December 18, 2017

Good Works Week IV: James, the Elephant

LangMag_elephant_room

Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you? Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?

I can already hear one of you agreeing by saying, “Sounds good. You take care of the faith department, I’ll handle the works department.”

Not so fast. You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove.

– James 2:14-18, MSG

* * *

For many people over the centuries, it seems that the epistle of James has been the “elephant in the room” when it comes to the subject of faith and works. Marin Luther famously called James “an epistle of straw.” Not only did he doubt its apostolic authorship, he saw it as contradicting Paul with regard to justification by faith and said that the epistle had “nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.” Luther expressed his opinion that James was “unequal to the task” of properly explicating the relationship between faith and works.

As much as I love Martin Luther, I think that the tensions of his own battles with medieval Catholicism got the better of him when it came to his dismissal of James.

First of all, though James emphasizes the ethical outworkings of salvation, he also makes it clear that Christians are people who are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. James’s gospel message is clear:

  • Christians are born by grace from above, through the word of truth (1:18)
  • It is the “implanted word” of God that has power to save our souls (1:21)

Nevertheless, one still must explain James 2:14-26. the famous passage where James says, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:24). That sounds, on the surface, like a direct contradiction of Paul’s teaching about justification by faith in epistles like Romans and Galatians. How can we reconcile the two perspectives?

77ac357d594600bPrimarily, we must recognize that the “problem” may only be apparent. As Peter Davids notes in his Commentary on James,

The problem with James arises because he stresses the results of commitment to Christ and uses much of the critical theological terminology in a way different from Paul. (p.50)

Whereas Paul’s focus is on how it is impossible for works, usually works of the law, to save people and secure a place for them among “the righteous,” James is emphasizing something entirely different. James has observed people in the Christian community who claim faith but who fail to practice the kinds of loving actions that proceed organically from living faith. Paul is speaking about works that precede faith. James is talking about works that follow faith.

When Paul writes about “works,” his focus is primarily upon the ceremonial requirements of the Mosaic covenant: the so-called “works of the law” (though this is not always the case, especially in epistles like Ephesians and the Pastorals). These covenantal demands — like circumcision, food and purity laws — were “boundary markers” which, in Jewish minds, marked off the people of God from the people of the world, the righteous from the unrighteous, those who would enter the age to come from those who would be barred from life in the Kingdom. These “works of the law” were practices of self-justification whereby the Jewish people identified themselves as rightful holders of a place at God’s table. But Paul could speak the same way to Gentiles also, as in Titus 3, where the “works” he sets in opposition to God’s gracious salvation are “works of righteousness” — i.e. works designed to vindicate a person and mark that person acceptable before God. The point is the same: we are members of the people of God through faith in Jesus Christ, not by becoming observant Jews or exemplary Gentiles.

James has an entirely different concern. The situation he addresses and his view of the Torah lead him to speak of “works” that are ethical, compassionate, and concerned with justice, especially for the poor; works that those who are already reckoned righteous through faith in Christ should naturally care about. The “works” he promotes are not boundary setting religious practices that mark one “in” or “out.” They are not designed to be about one’s personal salvation or justification at all. Rather, they represent simple deeds of human kindness that blossom organically from a living faith: loving one’s neighbor and caring for those in need.

James advocates the kinds of deeds that proceed from hearts that have been touched by divine love. One hears the echo of John’s writing in James’ approach: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1 John 3:17)

To summarize, hear Patrick J. Hartin, from his Sacra Pagina commentary on James:

James’s vision that faith must be alive and demonstrate itself through works or actions is not on the periphery of the New Testament writings. His vision conforms to the message of the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount, which undoubtedly is one of the central visions of early Christianity and has remains so until today. Even Paul embraces this vision in his own way. He often expresses the desire that those to whom he writes should bear fruit through lives whose actions demonstrate their faith: “. . . so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God” (Col. 1:10). This spirituality of works-demonstrating-faith so beautifully describes James’s position and shows ultimately that Jesus, James, and Paul are on the same page. While they each speak to different contexts and audiences, and have different perspectives in mind, they nevertheless uphold a common message of the importance of faith being put into action. (p. 169f)

Comments

  1. Quite often, when the sweet liberating Word of the gospel for REAL sinners is announced…handed over free of charge…with nothing left to do (“It is finished”)…the naysayers whip out James and rain on the parade.

    “We just can’t have complacent sinners in the church, don’t ya know.”

    • This, *this* is where the principle I mentioned in my comment yesterday comes in. If you’re using James as a preemptive stick to make sure people toe the line, you’re simply misusing it. (Although, to be fair, I have NEVER seen it used that way outside of an abstract theological debate, like here. 😉 ).

      There’s a reason why James is the “elephant in the room”. *It’s CANON*. The Ancient Church recognized it as such, both in authorship AND content, and we therefore have to deal with it. And we deal with it in the exact way I described yesterday – Scripture has facets that apply to different people at different places.

