How wonderful has it been preaching through Ephesians these past few months? In that marvelous letter, Saint Paul gives us the heart of the Gospel and pulls no punches:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing, it is a gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For you are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10).
The entire Christian life, salvation, faith, good works, all of it is a gift graciously given on account of Christ. We are reminded of Paul’s words to the Romans, “And to him who does not work but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:5). Salvation and justification are ours all by God’s gracious work in Christ alone. There is nothing else for us to trust.
Enter James and the great justification debate. “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (James 2:14) Wait a second? I thought Paul just established that faith apart from works saves. Is James contradicting Paul? “So, also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). What gives? Which is it? Is it faith alone or faith plus works? Is it Paul or James? Does the Holy Spirit contradict Himself?
Upon closer examination of Paul and James, I think we will find there is no contradiction whatsoever. Both claim faith is that which alone receives salvation, but faith is not created nor given to be idle. Faith apart from works saves and justifies because it trusts Christ alone for salvation. In no way is James claiming Christ’s saving work is insufficient and needs supplementation from our feeble works. That is not James’ fight. Rather, James is saying what all the Lutheran reformers constantly echoed in their writings. Consider Luther:
“Faith is a divine work in us and makes us to born anew of God. It kills the old ‘Adam’ and makes us altogether different people, in heart and spirit and mind and all powers; and it brings with it the Holy Spirit. O, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly... Thus, it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire” (Luther’s Works 35:370-371).
Luther, Paul, and James agree. Faith which trusts Christ alone for salvation cannot help but work. But that is precisely the problem for James. He is dealing with a congregation using God’s gratuity in Christ as an excuse to withhold love from the poor and to favor the rich! The congregation fawns all over the wealthy, making sure they feel important and valued, while at the same time shoving the poor off to the side. They are boasting of their faith in Christ Jesus while disregarding those Christ loves. “Blessed are you who are poor,” says Jesus (Luke 6:20). The congregation of James’ address responds, “Sure, but we are blessed by that rich dude!” James says, “Are not the rich ones who oppress you, and the one who drag you to court?” (James 2:6) And the congregation responds, “Yeah, but just think of how they’ll help our church’s reputation and draw a crowd!”
Faith which trusts Christ alone for salvation cannot help but work.
James, in his typical fashion, will not hold back with the Law on such sin. “But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the Law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole Law but fails in point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:9-10). Where Paul was working against the Devil to convince his congregations they cannot add to their justification with their works, James is fighting the same Devil who is trying to convince this congregation Christ’s justifying work gets them out of loving their neighbor. Both are equally demonic. Both are equally sinful. Both despise God’s Word (Paul’s church dismissing the Gospel, James’ dismissing the Law of love). Both dismiss the work and love of Christ.
Up to this point, I have engaged James’ text with an argument about the role of faith and works. Though there is plenty more to be said, I do not know if this will be the most effective way of proclaiming the text (though, it will probably be necessary on some level). This week, you may want to consider the Multiple Story Structure. This structure would offer examples of how congregations have failed in their responsibility to care for the poor Christ loves, while at the same time exalting those things pleasing to the world and our flesh. Those stories could be set in contrast to accounts of love shown to those in poor and difficult situations.
But you must walk carefully here. This structure runs the risk of moralizing this text, offering good and bad examples of what to do and not to do, and never getting to Christ or faith. To correct this, it will be important to include a story from the life of Christ, showing how He became poor on the cross for the sake of poor sinners or how He spent His time with the poor and despised of the world, “poor” tax collectors and sinners (whose poverty was not necessarily of the monetary sort).
So, for example, to exemplify a church doing this wrongly, I would recount the conversation I had with a pastor from Los Angeles who had a celebrity visit his church. They were not a large church, but a smaller, black congregation. The celebrity came to our friend’s lead pastor before the service and asked for privacy in order to worship in peace, only to have the pastor later announce her presence. She never returned.
To contrast this, I would include a story from a church I served while in college. It was a very small, very divided church, constantly in contention with one another. One Sunday, a homeless man, smelling of gin and cigarettes, sat down in front of me. Members who were in their “every-Sunday” seats moved over and welcomed him to sit with them. They guided him through the hymnal. They welcomed him to the altar. Afterwards, he was given a piece of cake and a cup of coffee. The next week, he came back with more homeless friends. It was beautiful.
To include a biblical example of how faith works, you may want to take from James’ examples at the end of the chapter. Rahab is my favorite (James 2:25). No “worker of righteousness” according to the Law, she was a Gentile temple prostitute in Jericho (Joshua 2). She was hardly justified because of her work! Yet, she had heard of God’s saving work for Israel and believed this God would give His people the Promised Land. Her faith in this promise prompted her to work for God’s people in ways which could have come at great cost to her. Her actions were the fruit of her faith.
Rahab’s faith in this promise prompted her to work for God’s people in ways which could have come at great cost to her.
Likely, you have similar stories to share. It may take some work to find other accounts, but stories such as these helps illustrate James’ point.
Christ in the Text
Where is Christ in this text? He is in the poor and hurting neighbor in your congregation (Matthew 25:40). Christ identifies with His body, the Church. To sin against the Church, then, is to sin against Christ. What is more, to act according to a “theology of glory” that exalts in money and status at the cost of your brothers and sisters who are hurting or suffering in any way is to act in the opposite way of Christ. “Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the Kingdom, which He promised to those who love Him?” (James 2:5) Christ chooses the weak, the poor, and the foolish things of this world to shame the wise (1 Corinthians 1:28-29). Christ is not to be found for those who reject the hurting, struggling, ailing sinners whom He has baptized and loves with an everlasting love. He will not abide by those who snap bruised reeds and snuff out smoldering wicks (Matthew 12:20).
For those who are poor and hurting, burned by church people, Christ has no condemnation for them. He has chosen them, shed His blood for them, and given all things for their salvation. If the Church fails to follow suit, they will answer to Christ. He, however, never fails to be faithful to His Word. He is there to heal, forgive, and restore. James and Paul agree, this love from Christ not only saves and justifies us but forms our love for one another.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in James 2:1-10, 14-18.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach James 2:1-10, 14-18.