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Faith v Works: A False Dichotomy

Faith v WorksClick here to listen to this sermon.

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

As the delegates drove onto the campus where the district convention would take place, an unlikely figure appeared. The woman was obviously out of place. She was not dressed properly for her surroundings, nor were her advances asking for help welcomed. Throughout the week, she moved among the delegates, who rarely even acknowledged her presence. Occasionally, someone might talk to her, but only long enough to get her to move on. More than one person asked: “What is she doing here?” Or, “Why doesn’t security escort her off campus?”

As they gathered for a final day, the delegates’ thoughts were focused on finishing up and going home. Suddenly, there was a commotion near the back door of the auditorium. It was the bag lady insisting that she be allowed to talk to whoever was running the convention. The district president motioned to her to come up to the podium. They looked at each other, smiled, and he turned to the microphone to speak. He introduced the bag lady to the delegates. She was a member of one of their congregations. Stepping to the podium, she addressed the delegates, telling them how she had been treated during the week. Some had helped her a little. Others were at least polite to her. Most just ignored her.

The convention ended differently than most. When the “bag lady” finished speaking, the district president led the delegates in a time of confession and absolution. And they left the convention with a better understanding of the connection between faith and works.

“But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”

With those words, we are thrown into an age-old debate of “faith vs. works.” But faith vs. works is a false dichotomy, a logical fallacy in which something is falsely claimed to be an “either/or” situation, when in fact there is at least one additional option. Faith and works are not mutually exclusive. In fact, when it comes to our relationship to God, you can’t have one without the other.

That’s not to say that we are saved by faith and works—something one of my Roman Catholic friends tried to argue when I posted a meme that said, “You are saved by works; but not your own,” and had a picture of Christ on the cross. He admitted that nowhere does Scripture directly say we are saved by faith and works, but asserted that this can be determined by deduction from passages like our text.

I asked: Why would God leave something so important to understanding our salvation to deduction, which has the potential of faulty human reasoning? Wouldn’t He make it clear in Scripture how we are saved?

He has! And He has made clear the relationship between faith and works. In Ephesians 2:8-10, we read: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

Do you see the relationship between faith and works? Lutheran theologian, Urbanus Rhegius, a contemporary of Martin Luther writes:

Scripture everywhere exalts and praises good works and never says anything bad about them. Accordingly, whenever it is said, “Faith alone makes godly,” good works are not being rejected, but instead it amounts to saying: Only the grace of God in Christ makes us godly and blessed, our worthiness does nothing to this end. For no creature in heaven or on earth can perform such a great, magnificent thing as to merit the removal of sin, to justify and save, to abolish sin and death. Our only mediator Jesus Christ alone can and ought to do that… Therefore, whenever we extol faith, we are not scorning works; rather we are extolling the genuine source from which all good works spring. It is impossible to do good works without faith.

He goes on to say: We insist that a line must be drawn between faith and good works and the purpose of each be kept distinct. Faith makes us righteous before God. Good works give an external testimony of this inward righteousness to our neighbors…

Faith, without good works is no faith. Works without faith are not good works. Therefore, these two, believing and good works, must go together as long as we live. Those who do not improve their lives and do good works should know they are not Christians.[i]

So, we’ve got this, right? It’s all about order. Works do not count for our salvation. We are saved only through faith in the righteousness of Christ, a righteousness carried out in His suffering, death, and resurrection and given to us by the grace of God in our Baptisms. We have the doctrine right. But then it’s the actions that follow (or do not follow) that seem so inconsistent.

There are two sinful outcomes of a Christian’s life when we dismiss works because they can’t save. We either then do whatever we want because God’s grace is there to pick us up; or we do nothing because it counts for nothing.

The former is a kind of “cheap grace.” I’m reminded of our former UPS man. Although he was always in a hurry, he still found time for brief theological discussions. One day we were discussing the differences between his Lutheran church body’s teaching and ours on same-sex marriage. Noting the disparity, he smiled and said: “Well, I guess it doesn’t really matter—we’re all saved by grace, right?” As if grace were some kind of get-out-of-jail-free card for sin.

