What Do Your Actions Say About Your Faith?
James 2:18 ¶ But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.
James 2:19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder.
James 2:20 Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren?
James 2:21 Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?
James 2:22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works.
James 2:23 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.
James 2:24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
Here is a Scripture passage that somehow seems to be at odds with the Apostle Paul. How in the world could James say in verse 24 that we are "justified by works and not by faith alone" when Paul says we are justified by faith alone (Eph. 2:8-9) and not by works? Somehow there must be some kind of connection which is being made here by James between faith and works that can bring him to this conclusion. If we look closely at verse 22 we will find the answer. James is referring to Abraham and his sacrifice before God. Here comes the connection and the order in which to understand faith and works. Abraham's "faith was active along with his works." Let's take a moment to look at that comment in greater detail. The word that we translate "was active along with" has at it's root the word synergy. This is a word of cooperation and we struggle with how exactly to express this idea. The NIV says, "You see that his faith and his actions were working together." The NRSV above simply says "along with his works." However, I really like the concept contained in the original word "synergy" because I believe it expresses something much stronger than what we quickly read over in the English.
The early Church Fathers were captured by this idea of synergy in the life of the Christian. The foundation of this was faith. Faith had to come first and it comes first for Paul and if we read this section of Scripture carefully it comes first for James as well. However, there is something synergistic that happens in the life of the Christian when this faith is combined with works. There is a synergistic reaction in which faith gives rise to works and works give strength to faith. You really cannot separate the two, but you must first begin with faith. If you try to begin with works, you will fail for works alone do not lead to faith but faith, if it is properly applied, will always lead to works. Why? We have to finish reading verse 22 "and faith was brought to completion by the works." And the root behind the word "completion" is again that teleiooœ word -- that telos concept, or the idea that faith is made perfect by works. But maybe we ought to ask, "made perfect by whose works?" Here is why we must understand the connection between faith and works. As I enter into a relationship with Christ, by faith, Jesus Christ himself becomes the goal (perfection) of my life. My goal is to become more and more like him, to be a reflection of him. Jesus did not enter this world to live a life of faith alone, but displayed his very nature day in and day out by his acts. If we are to be like Christ, we must be reflections of Christ to our world in our actions. Therefore it is impossible to separate Christlikeness from works, for Christlikeness is living out the very works or actions of Christ in our world on a daily basis. Therefore we begin with faith, but faith is made perfection, or brought to completion by our actions. And the synergistic activity is that faith gives rise to Christlikeness and the more that I continue in Christlikeness the more that I grow in my faith. Therefore it is impossible to have faith without works. You cannot have faith in a Christ who is actively engaged in this world and not become actively engaged yourself.
For many years within Christianity we measured our faith by our own personal acts of piety. Somehow we defined holiness as the things that we did not do. We were more holy than the people next door because we didn't smoke, or drink or engage in other activities. Just yesterday I was driving down the highway and someone had a sorority sticker on their car. I'm actually just fascinated by the Greek letters that represent these fraternities or sororities. All of a sudden I had a flashback to my childhood and a conversation with my mother. I was asking what a sorority was. I do remember that I got some sort of an answer, but it was a negative one. Something about that's something that we don't do, and as I was driving down the highway yesterday I was asking myself, why did we believe that? I never had a conversation with my parents about why! And then I had a flood of memories of all the things that we "just didn't do." But too often there was not a conversation regarding the explanation and what was at the root of these things. And somehow it led to the idea that to be God's holy people we are not to engage with the world. That holiness is somehow about personal holiness and nothing more. And then you read James and you begin to wonder what it is that God might truly be requiring of you.
If we move our understanding of holiness away from personal holiness and the shift becomes Christ's holiness, then our behavior becomes something different. James is inviting us into a personal relationship with Christ -- and this is faith. But James is also saying that faith is only the beginning of an entire walk with Jesus that will empower you to do things for him that you would never have imagined. Therefore our actions really do speak louder than our words.
Last night our friends at the Grace Point South Campus in Fort Wayne, IN gathered for a meeting that is revealing what it means to be Christ in their community. Not too long ago there was a shooting across the street from the church. There is a house there that was filled with more than 30 bullet holes. Our pastors could have decided that they would leave and live somewhere safer but instead, they have chosen to work synergistically -- their faith together with works to make a difference. What would happen if a church in a community said "enough is enough" and united their faith with love and went out into the neighborhood to patch up bullet holes, clean up places where criminals hang out, improve lighting and in general said we will help to care for this community! The reaction has been overwhelming as Christians have joined hands to say that they will be a voice and advocates for an entire neighborhood. Last night around 250 Christians from a number of denominations gathered at that little church to say that we will help to bring our faith to perfection by acting in this neighborhood. In the midst of it all the community is seeing Jesus in action. The entire city is seeing Jesus in action.
This brings us to the understanding of the final verse, "You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone." Why? Because works or actions reveal what is happening in the heart of the individual. And therefore we have to ask ourselves, "what do our actions say about our faith?"
Lord, may my life reveal you to the world around me. Amen.