We celebrate when people come to join with us in our fellowship and ministry in this community; we rejoice when people come to faith in Christ and claim their place in his body. But those moments are just the tip of the iceberg, built on much that has come before. Part of that is the inquirers’ class that we run from time to time. I don’t call it a membership class, since taking it doesn’t mean you have to join; there’s no pressure. Rather, it’s for anyone thinking about membership, wondering if they should join this congregation, if they want to, what it would mean if they did, and still uncertain. I’m not much of one for high-pressure salesmanship, and quite frankly, I’m no good at it anyway; I’d rather just present the truth as best I can and let the Spirit lead people wherever God wills, and so that’s the approach I take.
Now, there are a lot of ways to do this, but given the busyness of people’s schedules, I figured I ought to keep ours short. As such, I use a three-session structure designed to answer this question: what does it mean to be a member of a Presbyterian church? What’s the significance of that word “Presbyterian”? More generally, what is this thing we call the church, anyway? And what does it mean to be a member? We don’t insist people agree completely with everything in order to join, but it’s still important to lay out what this church, being rooted in that theology and having that particular understanding of the church and the meaning of membership, is all about.
One of the things we talk about in the first class, because it’s at the heart of what it means to be Presbyterian, is that we understand that salvation does not come by our own effort in any way, but is purely by faith, which itself is a gift from God. We know that we can’t earn our salvation, because we can’t live up to God’s standards; rather, we receive it as a free gift—what we cannot do, God did for us in Jesus Christ. This was a major theme of the Reformation, as Martin Luther and John Calvin challenged a Catholic Church that had grown corrupt, because it’s a major theme in the letters of Paul; it was a significant recovery for the church, for all the conflicts that came along with it.
Unfortunately, one of the divisions that arose, in the mind of Luther—and among Catholics as well—was between Paul and James. Luther saw James as contradicting Paul, and dismissed the book as “a right strawy epistle.” He didn’t quite go so far as to leave it out when he translated the Bible into German, but he’s said to have ripped it out of his personal Bible. His objection was based entirely on our passage this morning, thirteen verses out of the 108 that make up the book; and it’s based on a misreading of this passage, which unfortunately has become all too widely accepted.
It’s easy to see where this came from, as both Paul and James talk about faith and works and salvation; superficially, they sound very similar in their language, and seem to be addressing the same issues. If you read a little more closely, though, you see that though they use the same words, they aren’t talking about the same things. When Paul talks about faith versus works, he’s talking about “works of the law”—that’s his phrase; his point is that you can’t earn your salvation by keeping the law, because you can’t possibly keep it well enough to satisfy God. His focus is on the most basic level: how are we saved? How do we enter into the life of the kingdom of God?
James, by contrast, isn’t talking about “works of the law” at all—he never uses the phrase. Rather, he’s talking about works of faith. He’s not talking about how we get saved, about how we lay hold of the life of God—rather, he’s talking about what that life looks like, and about true faith versus false faith. Where Paul’s argument deals with what we can do, or can’t do, in order to be saved, James’ concern is with how our lives should look because we have been saved. Like the whole rest of the book, this is about what it means to live the Christian life—to live the life of God in this fallen world. All he’s really doing in chapter 2 is restating and expanding on a point he made in chapter 1: it’s not enough for us to hear the word of God, we need to submit our lives to its authority and do what it says, if we want to call ourselves Christians.
Remember, one of the overarching themes of this book is that there are two ways of life, the way of friendship with the world and the way of friendship with God, and that the truly Christian life is the way of friendship with God. What does it mean to be friends with someone? Well, among many things, it means that you take seriously what’s important to them, and you don’t make a habit of doing things that will hurt or upset them; you spend time with them, listen to them, tell them the truth. If you have a pattern of disregarding someone’s feelings and treating them carelessly, chances are pretty good that your friendship with that person will not survive your behavior. The same applies to our friendship with God. There are differences, of course; our friendship with God is not a friendship of equals—he has a much greater right to expect certain things of us than any human being would. As well, where human friends will only take so much from us before walking away, God will not let go of us no matter what. Still, James’ point is clear, that if we are friends of God, we need to act like it.
