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Faith made Complete

May 27, 2012, More from this speaker 更多关于此讲员: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee (James 2:14-26) For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: James
Preached at a Bilingual (Mandarin-English, Sunday) service

Tags: James, 雅各书

Listen to sermon recording with the play button or download with the download link. 您可点播或下载讲道录音。
About Rev. Wong Siow Hwee: Rev. Wong is the moderator of Jubilee Church, serving there since 2002. 王晓晖牧师是禧年堂的主理牧师。自2002年,在那牧会将近20年。
Bible passage (ESV) of the sermon can be found at the bottom of the page.

Sermon on 2:14-26

Today, the Christian world is divided into the Protestants and the Roman Catholics. On the surface, this division seems to be based on different practices. If you were to ask Protestants about the main difference between Catholics and us, many would list things like the veneration of Mary or the papacy. “But one does not split the Church over a practice; one splits the Church over a doctrine, for the Church can change its practice but never its doctrine. To change a practice, one stays in the Church; to change a doctrine, one must start a new Church.” [1]

The Protestant Reformation began with Martin Luther nailing 95 “sharing questions on the church notice board” in 1517 (half joking). Four years later, he was summoned before a Church court and condemned as a heretic. Sure, there were practices with which he disagreed. Luther challenged the sale of indulgences, which are tokens of salvation. He challenged the authority of the Church. But only one reason, a doctrine, justified his bold words of recalcitrance: "Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me." It was the doctrine of justification by faith.

In time to come, some practices on both sides evened out. The sale of indulgences was soon banned by the Catholics. In some ways, the Lutheran Church exercised authority not unlike the Catholic Church. But one main barrier remained unbridgeable. It was the doctrine of justification by faith.

At the end of the Council of Trent, almost 50 years later in 1563, Catholics affirmed that the believer is "justified by the good works that he performs by the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ." They added, “Hence, to those who work well unto the end and trust in God, eternal life is to be offered, both as a grace mercifully promised to the sons of God through Christ Jesus, and as a reward promised by God himself, to be faithfully given to their good works and merits.”

In the end, on the Protestant side, we have the doctrine of justification by faith, on the Catholic side, we have justification by works. Since this is a matter of eternal life, both for the Protestants and the Catholics, there seemed to be no way to resolve this issue, in order to bring two bodies of Christ together as one. Personally, I think that this is a great pity, because I agree with Catholic theologian Peter Kreeft, that all these boils down to “a misunderstanding”. This is a misunderstanding as old as the New Testament, and I believe this misunderstanding continues with many Christians today. I think it is essential to clear up this misunderstanding. At the very least, it is a start towards promoting unity within the body of Christ between the Protestants and the Catholics. But more importantly, I believe a deeper understanding of our doctrines will directly affect how we live our lives. After all, James is all about practical living.

But first a word of warning: the theological arguments can be quite technical and dry. If you feel drowsy, get ready your sleeping bags. Don't worry, you are not missing much. These arguments concern only your salvation. You only need to pay full attention if you are into this kind of stuff. No pressure. (kidding)

So, on one side we have James arguing in verse 24: 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone. Based on the similarity of terminology, and the common use of Abraham as an illustration, we have good grounds to assume that James was responding to the teachings of Paul. And on the other side, Paul has this to say in Romans 3: 28 For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. When we place these two statements side by side, they seem to be in direct opposition to each other. To paraphrase both of them, we have:
James: A person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
Paul: A person is justified by faith and not works of the law.
So is it justification by works or is it justification by faith? Fortunately, since both books belong to the biblical canon, there had been many attempts to reconcile them.

The first type of attempt is to argue that James' “works” and Paul's “works of the law” have two different meanings. There are those who argue that “works of the law” are works that are performed legalistically in order to gain righteousness. They are like good deeds with a motive for personal spiritual benefit. Examples may include the Pharisees who like to pray and fast in public, or those who do charity work without love. There are others who argue that “works of the law” are works pertaining to Jewish observances. In this case, the law is the Torah, and the specific works in Paul's mind are circumcision, the Sabbath laws and the dietary laws. These “works of the law” are done only to prove and confirm their identity as the chosen people of God. You can see why Paul would be against such “works of the law”, because grace should be free. Salvation is not earned or compelled (Romans 11:5-6). In contrast to either of these two definitions of “works of the law”, James has a different definition when he was referring to works. As stated in my sermon last week, for James, works refer to acts of love as summarized and defined by Jesus. In this case, Paul would have no quarrels with James in combining love with justification by faith.
As we would see in Galatians 5: 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. Paul has no problem with the inclusion James' works, because it is love. And James has no problem with Paul's rejection of “works of the law”, because that is not love. This is one type of attempt to reconcile the two doctrines.[2]

There is also a second type of attempt, which is to argue that Paul's “faith” and James' “faith only” has two different meanings. Those who argue this way would say that James' “faith only” refers to faith that stops at Creedal confessions, or faith that is claimed but not practiced. Such an argument is consistent with the way James portrays such faith. “Faith only” refers to the person who claims to have faith, but does nothing to physically help the brother in need. “Faith only” refers to the person who thinks it is a big deal to recite the Shema. The Shema is the daily prayer of the Jews “"Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is one." (Deut 6:4). James says that the demons believe that too, no big deal. Most importantly, “faith only” refers to the person who thinks faith and works are separated. Such a person says “You have faith, I have works” as if the two are separable. But James says such “faith only” is useless and dead. James questions “what good is it?” because such “faith only” cannot save us from God's judgment. From the perspective of James, “judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful” (v.13). God will only be merciful to those who had been loving and merciful. In short, “faith only” is a deficient form of faith. Real faith comes with works of love and mercy.