      If you want a real, concrete example of how I would use James, try this – I know of a church that is considering dissolving its emergency financial aid ministry – not because they can no longer afford it, but because they don’t have enough volunteers (out of a membership list of many, many hundreds) who are either interested or available to help man it. Now, if I were the pastor of this church, I could A) construct a long, convoluted argument about how it’s so so nice that we share the good news and good wealth of Christ’s love in a concrete manner, and do give joining this ministry some serious thought… or B) whip out James and say “HEY! You guys claim to be Christians! Christ said “minister to the poor!” We’re about to stop doing that, because apparently nobody wants to anymore! Time to take a good, hard look in the mirror, my brothers!”

      I think option B would be rather more appropriate in this situation. And I think Saint James, and Saint Occam of the Razor, would agree with me. 😉

      P.S. Please accept this as a gentle criticism from someone who *deeply admires* both Luther and Lutheran theology. But every theological system has its blind spots…

      • AndreaBT says:

        Because cracking the whip is such a very effective way to get things done. The only time I remember Jesus cracking a whip was to get the money changers out of the temple.

        Beating an entire church body over the head with James and leaving it at that is pointless. Getting creative might help. For example…sure, go ahead and preach on James. But at the same time, offer a simple way for the church to get involved in a good work. Plan a canned food drive. Or a coat drive in the fall. Leave a box in the foyer for people to leave the cans/coats/whatever. Next time, make it bigger. Up the ante a little. A local family is struggling due to medical bills; pledge to raise $500 (or whatever) in a certain time period, not a huge unreachable amount. Don’t pass the basket; that makes people feel obligated. Put a box in the foyer with a slot for donations. Remind people during announcements.

        Encouraging is better than cracking the whip. It’s true for tithing, and it’s equally true for preaching and teaching works.

        • Depends on the circumstances, as I have already said. Sometimes – and it should be undertaken with much consideration – a warning shot *is* necessary, especially if the problem has been “benignly” ignored or brushed aside before.

    • Steve, you didn’t really read the post, did you? Because your comment makes no sense in the light of what it actually says.

      • Yes, Mike. I read it.

        Works of the law? All works when told to do them, are works of the law.

        James says a true believer will do works. So…you’d better get out there and do works (like Eeyore said).

        __

        We all do works. That’s what ‘we do’. From the time we get up…until the time we go to bed.

        It’s like telling someone to breathe.

        There’s a purpose law language, that’s for sure. But never ought anyone confuse it with gospel language.

        • Actually, ‘all works, when told to do them’ are NOT works of the Law. The Old Testament Law was a specific set of obligations (with corresponding promises) that regulated a specific covenant made between God and a specific people – Israel. When Paul (or James) uses the term ‘Law’, that Law that regulated that covenant is most often what they are referencing. Gentiles were never (and are not now) ‘under’ that Law since they were never a party to that covenant (which is affirmed by the Jerusalem council in Acts 15). Gentiles are neither saved nor condemned by the Old Testament Law, which is why Paul can say ‘we are under grace and not under Law’ – the majority of his audience (in Romans) were never under the Law (being Gentiles), and those Jews who have come to faith in Christ are under a new covenant, thus no longer under the Law that regulated the Old Covenant.

        • Steve, again, your theological system is trumping what the Bible actually says. In no place are the “good works” the apostles encouraged to be identified with works of the law. That is nowhere to be found in the NT. And even the Augsburg Confession recognizes this when it says believers are set apart to a “new obedience” in the gospel that is to be distinguished from the law. Christians are “raised to walk in newness of life” in baptism. We are saved by grace through faith for good works which God prepared. These have nothing to do with law or conformity to the law. We are free to love out of the union we have with him who is love. The fact that we do so imperfectly has no bearing on the discussion. Of course we do. But, having been justified by faith (past tense), we are now called and free to live lives of love and good works.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            And once more Chaplain Mike points to the Book of James and the Justification-By-FAITH-Alone dogs all sniff his finger. Just like since Monday when he started this series.

            PAUL WAS WRITING ABOUT THE WRONG USES OF WORKS.
            JAMES IS WRITING ABOUT THEIR CORRECT USE AND PROPER PLACE.

            “I am with Paul!”
            “I am with James!”
            “I am with Luther!”
            “I am with Calvin!”

          • Robert F says:

            “I am with Peter!”

        • Any demand that our existence places upon us to fulfill our humanity, is law.

          The 10 Commandments, yes, but rightly understand the Commandments include all that we should, ought, or must be doing in life.

          • I’d be hard-pressed to say that this definition of “law” flows naturally from the narrative of Scripture.

            And to carry the argument to it’s ad absurdum, given your definition above, *breathing* is “law”. Would that make a lack of need for oxygen “gospel”? 😉

    • flatrocker says:

      And just as often we park this “epistle of straw” so we don’t have to confront the challenge of living a life in charity. And besides, a little “rain on the parade” helps clean the grime off the streets after the horses prance by.

    • @Steve….it is unfortunate that this is such a sticking point for you, when I think you are missing the message due to some sort of concrete wall that goes up the instant this subject is addressed.

      Please re-read today’s post…..James and those of a similar mind are NOT talking about buying salvation through grudging works that earn us a place in heaven. It is about the natural outflowing of love and grace that we have received as a gift from the Lord, simply because love is not a feeling, it is a choice and an action.

