Faith and Works

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over three weeks I am reproducing those here in my blog. Here is the article for February 4, 2018, based on James 2:14-26.

As the Adult Bible Study student guide notes, it’s possible that James was responding to a misunderstanding of Paul’s teaching about being justified by faith and not by works of the Law. In fact, given the similarities in wording between specific statements in Paul’s letters (Rom 3:28; Gal 2:16) and here (Jas 2:24), this is likely the case. Some had understood Paul to mean that our actions don’t matter with regard to salvation—all that matters is believing certain things to be true. Sadly, many Christians today also understand Paul’s teaching this way—and they either accept this teaching as gospel or reject Paul as having distorted Jesus’ teaching.

It’s a common misunderstanding of Paul’s teaching, that “faith” is simply “belief,” mentally assenting to certain truths—that Jesus died for our sins and rose again, for example. However, the word for “faith (pistis) can have a wide range of meanings. It can include “belief,” but it can also mean “trust,” “faithfulness,” or “allegiance.” Paul in fact draws on this whole semantic range of the word pistis: yes, believing certain things to be true is important, but so is trusting in God in a personal way, as well as showing faithfulness and demonstrating allegiance to God. This is underscored by the many ways Paul speaks about genuine faith as that which works itself out in loving actions (e.g. Gal 5:6).

James gives two examples of these “loving actions” that result from genuine faith: caring for the poor (2:1-9, 14-17), and protecting the foreigner (2:25-26). This is significant for at least two reasons.

First, these are prominent themes throughout the Scriptures. Concern for the poor, including the widow and orphan, and concern for the foreigner or stranger, is deeply embedded in the Law of Moses and repeatedly voiced by the Prophets (e.g. Lev 19:10, 34; Deut 15:7-11; Isa 1:17; Jer 22:3). This concern for the poor and the stranger, representing the most vulnerable in society, continues through the teaching of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament (e.g. Matt 25:34-40; Rom 12:13; Gal 2:10; 1 John 3:17).

Second, this is significant because these continue to be prominent needs—and controversial flashpoints—today. Somehow, in certain conservative Christian circles, caring for the poor and welcoming the stranger, or calling on governments to attend to these needs, has become a sign of theological liberalism. But can we claim to have genuine, living, saving faith, yet refuse to stand with the poor and the foreigner, with all who are vulnerable and marginalized in society? Both James and Paul—following in the footsteps of Jesus, following the Law and the Prophets—are clear: the answer is a resounding “no.”

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