Yesterday, my post about the need for Methodists and other mainline Protestants in general to recover the core convictions that make us not Catholic prompted the predictable question from the Book of James:
”But isn’t faith without works dead?”
Proving why James is my least favorite part of the Bible right after, goes without saying, the Book of Proverbs.
It’s revealing how our kneejerk tendency is to quote that line from James, which, even if it means how we so often take it— and I wouldn’t concede that point, it’s the outlier to the preponderence of the New Testament’s emphasis on grace alone.
We’re desperate, in other words, to secure a spot for ourselves as co-stars of salvation rather than objects.
James 2 can be true— faith produces works— without negating Jesus or Paul when they explicitly cast those works in the passive using the language of fruit.
So if you’re scoring at home:
– Faith without works IS dead because the first meaning or referent of ‘faith’ in James and Paul alike is Jesus. This is what Paul means in Galatians (‘before faith came…’). Paul uses faith as the subject of verbs. He’s talking alternately about Jesus or the power of Jesus active upon us who, apart from him and his power, are captives to Sin and Death and wholly withouth the freedom to choose him or the good in good works. It’s exactly what Paul means in Corinthians when he talks about love too. Love is without beginning or end because ‘love’ is Jesus who is the only one who is before creation and has death behind him.
Faith without works is dead therefore because Jesus is alive.
– Faith produces good works; that is, faith (Jesus, the Spirit of Jesus) produces fruit. Usually we bifurcate the two. Grace is what God does (justification) and then we live it out (sanctification). Rather than, God justifies us all by God’s lonesome and God yields fruit in us (‘…who began a good work in us will bring it to fruition…’).
– The passive/vegetal imagery is important in that it pushes us back to the order of operations that the reformers and John Wesley stressed which, I’d argue, we’ve lost. We yield fruit— good works— not by exhorting about the fruit we should be yielding but by being rooted in the faith (the promise of the Gospel of grace). A vine doesn’t produce grapes by being hollered at to produce grapes but by being a healthy vine. Likewise, good works come by preaching faith: the news that you are justified by grace in Christ quite apart from any of those works. It’s the inverse of what Paul tells the Romans about how exhorting the Law (good works/commandment-keeping) actually elicits the opposite of their effect.
Preached Faith yields Fruit.
Whereas, Preached Fruit yields Neither.
Isn’t funny how we’re always citing James and saying ‘Faith without works is dead’ without realizing the other way round is equally— and more commonly— damning:
Works without faith are work.
Work which leaves you dead (in your trespasses).
Worse than work, Jesus says doing part of Law apart from faith is our condemnation.
We like to cite the sermon on the mount but neglect to notice how it ends with Jesus giving us the choice between complete perfection to the commands or faith in him.
– In the end, I think what’s at stake can sound like semantics but actually amounts to everything. Of course faith yields fruit but as soon as we make that fruit aspirational or, worse, the stuff of oughts and have-to’s we’ve lost the plot. At the end of the day, the question really is:
“Is the cross and resurrection of Christ enough to save?
Save even a Christian, who’s convinced of all the other stuff we ‘have’ to do?”
Wesley like the reformers would insist yes, the dying and rising of Christ is enough. Full stop.
Christ comes to us as sinners and we will return to him as sinners.
The Kingdom will be populated with nothing but sinners, Christians included.
I’m not sure that’s the answer Methodists convey, implicitly or explicitly anymore. I think we’re less full-throatedly confident in the doctrine of justification, which Wesley and Luther both called the doctrine under which all others fell, and so we stress sanctification. But without justification sanctification is at best moralism pimped out in theological drag and, at worst, despair-producing obligation.
This is where it becomes a pastoral concern for me—
If ‘fruit’ or ‘good works’ are the things we do which signify saving faith then my salvation appears contingent on my ability to identify and name fruit in my life. A lot of sincere faithful Christians can’t find such fruit. Never mind that as soon as we think we need to produce fruit we start to measure that fruit and then we’re turned inward as a consequence, away from our neighbor (whom we’ve actually made the object of our fruit-producing endeavors rather than loving them as ourselves).
Faith not only yields fruit.
We need to take it on faith that our faith is yielding fruit in us and through us.
Even if we can’t see any— in the same way, in real time, you can’t see a plant growing fruit.
– When we make that turn from “Justified…in Christ alone by his gifting” to “As a Christian I now must/should/ought…” we leave God behind as the active agent and put the burden back on us. For some, that move is flattering. You’re now the master of your fate, sanctifying yourself. It’s the false promise too behind hucksters like Joel Osteen. For most though, I’ve concluded after 20 years in ministry, it leaves them exhausted, feeling like they’re on a never-ending treadmill called Christianity. Try it some time— I did in my own church last and was chastened by the results: count how much of the language in the church service, from beginning to end, announcements…everything, is hortatory (stuff we gotta do as Christians) vs. proclamation (sheer promise of what God has done with nary a word about us except as the objects of God’s love).
I could’ve made all of that shorter by simply saying I think in the UMC and mainline in general: