Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Reforming Good Works

Martin Luther famously said that the Epistle of James was a strawy epistle. In his German translation of the Bible he put James after Revelation and didn't include it in the contents page. Today you wouldn't even catch some liberals moving the order of books in the Holy Scriptures. (To be fair I think he did relent on his issue of James later in life). After studying James for a few weeks, I think conservative Christianity, despite their defence of the Bible, may functionally not include James in their own personal table of contents.

Before reading James my vocabulary about the behaviour of Christians was something like "a Christian should do good", "a Christian should feel compelled to act". But after reading James I think my "should", has been turned into a "will" and a "must". A Christian will endure trials and temptations, and a Christian must endure trials and temptations. A Christian will not show favouritism, and a Christian must not show favouritism. A Christian will do good works, and a Christian must do good works. A Christian will not hoard up their wealth and a Christian must not hoard up their wealth. Doing good works is not an optional extra in the Christian life. It is a must.

But doesn't this make the Christian life about action and not faith? And won't this lead to judging others on their actions and not on their faith? To which I think James would respond, "So what?". James is not in isolation when he tells Jesus followers to do good works. In fact there are more references in the New Testament about doing good works than spiritual gifts. Jesus and James both warn people who think they are part of the Church that their actions (or lack of them) prove whether they are really saved or not. A nice Biblical framework I have heard in answer to the question ‘Who are Christians to do good towards?’ is: certainly to their family; especially to believers, always to the poor and needy and (if you didn't like those being too narrow) at all times to everyone. If you don't, James would say your faith is dead. Remember, Antinomianism is still a heresy.

Recently John Dickson lamented on twitter that his book, Vital Signs, which is about James' letter, was been remaindered. There are many reasons why books get remaindered but it generally has to do with lack of sales. Maybe people didn't know who Dickson is, so his book didn't sell, maybe it wasn't that good in the first place, or maybe the audience that Dickson writes for, and the circles I move in, don't pay that much attention to the letter of James. I wonder if today we functionally treat the epistle of James as one as strong as straw.

According to my church's sermon library, there have been no talks on James since December 2010 (which isn't really that long of a time period), but there has been two talks on 2 Tim 3:10-17 (which again isn't really that long of a time period). Pointing that out is most likely unfair on my church, but what is really challenging for me is, that I need to remember that I make up my church. It is made up of people like me, who must do good works.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Andrew, great post. I agree entirely that works are essential for those who have already been saved by grace through faith. I think we're so concerned with not being legalistic that we refuse to acknowledge this despite the many warnings in Scripture to the contrary.