In my church I have been giving a sermon series based on the Book of James.
For the past couple weeks this short book (only five chapters long) has become an intimate friend. The ancient words continue to flash through my mind long after I have put my Bible down.
In particular my mind frequently recalls the famous (yet controversial) words in James 2:17 (NRSV) that say, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
These words have been the cause of many theological arguments over the centuries.
On one end, this appears to be a negation of what the Apostle Paul wrote about people being justified by faith apart from good works (see Romans 3:28).
When the New Testament Canon was assembled in the 4th century the Book of James faced serious opposition, as many believed it did not belong in the Bible.
Even as recent as the 16th century there has been challenge to the authority of James, with Martin Luther famously labeling it “an epistle of straw” and in private he spoke about how it ought to be removed from the Bible.
The Book of James is a reminder to us that in the New Testament we see a diversity of opinions.
Even in the early days there was no one accepted uniform way to practice Christianity––much like it is today. Reading through James it is obvious the author had memorized many of the sayings of Jesus.
While James represents a view of faith that is opposed to Paul, nonetheless it still is a faithful interpretation.
The more I think about what James has to say about how a person of faith must produce good works, I wonder if some of the fierce opposition to this text is because it is too challenging?
James goes quite far in his rhetoric, and I can see how a person would be made uncomfortable.
In James 1:26-27 (NRSV) it says, “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
James says it is not good enough to simply call yourself a believer. Instead he goes a step further and says being a believer needs to change how you live, act, speak, and relate to your neighbors.
Does that mean we need to be perfect? Absolutely not.
However when we become believers we should strive to live better lives as a sign that we have been transformed from a person of the world into a disciple of Christ. If we do not do that James says we are deceiving our hearts and our religion is worthless.
The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard made the observation most of humanity acknowledges there are ethics and morals, and most people hold others to a higher standard than they do themselves.
It is easier to talk about someone else’s sins than it is to look in the mirror and confront your own.
In church it is easy for preachers to condemn the “sins” of people they know will never step foot in their church and for the laypeople in the pews to nod their heads in agreement, but what takes courage is to look at the words written in James and for churches to ask themselves, “Are we really living out our faith?
Are we producing good works that make the world a better place? Could we do more to care for our neighbors––especially the vulnerable?”
One of the greatest sins of organized religion is we have made it way too easy for people to count themselves as people of faith.
We have said all that matters is what a person believes, and the quality of life that person lives is only an afterthought (if even that).
When we trick ourselves into thinking we as Christians have no obligation to live good lives we need to realize we have become followers of the worthless religion James so vehemently opposed.