      I deeply love my husband. This manifests itself in doing the dishes when it is his turn, watching football almost every Sunday afternoon in the autumn, and making his favorite meal when I know he has had a rotten day. Am I doing these things as “good works” so that he will stay in the marriage? Or because I want a gold star as a “good wife”?? Of COURSE not…..I am doing these and many other things because I LOVE him and want to make him happy. My love flows into action because there is no other way to express it fully.

      It is the same way with the love and grace of God…..it spills over into all we do. Our blessings and grace and journey to heaven are free gifts to us, and we cannot help but share this love in action to His service, by responding IN LOVE to the needs of our brothers and sisters—-who are the least of His brothers and sisters.

      (PS…..James knew the Lord in the flesh and saw His works and outpoured love, a blessing Paul was denied…)

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      PAUL IS WRITING ABOUT THE WRONG USE AND PLACE OF WORKS.
      JAMES IS WRITING ABOUT THE CORRECT USE AND PLACE OF WORKS.

      And so James must go so that Justification By FAITH FAITH FAITH Alone must triumph.
      Luther trumps Christ.
      Just like Calvin trumps Christ among the YRR.

  2. I think you show your faith through works, works that show you are a disciple of Christ. The very act of living as He instructed shows that you have faith and confidence in Him. I cannot say that i follow Jesus by simply staying in my room and believing the right things. I believe so i act, his teaching demands action. This is different from saying that i have performed all of the law to guarantee my acceptance with God, there is no bargain with this, no earning.

  3. Robert F says:

    ” Rather, they represent simple deeds of human kindness that blossom organically from a living faith: loving one’s neighbor and caring for those in need.”

    Loving is often not simple. It gets very complicated, often requiring a deft and subtle hand. Others often resist the simple deeds of human kindness that we offer, or receive them in a way we did not intend. It’s probably not a good idea to measure one’s own faith by how well one is loving neighbors, enemies or those in need. Some are better at it than others, which doesn’t necessarily mean that their faith is sounder. There are those who struggle through life with damaged inner lives, both inside and outside the church, and for them it may be very hard to hear what James is saying as anything but a another litmus test indicating their own inability and failure. Be very careful where you deploy James, and to whom you deploy him, or you may further crush a struggling spirit.

    • I rather take that quote as the ‘ender’. That’s it! Everyone go home and stop talking. As Mother Teresa said about the rejection and the negative reactions, ” …do it anyway.” I appreciate your concern about the the practical realities of what it really means to love, no doubt about it. Still I think your reading a lot into that quote that’s not required reading. Everything you said is true but it applies, let’s say, to someone who is being pounded with the law from a legalistic preacher (having one’s spirit broken and gauging one’s faith by works), not to the heart of that quote. That quote is simply saying that if you are willing to do the one real work of dying daily, of losing, abdicating, submitting, receiving, etc., the essence of living in faith, the result will, in whatever degree and with whatever difference between brothers, naturally express itself. It can’t help but happen. It can’t be stopped from happening just as a flower given all the proper nurture can only do the thing it is born to do. Each will differ in form and brilliance but each will be what was planted into their DNA. If we nurture Christ into fullness (lifetime journey) within, He will not be held down. I know you know all of this but I thought you were over complicating a simple idea.

      • Robert F says:

        You had a strong negative reaction to my comment, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps you underestimate the degree of inner brokenness a significant number of Christian and non-Christian people carry with them. I know people who are unable to form the willingness that the flowering of good works you describe requires, no matter how they try, and who judge themselves severely for the failure. I’m not primarily talking about people who have been pounded by bad church experiences, but bad life experiences. What’s good spiritual advice for some people is not appropriate for them. As William Blake wrote, ” One law for the lion and ox is oppression.”

    • Robert, of course loving is never simple, nor will our love or our acts be what they should be. I think what you say represents one of the misunderstandings in this conversation — a misunderstanding that has become more evident to me in the discussions this week. God is not requiring perfect love from us. Nowhere does James or anyone else say that we have to do it “right” or else . . .

      The point is that we are free to love, free to give, free to serve, however imperfectly that may be. God accepts us in Christ by grace through faith and we become united with him who is love. This prompts us to begin to love. We may do so as imperfectly as little children for the rest of our lives, but James is simply encouraging us to follow those promptings.

      • Robert F says:

        But, CM, the fact that so much traditional Christian spirituality (non-evangelical) stresses the extraordinary self-discipline and rigor required to undertake a life of good works (even in a limited sense) surely bears testimony to the fact that the experience of such a project from within is anything but of something organic, simple and natural. Look at the recently disclosed secret spiritual struggles and anguish of Mother Theresa, who mercilessly disciplined herself by force of will to follow a way for which she had felt no support or strengthening from God for decades. And her case is not atypical among those Christians recognized for lives especially devoted to good works and the cultivation of holiness. There is frequently nothing obviously organic or natural about these endeavors.

