Sunday, April 2, 2017

Faith without works is dead

Have you ever heard someone cite James 2 and say, "Faith without works is dead?"

The citation is from the King James Version of James 2:20, 26.
For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. (James 2:26, KJV)
Do you remember what point was being made when the verse was quoted?

James 2:17, 20, 26 are often cited—especially within the churches of Christ—as proof that you have to be baptized to be saved. "Faith without works is dead," some folks frequently say. "That's proof that you have to be baptized."

Invoking James 2 to prove the necessity of baptism totally misses James' point and damages the meaning of the text. Just a simple read of the text in context shows that James, by the term "works," does not mean any kind of action that can even be extended to baptism.

So, what is James talking about?

James is troubled by the way some Christians of his day live their lives righteously only insofar as it suits them. He says that they need to apply their faith consistently, particularly in the act of loving your neighbor as yourself (James 2:8).

The best way to read James is all at once; but I think we can get the idea of James' meaning of dead faith by reading the following central section.
James 1:22-2:17:
22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. 26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. 2:1 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2 For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3 and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, "Have a seat here, please," while to the one who is poor you say, "Stand there," or, "Sit at my feet," 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7 Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? 8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." 9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, "You shall not commit adultery," also said, "You shall not murder." Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. 14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
James is being critical of the a kind of piety that practices "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" to a rich person but not to a poor person. If Christians pick and choose how they will put the Golden Rule into practice, they are in complete violation of the rule. He says, acting kindly towards the poor is how we put into practice the Golden Rule. Piously telling someone that God takes care of the needs of the poor (James 2:16) but not being God's instrument in fulfilling those needs is the supreme failure of piety.

(Incidentally, James' mention of bridling the tongue in James 1:26 is elaborated in chapter 3, "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness").

By "works," James means acts of charity. If your faith is not evident in your actions, you have dead faith. Charitable works is really what James is talking about. He is not comparing good works and ineffective works. He is comparing living faith and dead faith.

James is not talking about baptism. Not even close. Can we extend the passage to apply to baptism? No; and doing so damages a proper understanding of the doctrine of baptism. It concedes that baptism is a work, which it most definitely is NOT! not in the same sense as a work of charity. To yield as much concedes that baptism is meritorious for salvation.

Baptism is definitely not meritorious for salvation. Baptism is no more a meritorious work than is repentance, confession or belief. All are required by God but none merit salvation.

Some people say that baptism, if it is required by God, is a work and we are saved by Grace, not works. Then, many of us, like we have tourette's, lurch over to James 2, ignore the context, and start reading in verse 14. The biggest mistake in this conscription of Scripture is agreeing that baptism is a work earning salvation. Baptism is simply God's prescription for our response to the Gospel.

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