Show your faith by your works
Quarter: Jesus and the Just Reign of God
Unit 3: Live justly in the reign of God
Sunday school lesson for the week of February 16, 2014
By Helen & Rev. Sam Rogers
Scripture Lesson: James 2:14-26
James comes to the heart of the matter in today’s lesson when he speaks to his Jewish Christian readers about the relationship between faith and works. In the first chapter, he gave us a verse we all should have memorized in Bible School: “Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only.” (1:22 KJV) Like a great symphony, he has established the theme of this letter—there is an essential component to following Christ. Not only must we believe in Him, we must obey and do what He calls us to do. Not to do so brings death (2:26).
So much contemporary Christian faith focuses on being “saved” as an event, rather than as a process of becoming. True, “the just shall live by faith,” which Paul gleaned from Habakkuk 2:4. He quoted it in Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11. The writer of Hebrews also used the same passage in 10:38. Martin Luther saw this as essential to understanding what God had done for the world in Jesus, and this verse became the trumpet call of the Protestant Reformation.
Understanding faith as more than intellectual assent is critical to full salvation. The giving of oneself totally to the cause of Christ means loving Him with all of one’s heart, mind, soul and strength! Living the faith is part of having faith.
As United Methodists we affirm our faith each Sunday with the words of the Apostles’ Creed. With those words we recite a list of beliefs that have guided the Church for hundreds of years. However, words can be recited from rote without understanding the reality the words convey. James was writing his letter long before the Creed was written. He knew belief was insufficient. In verse 19 he says to his readers, “You believe in one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder.” (NIV)
The tendency to put faith and works in an either/or argument is tragic and irrelevant. Salvation comes by faith in Jesus Christ, and our faith in Him shows in our actions, particularly our acts of compassion and charity. The Jewish Christians with whom both Paul and James lived and worked were conditioned by obedience to the requirements of the Torah. The particular signs of obedience for Jews were Sabbath keeping, circumcision and dietary restraints. Paul’s concern was to show that these did not result in salvation, but he never would say salvation was devoid of signs of faithfulness to God’s moral or humanitarian acts. James is correct in saying, “show me your faith without deeds and I will show you my faith by what I do.” (2:18b)
He then uses two examples from the scriptures – Abraham and Rahab – the father of Judaism and a harlot! What a pair!
In the story of Abraham taking his only son to Mt. Moriah for sacrifice, the modern believer faces one of the most difficult situations to comprehend. Abraham believed God was calling him to this act of child sacrifice in a culture where this act of worship was not unusual. Several times later in Jewish history we read of such acts taking place “on the high places.” Whatever the cultural situation, for Abraham, this was an act of obedience to God. To sacrifice the child of promise after so many years of waiting for God to fulfill the promise seems ludicrous, yet Abraham acted by faith! And for James, his faithful obedience was credited to him as righteousness.
Faith is made complete (perfect) by works. In our Wesleyan tradition, it is our faith in God’s grace that saves. We believe saving grace has three dimensions: prevenient grace, justifying grace and sanctifying grace. Prevenient grace prepares us to accept God’s offer of Jesus, justifying grace puts us into the right relationship with God, and sanctifying grace completes God’s salvation by the enabling power of the Holy Spirit to live lives holy unto Him. It is the living of holy lives where our works show our faith to the world. Jesus said it best, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Mt. 5:16 NIV)
Likewise, Rahab’s action of hiding the Jewish spies in Jericho shows her faith in the Hebrew God of Joshua and the others. Faith always is expressed visibly. Again, Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only he who does (italics ours) the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Mt. 7:21)
Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady” sang, “words, words, words, I’m so sick of your words, if you’re in love, show me!” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German theologian and pastor, lived during the horror of Adolph Hitler and World War II. He was a modern martyr to his faith put into action. His was one of the most eloquent voices for an orthodoxy that transcended words and found its fullest expression in everyday living.
Bonhoeffer had been nurtured in the Lutheran Protestant tradition that looked with suspicion at James’ elevation of works. However, Bonhoeffer wrote a book, “The Cost of Discipleship,” which was published in 1937 when the Third Reich had co-opted the German Church into silence or capitulation. He spoke of “cheap grace” – what James would term faith without works. Such grace is “preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline…cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross.” (The Cost of Discipleship, page 36)
John Indermark’s conclusion in the Lesson Annual is worth quoting: “Faith without works has consequences: for the individual so deluded, for the church so misled or misleading, and for the wider community whose good is served when faith and works blend in dynamic balance and witness.” (Lesson Annual page 226)
Remember our theme is “Living Justly in the Reign of God.” We live that way now – here on earth, not just when we all get to heaven! Living justly is about the way we translate our faith into works that confront the pressing issues of our day in American society and indeed in the whole world.