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Faith without Works is Dead
Winter Quarter: Faith in Action
Unit 3: Self-Controlled, Upright, and Godly Faith
Sunday school lesson for the week of February 4, 2018
By Helen and Rev. Sam Rogers
Scripture Lesson: James 2: 14-26
Communicating is hard work! We have been married for more than 60 years, and making ourselves understood to the other is sometimes still difficult! The early Church had the same problem. Earlier this quarter we had lessons based upon the Book of Acts, when Paul was taking the message of Jesus to the wider Roman world. Most of those who received and accepted Jesus were formerly pagan (worshipping multiple deities). Some of those who became Christian had been faithful Jews. Inevitably, there were tensions between the two groups.
In this final unit of the quarter, our first two lessons will be based upon the Book of James. The author makes clear in 1:1 to whom he writes: “To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations.” Even before the destruction of the Temple and the sacking of Jerusalem by the Romans in 60 AD, Jews had been scattered all over the known world. With difficulty, they maintained their identity as Jews.
Sometimes we see a conflict between Paul’s emphasis upon faith alone (sola fide), and James’ emphasis on works as a sign of faith. In this lesson we hope you will understand James is not denying salvation by faith, but showing the results of a saving faith. Is there a place for good works without falling back into the mentality of keeping rules to please God? James addresses this dilemma in the first century, and the dilemma still resonates today.
James’ style is to ask questions and give his answer. He begins with, “What good is it to claim faith and have no deeds to show it?” Or to put it another way, “Is faith without works a saving faith?” Before his answer James uses two very practical examples—food and clothing. Good intentions and good thoughts don’t provide for the needs of people. A blessing and good wishes does nothing to feed or clothe. James echoes Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. (Remember Matthew was also writing to a Jewish audience!)
The Church has always had persons claiming to have faith but not living it. To James this was an oxymoron! When Jesus saves, there are no loopholes or escape clauses.
Our problem is one of communication and the meaning of words. The issue for Paul and the Gentile converts focused on the Mosaic Law with its emphasis on circumcision and the dietary laws. In Romans he states: “We consider a person is considered righteous by faith, apart from what is accomplished under the Law.” (Romans 3:28) The Leader’s guide suggests we compare Galatians 5:3 and James 2:10 to see their agreement over keeping the Law—it is all or nothing! For Paul, “works” meant keeping the Law, but this is not what James means by “works.”
The Jewish covenant faith had always linked obedience to God with caring for those who were the marginalized in society. In an earlier verse, James called Leviticus 19:18 “the Royal Law: ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’” For James, the essence of the Mosaic Law was living out the faith in every aspect of life—particularly as related to persons. Faith without this dimension of works is dead—it’s not faith at all! (vs. 17) We love how he states it: “faith by itself, if not accompanied by action, is dead.” (NIV)
Next, James devastates the argument for an intellectualized faith by declaring even the demons believe in God. Maybe it’s not too strong to recall the words from the musical “My Fair Lady”—if you’re in love, show me! The Christian faith is a “show and tell” life. We show our faith by what we do and say. Saving faith is not about “going to heaven,” but participating in the work of God’s Kingdom. Jesus had said to His disciples, “If you love me you will keep my commandments”—not rules, but a way of living the world will see and recognize.
Next, James uses Abraham as an example of faith (trust) being expressed in the offering of Isaac. Both Paul and James use Abraham as a prime example of faith in God. For Paul, the beginning point is Abraham’s faith, and he is “justified” (righteous—made right) in God’s sight. For James, it is Abraham’s willingness to act on his faith in God by trusting Isaac to God.
James is very specific in describing the dynamic of the interaction between faith and works/deeds. Verse 27 could not be any clearer: “You see his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.”
James uses a second illustration, surely shocking to his Jewish Christian readers! Rahab, the prostitute in Jericho, becomes another example of faith and works in partnership, as she lies to protect the Jewish spies from the king’s searchers. Her declaration of faith in the Hebrew God is matched by a dangerous action. (See Joshua 2; 6:17-25)
Finally, he closes with a truism, with which we all can identify: “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead.” We may have difficulty in identifying with Abraham or Rahab, but not with the difference between a dead body and a person who is alive.
Life is a profound mystery. The body is only a temporary dwelling for the real person. When the spirit is absent, an empty, dead body is left. For James, a faith of the mind without heart and hands is as dead as a lifeless body. Isaiah said it long before James: “These people draw near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” (Isaiah 29:13 and Matthew 15:8)
We and our churches need a “live” faith, not only saying right things, but taking obedience seriously. “Not all who say ‘Lord, Lord,’ but the one who does the will of my Father will enter the Kingdom.” “Walk the walk as well as talk the talk.” “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day.”
We must not only believe in God, we must deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus. Active obedience is what it means to live by faith. Then and only then can we do what Jesus said: “Let your light shine before all that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)
Helen and Rev. Sam Rogers are a retired clergy couple. They can be reached at email@example.com.