This is where his discussion of faith comes in, because it’s by faith that we are brought into this relationship with God, and he wants to make the point that faith in God logically entails a change in behavior. Contrary to what a lot of people think, faith is not simply a matter of intellectual assent. It doesn’t just mean deciding in your mind that you believe certain things or agree with certain statements. Faith is a commitment of your whole person. It’s a difference captured in a story told of The Great Blondin, who used to entertain crowds by crossing Niagara Falls on a tightrope. Supposedly, one time as he came to the end of his show, he asked the crowd, “How many of you believe I could carry one of you back and forth across this tightrope?” There was a loud roar of agreement. Then he said, “Who’s willing to climb on my back?” Dead silence. The former is a kind of belief; true faith is climbing on. True faith is resting the whole weight of your life on Jesus and committing to go with him wherever he goes and do whatever he does. It’s not just giving him your agreement—it’s giving him your life, the whole thing, without reservation and with nothing held back.
This is why James says, essentially, faith works. Faith in God produces action. It’s not enough just to believe that God exists—the demons believe that more strongly than you do, and they’re certainly not saved. Their faith, if you want to call it that, doesn’t change anything for them, except to cause them great fear. True faith, by contrast, changes everything, because it’s not just believing with our mind, it’s believing with our whole being. If someone comes to you—James specifies a fellow Christian—so poor that they can’t even feed or clothe themselves properly, and you say to them, “Go in peace; I have faith that God will provide for you,” what good is that? Is that any kind of real faith? No! That kind of faith is empty, it is worthless, it is dead—there’s simply nothing alive there. True faith produces a response to the needs of others, moving us to step up and meet their needs, trusting that God will provide for us in our needs in turn. True faith produces action in the same way that acorns produce oak trees—it’s simply the nature of the thing. If someone claims to have faith in God but shows no evidence of it in the way they live their lives, that faith is like a body without a spirit: dead.
Now, there are a lot of ways we could go in applying this. We could talk about the importance of looking at ourselves and our lives to see if what we say we believe actually determines how we live. It’s certainly worth asking ourselves if our faith produces works—if we believe it with our hands and feet, not just with our minds and lips. As I was thinking about this passage, though, it was something else that struck me: this understanding of Christian faith is really quite countercultural these days. The idea is widespread in this country, even among Christians, that our faith should be a private matter, between us and God, which really shouldn’t mess up our public lives. It’s fine to be a Christian and go to church and all that if that’s what works for you, but people around you shouldn’t have to deal with that if they don’t want to; out in the “real world,” you ought to go about your business the same way as everybody else.
This is the way of thinking James calls “friendship with the world,” living in such a way as to keep the world happy; and as he makes clear, this is the exact backwards of the way of life to which God calls us. True faith cannot be merely a private matter; it cannot be something we keep restricted to safe times and places when there’s no one around who might object. True faith changes everything we say and everything we do, at every time and in every place, in every aspect of our lives. True faith isn’t concerned with whether we’re telling people what they want to hear, it’s concerned with whether or not we’re being faithful witnesses to the truth and the life of Jesus Christ—who, after all, often made people quite uncomfortable by telling people exactly what they didn’t want to hear, because it was the truth they needed to hear.
Now, this isn’t a matter of trying to work to turn ourselves into God’s friends—that would be works trying to produce faith—because this isn’t something we have done, or need to do. Rather, this is something God has already done and is doing. Remember what I said earlier, that the life of faith is all about the grace of God; it is God who by his grace has declared us to be his friends. We simply respond by recognizing that friendship with God is a far, far greater and more wonderful thing than friendship with the world, and pursuing him in turn as he pursues us, opening ourselves to the work he is doing and plans to do in our lives. It’s a matter of understanding how great and how wonderful is the love and the grace of God—how much better he is than anything this world can offer—and responding accordingly, by learning to desire friendship with God more than we do friendship with anyone else. When we truly want to please God, the rest will follow.