Readings: Isaiah 35:4–7a | James 2:1-26 | Mark 7:24–37
Text: James 2:1-26 (covering points from the Formula of Concord, Article IV – Good Works)
“Good Works Are Necessary
Ever since the time of the Reformation lead by Martin Luther, good works have been a point of contention. The Reformers pointed out the gross error of the Roman church which was teaching that our works merited God’s favor. In response, the Romanists accused the Reformers of encouraging an inactive and libertine Christianity by forbidding good works.
This carried on for the next fifty years in Evangelical churches (later called Lutheran), in arguments by Reformation teachers saying, on the one hand, “Good works are necessary for salvation” (Philip Melanchthon) and “No one has ever been saved without good works” (George Major), to on the other hand, “Good works are detrimental to salvation” (Nicholas von Amsdorf). In the midst of all this reactionary madness, Christian charity was warped into this self-conscious act where nobody could just do good in response to God’s grace. Then people would be asking themselves, “Am I doing this to get on God’s good side?” or “I’m saved by grace through faith, and it’s fine if I don’t do anything.”
But the best way to handle misunderstandings and disagreements in the Church is by teaching. This starts with defining terms, because, as we know from the emotionally-charged rhetoric of our day, a mere word can lead to heated arguments. “Good works” was a freighted term, because it had meant whatever you did for God and the Church: “[observing] holy days, particular fasts, brotherhoods, pilgrimages, services in honor of the saints, the use of rosaries, monasticism, and such things” (Augsburg Confession, Article XX 3). It’s gotten a little better, because now people associate good works with activities that actually help your neighbor. But why are they called good? As Jesus once said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:18) If something is to be called ‘good,’ it’s because it comes from God. So, a good work is work that God empowers. Sure, anyone, regardless of where their heart is, can do outward good, but only a Christian can do good works, because only a Christian has God working in them by His Spirit.
The other part is the works themselves. What works? Does God limit works to only religious things? That might sound kind of silly to us, since the Church isn’t an institution that wields social influence like it used to. But it’s not some mysterious, higher act. The Ten Commandments teach us works that God wants us to do (and not do): Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength (#1-3), obey and honor your parents and authorities, protect other’s lives and safety, honor marriage and devote yourself to your spouse, protect people’s property and income, defend reputations, and keep yourself content with what God has given you (#4-10). There’s enough there to keep someone busy in their daily life without ever having to leave their hometown! After all, it’s things like this for which the Lord will commend His saints the Last Day: “35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” (Matt. 25:35-36)
And as Christians, God has also given us the work of sharing the Gospel—“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 5:16) It’s also true that giving to the Church, which is supporting the Gospel ministry, is a work God commands (just don’t elevate so you neglect your daily duties, Mark 7:10-12). St. Paul teaches, “the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:14). Sometimes this also means giving to causes within the Church, like our Macedonian forefathers did, “For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, 4 begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints.” (2 Cor. 8:3-4). And even though it’s not flashy, the maintenance of the facilities at your church, or paying for the pastor’s health insurance, is part and parcel of the work God gives His people to do.
Now with an understanding of what’s good and what the works are, let’s see how St. James teaches us. You see, James is writing to congregations of former Jews, who are well-acquainted with salvation-by-works. Just picture the rich young man who comes to Jesus asking what he must do to inherit eternal life: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 And Jesus said to him, 20 ‘You know the commandments…’ 21 And he said, ‘All these I have kept from my youth.’” (Luke 18:18-21)
1 My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. Here’s the scene which is painted: The Christians have gathered in the good Name of God. In walk two men—one who is well-dressed and opulent, and the other a poor man who is in tattered clothing. They look favorably on the well-dressed man and give up their favorite pew to him, but the poor man is made to sit in the very front row so the pastor can keep an eye on him. James says this favoritism is “becoming a judge with evil thoughts” because while they are busy schmoozing their well-to-do visitor and thinking of all that they could get done with a large donation, they have neglected the soul whom the world has despised and who is driven to set his hope on God.
