Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Work It (Essential Passages #10)

Many moons and what feels like a lifetime ago, I started a series of reflections on what I consider to be the 50 most essential Bible passages. (You can read the first one here and look for others in the blog archive.) That seemed like it wouldn't be that difficult. In fact, when I began I thought I would fill out the 50 long before I ran out of passages, but that hasn't been the case. Each time I think of the project, I become overwhelmed with the passages I think are important, some I like and some I don't. Then I just don't write because I want my end result to be perfect.

Nevertheless, I think this is an important project for me and I need to get back onto the horse and ride boldly into the terrain of commenting on my own canon. We all have books and passages we prefer to others. We owe it to ourselves to yield to the prodding of the Holy Spirit to examine those selections that we treasure, those we loathe and those we fear. Having said this, I'm going to tread into the historically un-Lutheran-friendly waters of James for today's entry.

"What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith without works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’, and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead." James 2: 14-26

Martin Luther famously referred to James as a "book of straw" (useful for burning). It wasn't because Luther thought the book was totally rubbish, but because he saw the danger of its misuse by church officials to undermine the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith that he believed to be of the utmost importance. There has been much ink spilled on this controversy, but the major passage in question is worth at least one more examination. (What Biblical passage isn't?)

Many contemporary Christians have carefully absorbed the lesson of being saved by grace and, so comforted, are eager to let their expressions of faith be limited to worship and, perhaps, some social justice efforts. However, this passage is as critical to the life of a Christian as is the passage from Romans that it seems to answer. (See Romans 3: 20-28, Ephesians 2:8-9) If we are saved by grace through the faithfulness of Christ, then what are we to do?

After careful sermon after sermon that underscores (and underscores and underscores), the salvation of all mankind that came through the resurrection of Christ, we may finally come to understand (and, yea verily, to believe) that we cannot save ourselves. It doesn't mean that we don't still wrestle with this or become frustrated at our lack of control. Yet, at some point, we are consoled by the knowledge that salvation is beyond us. God has chosen us, we did not choose God. The faith we have is a gift, a work of the Holy Spirit.

If we have this gift then, what's the big deal? We've got it. We believe. We have faith in Christ's salvific work and believe we have been justified (made right) with our Maker. So what's with works? We know works-righteousness is bad, "w-r" being the idea that you can earn your salvation. That being said, it does not mean that works are bad.

Faith without works is meaningless, says this passage from James. Let's step back for a minute. Don't think about your works and faith- think about the Son. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit form one holy trinity with 3 separate persons. As they watched creation devolve from God- centeredness, God the Three-in-One decided the time had come to bring people back around from sacrifices and scrabbling fearful faith. The Word came among us. A Son was born to us. Jesus walked on earth, full of grace and truth, as that of a Father's only son. Jesus pointed to the life that God desires for his creation, for God's concern for all, about the coming judgment and how to be a sheep and not a goat (i.e., how to actually be a follower of Jesus and not just a hanger-on).

Jesus was crucified for his radical notions and his upset of the political and religious apple cart of his day. His adherence to God's word led to Golgotha. However, that was not the final word- the resurrection is. God's final statement in Jesus was to say that the powers of earth, including death, do not, cannot and will not win. Because we believe in the two complete natures of Christ (fully human and fully divine), we can see faithfulness unto death in the plan of God. We can see that faithfulness because of Jesus' works.

Jesus did not just say, "I proclaim to you the year of the Lord's favor." He didn't just announce the greatest commandment and the one like unto it. Jesus fed people, healed people, cast out demons, wept for Jerusalem, threw a few tables, snapped at a couple disciples, raised the dead, cursed fig trees, hung out with soldiers, tax collectors and prostitutes, predicted bad times, took naps, walked on water, preached, taught, played with children, danced at weddings and hung out at least one well. As the fully divine living Word, he could have remained above the world, faithfully bringing some people to God in other ways. But his faithfulness compelled him from the Father (as fully divine, he can't just passively be sent) and into creation to bring the good news. (Remember, it's gospel even before the resurrection part of the story.) His works in the world point to his faithfulness. As fully human, they point to his faithfulness to the Father even unto death.

It is by Jesus' works that we understand his faithfulness (and the love of God for creation). We could not have faith without them. We would not be saved by grace through Christ's faithfulness without his work in the world.

I'm not advocating a simple "What would Jesus do?" as a response to salvation. You must consider "What would Jesus have me do?" (Because you can always rationalize that you aren't the Son of God and his actions might not apply to your situation. But his commands always will.)

What the writer of James is pointing out is that there can be no resting on the laurels of faith. Standing on the promises, you might be covered by Christ's righteousness and, therefore, be made right with God, but that's not the end of the story. Christ's work in you bears fruit. If you believe that you have been saved, why wouldn't you take that message out with you? How could you keeping from singing? Why wouldn't you shout it from the mountain tops? Why wouldn't you feed people, heal people, hang out with tax collectors, soldiers and prostitutes, dance at weddings, drink wine, see who's at the well, overturn conventions, play with children, make a little ruckus, pass out water, cast out demons and weep for the judgment to come- all in the name of the grace you have received through Jesus the Christ.

Eugene Peterson has this paraphrase of James 2:26: "The very moment you separate body and spirit, you end up with a corpse. Separate faith and works and you get the same thing: a corpse." Faith without works is lifeless. There's nothing to flesh it out. This is the reason we know that God loves bodies- because without them- nothing gets done. There's no sitting with the sick without a gluteus maximus. There's no preaching without a mouth and ears (or something for typing!). There's no feeding without hands and feet. There's no hoping without a body that absorbs a new day and its possibilities.

Faith is faith. Jesus saves. We who believe have been gifted in the knowledge of his faithfulness. We're called, through the Spirit, to respond to it. To bring other people to a place and time where they can see that same faithfulness. It's not just about preaching- it's about body evangelism. It's about making sandwiches, counting toilet paper squares, buying socks, anointing with oil, washing feet and building houses.

Faithful living requires living. Living is about work.

We think of baptism as a second birth, by water and the Holy Spirit.

My son was born 9 days after his due date. We joked that he didn't want to be born because coming out means work: breathing for yourself, eating, etc. Being born does require work. You don't do the birthing yourself, but afterwards- everything you do is a response to that one event.

Same thing with being born again.

1 comment:

Ruth Bivans said...


I really liked this blog, especially where you acknowledge that even the very faith by which we are saved is a gift from God. Praise God that he has granted us the priviledge of expressing our faith through works "which he has prepared in advance for us to do" (2 Tim)

The only point I would contend with, though minor and likely an issue of semantics, is where you call baptism a second birth. I put forth, rather, that regeneration is the point of "second birth." (meaning that point at which God grants us faith and inclines our hearts toward repentence)