I would think that most of us are more likely to fall into the latter temptation—to think that since we are already saved only by grace through faith, there’s nothing more we can or must do. It’s important for us to understand that what we do or don’t do does matter. Moreover, those actions are connected to our faith—not in order to be saved, but because we are saved.

Notice how James begins his letter. “My brothers.” James is not writing to those who are outside the faith. He’s writing to those who are of the faith, brothers made so by God’s grace through the gift of faith. James confronts a problem in the Church—the disconnect between the faith we profess and how we live out our faith. For example: Two men enter the assembly, the gathering of believers in the presence of God. One is dressed well, the other not. The one dressed well is distinguished among the brothers. The other is given a lower place. James writes: “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (2:8-10).

So what we do really does matter! And what we do not do? But how? It can seem as though all of James’ words, including those about faith being dead without works, all add up to this: “Do better!” Is that it? Do better? Do better so people can see you’re a Christian? Do better so God knows you’re serious about Him?

If that’s all James is saying, then why don’t we simply do better? Why don’t we just do everything God says? After all, God said to do it; just do it! But we don’t. In fact, we can’t. If James is saying nothing more than “Do better!” he’s actually doing exactly what he condemns in verse 15-16 of our text: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?”

On our own, we can’t “do better” just because James says so any more than the poor person can be warmed and filled by our words alone. That’s because our sinful nature always has its own agenda. Our sinful nature always looks out for itself, not for our neighbor in need. So the age-old debate of faith vs. works is set before us: Either James’ words are empty encouragement for us as we live our lives in perpetual disappointment to God, or there’s more.

Indeed, there is more! In verse 7, James makes what seems to be just a passing comment in the middle of his encouragement to do good. He refers to the “name by which you were called.” However, it’s not just a passing comment; it’s filled with the answer to the problem here. It suggests there was action of the one who called us, for we can’t call ourselves. It’s God, of course, who’s called us. He’s called us into a relationship with Him that’s lived out in relationship to one another. It really is all about order. It all begins with God’s action toward us and continues as we live out His action toward us in our actions toward others.

Both faith and works come from God. And that is Good News!

The content of our faith is Jesus Christ and His work of salvation on our behalf. He lived the perfect life we cannot live. He died to pay the price we cannot pay. He rose to defeat death, so that His righteousness might become ours. Our faith is in a work, but not our own. Our faith is in a work accomplished on a cross and emanating from an empty tomb. Our life begins, continues, and ends with Him and in Him, which is why what we do and what we don’t do really matters.

The life we live is the life God has worked for us in Christ. He is the content of our faith and the content of our living. Therefore, He is the content of our works. Any other understanding of the relationship between faith and works creates an either/or proposition—either faith or works. Rather, Christ in us and Christ through us creates a both/and proposition—both faith and works; first faith, then works, and never one without the other.

Now, what about when I fail? In the either/or proposition, our failure means one of two things. Our failure means either we have no faith or our failure doesn’t matter. We know our failures can’t simply be overlooked—God is holy and just and cannot tolerate sin. So in the either/or proposition, we’re sent back within ourselves to do better. We’re left to find our own inner strength. And one cannot find spiritual strength in the weakness of our own sinful flesh.

Our faith, though, isn’t in ourselves; it’s in Christ and in His work. This is where the both/and proposition of faith and works finds a firm hold on our lives. Because if everything begins with Christ, then He is where we go when we fail. When we fail to live as we should, we’re sent back to Christ. We’re sent back to His Word and reassurance of God’s grace given in Baptism as we hear His Word of forgiveness. We’re sent back to feed on Him in His Supper in order to receive from Him strengthening of our faith and love for our neighbor. We’re sent back to the One, who has graciously called us to Himself and has given us His name.

His grace is your salvation, and His grace is your strength to live, to live lives that look like what you are—children of God, brothers and sisters of Christ.

“So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” But you are not dead. You are alive in Christ. Go and live and work in His name. You are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 

[i] Urbanus Rhegius (Preaching the Reformation: The Homiletical Handbook of Urbanus Rhegius [Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2003], 5).

 

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