Faith Without Works

If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm and eat well,” but you do not give them what the body needs, what good is it? (James 2:15-16)

James 2:14-26: the very citation of the passage immediately brings to mind its premise: “faith without works is dead.”

For generations James 2:14-26 has been held as the counterweight to Paul’s affirmations of justification by faith apart from works in Romans 3:10-4:23 and Galatians 3:1-27. Martin Luther famously wanted to consider James not truly inspired because of what he had to say about faith and works; indeed, the only time in which the Bible speaks of “faith only” explicitly is in James 2:24, in which James set forth how one is justified by works and not by faith alone! Thus most Christians, upon hearing or considering James 2:14-26, are tempted to understand the passage purely in doctrinal terms as part of the dispute which has gone on for half a millennium about faith and works: either to brandish the passage as the answer to Protestant excess in their doctrine of faith only, or to attempt to find some way to narrowly contextualize or frame the passage to somehow “fit” into a scheme in which “faith only” can be preserved.

James quite possibly is throwing some shade, perhaps not directly at Paul himself, but certainly toward those who would take Paul to an extreme Paul did not maintain. Let none be deceived: James powerfully affirmed the importance of works in faith, a premise which Paul would not and did not deny (e.g. Romans 1:5, 6:14-23, etc.). We can make good sense of the two emphases each inspired author conveyed: by emphasizing how salvation is by faith apart from works of the Law, Paul established our unworthiness and inability to earn our salvation (Romans 3:10-4:23, Galatians 3:1-27); by emphasizing that faith is displayed in works, James expressed the necessary consequences of saving faith, demonstration of trust through effort (James 2:14-26). Paul did not deny the importance of the obedience of faith; James would not suggest people can deserve, earn, or merit their salvation.

Nevertheless, James was not intending to write to Christians so they would have a better understanding of a doctrinal proposition. If we consider James 2:1-17 as a whole, the true picture of what James sought to convey becomes apparent.

James saw Christians displaying prejudice and partiality, and wanted to warn them about the consequences of that behavior: specifically, rich guests were treated with great hospitality while poor guests were treated with contempt (James 2:1-3). James condemned such behavior as making distinctions and becoming judges with evil motives (James 2:4). He wondered how Christians could do such things when God had chosen in Christ the poor of the world to become rich in faith and the Kingdom itself; they had thus dishonored the poor, while honoring the very people who oppressed them, dragged them into court, and blasphemed (James 2:5-7).

Instead James would have them fulfill the royal law of loving their neighbor as themselves (James 2:8; cf. Leviticus 19:18). If they show prejudice, the law would condemn them as transgressors. It would not matter that they had done all kinds of righteousness or had avoided other sins, for those who obey the law in all points but one has become guilty of the whole (James 2:9-11). Thus Christians should speak and act as if they will be judged by a law giving freedom, and having shown mercy, for judgment is merciless for those who have displayed no mercy (James 2:12-13). James then rhetorically asked what good it would be if a person claimed to have faith but did not have works, and if that faith could save them (James 2:14). He then gave an example: if a Christian is poorly clothed and lacks food, and if one of his or her fellow Christians saw them like this and told them to go, be warm and eat well, but did not provide anything so they could get warm and eat well, what good would it be (James 2:15-16)? Thus, James declared, faith without works is dead (James 2:17).

Thus, in context, James is warning Christians that if they say they are helping the poor among them without actually helping the poor among them, their faith is without works, and their faith is dead! Such is consistent with his concerns in James 1:22-25, 27; John would speak in similar ways in 1 John 3:16-18. It is not for the Christian to judge the shabbiness or worthiness of people, but to help, demonstrating the faith they profess in the works they are doing. To act otherwise is to show partiality and to be condemned as transgressors, or to confess by one’s deeds (or lack thereof) that one’s faith is truly dead.

It is right and appropriate for us to draw the application from James 2:14-26 that faith without works is dead, and in doctrinal conversations and disputes to hold up the passage to correct excess in the way many have sought to understand the Apostle Paul. Yet we must always remember that such a perspective on James 2:14-26 is an application, and not the one immediately expected in its context. Whether we focus on James 2:1-17 in particular, or the entire passage from James 1:22-2:26, we should see the connections inherent in James’ theme, and to recognize his great concern that Christians would put their faith in action by providing what proved necessary for all people, but especially those of the household of faith. May we all demonstrate our faith by our works and do so by loving our neighbors as ourselves, proving to be neighbors to poor and rich alike, and by providing what is necessary for those in need, and obtain the resurrection of life in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Faith Without Works

Almsgiving

“Take heed that ye do not your righteousness before men, to be seen of them: else ye have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. When therefore thou doest alms, sound not a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have received their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: that thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret shall recompense thee” (Matthew 6:1-4).

