One of the hardest Bible passages for a Lutheran like me to hear comes from the book of James:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their 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 my deeds.
Just seeing that on my screen right now is causing my brain to tie itself into all sorts of knots. For a theological tradition that enshrines Ephesians 2:8-9 as part of its foundational beliefs, hearing anything about good works is enough to make us nervous. Is James really saying that works are necessary?
I’m not the only one who has this kind of reaction. Martin Luther himself once referred to James as “an epistle of straw” for just this very reason. If your thing is teaching people that there’s nothing you can do to save yourself, that it’s something that God has to do for you, saying that faith without works is dead would be enough to make you the teensiest bit apoplectic. There seems to be a tension between Paul’s attitude of “saved by grace, through faith, and not by works” and James’s “faith without works is dead.”
But I don’t think that tension actually exists. If Paul and James were to sit down and talk things out, I believe they’d be saying essentially the same thing.
For starters, it’s important to remember that Paul and James were writing to two different groups of people. Paul was writing to a primarily Gentile audience, people who had likely come to the faith only recently. They were taking baby steps in the faith and it would have been very tempting to try to claim some of the credit for themselves (something that people are still tempted to do to this day). They had to be reminded that there was nothing that they could do to save themselves, that salvation is a free and complete gift from God.
But James wasn’t writing to the Ephesians. It’s my personal belief that he was writing to a group of established Christians (and most likely Jewish Christians, in my estimation), people who had been following Jesus for a long time. It was possible that these veterans of the faith had experienced a cooling of their faith and passion for the Lord. They might have been tempted to simply rest on their spiritual laurels, so to speak, to simply cling to the faith and only the faith.
It’s to those people that James says, “Hey! Get up off your laurels and do something!”
Faith isn’t something that can exist in a vacuum. Faith motivates action. If it doesn’t, then it’s not really faith.
Or, as a seminary professor I know put it:St. Paul tells us how to KNOW we are a Christian. St. James tells us how to SHOW we are a Christian. Click To Tweet
So how are you showing your faith today?