I may be an Episcopal priest, but I grew up a Minnesota Lutheran, and that meant a healthy suspicion of James and his emphasis on works. As an adult, and having actually read and begun to absorb James, it occurred to me that he was right all along. Faith without works is a dead faith.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 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? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. 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. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. 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. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.
I admit there is more than a bit of hyperbole in those words, but the point is made. If we are to be followers of Jesus taking up the earthly ministry of Jesus as the body of Christ, it has got to mean that our faith cannot be expressed without continuing the works of Jesus. Faith and works adhere one to the other, yet in a bond that can be broken, and therein lies the problem. Why should one bother with everything that defines the Christian faith? Isn’t it good enough to go about doing good works for the benefit of others without having to bother with the Church and everything that goes with it? Or to put it another way, if I have accepted Jesus as my personal savior isn’t that enough? Why should I change the way I lead my life?
Breaking the bond between faith and works breaks the bond of wholeness of person and community that was at the core of the healing acts of Jesus. But our efforts to prevent breaks in that bond can be very flawed. We get ourselves into deep trouble when we begin to set up rigorous rules to prevent it and end up like the strictest of strict Pharisees, and there is more than too much of that among too many churches today. That is what Paul kept driving at as the inability of the law to be a source of salvation, and therefore our freedom from it. “Do not go back to slavery under the law” was his constant warning.
We get ourselves into equally deep trouble when churches treat that bond as nothing more than a peripheral matter of little consequence, or ignore it altogether, and there is more than too much of that as well. That is what concerned James. He was right then, and he is right today also.
James and Paul; I don’t think you can separate them without doing serious damage to the Christian faith. The wholeness of being that is central to the fullness of the Christian life cannot be manipulated by rules (laws). That wholeness of being is something organic that grows out of the infusion of God’s Spirit into lives that are compelled by that Spirit to share with one another in community, that is the Church, and with the world through works; that is, through lives that are in engagement with the world as a continuation of the love and healing ministry of Christ in the ordinary events of daily living.