What motivates our righteousness? Love for God? Love for our fellow man? To be seen as righteous?

Jesus addressed motivation for practicing righteousness as He continues His discourse in what is popularly known as the “Sermon on the Mount.” Whereas Jesus introduced a new subject, and a new chapter has begun according to modern versification, His theme remained unchanged. Ever since Matthew 5:17-20 Jesus has been comparing what had been said in the Law, the standard of righteousness for the scribes and Pharisees with what He had to say, the standard of true righteousness, what would truly be necessary to enter the Kingdom (Matthew 5:21-48). The Pharisees and scribes are no less in view in Matthew 6:1-24 than they were in Matthew 5:21-48; we are to understand that they are these hypocrites who want to seem righteous (cf. Matthew 23:1-36, Luke 16:13-31).

Bloch-SermonOnTheMount

Jesus begun by establishing the principle: do not act righteously to be seen by people (Matthew 6:1). Such is a strong tendency of humanity; one need not travel very far to find some kind of building, park, or other facility emblazoned with the name or names of the people who contributed to it. People love to contribute to causes as long as they get some benefit, normally some publicity, so as to look good and to be seen as a positive asset for the community. It works, at least in terms of humanity; but what about before God?

Jesus applied the principle to the three main realms of what may be considered religious behavior: almsgiving (Matthew 6:2-4), prayer (Matthew 6:3-15), and fasting (Matthew 6:16-18). These three realms cover the whole of one’s service to God: righteous actions for others (almsgiving), development of relationship with God (prayer), and personal acts of devotion and spirituality (fasting). In this way it is evident that Jesus’ principle of Matthew 6:1 applies to Christianity in full. Our motivation must always be to glorify and honor God in all we do, not to be seen by others as holy and righteous.

Almsgiving was expected to be a common practice in Israel; if you had something to give, you gave it to the ill, the infirm, the disabled, the widow, and the orphan (e.g. Job 31:16-20, Isaiah 58:7-12). Such is why Jesus assumes the practice (“when you give”). The scribes and Pharisees gave as well, but when they did so, they had a trumpet blast given, either in the synagogue or on the street (Matthew 6:2).

Such seems too ridiculous to even contemplate; some believe Jesus is exaggerating, but the concept is so clear and compelling that we now speak of someone proclaiming their deeds as “trumpeting” them. These hypocrites, most likely the scribes and Pharisees, are doing their best “acting.” Their standing in society is based upon the commonly held view that they were more studious, righteous, and learned. To maintain that standing they must be seen as performing righteous acts like almsgiving.

Notice that Jesus did not say that these hypocrites internally and consciously intended to do these things to be seen by men; they no doubt justified their behavior by saying that they were doing good and doing what God commanded. No doubt God and benevolence did play into their motivations. But would they have still given those alms if no one was there to notice? Most likely not, and in this way their real intention is made known. It is more important in their minds to keep up appearances than to actually perform righteousness and care for those less fortunate.

Jesus did establish that they did receive their reward: the people continued to think of them as holy and righteous (Matthew 6:2). Yet they have no credit from God. Instead, one is to give so that their left hand does not know what their right hand is doing, and God who sees in secret will reward you (Matthew 6:3-4).

We are again confronted with what seems to be a ludicrous situation: both the left and right hands are controlled by the brain, so how can one do anything so that one hand does not know what the other is doing? Perhaps Jesus intended for us to understand that giving should become so reflexive that we do it without having to think twice about it; then again, His whole concern has been regarding intentions with giving, and to give reflexively does not automatically mean one is giving thoughtfully and benevolently. Jesus is most likely using a potent image so that we understand His main point: our giving is to be in secret (Matthew 6:4).

Does Jesus thus condemn all public forms of giving? No more so than He condemns people seeing Christians giving to others. We do well to remember that Jesus’ primary concern is motivation: why are we doing what we are doing? Are we trying to glorify God or look pious before men? If we prove willing to give in secret, we demonstrate that our righteousness is not a show, but sincerely reflects our love for God and for our fellow man. If we only give when we will get some kind of reward or credit on earth, then our motivations are less than sincere.

We do well to stop and reflect about our motivations. Jesus makes it very clear that two people can do the exact same thing but have two very different outcomes solely on account of their motivations. What we intend informs the purpose and thus value of the act.

