We conclude our three-month study of faith this month. Two lessons come from the “blue jeans theology” of the New Testament, namely James. This small five-chapter letter lives close to the ground. It is New Testament wisdom literature and nitty-gritty. It is similar in content to the Sermon on the Mount and might just be the earliest document in the New Testament canon.
Chapter one functions as the formal introduction to the rest of the epistle. Every theme in chapter one is fleshed out in the chapters that follow. The letter is aphoristic (proverbial and at times needing counter-balancing truth to apply it accurately). The letter uses a literary technique known as apostrophe (pretending that the people being addressed are not present, when in reality they are—see 1:13; 2:18; 4:13; 5:1).
Seth Wilson said, “The only faith that saves is the faith that works; and the only works that save are the works of faith.” We are not saved by works of the law (Galatians 2:16). We are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). But faith is never passive. So works (deeds that arise out of faith) matter. For James, this is “both/and.”
The text begins with a question (the first of five in the text). Faith without works cannot save a person. James said as much with various phrases 10 times in this text (14, 17, 18, 20, 22, 24, 26). James emphasized this point by drawing upon an economic situation, a spirit-world reality, biblical examples, and a life observation.
Running under the radar of this teaching about faith and works is the tension between the rich and the poor. This theme shows up in almost every chapter (1:9-11, 27; 2:1-7, 15, 16; 4:2, 3, 13-17; 5:1-5). God will give his people what they need in terms of food and clothing (Matthew 6:25-34), but he often chooses to do this through his people (Galatians 6:10; 1 John 3:17). If fellow believers do not have these basic needs and all they get from their wealthier fellow Christians is a verbal nod, James says, “What good is it?” Indeed. Was someone in these “twelve tribes” (1:1) really saying this? It would all but seem so. James reminded us that there is no dichotomy here. Faith and works are a both/and reality.
Fundamental to Jewish faith was the ancient shema, the Jewish call to worship (Deuteronomy 6:4). It affirmed that God is one. James responded in modern vernacular, “Big deal.” The demons believe. But they never follow through. Even when they acknowledged Jesus’ identity (Mark 5:7), there was no follow through or works. James addressed the economic situation and the spirit world.
Faith and works are not polar opposites. It is not either/or. James became a bit harsh with his direct address, “You foolish person.” This was not the only time he did this (4:4, 8). In stressing the solidarity between faith and works, James cited three examples (two from biblical history and one from anatomy class).
Twenty-five percent of the Genesis narrative focuses on the life of Abraham. He is remembered as a great man of faith (Hebrews 11:8-20). But James’s emphasis here is that Abraham’s faith was accompanied by action. In fact his faith was made complete by what he did. The occasion James referred to is found in Genesis 22:1-14 (the test of faith), but the quotation came from Genesis 15:6. Paul used the same Old Testament text to prove his point about God’s righteousness being given to Abraham (Romans 4:3). Here James stressed that it was not by faith alone that Abraham was considered righteous, but by doing what God required. It should be noted that this is the only time in the Bible where the expression “faith alone” occurs, and the text affirms that it does not save.
Rahab provided the second example of genuine faith (Joshua 2:1-24; 6:17). She acted on her faith by hiding the Israelite spies. Notice the phrase, “In the same way.” Rahab’s life is placed alongside of Abraham’s. That is quite a legacy.
The final example came from human anatomy. We have a word for the body when a human spirit leaves. It is called a cadaver. When works do not accompany faith, spiritual rigor mortis sets in quickly. Are faith and works equal like the oars of a boat? Or does one grow out of the other? Articulating this distinction is challenging, but for sure we can say that when it comes to faith and works it is not either/or; it is both/and.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
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