Friday, April 3, 2009

Faith That Works

People call me a "free gracer," or even a "cheap gracer," because I have (and still do) intellectually agree that the prospect of a once-believing Christian could die apostate and, to our surprise, be welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven. Is it the standard? No. Is it to be pursued? No. Yet, I'm convinced that to deny that possibility on a theoretical level would contradict scripture. However, despite whatever theoretical possibilities exist, I am also convinced and convicted that Scripture has no teaching for the encouragement, comfort, or even the invitation to live a life characterized as a "carnal Christian." Faith is not faith which has no works.

Wait wait wait! You JUST said that it's possible.... stop. I am interested in expositing what Scripture has to tell us. To agree with a theory is quite a different thing than to discharge my duty faithfully to teach the Word of God to believers called into His grace for the singular purpose of glorifying His name. We see in each morning paper that it's possible to win the lottery, and yet most of us still head off for work just the same. The person who learns of the lottery and decides to quit the work to which he is called will suffer great loss and live with zero confidence in his future. So it is with the followers of Christ.

Few passages state this truth more poignantly than the text we'll be studying this Sunday, James 2:14-26. Beginning with the challenge to anyone who "claims to have faith but has no deeds... Can such faith save him" (James 2:14)? It cuts to the heart of our theological values in evangelical protestantism: how dare you assess my deeds and ask if I am really saved! (see previous article on Faith & Deeds) But James does dare. And, he does so for the benefit and edification of his readers. Moreover, he does it for the glorification of the name his readers bear: Christ.

James describes faith without deeds as lifeless, "as the body without the spirit is dead" (James 2:26). A body without breath or spirit is lifeless, useless, limp and inanimate. It will bear no offspring, no labor, no worth of any kind. While Luther and the rest of the protestant movement emphasize faith alone, Peter addresses this topic telling his readers to "add to your faith" (2 Peter 1:5). After describing a laundry list of works that result from and add to faith, Peter concludes "they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive" (2 Peter 1:8).

But probably the most debated point that comes from the faith and deeds topic is that of eternal security. In James 2:18 we read a charge that few of us dare to place on any brother or disciple in the faith: "show me." While his readers were presuming upon the grace of God, so confident in it that they thought their actions were irrelevant, James saw fit to sweep that blanket of security right out from under them. "You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder" (James 2:19).

If we continue reading in Peter's exhortation to "add" to your faith, we are told to "make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall" (2 Peter 1:10). Who needs to be sure? The one who called and elected us? Certainly not. But if you know a tree by it's fruit, you will know you are His child by your fruit. If you are marked by the Spirit, a seal guaranteeing your inheritance, then you will see the mark in the Spirit's work. If you were buried with Christ in order to be raised again with Him, then you can eagerly await that assured resurrection when you indeed die to yourself for the sake of Christ. But if you presume upon His grace, as a worker would presume upon the lottery, you will forsake the blessing of confidence before God for a blind hope of salvation without any credible evidence.

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Faith & Deeds: Your Window to the World of Works

I am preparing this week to teach on the much debated passage, James 2:14-26. As I come to the text looking for God to show me what He has to say (and not what my own theological bent has to say) on the topic, the first thing that He has made clear to me is that my window on the world is--as everyone's--tinted.

If I ask a room full of evangelicals, "What do you have to do to earn justification through Christ?" There will come a swarm of answers affirming that I must "do" nothing but rather I must merely believe. The mantra of "grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone" would no doubt be touted, perhaps while fists pound in palms (ok, maybe not that extreme). Yet, it's clear that this passionate stance against works-based salvation is a product of our window on the world (and of course the baited way in which I formed the question [grin]). The shaddow from which we in the Evangelical movement are fleeing includes puritanism, fundamentalism, and a unique flavor of late-modern legalism that all amount to a great distaste for "works" emphases.

Martin Luther, too, rose against the "works" emphasized gospel of his day with a similar passion. So much so, in fact, that he is on record as calling the book of James an "epistle of straw" and perhaps even challenging its canonization. Luther was surrounded by a type of Pharisee-like legalism so strong that he polarized to the other extreme. That theme has been a back-bone of protestantism in general that sticks with us today.

Even more important to understanding the scripture at-hand, however, is not our own tinted windows on the world, but that of the Biblical authors that stand seemingly at odds: Paul and James.

Paul, a pharisee by training, faced largely the false-teaching of Judaisers and addressed those fallacies head-on in his epistles. This is made especially clear by his emphasis on the Law and circumcision. When we read Paul's words, "not by works, so that no one can boast" (Ephesians 2:9), bear in mind the boasting he describes in Romans 3:27, "Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith." In fact, Paul's opposition to the legalism of the Judaisers is very closely paralleled to Luther's opposition to the Medieval Catholicism of his day.

James, however, peers through a very different window on the world and on the Church(es) which he oversaw. Likely a carpenter like his father, uneducated, and close companion of Jesus during His earthly ministries, James (in exact agreement with Paul) saw the transformed life a crucial aspect of a justified person's faith. James faced a movement of apathy and intellectualism in the church--one that disregarded the actions of the body and focused on the knowledge of the mind. This is made especially clear by the works that James cites in his discourse on faith and deeds in chapter 2: giving to the needy (verses 15-16), surrendering all to God (verses 21-22), and trusting the Lord (verse 25). James does not enforce that justification is by works in the sense that Paul defined works--following the Law and being circumcised. In fact, James is recorded in Acts 15 as speaking out against legalism for the converted Gentiles.

So, getting back to our own window on the world, ask yourself: what positions does this "works based salvation" that I oppose really include, and what might it not? More importantly, what is James really telling his readers in their day and in their context... and what is he not?

Oh, and just so I don't leave a loose-end untied, Luther himself later resolved that "Faith alone justifies, but the faith which justifies is never alone" as he came to understand that faith in Christ will certainly manifest in works.

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