Distinctions. We make them all the time. We distinguish body and soul, Law and Gospel, justification and sanctification, the two natures of Christ, faith and good works. We make distinctions because our mouths don’t multi-task. Nor do our brains, no matter how much we kid ourselves. You can only talk and think about one thing at a time. And so distinctions help us to speak clearly, and hopefully to think clearly too.
If it weren’t for distinctions, we wouldn’t be able to say that God is Three Persons and One Being at the same time. Or that Christ was fully God and fully human. Or that the Word of God is both a word of Law and a word of Gospel.
The danger with distinctions is that they tend to become divisions and take on lives of their own. So you sometimes hear funeral sermons that speak of souls bobbing around heaven without bodies, inviting all sorts of strange speculations. According to James, a body without spirit is dead. That’s the definition of dead – the division of body and soul. When a distinction becomes a division, we lose the thing itself. Division is death to distinction. We must not separate what God has joined together.
Think of a coin. It has a head side and a tail side. And you have to have both to have a coin. If you cut the coin in two, separating head from the tail, you’d have two worthless pieces of metal and a dead asset.
Faith and works are the big distinction of the new testament. “For we hold that a man is justified by faith, apart from works of the law.” Paul couldn’t be any clearer. The Reformation banked on that distinction. Faith alone justifies before God. Simple, passive, receptive trust in the finished work of Jesus’ life and death. Sola fide. Faith alone.
And then along comes James, the brother of our Lord, the first bishop of the first church in Jerusalem. James cautions us. Though faith alone justifies, faith is never alone.
Preaching would be a lot easier if we didn’t have the book of James. Luther tried to write old James off in his early career, though he repented of that later. Even the early church didn’t uniformly recognize James because he wasn’t a bona fide apostle. He didn’t have the proper credentials, so to speak. But as hard as the membership committee tried to keep James out of the canonical club, the Holy Spirit, as general editor of the Holy Scriptures, insisted on keeping him in. We ignore James at our own peril. It never pays to argue with the Holy Spirit.
Reading the new testament, I don’t get the impression that James and Paul got along very well. They quote the same passage from the old testament – “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness” and draw opposite conclusions from it. Paul says Abraham was justified by faith apart from his works. James, that Abraham was justified by his working faith.
The Holy Spirit is a great teacher. Instead of resolving every little conflict, He leaves the tension stand as a paradox and says to us, “Deal with it.” Every road has a ditch on either side, and the good driver tries not to drive into either one of them. The road to salvation has two ditches. One ditch says that good works are necessary for salvation. That ditch goes by the name “legalism” – using our good behavior to earn God’s favor. You need to consult St. Paul about that. He’ll remind you that you’re covered by the blood of Jesus, the Lamb slain from the foundations of the world, that you are chosen, elect, justified and sanctified entirely in Jesus Christ, entirely by God’s grace, without your so much as lifting a pious finger or raising a pious prayer. It’s all a done deal in Jesus. Believe it.
The other ditch in the salvation road says works don’t matter, they’re unnecessary. Some might even say they’re hazardous for salvation, because the minute we talk about them we’re going to begin to trust in them instead of Jesus. We call that “antinomianism,” or again the law-ism. Or as I’ve actually heard this summary of the Christian faith: “I ain’t gotta do nothin’.” That’s not only bad grammar, it’s bad theology. James keeps us out of that ditch.
James isn’t telling people how they are saved; he’s telling them how those who believe they are saved behave. He’s speaking to “those who hold the faith of Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” Those who have been born by the Word of truth, who have received the implanted Word, who have glimpsed by faith into the perfected law of liberty. He’s talking to baptized believers the likes of you and me. If you’re not a baptized believer, don’t bother with James. He’s not talking to you. Listen to Jesus first, then listen to His brother.
James is concerned about hypocricy, the peculiar sin of the particularly religious. Not the “big, bad ugly sins” that the unbelievers out there are busy doing in the world, but the polite, acceptable, pious hands folded sins that a congregation of believers does. Churchy sins. Stuff like the unbridled tongue, all the gossiping that goes on behind the scenes in the church parking lot, all the backstabbing that takes place in the back rows of congregation meetings. Stuff like playing favorites with the rich, so when a guy rolls up to church driving a late model Mercedes and wearing an Armani suit, you escort him to the best seat in the house while a smelly bum in rags gets shown the door because the rich guy pays the bills that balance the budget, right?
“Wrong,” says James. When you insult the poor, you insult the very picture of faith. Jesus said, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.” The only way any of us are admitted into the kingdom, whether rich or poor, is to drop into the poverty of death. God doesn’t play favorites when it comes to death and resurrection. Neither should the church.
Now just in case you think you can work your way into the kingdom, James raises the bar beyond reach. Even if you keep the entire Law, every single commandment, and yet slip up in just one teeny, tiny point, you’re guilty of the whole Law. Go straight to outer darkness, weeping, gnashing of teeth. Do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars. One point, one stray word, one lustful glance, one stray thought. And it’s the whole shootin’ match. As Jesus said, “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
Now you’ve got a bead on how James’ mind works. It’s all or nothing. The whole and not pieces. For James, it’s utter nonsense to talk about faith without works. It’s just an abstraction, a concept, a piece of idle theology to kick around when you’ve got nothing better to do.
