Sunday, February 23, 2020
FAITH AND WORKS
Striking a balance between faith and works has perplexed the Christian community from the very beginnings of the church. Because of its practical application of biblical principles, James has been a Christian favorite. However, in James 2:14-21 we have difficulty reconciling his teachings with much of what the apostle Paul says in Romans and Galatians, for example.
SCRIPTURE: ‘THE BREATH OF GOD’
If understanding God’s word is difficult at times, we know that the problem is ours and our limited understanding. This is because we believe the Scriptures to be reliable, consistent and fully inspired: the very ‘breath of God’ (2 Timothy 3:16, NIV). God’s word and His Holy Spirit are shaping and molding us to conform to God’s will. So, we desire to grasp the importance of our faith and the works that we do in response to what God has done–and continues to do–for us because of Jesus Christ.
REAL AND VAIN FAITH
Scripture often contrasts faith that saves us against faith that does not save us. These contrasts are pretty straightforward and important to us. For example, Jesus talks about Judgement Day and those who cry out “Lord, Lord” versus those who actually do His will (Matthew 7:21). Again, on Judgement Day, He refers to the separation of the sheep and the goats by pointing to the deeds done or not done while on earth (Matthew 25:31-46).
In 1 Corinthians 15:1-9, the apostle Paul points out this contrast as well. For example, there are those who received the gospel, have taken their stand in it and are holding firmly to the word Paul preached to them in contrast to those who “believed in vain.” In Romans 12:2, Paul is concerned about Christians who choose to conform to this world in contrast to those who are being “transformed” by the renewing of their minds (see also 2 Corinthians 3:18).
The works of the flesh are contrasted to the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:16-26. On the one hand, those Christians that choose to live by the works of the flesh “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (vs. 21) while those who live by the fruits of the Spirit, are actively crucifying their fleshly desires (vs. 24).
The simple truth is that, as Paul tells the Corinthians, we can come to belief in the Gospel that Jesus died, was buried and raised on the third day.
Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, 2 by which also you are saved, if you hold fast [a]the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,1 Corinthians 15:1-4 (NASB) – Underlining by sp
It is at that point that the believer has a decision to make. He or she can choose to believe and grow or to believe in vain, never changing or transforming into the image of Christ. The resonance of this understanding is reinforced time and again in Scripture.
As a final example, John the apostle in his first letter letter speaks of those who say they are in fellowship with Christ; yet, they continue to walk in the darkness. This is contrasted to those who walk in the Light, have fellowship with one another and experience the continual cleansing of their sin by the blood of Christ (1 John 1:6-7).
FAITH & WORKS AND JAMES
The letter of James is filled with contrasts from start to finish. Written with Jewish believers in mind, one of the obvious contrasts he addresses is that of faith and works. It is between those who have a faith that saves and those with a faith that does not save.
In James 2:14-26, we see that James is concerned about those who have acknowledge the gospel of Jesus and believed in Him but have not been transformed. Essentially, their behavior is not moving towards alignment with the faith that they profess; no transformation. To validate his observation he gives three examples of bankrupt or vain faith.
Example 1: Unloving or Uncaring Faith (vss. 15-17)
Example 2: Disobedient or Demon Faith (vss. 18-19)
Example 3: Useless, Hollow Faith (20-24)
In verses 20-24, James cites the incident of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac as an illustration of faith and action being perfected or brought to fullness or maturity. The fruit of Abraham’s faith points back to a saving faith that teaches him to trust in and to obey God.
LOVE IS THE GOAL
John Piper* makes a wonderful observation about the purpose of faith when he refers to Paul’s assertion in Galatians 5:6, which says: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.” Conversely, I believe Paul is saying that the only thing that matters is the love we demonstrate, fueled by our faith in Christ Jesus. Our love is the evidence of our faith!
This simple test is mentioned again, by Paul, in 1 Timothy 1:5. Here he states “the goal of our instruction” which is “love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” which contrasts sharply with the false teachers whose intentions are “fruitless” and without understanding (vss. 6-7).
The fruits of saving faith in Christ are love as it shapes our lives, moves us to behave differently and transforms us from the inside, manifesting itself outwardly. May we all strive to know that transforming faith that leads us to a closer walk with Christ in the light of His love.
*The contrast between John Piper’s Calvinist teachings and N.T. Wright are fascinating as they continue the Protestant debate over ‘imputed righteousness’ and works righteousness. The conversation continues!