Sunday, June 05, 2011

What Good Is It?

The doctrine of justification by faith alone is arguably the central teaching of the Christian faith. It is the principal theme in most of the Apostle Paul's writings, especially the book of Romans and Galatians. Jesus taught extensively on faith, which culminated in his declaration to Peter that He would build His church upon the profession of faith in Matthew 16:15-18:

He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

Yet despite of all the careful attention given to the doctrine of justification by the Biblical authors, as well as the monolithic collection of writings dedicated to the subject that have been penned since the Protestant Reformation, there remains profound divisions within Christian orthodoxy on the doctrine itself and the details thereof.

One of those differences, I believe, stems from what seems to be contradictory teachings between Paul (the Pauline epistles) and the Apostle James. I have heard it said by many people things like, "I agree with Paul, not James on justification", or vice-versa. Ironically, even the great Reformer, Martin Luther, called the book of James "an epistle of straw", and didn't even consider it Scripture until late in his life. He was certain it couldn't be reconciled with Paul's doctrine.

I plan on spending some time going through the book of James and posting my thoughts here on the blog. The first thing I wanted to write about (the reason I brought up the subject tonight) is in regard to what James says in chapter 2 verse 14 and tying it back to what Jesus taught.

James wrote:

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?

Compared with Jesus' concept in Luke 5:23-24:

Which is easier, to say, 'Your sins are forgiven you,' or to say, 'Rise and walk'? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins"--he said to the man who was paralyzed--"I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home."

Now, we see the question that Jesus posed to his accusers and the dilemma he created for them. The Jews knew full well that the two options were things only God could do. So how could they choose either? The reality was that it was much easier for him to say, "Your sins are forgiven", because they were supposedly just words flowing off of his tongue. Anybody could say those words (although it is blasphemous to do so), but there was no way to prove the pronouncement of forgiveness actually effected forgiveness. There could be no tangible proof that any sins were actually forgiven, because that is not the nature of forgiveness. Therefore, his accusers had every right to be skeptical. Yet, Jesus establishes the reality of his authority to forgive sins (the 'easier' thing to say, even if blasphemous) by healing the paralytic on the spot (which only God has the power to do).

The same principal is used by James when discussing faith in James 2:14. He asks a rhetorical question about a certain type of faith. Notice that he doesn't ask, "What if a brother has true faith but doesn't have works--can that faith save him?" No, he's attacking a false understanding of faith--dead faith--because it is worthless. He does so on the grounds that true faith has something that backs it up and establishes it. So just like Jesus' authority to forgive sin was established by his healing of the paralytic, true faith is established by our works.

"But..", you may ask, "doesn't that prove James is contradicting Paul?!?"

No. And I will show you why in my next post.

1 comment:

Nick said...

You might want to have a look at This Article on James 2:14ff before you post your next installment.