        • Robert, if I recall correctly, I don’t think Mother Teresa had problems practicing love. She had trouble feeling the presence of God, experiencing a sense of closeness to God. And she, of all people, would remind us that the simplest, most imperfect act of love is something we can do.

          To Chris you wrote, “Perhaps you underestimate the degree of inner brokenness a significant number of Christian and non-Christian people carry with them. I know people who are unable to form the willingness that the flowering of good works you describe requires, no matter how they try, and who judge themselves severely for the failure. I’m not primarily talking about people who have been pounded by bad church experiences, but bad life experiences. What’s good spiritual advice for some people is not appropriate for them.”

          I don’t want to be guilty of that, and I’ll admit that I am making a generalized point when it comes to good works. My primary concern is to say that we need not get Christian “good works” all confused with justification. Being justified and accepted by God frees us from the inner turmoil of wondering if our works are adequate to make us worthy before God. But aside from that, there are a thousand different reasons why any given individual might struggle with expressing love and performing good deeds from a free spirit. What you wrote tells me why we need each other, the church, spiritual directors, etc., and that we are called to be patient and gracious and forbearing in what we expect of others.

          • Robert F says:

            ” What you wrote tells me why we need each other, the church, spiritual directors, etc., and that we are called to be patient and gracious and forbearing in what we expect of others.”

            Yes, and perhaps much of the good work most of us are called to entails exactly this: patience and graciousness and forbearance in what we expect of others, and of ourselves.

  4. Great post on a difficult topic.

    I have often seen the “measuring” game in Evangelical Christianity, where spiritual authorities, and even fellow Christians judge whether one is “in” or “out” based on behavior. Fortunately, by God’s grace, being less than good doesn’t restrict you from entering into the Kingdom. It’s always been funny to me that we Protestants reject Orthodox and Catholic teachings as “works-based”, then systematically judge each other by our works. Thank God for grace…

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I have often seen the “measuring” game in Evangelical Christianity, where spiritual authorities, and even fellow Christians judge whether one is “in” or “out” based on behavior.

      “These covenantal demands — like circumcision, food and purity laws — were “boundary markers” which, in Jewish minds, marked off the people of God from the people of the world, the righteous from the unrighteous, those who would enter the age to come from those who would be barred from life in the Kingdom. These “works of the law” were practices of self-justification whereby the Jewish people identified themselves as rightful holders of a place at God’s table.”
      — Chaplain Mike

  5. I think the real reason we have such a problem with James, or any talk about the place of works is due (at least in Protestant circles) to this phobia about ‘works righteousness’. I attended a church for a while where any mention of obligation or behavior was always prefaced with something like ‘I’m not remotely suggesting even the slightest possibility of the faintest notion of the even the hint of works righteousness, but . . .’.

    The real problem, in my opinion, is that we have inherited this idea of ‘faith’ as an abstract intellectual concept and tried to explain it in terms of ‘trust’ (as in ‘trusting completely in Jesus’ atoning death and not at all in your goodness’, an idea I think would have been quite foreign to a first-century Christian). To the early Christians ‘faith’ would no doubt have had much more the connotation of ‘faithfulness’ than simply ‘belief’ or ‘trust’. As I pointed out in a previous post, that was part of the language of their daily life and social interaction; ‘faith’ was NOT primarily a theological term to someone living in the first century; it was a term associated with social relationships. When one had received a ‘benefaction’ (Greek word is ‘charis’ – GRACE) from a patron, the expected response was ‘loyalty, faithfulness, faith’ (Greek word is ‘pistis’ – FAITH). This did involve ‘trust’, since one expected continued ‘benefactions’ (grace) from the patron, but the real emphasis was on allegiances. When Paul uses those terms the frame of reference for his audience is the patron-client relationship, not the theological debates of the 16th century (or the 21st).

    We are NOT saved by ‘faithfulness’; we are saved by simply receiving God’s grace. However, our response is ‘faith’ – in the sense of loyalty, trust, allegiance, and all that goes with it. I think a good way to look at it is ‘casting our lot’ with God. In the patron-client relationship, the fate of the client was bound up with the patron – if he did well, so did the client; if the patron lost favor and was exiled, things generally didn’t work out well for his clients either. We have cast our lot with Jesus, and our identity and destiny are bound up with him. That is probably much closer to how the early Christians understood ‘faith’, and because of that, this whole debate about ‘works’ would probably strike them as rather odd.

  6. Chaplain Mike, these four posts on “Good Works Week” have been some f the best stuff you’ve written and some of the best coming out of imonk. Thank you for devoting an entire week to a thorough examination of this subject. And I expect that there will be at least two more, right?

    My favorite and best summary of what you wrote today is,

    “James has observed people in the Christian community who claim faith but who fail to practice the kinds of loving actions that proceed organically from living faith. Paul is speaking about works that precede faith. James is talking about works that follow faith.”

    This nails it! Makes me wonder why Luther didn’t see this except that, as you said, his battle with Rome over the excesses of legalism, and especially the selling of indulgences, polarized him in the opposite direction. But I thought that since he did include James in his translation of the Bible into German that he moderated his views later on. Is this true? Regardless, he kept James in the canon and that must mean something.

