James 2:1-5, 8-10, 14-17
By Richard Niell Donovan
Harry Golden grew up in New York’s Jewish ghetto in the early years of this century. In his book, For Two Cents Plain, he tells how his Aunt Miriam spent her life doing good deeds. Her motive was very clear. She intended her good deeds to be paving stones on her way to paradise. She was not sure exactly how many good deeds were necessary to get to paradise, so she continued accumulating good deeds as a kind of eternal insurance. Golden writes:
“Each day brought new opportunities,
and the belief was strong
that these deeds were entered in a heavenly ledger
where they were carefully studied,
with the credits awaiting the individual
when the time came for him or her to be judged.”
We might be tempted to be critical of the Jews for having a theology of works, but Golden’s story reminded me of my own Christian upbringing. I don’t think that anyone ever told me that God was keeping book on me, but I clearly thought that he was.
I imagined that the page on the left was for bad deeds and the page on the right was for bad deeds. The objective was to insure that the good side filled up first. When God ran out of room and had to turn the page, I wanted it to be the “good deeds” page that was full—not the “bad deeds” page.
However, I was a normal boy, and I had the sense that the cards were stacked against normal boys. I hoped to live a long life. I sensed that it was easier for old men to do good deeds; perhaps I could balance the books in my old age.
Now that is not very good theology, but I am certainly not the first one—not even the first Christian—to feel that way. You may have been afraid of God, the eternal bookkeeper, yourself!
You aren’t the first one to feel that way either. Prior to the Reformation, the church had fallen into a theology of “good deeds” vs. “bad deeds.” The Reformation began when Martin Luther read in Romans:
“all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God;
being justified freely by his grace
through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (3:23-24)—
and the Reformation was off and running. Very clearly, the Protestant churches were a “protest” against a theology of works. Luther’s great gift to us was the message that God saves us by faith—not works—and that salvation is His gift to us.
Luther didn’t like the book of James. He would have preferred that the book of James be eliminated from the New Testament. Keep in mind that Luther’s great message is that we are saved by faith—not by works. Then hear again these words from James:
“What good is it, my brothers,
if a man says he has faith, but has no works?
Can faith save him?
And if a brother or sister is naked and in lack of daily food,
and one of you tells them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled;”
and yet you didn’t give them the things the body needs,
what good is it?
Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead” (2:14-17).
It would seem that the book of Romans and the book of James are contradictory, wouldn’t it. Romans tells us that we are saved by the grace of God through faith, and James tells us that faith without works is dead.
I was aware of the tension between Romans and James for a number of years before I really came to grips with it. I had always known about salvation by the grace of God through faith, but had always said, “Yes, but if we have faith we will also do good deeds. If we have no good deeds, we must not have faith. Therefore, if we have no good deeds, we are not saved.”
Then. during my first year in seminary, I roomed with a German Lutheran foreign exchange student, Hans Knöch. One day I overheard Hans arguing with a friend.
Hans said, “We are saved by faith, not works.”
The friend said, “But if you have faith, you will have works.”
Hans said, “But we are not saved by those works.”
My friend said, “But if you don’t have the works, you must not have faith and therefore are not saved.”
Hans said, “Wrong! We are saved by faith—not by works. Salvation and works are not connected.”
As I listened to them argue, I sided with my friend against Hans. But as they continued to argue—and as Hans continued to hold his ground—it occurred to me that this was a truly radical idea. God saves us—salvation is His gift—we gain it simply by believing in Jesus—and there is no connection with works.” And that is a radical idea—the kind of radical idea that could lead to revolution—or Reformation.
If that is so, why shouldn’t we allow Luther to throw out the book of James? Why even bother with it? Why read it in worship? Why base a sermon on it? Why not just ignore James altogether?
God inspired James to write this book, and He inspired the early church to include it in the New Testament. He must have had something important in mind. If God had something important in mind, perhaps we should pay attention to it.
I believe that there is an important message in James. The great preacher, E. Stanley Jones, put it this way:
“We are not saved because of good works,
but we are saved for good works.
Good works do not create salvation,
they result from salvation.”
The great Biblical scholar, A. M. Hunter echoes the same idea:
“For Paul, the moral conduct of the Christian
is not the means by which he earns salvation;
it is the consequence of a new relationship with God
which he has by faith.”
Bill Glass, former All-Pro defensive end for the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns, talks about what he calls “The Baseball Game of Life.” He says that there are three bases which the Christian needs to touch before crossing Home Plate. The three bases are:
• First base: Salvation
• Second base: Sanctification or holiness
• Third base: Service
Note that salvation is first base, and we get there before we touch the other bases. But the other bases are important too. First, we are saved. Then we allow the Holy Spirit to begin the work of making us holy. Then we begin our life of service.
Gary Sanford, in talking about this passage from James, recalled playing baseball as a boy. Sometimes they didn’t have enough boys to cover all the positions, so they played a game that they called “Chicken-Base Baseball.” In Chicken-Base Baseball, the runner was not required to run around all the bases. He simply ran from home plate to first base and back. He skipped second and third base completely.
Gary commented that the church is saddled with lots of “Chicken-Base Christians.” These are selfish Christians who care only about their personal salvation. They run to first base (Salvation), skip second and third bases entirely (Sanctification and Service), and take the short trip back to home plate. The message of Romans is that it is possible to do that. The message of James is that God doesn’t intend for us to do that. He intends for us to be active Christians. As E. Stanley Jones says, “We are not saved because of good works, but we are saved for good works.”
We are God’s hands; without us, His work will not get done.
We are God’s voices; without us, His Word will not be proclaimed.
We are God’s feet; without us, His mission will not be accomplished.
We are God’s heart; without us, His people will not be loved.
Serve God. Serve Him, not to get your ticket to heaven punched, but to show your gratitude for his love so freely given. Serve Him, and become a link in the great chain of Christians who have kept the church alive and vital for twenty centuries. Serve I km, and help Him to redeem the lives of the people in this community who need Him so badly. And you will find that God will not be in your debt. He always returns more than he receives. Be a blessing and receive His blessing.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2007 Richard Niell Donovan