A FAITH THAT WORKS
I search my heart I search, and find no faith No good seems likely. To and fro I am hurled. I have to stay. Only obedience holds I haste, I rise, I do the thing he saith.
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe thatand shudder. You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness," and he was called Gods friend. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead (James 2:14-26).
Snoopy crouches in blowing snow at Charlie Browns door with his food dish clamped between his teeth. "Go! Be warmed and filled!" chimes Charlie Brownand shuts the door. "What good is that?" Snoopy mutters as he trudges back to his doghouse. James point exactly.
"What good is it if a man claims to have faith, but has no deeds? Can that faith save him?" No, indeed. Faith cannot exist apart from character.
Real faith regenerates. If it is not changing me into another, better version of myself my faith is at best defective, or worse, it may be stone, cold dead. This is the inescapable conclusion to which James keeps drawing us in his book.
Martin Luther was at first troubled by James emphasis, which is why he saddled the work with that dubious epithet, "an epistle of straw." "It really is a dangerous and bad book," he wrote on one occasion, "I almost feel like throwing Jimmy into the stove." Later, however, Luther changed his mind and had kinder things to say: "I think highly of James now," he wrote, "and regard it as valuable."
Luthers initial antipathy to James was based on his perception that James and Paul were at variance. James, he thought, flatly contradicted Pauls emphasis that we are saved not by works but by faith and faith alone (Romans 3:28). But Luther was wrong, as he later admitted.
While Paul does state clearly that faith alone saves us, he is in agreement with James that saving faith will always manifest itself in loving deeds. The two are inextricably linked. "The only thing that counts," he wrote on one occasion, "is faith expressing itself through love" (Galatians 5:6).
What James is protesting is not Pauline theology, but a perversion of it: acting as though Gods word is mere advice and not the only way to go. Few Christians would ever put it quite so baldly, but in effect thats the way many socalled believers live. They say "We believe," but theres nothing to distinguish them from unbelievers. They live by their own lusts rather than by the will of God. Can that "faith" save them? Fraid not, says James.
James then introduces an imaginary associate who argues his case (a common rhetorical device in those days): "You have faith; I have deeds. Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do."
We are not saved by works, nor could we ever be, but our works show we are saved. If others cannot see Gods love in us we do not have saving faith and thus we are not Christians at all, no matter what we say. "Faith without works is dead."
Furthermore, faith without works is demonic: "You believe there is one God?" he asks, "Good for you! Even the demons believe that truth, and their hair stands on end!"
Demons are fully informed believersbetter informed than we because theyre closer to the source. There are no heretics among the demons in hell; they "do good theology" there. But they dont love God, nor do they love one another. They believe but their beliefs do not touch their hearts, nor do they transform their character. Demons are demonic to the end.
Faith, you see, is more than informed beliefmore than knowing what to do. It is a profoundly intimate relationship with God that involves agreement of mind, body and soul with all that God has in mind for us and doing it no matter what our circumstances are, or how we feel about it. Anything else is just words.
As examples of authentic faith James adduces two true believers: Abraham and Rahab.
Abraham, James tells us, was "considered righteous for what he did " He was asked to put his only son to death, the son through which God had promised to save the world. It made no sense to obey, yet he did so, trusting that God could raise Isaac from the dead if necessary (Hebrews 11:19). Abrahams faith and actions "worked together" as James puts it, and demonstrated the integrity of his faith. He did what God asked him to do and thus showed us he had the real thing.
And then there was Rahab, the Canaanite temple prostitute (cited here, perhaps, as a reminder of the old idea that sins of passion may lead us to God while sins of pride will not). Rahab heard of Israels God and longed for him until his messengers came to bring salvation to her. She then put her faith on the line, trusting God in that dangerous moment when she shielded the spies and saw them safely on their way. Rahabs faith, though primitive, was pure and issued in immediate efforts to further the purposes of the God of Israel. "Was not Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction?" James asks. Rahab had the only faith worth having.
So, James concludes, faith is more than agreement with historic creed and the good intentions that are aroused by that creed. It is deedsfaith expressing itself in love.
Few things are more dangerous than intellectual assent that does not touch the heart, or good intentions that die on the vine. Every time we do not obey, or mean to obey and do not, we harden our hearts a little and make it less likely that we will ever obey. "Good notions must take advantage of their first ripeness," George MacDonald said. "We mustnt try the Spirit with our delays."
Authentic faith is not agreeing with truth and thinking someday we will do it. It is taking God at his word and doing what he asks us to do as soon as possible. He does not ask us to do everything at once, nor does he ask us to do things that are impossible to do, but he does ask (and sometimes he asks hard things), and when he asks we must be willing to obey. This is saving faith.
But, you say, I dont have it in me; I cant keep the faith. Not to worry. God knows you better than you do, and he has a way. "Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ" (Romans 10:17). Authentic faithfaith that bears much fruitis the product of the Word.
An older generation of spiritual mentors referred to the practice of "spiritual reading," which is more than mere Bible study. It is reading with a desire to be totally transformed by Gods Word. It is "reading with a heart ready to repent" (Sister Macrina Wiederkehr).
Its easy for us to get caught up in curiosity and speculation and the pride that comes from acquiring facts about God, but approaching the word in that way only takes us farther away from our Lord. Truth never gets out of our minds and into our hearts. "We become talking heads," Carolyn says, "biblical pundits, who are sources, scholars and critics, but who have no heart for God." Bible study that stops short of response becomes a tool of the devil to make us like the other denizens of hellfull of truth and sheer ungodliness.
No, "spiritual reading" is something more. It is reading Gods word until our hearts are touched. (Theres no need to read any number of verses, nor is there any rush to get through. When our hearts are touched, we can stop reading.)
A touched heart means that Gods word has come. He has entered in and is speaking to us. Then we can begin to think about what he is saying to us.
Jeremiah said, "When your words came, I ate them ."(Jeremiah 15:16). We must sink our teeth into the word and chew it with our minds and hearts. We must come to grips with it, wrestle with it, struggle with it, ask questions of it, allow it to sink in.
We must ask ourselves what this word means to us, what are its implications, what must we do or undo. Then we must pray that God will make us true to the truth, for without him we can do nothing. There is an ancient Dominican prayer that well sums up that intention:
Another early Christian states the same thought this way: "Read under the eye of God until your heart is touched, then give yourself up to love" (Dom Guigo).
Its safe to give ourselves up to Gods love. He created us out of love and his love is never wearied or worn out by our sins. He is relentless in his pursuit of us and in his determination that one day we will be pure love, at whatever cost to us, or to himself.
"Good and upright is the LORD," the psalmist reminds us, and "therefore he instructs sinners in his ways. He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way" (Psalms 25:8,9). The only requirement is humility and the patience to wait for his working. God is not known for haste, but he does mean business.
Thy doors are deeds; the handles are their doing. He whose daylife is obedient righteousness, Who, after failure, or a poor success, Rises up, stronger effort yet renewing He finds thee, Lord, at length, in his own common room.
--The Diary of an Old Soul