    I would say that what James was addressing was the opposite heresy which Paul primarily addressed in Galatians. Whereas Paul addressed the errors of Jewish legalism, James addressed antinomianism (the teaching that Christians are not obliged in the least to follow ethics or morality and thus may do whatever they please–damn the virtues). It is interesting to note that Paul had to deal with the negative influence of legalism mainly among the Greeks and Romans, a fairly libertine folk, and that James wrote against antinomianinsm addressed “To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (James 1.1), a fairly legalistic bunch. Taken together, Paul and James were making attempts to correct the natural impulse to go too far in the opposite direction of one’s lifelong tradition when confronted with a new idea–Christianity.

    Bonhoeffer taught that the greatest enemy of the church was “cheap grace.” I believe it because I see it even in my own congregation where we teach against it by teaching that the gospel is the source of grace, grace is the source of faith and faith leads to obedience, or good works.

    And then there’s the so-called doctrine of “free grace” (please Google it) which permeates so much of American Evangelicalism. In effect, you “sincerely” pray the sinners prayer and God freely grants you fire insurance. If you think about it, it’s a contemporary form of gnosticism which is nothing more than antinomianism dressed up for Sunday.

    And the irony and contradiction of it all is that the same proponents of free grace also teach adherence to fairly strict moral codes. And the upshot of it all is schizophrenic Christianity. And we wonder why folks are staying home on Sundays.

    Sigh…

    • Patrick Kyle says:

      To be fair, Luther softened his stance on James in his later years. No doubt due to the hardship of dealing with Christians prone to live a life of license.

      Another thing I would like to point out is that both Paul and James use the example of Abraham. Paul talks about Abraham believing God and being justified. James talks about the sacrifice of Isaac. These two episodes in Abraham’s life are separated by up to 30 years or more. That’s a long time to mature in the faith. It is something to consider when hashing out the supposed contradiction.

      • Speaking of longish time frames over which points of emphasis may shift (as with your good examples of Abraham and Luther), is there anything to be said about the original dates of James and Paul’s writings?

        CalvinCuban above helpfully notes the distinct heresies that were addressed within Galatians and James. How much of this simply reflects the general evolution of the church rather than geographical differences? (For what it’s worth, I doubt that Galatians and James were separated by all that many years, so I lean more towards regional differences.)

        Had the canon included later writings, it makes you wonder what further sources of confusion and/or clarification may have introduced as the church described its continued journey. (I suppose the writings of the Church Fathers can serve as something of a proxy here, of course.)

    • JoanieD says:

      CalvinCuban…I like this, “…the gospel is the source of grace, grace is the source of faith and faith leads to obedience, or good works.” Thanks!

      • I’m still learning this, but it seems to make the most sense in as simplified–yet not simplistic, minimalist or reductionist–form as possible.

        My concern is that in many Evangelical churches we have preached a schizophrenic gospel to our congregations, one which includes elements of legalism and libertinism, sort of like the two extremes of gnosticism blended together). On the one hand we tell them that it’s wrong to do or approve of this or that but then we tell them that since we “accepted Christ” as evidence by some notable conversion experience (praying the “sinner’s prayer” tops the list here) then we will always be Christians no matter how much we backslide. I wonder sometimes if booming sales of anti-psychotic drugs are not somehow correlated with this.

        What is missing from the message is that the gospel is God’s power of salvation both for unbelievers and believers. No one argues that repenting and believing the gospel (Mark 1.15) is essential to conversion, but when I tell people that the gospel is the only way to stay saved and to become more like Christ (I like the Orthodox idea of theosis) folks look at me like I have gone off the deep end. I remind them that when Paul wrote that “I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.” (Romans 1.15) he was speaking to believers. Why would believers need to hear the gospel, repent, and believe it again (and again, and again, and again) except that we all need it to continue to receive grace, remain in the faith, and be good disciples?

        Sometimes I feel as though I’m speaking in Spanish to a group of Klingons!

        • Danielle says:

          “My concern is that in many Evangelical churches we have preached a schizophrenic gospel to our congregations, one which includes elements of legalism and libertinism, sort of like the two extremes of gnosticism blended together). On the one hand we tell them that it’s wrong to do or approve of this or that but then we tell them that since we “accepted Christ” as evidence by some notable conversion experience (praying the “sinner’s prayer” tops the list here) then we will always be Christians no matter how much we backslide.”

          I think you are very much onto something with this observation.

          It does seem common for evangelicals to describe “justification” as only about free grace; when the topic switches to “sanctification,” the emphasis often goes straight to playing by the communal rules and commencing self-betterment programs (God’s Ten Steps to Fixing Your Marriage, etc). It is often asserted (when speaking of justification) that if you are a Christian, you’re safe, no matter what; yet (when speaking of believers being sanctified) if you don’t tow the line just the way your audience wants to see it towed, you are no real Christian, or so terribly tainted so as to be deeply suspect. When the first concept is in play, we’re discussing acceptance and freedom; once the second concept comes out, the dominant concern becomes purity. Fundamentally different impulses and concerns are getting attached to the two concepts.