Needs for benevolence are no less today than then (Matthew 26:11). We do well to help those in need, especially those in the household of faith (Galatians 6:10). We must remember that we will receive our reward no matter what. If we give to be seen of men, then we will be seen of men, receive their commendation, but gain no standing before God. If we give to glorify God, then God will see what we do, and He who sees in secret will reward us appropriately. May we give abundantly to others so God receives all the glory!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Almsgiving

Mary and Her Ointment

But there were some that had indignation among themselves, saying, “To what purpose hath this waste of the ointment been made? For this ointment might have been sold for above three hundred shillings, and given to the poor.”
And they murmured against her.
But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why trouble ye her? She hath wrought a good work on me. For ye have the poor always with you, and whensoever ye will ye can do them good: but me ye have not always. She hath done what she could; she hath anointed my body beforehand for the burying” (Mark 14:4-8).

Mary sought to honor her Lord. He had, after all, just raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-45, 12:1-3). She felt it was appropriate to bring out this very expensive ointment– the “spikenard”– worth more than three hundred denarii, or over six thousand dollars in buying power today. This is a staggering sum even today!

This “waste” was acutely felt by some of the disciples. Granted, Judas’ motivations about his indignation are suspect, as John 12:4-6 indicates, but we have no reason to believe that the indignation of some of the other disciples was likewise suspect. They had been used to a life of relative poverty while following Jesus, and this entire episode seemed entirely out of place for Jesus considering His mission, purpose, and method (cf. Matthew 8:20, 20:25-28).

The sentiment of some of the disciples had some basis in nobility– after all, even today, $6,000 would go a long way in helping people who have nothing. The impulse to take such a “luxury” and use the proceeds to help the poor is not a bad thing, and Jesus does not censure that impulse. What matters is the timing.

Thus He tells His disciples that they will always have the opportunity to help the poor, but they will not always be able to enjoy His physical presence. The idea that the “poor are always with you” is not license to neglect the poor or to give up any endeavor that attempts to provide benefits for the poor. Instead, Jesus is justifying this particular “extravagant waste,” pointing out that the poor will remain, but He will not always be with them.

Mary is most likely unaware of the significance of what she is doing. What she does in honor as a good work is really a preparation for burial. Since He will die just before the Sabbath– a high Sabbath at that– there will not be proper time for anointing the body (cf. Mark 15:42-46). Three women will bring ointment with which to anoint the body of Jesus on the first day of the week, but by then He will be raised from the dead (Mark 16:1). Thus, the only anointment of His body for death came here, in the house of Simon the leper, by the hand of Mary.

This is a poignant story, and Jesus’ testimony about how the story of Mary and the anointing will be proclaimed wherever the Gospel is proclaimed demonstrates His great confidence in the plan of God that is unfolding (cf. Ephesians 3:10-11). And so it is; almost two thousand years later and halfway across the world we now consider her story and the good work that she did for Jesus.

It is very easy for anyone to get so thoroughly invested in a cause that they begin to neglect themselves and their own souls. Yes, we are called to serve and not be served, just as Jesus did (Matthew 20:25-28). But even Jesus accepted this anointing. He not only allowed Mary to do her good work, He blessed it and its memory. It is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35), but if no one receives, no one can give!

This is not license for selfishness, but a good reminder for us to accept the good works of others on our behalf, and seek to be the examples we should be. Let us serve God wholeheartedly, doing good works and accepting good works, and reflect our Savior!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Mary and Her Ointment

Real Giving

And he looked up, and saw the rich men that were casting their gifts into the treasury. And he saw a certain poor widow casting in thither two mites.
And he said, “Of a truth I say unto you, This poor widow cast in more than they all: for all these did of their superfluity cast in unto the gifts; but she of her want did cast in all the living that she had” (Luke 21:1-4).

It is easy for us humans to be enraptured by numbers; it is less easy to get excited about proportions. We tend to put much more value on the numbers than on the proportions.

The treasury box was placed in the Temple so that Jews could leave their financial gifts to provide for the sacrifices, incense, and other such things for the Temple.

Most observers on that spring day in 30 CE would have appreciated all of the gifts of the rich. They were, no doubt, putting in plenty of shekels or denarii to keep the incense burning and the animals on the altar. A widow bringing a couple of lepta would be completely forgotten in the process. After all, what can approximately 23 cents (a rough approximation, in modern money, of the value of two lepta) buy?

According to a worldly perspective, Jesus’ comment is truly laughable. This widow, with her 23 cents, put in more than all of the rich people with their hundreds of dollars? In what universe is 23 cents worth more than hundreds of dollars? If the ministers of the Temple depended on 23 cents as the greatest of contributions, how would they be able to keep up the incense and sacrifices?

But Jesus is not speaking about numbers. His concern is far greater– He focuses on the proportion and the faith.

