Never one to shy away from conflict or controversy, let me state that the above quote from James 2:17 is one of my favorite scripture passages. Why would it be controversial? Well, Martin Luther hated the Letter of James and this is the year that we celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. Luther was concerned that James was espousing works righteousness, the view that one can become righteous by doing certain deeds, such as in Luther’s time, buying indulgences. Luther was one of many who espoused a “faith alone” mentality, that faith alone leads to ones righteous. And he is not wrong, but…
You see this is the nub of it, and James is right, if you claim to have faith in God, faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior, but your life just resembles that of any other human, then do you truly have faith? If you claim to have faith, but do not obediently follow the teachings and example of Jesus, do you really have faith? Recall Jesus’ own parables when he speaks of the owner of vineyard whose trees are not producing fruit, the owner speaks to the gardener, tells him to care for the tree but if after another year it bears no fruit, cut it down. To be clear, we are the tree in this parable.
Look, I get what Luther was saying, I understand the need to speak of the fact that our salvation comes from a grace of God found in Jesus Christ and that our faith in Jesus is what makes us righteous, but can we truly call it faith if we actually do not live like Christ? Faith in Christ means we trust in Christ’s teachings, we trust in his example, we trust in God and do not worry about the messages found in the world but just listen to God’s Word.
Now I know that many of you are probably reading this through a political lens as you look at your political adversary and say, aha, you have faith but no works! And if you are doing that, you have failed to understand my point. Do you have faith enough in Christ, do you believe in Christ enough to trust in God’s promises to live how we know we ought to live? Or do you find ways to rationalize your behavior?
Now to be sure there are plenty examples of Christians on the Right and Left who claim faith but clearly have no works which means their faith is dead. But it is not about our opponents, it is about us. How do we live? If you ever want to convince another to merits of your side, your behavior is the only model that can sway them.
I can still remember the funeral for Cardinal O’Connor of New York. O’Connor was one of the most conservative members of the Roman Catholic Church, he was as pro-Life as possible, he checked all the boxes for the poster child of the Religious Right, except for one small detail. His faith had works. As a believer in the church’s position on Life, he not only was against abortion, but he spent as much time speaking out against the death penalty. As someone who supported the church’s view on gay and lesbians, he also visited Aids patients during a time when many were treated as lepers. For as much as I disagreed with his theology, I tremendously respected his faith. He lived it!
Can we live up to a same standard, where people will know we are faithful because the fruits of our Spirit is seen clearly? Or will people just look at us and say, “yeah they go to church but you would never know they are Christian”?
The greatest gift, in my opinion, of the Reformation is our understanding of Christian Vocation. By Christian Vocation, the Reformers meant that our lives offer us the ability to demonstrate our faith in everything we do. To be faithful does not mean we seclude ourselves in prayer, it means we live our lives in the world, lives of faith. It did not matter if you were a peasant, a merchant, a craftsman, the Reformers believed that we have the opportunity, in everything we do, to demonstrate our faith.
When we do this, we take the words of James to heart! Our faith has works, our trees bear fruit!
The best way to celebrate the 500th Anniversary is to rejoice in our faith, and let our works shine!