          But, if we say something more like, ‘justification consists of being united to God and the life of God by faith,’ and then we go on to describe ‘sanctification’ as our ongoing life in God, then perhaps we guard against this kind of bifurcation. This approach perhaps makes it clearer that justifying faith is something alive and active, and we’ll ordinarily find some kind of movement where there’s life. Likewise, God’s love and unconditional grace don’t get segregated into being the force behind “justification” or “conversion,” but must be seen as driving force behind every subsequent moment or experience in the Christian’s life.

          On a related note, I used to perceive keeping a sharp distinction between different aspects of the process was the only source of comfort. (This probably had something to do with the fact that I viewed sanctification somewhat legalistically, so if sanctification merged with justification too much, the gospel seemed to disappear.) However, 20 years down the road, I find “looking backward” somewhat troublesome. I can identify a specific time when I proceeded through what evangelicals typically classify as a conversion experience (although I think it might be more accurate to see it as something that occurred over a period of time, with several points). And these are important memories. But if I’m shaken or have doubt, I personally find that looking back into the distant past (except perhaps to my baptism) isn’t all that reassuring to me. But if I look at the present where, as you put it, one can “hear the gospel, repent, and believe it again (and again, and again, and again),” in fairly simple, repeatable, concrete ways (Scripture, liturgy, eucharist), this makes my primary reference point the fact that God’s love has got ahold of me *right now.*

          • Excellent words, Danielle, and expressed better than I did.

            You wrote of how we often teach sermons on “God’s Ten Steps to Fixing Your Marriage.” I generalize it as “X Steps to Being a Better Whatever.” And for years and years this was the main course of our Sunday messages. Even in our church’s newspaper ad we put “Relevant Messages,” implying that we teach practical applications from Scripture–but at the expense of the gospel.

            This bothered me for some time, for although the focus was on discipleship I have found that we’re not making many, and of the few we appear to be making they come across as a mile wide and an inch deep. Something’s wrong!

            So a while back I began meditating on this and reading some books which opened up my eyes to the problem. One of these is Ray Comfort’s “God Has A Wonderful Plan For Your Life.” Here Comfort exposes the ineffectiveness of the “sinner’s prayer” or what he refers to as “easy believeism.” It made me think of what Bonhoeffer wrote with regards “cheap grace…grace without the cross…” In this short book Comfort emphasizes the need for repentance as a precursor to faith and not just sincerity and recognition of sins.

            The other book was Michael Horton’s “Christless Christianity.” Here Dr. Horton writes about the roots of contemporary evangelism going back to 19th century (Second Great Awakening) revivals, where the emphasis focused on experience. This stands in sharp contrast to the First Great Awakening of the mid 18th century where the focus was on faith and repentance (I am leaving out much, I understand, but that’s the gist of it). Dr. Horton laments that contemporary Evangelical (and mainline as well, in many cases) services have devolved into singing feel-good songs which stir up the emotions but lack truth. This is then followed by a sermon where the congregation is fed “theistic moralism” with a sprinkling of a Bible verse here and there to make it taste “Biblical.” And of course, everyone loves it, just as a Sunday school class gets more excited about the donuts than the truths of Scripture.

            But perhaps the greatest eye-opener from reading “Christless Christianiaty” was what Dr. Horton calls the “Christian’s guiding compass” (or something like that). In it he says that churches shoot straight for discipleship but bypass drama (the “big story” from Creation to Consummation, or put another way, the gospel in entirety), doctrine (truths and lessons derived from the drama), and doxology (a response of thankfulness and praise derived form the truths of the gospel), and without that discipleship is nothing more than moral development, which does not necessitate gospel, grace or faith, and which in the end is not all that different from what Muslims teach.

  7. I really liked this distinction: “Paul is speaking about works that precede faith. James is talking about works that follow faith.” James is just reminding us that faith that doesn’t produce fruit is dead.

    I’m reminded of a post Scot McKnight put up yesterday about defining heresy and being a heretic. He said: “Before I get there, though, let me add another point: it is too bad we don’t have such an evocative term for praxis. Jesus’ focus was on ‘hypocrisy’ more than ‘heresy,’ and it might just be an indication of how far we’ve strayed for us to give so much attention to ‘heresy’ and not enough to failure in praxis. As far as we can see, failure in practice is just as bad as failure in theology.” Lazy just doesn’t cover it.

  8. Dana Ames says:

    N.T. Wright has said that it would be interesting to contemplate what soteriology would have looked like not based on Romans/Galatians, but rather on Ephesians/Colossians. This whole discussion reminds me of Eph 2.

    But instead of concentrating on the “works” words, I would like to bring to the table the reality of being God’s workmanship, and the reality St Paul sets beside that, that we have been made alive in Christ – he says that twice in the chapter! To me, this speaks of our creation – in God’s image, animated with his life – and what that means.

    In the Orthodox Church, we are taught that God created a world into which he could become incarnate – that was his purpose from the very beginning, because love seeks union with the beloved. And the “image of God” in which we have been created is Jesus Christ, the Prototype and Ultimate “adam” (Human Being). If our life is In Christ, then we are empowered to become human beings, too – doing what we do freely from love, just as God does. This takes time to learn; we, individually and collectively, have been stuck in our inhumanity for a long time.

