Faith and works - Part 1
1st December 2017
For the next three weeks, I'd like to look at this passage from the letter of James:
When we first read this passage, we might see it as a nice, simple encouragement towards giving practical love and care to our brothers and sisters in Christ, as summarised by:
1 John 3:18
But for the thinkers among us, there are some deep questions here. Douglas Moo, who wrote an excellent commentary on this letter, says, “"This paragraph is the most theologically significant, as well as the most controversial, in the letter of James". We'll look at the practical issues first (because James does) and we'll look at the "theological" stuff in the next two studies.
James begins this section by asking:
Well, what good is it? None at all! It doesn’t happen in a church like mine that a Christian has no clothes, or can’t afford food. But in some parts of the world, Christians live in extreme poverty, and often go hungry. That's why we try to ensure that most of our church giving goes to Christians in need in other countries. Doing what we can to provide food, clothes, sanitation, education for their children, and other priorities, for suffering Christians is a duty for us, isn't it?
But suppose for a moment that a member of your church had no food or clothes, or at least no warm clothes. And suppose you or I knew about this, and when we met them or saw them in church, we just expressed a vague hope that they would find the food and clothes they need, or offered to pray for them, but didn't take them to a supermarket and buy them something. What kind of a Christian would we be? What kind of faith can we have if our hearts remain so cold?
James wouldn't have written this unless he knew of situations in the church his own day where these things were happening. And he asks, if a person has the sort of faith that allows him to ignore the needy person sitting in the next chair on Sunday morning, can that faith save him?
How can we call ourselves Christians and do nothing to meet the desperate needs of another of Gods children?
And, of course, our needs are not just practical. Sometimes we need friendship, encouragement, company, advice or forgiveness. Let James challenge you. If you know another Christian has pressing needs, and you do nothing more than talk about it, what kind of Christian are you? Do you have a real faith at all?
Let's agree this: Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. James has already asked, rhetorically, "Can such faith save him?" Now he says that such a faith is dead. Any plant that produces no leaf or fruit is dead. Faith that produces no kindness, gentleness or godliness is dead. If faith doesn't change us, it has no purpose. It's of no use at all.
Faith that does not result in action can't be seen. There is no evidence for it. If all we do is go to church meetings, prayer the prayers and sing the songs, but we don't repent, we don't serve others, we don't show mercy to our brothers and sisters, then nobody – including ourselves – has any reason to suppose that our faith is genuine.