What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? 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.
But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds 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.
In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
This passage, famously, enraged Luther who felt that it undermined his insistence that faith is all that is required for our salvation. Calling the letter an “Epistle of Straw” he considered removing it from the Bible! Of course this was something of an own goal as it allowed the Catholics to point out he was hypocritical given his insistence on the primacy of Scripture as a source for theology!
The debates of the 16th Century seem to still be with us as Christians continue to argue about if we cooperate in our own salvation by working with God’s Spirit or if our salvation is completely a matter for God’s sovereign will.
Strangely, people in our wider culture are really not at all interested in this dichotomy – nor, it seems, is James who sees faith and works as being two sides of the same coin. It’s all too easy to be smug and announce that we don’t need to do anything good as we can’t earn our salvation and then to give an appalling witness to others as our lives continue to be as selfish and self-centred as before we became Christians. It is also all too easy to act as if we have to earn our salvation in a culture where we are fed the poisonous lie that we can have anything we want if we work hard enough.
Systems and forces shape our culture, our lives, and our futures. We can’t break free from these systems and forces until the world is turned around. Proclaiming that we can be set free by One greater than those systems and forces is counter cultural – especially when we say we cannot earn such freedom. Yet, our response, once set free, is not to be smug but to act as free people who live and act in loving free ways.
Eternal God, before the ages you chose us to bear fruit that will last. In your good time you created us in your image and, despite our flaws and imperfections, you work your purpose out through us. Help us to trust in you and show, through our lives, that our faith in you is justified. Amen.
The Rev’d Andy Braunston ministers with four churches in and around Glasgow.