    Please do not misread. I am NOT saying that humanity is evolving into something progressively “better” and all we need as a species is time to become perfect or “achieve our potential” – or any such thing.

    I am saying that God’s project is opening the way, for all and for each person uniquely, to become truly human, as one keeps turning to God and practices being faithful to Jesus (in which we find healing – soteria). I believed this long before I had any notions of becoming Orthodox. Our sins are evidence of our INhumanity. Translating “sarx” as “sinful nature” rather than just leaving it as “flesh” is bad translation, leading to a wrong anthropological view. The non-concrete referent of “sarx” is precisely all that contributes to the decomposition and decay our flesh undergoes in the state of death and corruption – our self-imposed exile from God.

    But God has made us alive in Christ.

    Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life. – (Paschal Troparion – a tropar is a short spiritual poem that tells what is happening/has happened.)

    In the flesh Thou didst fall asleep as a mortal man, oh King and Lord; Thou didst rise on the third day, raising adam from corruption and destroying death. Oh Pascha of incorruption – the salvation of our souls! – (Expostilarion of the Matins of Pascha – expostilaria are poems near the end of the communal prayer of Matins that tell us why we should praise God.)

    I have just finished the little book “Becoming Human” by Fr John Behr. In spite of being so small, it has a wonderful fullness, and I commend it to you.

    Dana

    • Very well said Dana. One of my seminary professors made the somewhat shocking statement (at least to some in the class) that when Paul speaks of our being conformed to the image of Christ, it is the HUMAN Christ to which we are being conformed. He is the ‘image of God’ in the sense that he is what humanity was meant to be, and it is this ‘image of God’ (‘to be truly human’, to use Wright’s words) to which we are being conformed, or perhaps we could say, is being restored in us (it was always there, but is [still] distorted by sin).

    • Dana – marvelous post, and many thanks for the book rec!

  9. Richard Hershberger says:

    “As much as I love Martin Luther, I think that the tensions of his own battles with medieval Catholicism got the better of him when it came to his dismissal of James.”

    This. People sometimes throw out various quotes from Luther as gotchas. The thing is, whatever their immediate point is, many modern Lutherans would likely be nodding in agreement. Non-Lutherans sometimes have this notion that Lutherans regard the writings of Luther as Holy Writ. Quite the contrary, we can and do look at some things he wrote and conclude that he really screwed the pooch on that one, or (less dramatically) that the topic at hand is adiaphora and we are free to agree or disagree with Luther on it.

    “When Paul writes about “works,” his focus is primarily upon…”
    “James has an entirely different concern.”

    This, and again this. One of our worst habits is to treat the Bible as a string of brief texts to be considered separately from one another. We are reluctant to let the various books be *about* something leading to some specific point. Once we let, say, a letter of Paul being about something, with him constructing an argument to reach a conclusion, we can look at the structure of the letter and ask what role any given snippet of text plays in making his argument. Strip away that structure and you have a collection of snippets that serve no better purpose than as ammunition in games of gotcha.

    This isn’t just an Evangelical failing. There is a series of videos on YouTube by “Sarcastic Lutheran.” Most of them consist of tossing out the gotcha texts that support whatever point he is trying to make, while acting as if there are no gotcha texts that could be employed against that point. It is like an imaginary argument where your opponent follows the script in your head, and is devastatingly defeated. Try this with a real person and it doesn’t go so well.

  10. Interestingly, in the Eastern Orthodox canon (at least some versions), James comes after Acts and before Paul. I don’t think this order is necessarily better than the western one, but keeping that in mind may be a useful corrective to marginalizing it.

  11. T.S.Gay says:

    It is interesting when Jesus spoke of the Godly works.

    A peacemaker will be called a son of God when its opposite wrath is so often used as a theological term.
    A purity in heart will see God when luxury always seems the lifestyle of people who get an opportunity with money.
    The merciful receive mercy when envy is so often what you will notice in who gets what in human courts.
    Hungering and thirsting for righteousness is satisfying when consumption is what is often seen when you can’t get no satisfaction.
    Being gentle will inherit the earth when using its resources are often not-forestry high grading, animal abuse, non-renewable methods, mining, air pollution to facilitate wealth creation.
    Those who mourn being comforted when kicking back seems a preferable way.
    The humble as people of the kingdom when pride is the method taught for community in schools, teams, clubs.

    Chesterton taught in his chapter on paradox in Orthodoxy that each beatitude has entirely different meaning within Christianity than it does for non-believers. Paganism declared that virtue was in a balance; Christianity declared it was in a conflict; the collision of two passions apparently opposite. Each virtue is such that it is hard to hold simultaneously. “The instinct of the ancient world said you shall all be Roman citizens, and grow alike; let the German grow less slow and reverent; the Frenchmen less experimental and swift. But the instinct of Christian Europe says that the absurdity of Germany shall correct the insanity of France”.