As Protestants, we may be uncomfortable with such a definition of true faith. We often assume that the orthodox position is Paul's justification by faith, and James' emphasis on works is an exception we have to accommodate somehow. It is worth noting that Jesus' concept of judgment involves works, and Paul's interpretation of faith over works is the one we have to accommodate somehow.
It was Jesus who said in Matthew7: 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. 21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
Similarly, at the separation of the sheep and the goats, The pronouncement from Jesus in Matthew 25: 45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ 46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. ”

But perhaps Paul's definition of faith is not really devoid of works. Romans 1: 5 Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake. Our faith does not rest on a set of propositions, but on the person of Jesus Christ who is our Lord. As the life of Paul would testify, faith leads to obedience in the Lord Jesus Christ. Whether they are active acts of love or passive acts of submission, these are works that comes from our faith. Paul's faith cannot be James' portrayal of what is “faith only”. Throughout his letters, Paul “teaches that faith is a dynamic, powerful force, through which the believer is intimately united with Christ, his Lord.”[3] Paul's faith includes works out of obedience to the Lord.

Therefore, this second type of attempt to reconcile James and Paul is a strong one, because faith and works are inseparable to both of them. Paul would reject James' “faith only” because it is a deficient faith. And James would endorse Paul's faith, because it is faith that manifest works.

But one issue remains outstanding: the example of Abraham. In Paul's example, Abraham was justified before any works, specifically before his circumcision. (Romans 4) He was credited as righteous the moment he believed. Yet, in James' example, the justification comes at the binding of Isaac. In Verse 21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? So which is it? Was Abraham justified when he believed or when Isaac was bound to the altar? This problem of timing is still unsolved.

Hence there is a third type of attempt to reconcile Paul and James, which is to argue that Paul's justification is slightly different in meaning from James' justification. “Paul('s justification) refers to the initial declaration of a sinner's innocence before God; James(' justification refers) to the ultimate verdict of innocence pronounced over a person at the last judgment. If a sinner can get into relationship with God only by faith, the ultimate validation of that relationship (at the final judgment) takes into account the works that true faith must inevitably produce.” [4] In short, Paul refers to the justification when we first believe, and James refers to the justification at the final judgment. In the first justification, we are made right before God simply by faith. But at the final judgment, our justification comes from a faith that is well tested and proven true, a faith with works. This is an interpretation that fits the life of Abraham perfectly. There was a time when justification is given freely, when Abraham first believed the promise. But that faith must be lived out. That moment arrived at the binding of Isaac, where justification is finalised. Similarly, the full vindication of Jesus comes only after his death on the Cross, where his work is complete. Our faith is in our Lord Jesus Christ. It must be an active faith that conquers even death.

By now, I hope I've demonstrated why this particular divide between Protestants and Catholics, between Paul and James, between justification by faith and justification by works is a “misunderstanding”. They could be reconciled with refined understandings of either works, or faith or justification. But you may wonder, “So what? What is the implication for me to know all these?” Personally, I think the implication is stronger for us Protestants, who may have over glorified the notion of “faith”, and we treat “works” like a bonus, something good to have but non-essential. In our over-glorification of faith, we elevated the magnitude of our personal decision. “It is because I believe, that is why I am saved. I hope you can believe, so that you can be saved. Please believe?” But instead of arguing whether it is justification by faith or by works, let us remember that it is first and foremost, justification by God. In that sense, our faith is not an intellectual assent to believe in God, as if we are so kind to accept God into our lives. Our faith is a form of submission to God's will. It is believing in God's plan and purpose. Our faith is merely a start towards life in God's hands. So if you have faith, then works in accordance to God must surely follow.

I like how James describes the relationship between faith and works in the example of Abraham. He says, 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. What does “made complete” mean? It doesn't mean that faith is inadequate or faulty without actions. For example in 1 John 4: 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. God's love cannot be inadequate or faulty without our response. Rather God's love is expressed, when we love one another. Similarly, faith is expressed through our actions, not through words and empty claims. This is the way faith is made complete. Faith is made complete when it is expressed through actions.

In the time of James, such actions would refer to help for the poor and needy. In our context, our faith is written on the mission statement of our Church. Let our actions express our faith. Someone told me that my sermons have a common theme. They are always about love, kindness and understanding. I can tell you why. This mission statement may mean different things to different people. For me, it is about community. My sermons always try to shape this community into a community of love. It's not about smiles and friendliness though that is important. But I hope we have acts of charity, acts of forgiveness, acts of listening and so on. It is giving time, giving gifts and giving a room in your heart. If you have a faith like mine, I invite you to give to this community in your own special way. Let your faith be made complete till the day of the final justification.

Footnotes:
[1] http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/apologetics/ap0027.html
[2] This is one way to reconcile Paul and James. However, I am unsure if such a differentiation of works and “works of the law” was really present in Paul and James. Indeed, Paul has works like circumcision in mind when he talks about “works of the law”. But his justification by faith is so absolute, it would eliminate works of any kind, whether Jewish works or loving works. Similarly, while James has condensed all works into the love commandments, there is no denial that James still intends for love to be a fulfilment of the Law as justification. This first type of attempt to differentiate works and “works of the law” may has its validity, but I think James and Paul both honour the Law too much for the differentiation to be significant.
[3] Moo, The Letter of James (Pillar Commentary), p 141
[4] Moo, p 141

James 2:14–26 (Listen)

14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

(ESV)