Tuesday 17 November 2020

Faith and Works

 A reflection given at Morning Worship for the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday 17th November 2020

If you are accused before a judge of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?

In today’s reading (James 2:14-26), James tells us we cannot claim to have faith if we cannot show works. ‘Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead’, he says. The works he is talking about here are good works, works of charity to help fellow human beings in distress, such as clothing the naked or feeding the hungry. This is the same message that Jesus taught in the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. He told his followers, ‘You are the light of the world … let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven’.  

Disciples of Jesus ought to be able to their good works as evidence that they are Christians. But are good works enough to prove the case?

On judgement day a brutal tyrant may try to persuade a judge that his good works outweigh the oppression and suffering he has caused. Are you and I so different? All of us have fallen short of God’s standards, we all have probably contrived to keep our shameful acts secret. We may try to claim that our good works, done for all to see, are sufficient to prove that we are good Christians. But no one can bargain with God. God sees right through our pitiful excuses for the bad things we have done.

St Paul understands very well that good works are not sufficient to justify the bad. In his Epistle to the Romans (Romans 3:21-30), he argues that we are justified through faith, not through works. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, he says. But God is righteous, God is good. By God’s grace freely given, those who believe in Jesus Christ can be redeemed through Jesus’s self-sacrifice. God will forgive our bad deeds if we change our lives, and we can be reconciled to God.

So for Paul, it is faith that comes first, not good works. People have sometimes seen this as contradicting James view. ‘Sola fide’, faith alone, was the catch phrase of the Lutheran reformation. But this is a false opposition. Luther himself, in his ‘Introduction to Romans’, said ‘A living, creative, active and powerful thing, (is) this faith. Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. It doesn’t stop to ask if good works ought to be done, but before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to do them without ceasing. Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an unbeliever...Thus, it is just as impossible to separate faith and works as it is to separate heat and light from fire!’

The fact is, evidence of good works is not enough to convict anyone of being Christian, but an absence of good works – and bad deeds - is evidence someone is not. After all, speaking of false prophets, Jesus tells us, ‘You will know them by their fruits’.

And what of those who do not claim to be Christian, but who we can see do good works? We should give thanks to God for them, I think, and consider them people of good will with whom we are happy to work. And we should leave judgement to God.