Monday, November 19, 2007

Faith that works? Faith vs works?

It was Luther I think who said we are saved “by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.” That was a reaction to some practices and doctrines of the Catholic (in both senses) church of his day, and a key tenet that distinguishes our faith from other religions.

But Luther's statement seems at odds with this passage from today's New Testament reading:
18But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds."

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. 19You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that — and shudder.

James 2:18-19
Two points stand out to me here. In my typical fashion, let me start at the back of this passage, in verse 19.

James may be caricaturing the kind of faith that doesn't commit to anything but only affirms propositional truth. The Jews often recite the "Shema" from Deuteronomy 6, which begins like this:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.
Deuteronomy 6:4-5
I'm going to guess James was saying, "It's not enough to recite the ‘Shema’ you have to do the acts faith requires."

The second point is something I got from Donald Miller's Searching for God Knows What, which says that becoming a Christian, that is deciding to follow Jesus, is more like getting married than joining an organization. Following that analogy, what would it be like if I told the lovely Carol I love her, but ignored her except when I wanted something? I might say I want a relationship with her, but if I don't listen when she talks to me, if I don't tell her what's on my mind, etc. what kind of relationship would that be? In what sense could it be said that I love her? I could even agree with certain truths about her -- that she's educated, spiritual, compassionate for example (which she is, and she is also cute and fine) -- but if that agreement, that belief, that assent (to those truths) isn't accompanied by deeds reflecting my love for her, then there's not much of a relationship there.

Our marriage is held together by love and commitment, not by some checklist of deeds. But what kind of love produces no visible signs? What kind of commitment?

So I agree with Luther that we're saved by grace alone through faith alone, and I also agree with James that without deeds, there can't be much faith. Of course it's not as simple as all that (you can be sure that Luther was smarter than I am) but this works for me.

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