James then brings them back to the Commandments: “8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.”
Love your neighbor as yourself means just that: Love every neighbor. When we do that, we are doing well. Yes! Go for that, and aspire to love your neighbor, no matter who they might be! But, whenever you and I have failed to do that—and we all do—we are found to be sinners. Our works are imperfect and inconsistent, so they can’t be what we base our salvation upon. That’s why the Reformers gave the wise advice, “Good works must be completely excluded from any questions of salvation as well as from the article on our justification before God.” (Formula of Concord (FC), Epitome IV 7)
James continues, “12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” If we are to be judged and not be condemned, it can only be through the Lord’s mercy. Those saints whose works the Lord commended, who I mentioned earlier (Matt. 25:31-46) were surprised by the commendation because they had not always obeyed the Law. There were people they had failed to feed, clothe, and visit. But the Lord’s judgment was not based on their perfect righteousness—but His own which He covered them with. They inherited, not earned the Kingdom. This is being judged under the law of liberty or freedom, and shows how mercy triumphs over judgment. With a brilliant turn of phrase, those who lived showing no mercy and insisted on all their works—akin to those on the Judge’s left hand—are in turn shown no mercy.
That brings us to the next part, where James has stern words for those who believe they can have faith without it impacting the way they think and live. This is a needed warning, especially to the Church today. It was a very timely message to Christians who were recovering from confusion that our works were something that gained God’s favor. There are many signs that the Church now has swung in the opposite direction, and that’s only further aggravated by the thinking of our day. In a time when what you identify as can be distinguished from what objective reality says about you, it’s really no surprise that one can identify as a Christian, but live as an atheist.
James takes this disparity head on: “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.”
Can that faith save him? I thought that we are “justified by faith, apart from works” (Rom. 3:28) Yes, we are, but what kind of faith is important to understand. We could use the same to describe someone who says, “I love you.” Those are just words, unless they are accompanied by fitting actions. You know this if you’ve had a family member say, “I love you” but what they do is yell, hurt, and abandon you. Even a child can tell that doesn’t add up.
Now faith is much greater than human love because it is the gift of God, and where it is, it changes the heart. It awakens new desires, new priorities, new ways to treat the treasures you’ve been given.
So James explains,
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.
Living faith gives birth to good works. ”A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.” (Matt. 7:17) If you call yourself a Christian, you should be able to see a new heart. That’s what we pray for, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10) It’s that new heart and right spirit that desires the works God commands. So it’s perfectly right to say it is necessary for Christians to do good works. Necessary in the way that St. Paul so beautifully explains after one of our favorite passages: “8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:8-10) God has forgiven our trespasses, our disobedience, our deadness in trespasses and sins, in order to rise from death and be His creatures. As creatures of God listen to the voice of their Creator, that’s the relationship we Christians have to good works. God commands it, so we do it. The Lord Himself says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15)
So when James says “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” He’s not just talking about salvation, but that the faith the Christian claims is justified, vindicated, or confirmed by their works. And this drives each Christian back to the Ten Commandments, to the command to shine as lights, to support the Gospel, to give to the needs of the saints, and to live in mercy. And that makes each of us ask, “Is this what I’ve been doing? Have I been living in accord with the Lord who bought me with His own blood? Have I shown mercy and poured myself out for the lost, the poor and hurting?” Or have you been more interested in making sure you’re comfortable? This disparity is not good. It is sinful, and we must put off selfish and atheistic ways.
The Lord is gracious and merciful to forgive you your trespasses. He does not judge you by your performance, but according to His mercy. You are His, and an heir of eternal life. Your sins are forgiven. Let that new life be what moves you to love God, to love your spouse, family, all your neighbors. This is the Christian life, not just holding to Jesus in word only, but also in deed. Therefore, let us pray for the Lord to accomplish this in us with the Offertory (Psalm 51:10-12). Amen.