    Rene Girard is on to something when he proposes that our mimetic desire is the cause of all conflict, religion, and scapegoating. It’s human, you can notice even in many a church people copying, growing alike. You are more like a snowflake(each very unique)- let your slowness or swiftness be what it is- you are probably one here and one there. To have Godly works, God knows how difficult for humans. He knows if your heart or actions are flowing from looking at others or Him. I think the Father keeps no record of wrongs, rather a record of many, many who mimic Him, even if their view is not clear. Some of us are very fortunate to have caught a glimpse of His Son, and each uniquely keeping our focus on Him, which the testimony of so many say that this is accomplished with a Helper.

    Any work of any person is not perfect. Yes the standard is a perfect God. I think most Christians would agree that a good work can only come from not mimicking other humans, but God to the best of one’s ability.

  12. If the only tool you have is a Luther, every work looks like a law.

  13. I find it helpful to recognize that faith is not presumption.

    An understandable desire to guard against presuming upon the grace of God seems to contribute to the misguided notion that the answer lies in adding a works requirement to the necessity of faith for salvation.

    On the other hand, an understandable desire to avoid works righteousness seems to contribute to the misguided notion that the answer is to desist from raising any expectations about how the Christian life is to be lived, as if any effort to please God would be a vain attempt to earn His acceptance.

  14. Christiane says:

    some thoughts, none of them original:

    The ability to express loving-kindness comes to us from God . . . He asks us to share it abundantly among ourselves

    There is no act of kindness so small that it does not honor God

    There are no insignificant acts of kindness, all will echo into eternity

    Some believe that the only real sin is unkindness, though it wears a thousand disguises

  15. Here is the practical problem that I see in many of the arguments. Is a good work a good work when you do it out of a decision of the will that it is the right thing to do even if you do not want to do it? If I force myself to do something because it is what is right to do, with no positive feeling about it, am I showing myself law-bound rather than grace-filled?

    Of course, ideally our emotions should line up with our commitments, but that is not true more often than we care to consider. The parent at 2 am dealing with the colicky baby, the pastor who wants nothing more than to take Sunday off but goes to church are all good examples. But, let me take it one step further. What if we choose to give money, to volunteer, to pay our employees a living wage (yes, that is found in James) because it is what the Scriptures teach us, what Tradition shows us, what the Church encourages, but what we do not wish to and dislike doing? Am I then a legalist?

    Eastern Orthodoxy would say that the obedience of the will, the choice to perform what does not attract us, the willingness to follow the dictates of Scripture, Tradition, and the Church is how we train the flesh, how we help bring it into submission. The fastings, the prayers, even the disliked works, do not have as their goal the attaining of salvation. Rather, they have as their goal the mortifying of the passions of the flesh so that the true Christian nature may grow.

    An Orthodox believer would hope that eventually his/her feelings would come into line with what they believe. But, whether or not they do, we do not listen to our passions, but to what is true, honorable, right. More than that, the works that are performed out of a decision of the will are true and good works because they come out of a desire to serve the Lord. Note that desire, decision, and emotion are three separate words and not equivalent. In fact, whether or not we like doing an action has nothing to do with whether it is a good work.

    The Christian who refuses to do any works on the grounds of work-righteousness is simply an immature Christian. As Hebrews says, they should be eating meat and are still stuck on repentance from dead works. Worse, as Jesus points out in the parable of the sheep and the goats, the very failure to engage in good works may make them part of the goats, even if they say, “Lord, Lord, we prophied in your name and cast out demons in your name …”

    • C.S. Lewis was thinking along similar lines in Mere Christianity

      “When you are not feeling particularly friendly but know that you ought to be, the best thing you can do, very often, is to put on a friendly manner and behave as if you were a nicer person than you actually are. And in a few minutes, as we have all noticed, you will be really feeling friendlier than you were. Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already.”

      John

    • Radagast says:

      …Saint John of the Cross…..

  16. Christiane says:

    In the Gospel of St. Matthew, Our Lord took time to teach us that our refusal to respond when faced with the suffering of others is a sin against Him.

    We think of sin as ‘actions’,
    but how often are we guilty of sin because of that which we have not done?

  17. Gee, you’d hope “good works” is more than mere compliance which is what “the works of the law” demand.

    • That, I think is very near the heart of the problem for many. ‘Good works’ (to characterize the lives of believers) are primarily acts of charity, compassion, and generosity (see my post from yesterday’s topic) motivated by love and our relationship with Christ, not avoiding immorality or doing ‘religious’ things (prayer, Bible reading, witnessing, etc.). When people speak of the ‘demands of the Law’ (which is not, and never was, binding on Gentiles, or Christians anyway) it implies negativity, condemnation, and a god who is keeping score. (It is also helpful to realize that ‘torah’ is much more about ‘instruction’ than ‘demands’ or ‘law’ – seeing it as ‘demands’ or ‘law’ has much more to do with the Reformation than Jewish or early Christian thinking.) ‘Good works’ as spoken of in the New Testament (as the outworking of the Spirit in believers) is positive – love one another, bear one another’s burdens, be at peace with others, and so forth (I think Paul even said that if we do those things we have fulfilled the true essence of the Law – Gal 5:14).