They remember bible stories from Sunday School. They know the details of Jesus’ life. They can quote the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed right along with the rest of us.
And it’s a little bit disconcerting isn’t it? Because we hear them tell us that they have faith in Jesus--and yet we know something isn’t right—that what they are talking about when they talk about their “faith”-- and what we know about our own faith in Jesus-- are two very different things for they lead to two very different lives.
James solves this dilemma for us with the illustration I just read. A Christian brother or sister stands in real need of food and clothing—the basic necessities of life. They are met by someone claiming to be a Christian who says: “Go in peace—be warm and full”-- and yet does nor provide them the food and clothing to be filled and warmed.
James asks us: what then do those fine-sounding words really mean? And the answer is: absolutely nothing. In the same way, James says, “faith without works is dead.”
You see dear friends in Christ, faith is more—much more—than just words—even the right words.
The confession of faith of the ancient Israelites—the forebears of the folks that James is writing to—is called the “great Shema”: Hear O Israel, the Lord, the Lord your God is one.
And in the verse immediately following our text today James asks his Jewish readers: “You believe that God is one? You do well! But even the demons believe that and shudder!” Faith—a true and saving faith in Jesus-- is more—much more-- than just words—even the right words. It is more than mere knowledge.
And for those of us who want to call ourselves the descendants of Luther and tell ourselves that we have saving faith in Jesus because we know his story-- and can mouth the right words-- and define justification-- and yet live like the unbelieving world-- are simply deceived and will never find such a thing being supported by Luther. Instead, Luther defines a true and saving faith in Jesus like this:
Faith is a living, busy, active, powerful thing! It is impossible that it should not be ceaselessly doing that which is good. It does not even ask whether good works should be done; but before the question can be asked, it has done them, and it is constantly engaged in doing them…He who does not do such works, is a man without faith.
The faith that saves-- is the faith that lays hold of what Jesus Christ has done in his holy life, bloody death, and glorious resurrection. From beginning to end, the person and work of Jesus Christ is the sole content of saving faith.
But that one true saving faith in Jesus is never alone! It is never just words (even the right words! But it is always accompanied by the good works of gratitude that come forth from those who are saved so that one true saving faith in Jesus is shown in how we live our life. James says:
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.
James is serious: show me your faith apart from your works! Can you take a true and saving faith in Jesus Christ—a genuine, heartfelt trust in the person and work of Jesus—and say: here it is—here’s the proof I really do believe in Jesus?
Of course not! Because faith is finally and ultimately a matter of the heart’s trust in Jesus. BUT—what we can most assuredly do is show forth the good works that will always accompany and demonstrate that we have a true and living faith.
Our faith in Jesus is more than just knowledge—more than just words—more than just intellectual assent to certain dogmatical truths, it is shown in how we live our lives and how we treat others.
As people who truly believe in Jesus Christ, we are glad for ways to show our love for him in how we treat one another-- and our lives are guided and shaped and informed by the Ten Commandments by “loving our neighbor as ourselves”.
James calls this the “royal law” because it is the way the King loved us—laying aside his divine dignity and his royal status to serve us in love. We love one another—because our crucified King first loved us and this Christ-like love is the evidence—for all to see-- of a true and living faith in Jesus.
In the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus talks about what it will be like on the last day—the day of judgment. He says that all people will be divided into two groups and those on his right will be invited into his kingdom and those on his left will depart into eternal fire.
And the incontrovertible evidence in that judgment will be how they lived their lives. Were they merciful to others in Jesus’ name—showing that they had received his mercy in faith? OR—did their lack of mercy towards others reveal their faithless rejection of Jesus’ mercy to them?
The Athanasian Creed says that on the Last Day all men will give an account of their works—and they that have done good will go into life everlasting and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.
Both Holy Scripture and the creeds and confessions of the church teach that a true and saving faith in Jesus is always accompanied by the fruits of that faith—good works.
Those whose faith is mere intellectual knowledge or mere words—those who have shown no mercy to others out of a genuine faith and love for Christ--can only expect to face a final judgment that is also without mercy.
But for all who have looked to Jesus Christ in faith and seen in him the law of God fulfilled and the punishment of God received—for all who know the judgment of the cross as the mercy of God poured out upon them—for all who have been set free from their sins to live lives of Christian love—they can be confident on that day-- that mercy will indeed triumph over judgment. Amen.