James 2-It gets controversial!

OK, so we’re reading through James this week as a church- I hope you are, anyway!  And today is James 2, which is often a source of contention and sometimes confusion.  It centers on the whole “Faith and Works” issue.  Namely, the Bible teaches over and over that God’s forgiveness is a free gift and cannot be earned.  We trust solely in what Jesus accomplished in His death and resurrection- specifically, paying the penalty that our sins deserve, which is death, in our place.  And along comes James and he seems to be saying something different– that we need to demonstrate the reality of our faith by what we do- “works”.  So, what is it?  Is James saying something different than Paul or John, or Jesus?

Well, let me cut through some of the debate and spare you an extended theological treatise–though there are plenty out there and I’d be happy to recommend some for you to explore if you’d like.  At this point in my journey with Jesus, I just don’t get too worked up about arguments like, “How many works are enough to demonstrate ‘saving faith’?  Can someone be a Christian and not act like it at all?”  I know people who insist that they are a Christian because of a prayer they repeated when they were young, though they don’t demonstrate any interest in or follower-ship of Jesus in recent memory.  Here’s my response:

It all matters.  On the one hand, I completely and unhesitatingly affirm that salvation is by God’s grace alone, through faith alone.  I can no more earn admission into heaven than I can teleport to another galaxy.  God alone by His grace saves us, and that grace is experienced through faith in Jesus Christ.  But that faith must lead to change, to transformation.  I don’t know how much or what kind, exactly- God is the judge, not me.  But here’s the thing- if I was talking to someone who was betting their eternity on a brief prayer they said years ago that seems to have no relevance to their current life?  I would not want to offer lots of assurances to that person.  Faith has to mean something– and it must lead to something.  That’s what James seems to be saying- Faith that leads to nothing– it’s just lifeless, dead, empty.  And who wants a faith like that?

So that’s my short ‘take’ on the Faith and Works discussion.  Feel free to weigh in, to comment, or to even disagree if you like.

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2 Responses to James 2-It gets controversial!

  1. Holly says:

    This is good stuff: “Faith has to mean something– and it must lead to something.” Thanks for posting!

  2. Michael Carlson says:

    Thanks Richard! I couldn’t agree more – I also think “it all matters.”

    As I have wrestled with this tension, I have found that another helpful way to think about it is in relational terms. Imagine if I thought about my marriage in the following way: “On our wedding day, my wife and I made verbal commitments to remain married to each other. So long as I still believe that we’re married, it doesn’t really matter how I treat her or live my life.” This is of course silly. OF COURSE it matters how I treat my wife and how I life my life in relation to her.

    It’s not a perfect metaphor, but it helps me think more relationally about my faith. Yes, we are saved by faith alone. But it seems that God has given us the privilege of participating in (not earning) our salvation, which means “good works” matter. I’d love to hear more thoughts or comments about it …

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