By David Baumann
A Reading from James 2:14-26
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.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe — and shudder. 20 Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith without works is barren? 21 Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. 23 Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.
Optical illusions are very fun. One of the best known is the one in which the viewer has to decide whether they’re seeing a young woman or an old woman. Of course, we see both at the same time. And so it is with the old “faith vs. works” debate. I guess by now that what previous generations found a matter of often bitter argument has mostly been settled.
Or has it? The Church has always had those who emphasize the contemplative and those who emphasize social ministry; those who emphasize conversion and those who emphasize changing the world. Ideally (and properly), believers will recognize that they’re all right, in the way that Paul describes the body of Christ being made up of different organs all working together. But the ideal is not always and universally recognized. I recall a deeply faithful man who asked me once, “What good are monks?” It might be something like if we asked a couple profoundly in love whether their relationship is mostly about their deep feelings or their commitments and what they do for each other. Probably the couple would be incredulous. “You don’t understand what it is to be in love,” they could respond, “or you wouldn’t ask such a nonsensical question.”
Faith is not one aspect of a relationship with God in Jesus; it’s what changes the entire person. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation,” taught Paul (2 Cor. 5:17). The new creation must be doing good works, because that’s just what the new creation does. Its love for Jesus overflows to be “light in the world” and “salt in the earth.” Works are what faith looks like when there is a new creation. It’s “both/and” and more. And there is nothing illusive about it.
David Baumann has been an Episcopal priest for 47 years, mainly in the Diocese of Los Angeles and the Diocese of Springfield. He is now retired and has published nonfiction, science fiction novels, and short stories.
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The Diocese of East Tennessee
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