Jesus would not deny that, in numerical terms, the rich men were putting in more money. But the rich people would go back to their homes with plenty of resources. They would have a nice bed and a good meal and plenty else. They did not really miss the money that they put in the offering box. It was above and beyond their real need. It was not, in any meaningful definition of the word, a sacrifice for them.

The widow has an entirely different story. Those two mites are all that she has. She does not really have a home to which to return. She does not have good food to eat. There is nothing else. The two mites are all that she has. And she proves willing to give them in faith to God for incense and sacrifices. She, truly, has sacrificed!

Today we would entirely understand if someone who was in such deep poverty as this widow were to use his or her meager resources for themselves. But this widow was willing to really trust in God. She was willing to put everything she had on the line and trusted that God would provide for her needs. She truly put God first and foremost in her life in a way that very few of us would ever completely understand!

The odds are that most of us fall somewhere in between the rich people and the poor widow– we do not have a ton of money that we can give without suffering some kind of loss, but we are not on our last dollar, either. We should not conclude from this story that we must give every last penny to Jesus– instead, we are to gain from the story that while we humans may be more enamored with numbers than proportion, God is far more concerned with proportion than number. For some, $20 is giving sacrificially. For others, $20 is a lot like the rich people and their gifts– not something that will be missed. But 20% for most anyone would be a significant loss, let alone 30, 40, or even 60%!

As believers we must give to God and those in need as God has bountifully given to us and with a cheerful heart (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:1-3, 2 Corinthians 9:6-11). When we give, let us consider the example of the poor widow and Jesus’ important lesson: we cannot fool God with numbers. He knows the heart, and He knows the proportion. As God has suffered the loss of so much for us, let us also be willing to sacrifice for God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Real Giving

Giving Ourselves

For according to their power, I bear witness, yea and beyond their power, they gave of their own accord, beseeching us with much entreaty in regard of this grace and the fellowship in the ministering to the saints: and this, not as we had hoped, but first they gave their own selves to the Lord, and to us through the will of God (2 Corinthians 8:3-5).

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges in life is learning how to do what we ought to do with the spirit in which we ought to do it along with the proper motivation for doing so. This is especially true in the “religious” sphere of existence. It is quite easy to fall into the trap of empty ritualism, or for people to work with the intent to earn merit. Too many are only willing to do the commands of God that are comfortable for them; many treat religion as they perhaps treated high school, trying to figure out how to do just enough to “get by.”

While all of these forms of religious service are popular, they are not what God intends, and they cannot lead to a saving faith. If we really desire to be saved, we will have to do as the Macedonians did so many years ago: we must first give ourselves to the Lord. If we are able to accomplish that, then everything else can fall into its proper place.

Yet, as with many things in life, such is easier said than done. Giving ourselves entirely over to Jesus is a challenging proposition. It requires us to be crucified with Him, making the decision to no longer live in sin (Romans 6:1-7, Galatians 2:20). We must then live as His servants, seeking His will in every facet of our existence (Ephesians 5-6). The cost is high– the path of Christ involves sacrifice, suffering, and persecution (Romans 12:1, Acts 14:21, Romans 8:17-18). The reward of eternal life, however, will make up for it and beyond (cf. Revelation 21-22)!

It is easy to understand why the temptation is always there to promote or to live a half-hearted religion, a belief system in which you go along with God as long as it is comfortable and does not infringe too terribly strongly in one’s life. Yet we must understand that a religion without cost tends to be a religion without benefit. Jesus came to the earth not to be served but to serve, and He gave fully of Himself for us (Philippians 2:5-11). If He gave Himself fully for us, how can we expect to get away with only giving a little bit for Him?

Jesus Himself makes it quite clear in Matthew 10:35-39 that becoming His disciple is an all-or-nothing proposition. You either put God in Christ first in your life or you do not. You are willing to allow the Lord to dictate for you through His Word how you will conduct yourselves toward your parents, spouse, children, employer, friends, and others, or you are not (cf. Ephesians 5-6). You either allow God in Christ to dictate how you will use the blessings of material abundance, time and talents for His purposes, or you do not (Romans 12). Half-hearted service, empty ritualism, or reward-based work is not true service to God, no matter how much it may feel as it is (cf. Matthew 7:21-23). It is only when we first and foremost decide that we are going to give ourselves over to the Lord that we can finally begin serving Him.

Thankfully, no matter how we have lived in the past, as long as we live, we have the opportunity to give ourselves to the Lord. Let us do so and become full servants of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, knowing that if we glorify His name, we will share in His eternal glory!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Giving Ourselves