Thursday, April 26, 2012

Studying James

A Protestant friend started an online Bible study on Facebook and invited people of all faiths to I did. He is beginning the study with the Letter of James because it is short and seemed like a good place for everyone to get their feet wet before diving in to a weightier and lengthier text. My immediate thought was: "Faith and Works" - you're opening a whole can of worms on this one! The Letter of James is exhibit 'A' in a Catholic case against the Protestant notion of "Faith Alone."

So here is a sample of my first comments on this Facebook Bible study. (Note: my friend wanted to cover two chapters at a time, which is rather arbitrary since the chapters in the Bible do not always correspond with a break in thought. And it can really hinder your ability to discuss themes and concepts in the text when your reading is cut off by such a constraint. And often two chapters covers A LOT of material, so the discussions will become overwhelming. But, hey, it's his Bible study, so I'll go with it.):

The first chapter begins by focusing on trials and testing of our faith. Through these trials, James tells us that we must persevere. He says that we must be slow to speak and slow to anger... (1:19). And he says that we must not only be HEARERS of the word but DOERS of the word (1:22). This whole section of James, to me, says that our faith cannot be in isolation. From the outside world we will be tested and tempted, and this will keep us on our toes. And from within ourselves we must control our response to those outside forces - we must control our anger and our words. There is always this tension in our faith from within ourselves and from without - trials and temptations and our own urges to lash out when we feel oppressed. Faith is caught in this tension.

This sets us up for the next chapter where faith is not only being pressured from temptations and trials in a constant tug-of-war, but we must also ACT in faith...we must perform good works. This is the meat of the matter, I think. Our faith is important and we certainly must stay true in our faith, but as James says, "the demons also believe, and shudder." (2:19) The demons are suffering in torment, but their response to that torment is what James is pointing to. Demons believe in God just as we do; but their belief does not translate into good works and LOVE. Belief in God is not enough to save them.

Christians will face trials and persecutions. Suffering through those trials while keeping our faith intact is a good start, but we must look outside ourselves and feed the hungry, cloth the naked, etc. Faith ALONE is no better than what the demons have - they believe in God, but they refuse to do good. We are called to an active living faith. Our WORKS justify us, not our "faith alone" (however strong that faith may be).
...The whole idea of "Faith Alone" never made sense to me. I wish someone could explain it to me in light of what we read here in James. It seems to me that the notion of justification by "Faith Alone" is simply un-biblical.

Interestingly, the ONLY place in the Bible where the words "faith alone" appear together is in James: "You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone." (2:24) So I've always found it interesting that the doctrine of "Faith Alone" is believed by Protestant/Reformed Christians.

 ...But of course that's why Martin Luther wanted to remove the Book of James from the Bible.


  1. It does seem backward, Paul saying that we are saved through faith alone and then James noting that faith without works is pointless. The reason is that they are both speaking on separate matters. Paul is talking about salvation and James is talking about being a Christian. Paul is saying that being a good person and helping out others isn't going to get you into heaven. It's just making you a nice person. Paul says that only a faith in Jesus Christ and the acknowledgement of his sacrifice at the cross will save you. James knows this, he's just adding that while being saved is great, it's not a one and done deal. You can be saved and never do anything else and still retain that salvation, but to truly be a follower of Christ, you need to back up that faith by living it out and spreading God's love by serving and helping people out. Make sense?

  2. Actually, I think if you read a little closer you will see that James insists that "good works" are necessary for salvation...we do not do good works to just "put the icing on the cake" of an already saved Christian life. Our works are an important part of our salvation.

    I would suggest you read passages such as this: "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no works? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead." (James 2:14-17)

    Dead faith does not save us. "Even the demons believe and shudder." The demons have faith that God is Who He says He is; that Jesus is the Savior, the Messiah. But the demons refuse to do the work of God. Such a dead faith leads to damnation. Believing that Jesus is the Lord and Savior of the World is no more than what the demons believe. But you demonstrate a living faith (a saving faith) by acting on this belief.

    And consider this: "You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without works is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, 'Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness, and he was called God’s friend.' You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone." (James 2:20-24)

    Notice that James does not say, "Our salvation is from faith alone. If you have faith then you are saved even if you don't do any works." No! He says that "faith without works is useless" --- useless! Not that our works simply make you a better Christian... No, faith without works is useless.

    I'll repeat what I said in the original post. The only place in the Bible that uses the phrase "faith alone" is here in James where he says that "faith alone" does NOT justify us.

    If anything James builds on what Paul says by clarifying that "Faith Alone" is a FALSE interpretation of Paul's writing.