If there is one issue that has fueled debate in Christendom and ignited more than a few tempers, even sparking the Reformation, it is the place of works in the process of salvation.
This past Sunday a group of friends and I decided to hit the issue square on as we compared two passages that are seemingly at odds with one another: Ephesians 2.1-10 and James 2.14-16.
In Ephesians 2.8-9, Paul says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not as a result of works lest any man should boast.” James 2.17 seems to counter, “Faith without works is dead, being by itself.”
Reconciling these two passages has troubled many a commentator throughout church history and caused Martin Luther to declare James “a right strawy epistle.” But I believe without a doubt that there is no contradiction here.
Paul writes to a largely Gentile group of believers in Ephesus explaining their transference from death to life. (I love the “But God…in 2.4.) Salvation is a total gift from God. Period. End of story. But don’t miss 2.10 because there Paul says we were saved for a purpose…to walk in the good works which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. That’s our bridge. We weren’t just saved so that we could go to heaven, as amazing as that will be. We were saved to do the works that God has called us to, to expand the kingdom, to share the gospel, to love our neighbor. It’s not about fire insurance, but about a new life.
James writes to a largely Jewish group of believers that have been scattered abroad. Last week we talked about trials and temptations from James 1 (see last blog post: http://wp.me/p1Kcf-2t). Trials are faced seeking wisdom, so that as faith is tested endurance and maturity are produced allowing us to rejoice. Temptations are faced by receiving the word implanted. The idea is that the word takes root and produces fruit (30, 60, and 100-fold…think Jesus and the parable of the soils). This means that we cannot just be hearers of the word; we must also be doers. (BTW from a Hebrew’s perspective to hear and not do is not to hear at all. The great Shema from Deuteronomy 6.4-6 is labeled as such because the Hebrew verb for “Hear” is shema.)
A couple of terms that will be important to define as we look at James are: dead, works, useless, justified. James has already indicated what he means by “works”…caring for widows and orphans in their distress, giving food and clothing to the poor, loving your neighbor.
The Greek word translated “dead” in English has the same meaning as it does in Greek. It refers to a corpse. Now suppose you and I were to go to a wax museum and were to look at the likenesses of folks like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Pocahantas, etc. Would you say, “Wow, look at all the dead people”? Of course not. You might comment on how lifelike they seem, but they are only imitations of what was real. On the other hand, if I took you to a morgue, you could say, “Wow, look at all the dead people.” I think you get my point. Something can only be described as dead if it was once alive. James is writing to a group of believers. Their faith was once flourishing, but now has died. It isn’t non-existent. But it has lost its vibrancy.
The Greek word translated “useless” carries with it the idea of being unemployed or idle or lazy. It’s a faith that is not producing as it should.
James uses two examples in this passage: Abraham and Rahab. It’s interesting that Paul in Romans 4 (Abraham) and the author of Hebrews in Hebrews 11 (Rahab) use these same two characters to highlight faith. But there is an important distinction, and this goes to what James means by being justified in 2.24. Both the Romans and Hebrews passages look at Abraham (Genesis 15.6) and Rahab (Joshua 2.8-14) from God’s perspective. From His vantage point, a person is saved by faith. And that’s it. But James looks at these two characters from man’s perspective. Abraham is called a “friend of God” by folks who witness his faith in offering up Isaac (Genesis 22), while Rahab’s faith is seen by the two spies when she sends them out (Joshua 2.15-21). So works justify us before men, but never before God (Think of the tax collector and the Pharisee…the Pharisee left justified in his own eyes, while the tax collector left justified before God – Luke 18.9-14.).
But just like Paul, James echoes the same sentiment: if your faith isn’t producing good works – both the fruit of the spirit and love for your neighbor – then something is wrong. From James vantage point, your faith needs to be resucitated…it needs new life. You see James isn’t writing to give folks a barometer of whether faith exists, but whether or not it is alive and vibrant. Because that’s the goal.
There is definitely more to dig into in this passage. I encourage you to grab a group of friends and wrestle through it for yourselves.
Until next time, stay salty.