What is faith anyway? It’s just simple dead, dumb trust in something or someone else. Trust. I trust the elevator is in good working order. So I get in and push the button for the 7th floor and then I stand there and look at my shoes while the elevator takes me to the 7th floor.
But suppose I say to you, “I trust that elevator.” And you say, “Great, let’s hop in and go to the 7th floor.” And I say, “Uh, no thanks. I’d rather take the stairs.” What do you conclude? That I don’t really trust the elevator.
Or suppose I say, “I really love my wife.” And you say, “Great, I’d like to meet her sometimes.” And I say, “Oh, we don’t live together, and we never actually see each other.” What do you conclude? I don’t really love my wife
Suppose I say, “I believe that Jesus is my Savior from sin and death.” But I never worship, never commune, never pray; I live like an unbeliever. What do you conclude? That’s James’ point. Faith and works go together, like pancakes and maple syrup, like apple trees and apples, or as James puts it, like body and breath. A body without breath is a corpse. Faith without works is dead.
James knows the objections. Some will say, “I have faith; and you have deeds.” But your can’t divide the two. Faith without works is dead faith; and works without faith are dead works. And either way you’re a dead duck. Some will say, “But I have the pure doctrine. I read the Bible. I’ve memorized the catechism. I can defend the doctrine of the real presence in the Lord’s Supper.” But James would say, “That’s nice. The devils know that stuff too, better than you do, and they tremble with fear.”
If I trust in something or someone, that trust causes me to act a certain way. I trust the elevator works, I will enter it, push the button, and expect to be carried to the right floor. Abraham trusted the promise of God, that he was going to be the father of many nations and that through his seed, his offspring, all nations of the earth would be blessed. And so when God said, “Offer your only son Isaac as a sacrifice on the mountain,” Abraham acted in trust. He believed God’s promise and acted in trust. His faith affected his life and his decisions. If Abraham had said to God, “No way I’m going to put the knife to my son,” and took Isaac to the Disneyland instead, we could only conclude one thing: He didn’t trust God’s promise after all.
Same with Rahab, the prostitute of Jericho. She trusted the promise that she and her family would be rescued from the destruction of Jericho. And so she hid the Israelite spies, risking her own life, trusting the promise. Her faith affected her life and her decisions.
Faith is living and active because the Word that faith clings to is living and active. Good works are the visible side of faith. I can’t see your faith, and you can’t see mine. God alone sees into the heart. You can only see what I do and hear what I say. That’s how we let our light shine before others, that they may see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven.
In case you think I’m passing off counterfeit currency this morning, let me read a few passages from our Lutheran Confessions on faith and works:
From the Augsburg Confession:
“It is also taught among us that such faith should produce good fruits and good works and that we must do all such good works as God has commanded, but we should do them for God’s sake and not place our trust in them as if thereby to merit favor before God. (AC 6)
From Luther’s Smalcald Articles:
“I do not know how I can change what I have heretofore constantly taught on this subject, namely, that by faith we get a new and clean heart and that God will and does account us altogether righteous and holy for the sake of Christ, our mediator. Although the sin in our flesh has not been completely removed or eradicated, he will not count or consider it.
Good works follow such faith, renewal, and forgiveness. Whatever is still sinful or imperfect in these works will not be reckoned as sin or defect for the sake of the same Christ. The whole man, in respect both of his person and of his works, shall be accounted and shall be righteous and holy through the pure grace and mercy which have been poured out upon us so abundantly in Christ. Accordingly we cannot boast of the great merit in our works if they are considered apart from God’s grace and mercy, but, as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord”. That is to say, all is well if we boast that we have a gracious God. To this we must add that if good works do not follow, our faith is false and not true. (SA XIII)
From the Formula of Concord:
“This is our doctrine, faith, and confession: That good works, like fruits of a good tree, certainly and indubitably follow genuine faith – if it is a living and not a dead faith.” (Ep IV.1)
Some of you here today may be concerned that your faith is dead. All you see in your life is sin, failure, weakness. If that’s how you feel, I would offer three thoughts:
First, the dead don’t typically get up on a Sunday morning, when the rest of the world sleep in, to come to church and hear the Word of Christ and eat and drink His Supper. Worship is one of the fruits of faith.
Second, good works aren’t a measure of faith, they are the fruit of faith. Fruit, as in apples on a healthy apple tree. As breath to the body, says James. You only notice your breathing when something’s gone terribly wrong with your body. You only pay attention to your own works, when something’s gone terribly wrong with faith.
Third, even if your faith really is dead, you’ve come to the right place anyway, to the congregation where Jesus Christ is present by His promise, to His Word, HIs Body and His Blood. Jesus delights in raising the dead. It’s His specialty. He’s the only One who does it for you, for your salvation. Today is your day of resurrection. If you aren’t baptized, then by all means repent and be baptized and have that dead faith buried in Jesus. If you are baptized, as most of you here already are, then repent and remember what your Baptism reveals: You’ve been buried with Christ together with everything that is dead in you – your works, your faith, your sin, your death. His death is yours. His life is yours. Forgiveness and salvation are yours in Jesus. His works are yours.
Now believe it, and live in the freedom of that trust. It just like breathing.
In the Name of Jesus,