It would not be good if we all thought alike. It is a difference of opinion that make horses race. -Mark Twain
We have just spent two weeks on a very difficult text in James’s epistle. Christians over the recent past (about the last 1,800 years or so…) have been a bit perplexed on what James and Paul have to say about justification and works. I’m not sure that I solved any problems for any of you. My guess is that some were unaware of the apparent contradiction between James and Paul on these matters. Others knew about it but did not care. Some knew about it and felt they already held a satisfactory answer to the issue, and still others were a bit worried about the fact that they did not yet have that ready answer to the question Do James and Paul contradict one another?
My hope derived from my preaching the past two weeks is threefold. First, I hope you gleaned James’s primary point: A dead, useless and demonic faith is not the type of faith that saves people from condemnation. Second, I hope that you were challenged to look deeper into this somewhat puzzling passage if I did not convince you with my own arguments. Finally, I hope that you came away with an appreciation that, although all Scripture is equally inspired, not all Scripture is equally understandable at first read. We must be about the task of working through Scripture, reading it, studying it, comparing it, seeking its meaning in light of its context, and then, as James has clearly exhorted us to do, applying it to our lives in such a way that it impacts our world. One can easily dismiss James and Paul as antagonists and move on, assuming that one wrote prior to the other and simply did not yet have the full revelation from God on that important matter, and thus needed correction (or at least enhancement) by the later writer. That is, of course, possible. It could be that Scripture is nothing more than a slightly more enlightened version of any other great work of literature—compelling, encouraging, thought provoking, insightful and yes, even convicting, but in the final analysis still a work by fallible human beings. This is possible, but then again, it is also possible that it is what it claims to be, the infallible product of God the Holy Spirit working through the hands of men in such a way that it accurately records and recounts all that God chooses to reveal about himself to the humans he created in his own intelligent, cogent, feeling and sensing image (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:20-21). Both are possible, but which is true?
My argument from James 2:14-26 is that the faith that James is speaking about is a living, active, working faith. The illustrations he applies to his thinking seems to bear that out clearly. It is a faith that goes deeper than our cognitive thought process to our hearts, where it bears fruit. It does not just say along with all those in the heavenly realms, both glorious and demonic, “I believe!” Rather it responds and lives out, and in so doing declares, “I have put my trust in!” The justification James speaks of is the kind that is real because it is grounded in faith and is lived out as a real-world response.
After restating these points, I close this week’s Jym Shorts with this application. Real, genuine, justified Christ-followers can disagree on some of the nuances of our topic for the past two weeks. Some will want to emphasize faith over works and say that we must be careful not to insist that Christians who sin are somehow in jeopardy of being declared unbelievers. Others will plead that we must not endorse an “easy-believism,” which allows people to say, “I believe in Jesus and give my life to him,” then walk away and never address the lordship of Jesus Christ over their lives. Extremes in either direction can be deadly to Christian orthodoxy, I believe. One extreme can lead to legalism, another to “antinomianism” or “all things are permissible for me.” The answer may be this simple: God gave us both Paul and James for a reason. Both teach us the truth, so we must figure out how to apply them both to our lives with the four pounds of grey matter we have tucked safely in our craniums. Not always easy work, but most certainly beneficial work.
Differences of opinion may make horses race, as Twain so humorously told us, but they also make us more rounded, sympathetic, and loving people, so long as we ground them in the never-changing truths of God and make allowances for our own shortcomings.
Grace and peace,