James 2:14-20 – “Good Works”

Lutheran’s don’t much like this text.  We tend to be far more comfortable with chapter 2 of Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”  Ah, this is good Lutheran preaching, but what of works and what of James.  Lutherans like to talk about how Luther thought that James was an epistle of straw, as if that gives us permission to ignore what it says about good works, that “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”  We don’t like it because it appears to stand opposed to that Lutheran pillar of salvation by grace through faith apart from works.  But Luther himself preached, “that St. Paul exhorts Christians to genuine Christian good works or fruits of faith… So now if you have taken hold of the resurrection of Christ by faith, and received its energy and consolation, and in this way have risen with him, then this must display itself in you, in such a way that you feel it, and it is perceptible in you how it has begun to have an effect in you, so that it is not only word, but truth and life.”  So how do we reconcile these two seemingly opposed views – that we are saved by grace through faith apart from works, and that faith apart from good works is dead?”  This all comes down to what actually saves us.  We must ask the same question that James asks, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?”  In other words, does faith alone save us?  The answer is no.

I bet that statement set your teeth on edge.  Could I possibly be hearing him right?  Did he just say that faith does not save us?  Is it possible that he is rejecting our dearly held Christian and Lutheran teaching?  Well, let me answer those questions clearly and concisely.  Yes, you heard me right.  I did say that faith does not save us.  And No, I am not rejecting our dearly held Christian and Lutheran teaching.  But we have gotten so comfortable with our formulation of salvation be grace through faith apart from works that we too easily overlook that fact that something is missing in that statement.  God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  What if I came to you and proclaimed that I have received the free gift of faith in one who died for me and was raised from the dead, and his name is Joseph Stalin?  Would my free gift of faith save me?  Of course not.  St. Paul says that “by grace you have been saved,” but he does not say that grace saves you.  He says that we are saved through faith, but he does not say that faith saves us.  These are the ways and means of salvation.  In what way have we been saved?  We have been saved by grace (a free gift).  What means has been employed to save us?  We have been saved through faith.  But neither of these saves us.  When the patient’s life is saved, does she say that she the scalpel, or the clamp, or the retractor saved her?  No, it was the doctor who saved her using those ways and means.  Or the hostage who is rescued, does he say that the helicopter or gun saved him?  No, is was the soldiers who saved him using those ways and means.  We are saved by God the Father who bestows the free gift of faith; we are saved by Jesus Christ – God the Son – who suffer and died for our sins and was raised from the dead; we are saved by the Holy Spirit who puts to death our sinful fleshly selves with Christ on the cross and raises us to new life with Christ raised from the tomb.  James is right.  Faith does not save us, God does.  And that faith alone can no more save our neighbor than it can save us.

This is something we so easily overlook.  Jesus said that He came to fulfill the law not abolish it.  When asked what the greatest commandment is, Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”  Jesus came to full all of the law, not just part of it.  God didn’t stop and say; well by grace through faith in me they will love me with all their heart and soul and mind.  I guess that’s close enough. No Jesus came to fulfill all of the law, not just the first great commandment, but the second as well.  God gave us the free gift of faith and through that faith we are given new life, a life that does love God with all its heart and soul and mind, but that that new life (in fulfillment of the law) also loves its neighbor as itself.  And that means good works.

James wrote, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?”  It is not through our faith in God that our neighbor receives the Good News.  How are one’s ears open and how is one’s heart softened to receive the Good News?  By being shown that you actually do love them; you’re not just there to SELL them faith.  No, it is though our love and care for our neighbor that we actually show the love of Jesus Christ.  Was the Son incarnate in the flesh to be a great orator, a persuasive speaker, and effective salesman?  No. Jesus fed the hungry, healed the sick, cast out demons, and raised the dead.  Jesus did not just talk about the love of the Father, He showed it.  And by the Father’s grace through faith in Him we are saved to do the same.  “For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”  But that faith works in our hearts more than love for God, it works love for our neighbor as well.  “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”  You have been saved for a purpose!

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