Last we talked a bit about disillusionment with religion. It is not uncommon to hear tales of people leaving the church behind or walking out on their faith. Tim Keller, in his book, “The Reason For God” cites the behavior of Christians – as individuals and as the church – as a key reason for this disillusionment. In this passage, James asks a question that many of us in our more cynical times of disillusionment with religion have probably asked: “What good is it, if a man says he has faith but does not have works?” (2:14) The two law students critiqued Christianity because they saw it failing to live up to what they would consider the marks of true religion. Notice that these two law students are making an assumption about the relationship between faith (what one believes) and works (how one acts). They have concluded that Christianity is not worth believing, because they haven’t seen it acting in ways that they expect it to were it the true religion.
Those two lawyers would probably find a kindred spirit in James chapter two. I can imagine them saying, see there – that’s what religion is supposed to be like! James speaks to modern Canadians in our language in the illustrations he uses. He talks of the evils of partiality and discrimination. He warns these Christians to put away their judgmental and narrow-minded thoughts. He condemns those who flippantly speak blessings to the poor and oppressed without getting their hands dirty and helping them. He even gives them a great proof-text to use as a slogan for their activism: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction” James 1:27. This is what Canadians want from their religions. Show me your faith by your works and then I will believe.
Now, I’ll admit that these illustrations are both challenging and effective. James puts us in familiar positions. He doesn’t drift into abstract theorizing about social issues. Instead of speaking about the evils of profiling by race, gender or class, he asks, “What do you do when a well-dressed and obviously well-off individual comes into your meetings? Do you give him special treatment? What about a guy off the street – do you ignore him?” Instead of making partiality a big picture issue, he brings it close to home – how do you welcome people? The other illustration he uses is of a brother or sister who is having trouble making ends meet. This is not a faceless statistic with a generic name – this is a brother or sister in your church whom you know, someone you have the opportunity and the ability to help materially through a tough time. James is not primarily concerned with the nameless masses of people who need assistance and are living off of government programs. He is very concerned that the church – this family of families – is helping those with whom they have contact and are able to help.
As I said – these ideas are not very controversial in our culture. North Americans pride themselves on our tolerance and our charity. Many people outside of the Church who do not accept the tenets of Christianity devote their lives to social justice and the welfare of our communities. But I want you to listen very carefully to what I say now and take it in, because this is the theological point that will offend the average Canadian and will make me no friends with the social activists. It may also offend some Christians who use the theological slogan, “Justification by faith alone” as an excuse to cover over the cobwebs of their life-less soul: only the true Christian possesses the resources to benevolently seek the welfare of others, and each true Christian will do so.
Only the true Christian possesses the resources to seek the welfare of others
The activists cry foul. The atheists recoil. Even Christians smile nervously yet doubt the arrogance of that statement. Yet one must ask what resources are necessary for one to seek the benevolence of others and once these resources are identified we must honestly consider whether they are possessed by the Christian alone.
1. The Instruction to Seek the Welfare of Others
The first resource may not seem that earth-shattering, but simply put, Christians believe that no less than God himself has through his divine revelation instructed us to seek the welfare of others. James mentions this “royal law” in 2:8: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” and places this command on the same level of significance as “do not murder” or “do not commit adultery”. A Christian has clear and authoritative instruction to do good. This is important, for we would be naïve to imagine that every worldview (religious or non-religious approach to life) contains within itself instruction to seek the welfare of others. For example, some forms of Hinduism have contributed to the upholding of the caste system for centuries. One of the most glaring ideological contradictions of modern Canadian culture is our insistence upon human rights even as we seek to ground them in a radical multiculturalism that holds no beliefs of any group to be superior to those of any other. Yet if morality is relative who is to say if and when human rights are violated? An atheist can say that he feels that we ought to protect the rights of others and seek the welfare of others, but upon what basis does he base his ethic – upon nature? If nature is governed by the law of survival of the fittest, then the natural thing would be to show favoritism to the strong while ignoring the weak and neglect the poor while blessing the rich.
2. The Temperament to Seek the Welfare of Others
Now, it is admitted that most religions convey instruction to seek the welfare of others, which the Christian anticipates, believing God is a universal God who has given all humanity a conscience and moral character. Therefore we have to probe deeper to understand how the true Christian alone possesses all the resources to seek the welfare of others. One of the most common and powerful critiques of religion is that it promotes theological pride in religious absolutes which breed intolerance toward opposing sects – spiraling downward in many cases to lead to suspicion, oppression and even violence. Yet all belief systems, even atheism, have their own fundamental beliefs. The question is, as pastor Tim Keller puts it in his book “The Reason for God”, “which fundamentals will lead their believers to be the most loving and receptive to those with whom they differ?” The difference between Christianity and other worldviews is very pronounced at this point. Most other worldviews “assume that one’s spiritual status depends upon religious attainments [which] leads adherents to feel superior to those who don’t believe and behave as they do.” Contrast this with the Christian gospel. As James 1:21 says, “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your soul.” The Christian faith is different because it is truly only entered into when one recognizes his or her moral inferiority. Upon recognizing our moral inferiority we receive with meekness the Word that saves. “It is by grace that you are saved – not of works lest any man should boast.” The stance of the Christian toward those who do not believe is not that of a parent speaking to a child or a saint speaking to a sinner, but as one theologian put it, “as one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” The temperament of humility whereby one becomes a true Christian is the same temperament which seeks the welfare of others – for they are what I am, but by the grace of God.
3. The Empowerment to Seek the Welfare of Others
It could be argued that there may be other belief systems that contain both the instruction to seek the welfare of others and foster a temperament which breeds humility. Yet we are not finished, for it is not enough to know what to do and what is the correct attitude, but one must also follow through. Here is where the Christian alone possesses the supernatural resources to follow through – the empowerment that comes from God. Notice that James tells us to “receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” Here is the picture – the word of God is like a seed that is planted deeply into the life of a true Christian. In receiving the word of Christ you receive the life of Christ – the indwelling Spirit of Christ – who begins transforming your life into Christ’s, empowering you to seek the welfare of others. Here is where the Christian has a resource that no other has. Without the spirit of God I could cajole you into seeking the welfare of others. I could take you on a guilt trip in order to manipulate you to see the welfare of others. I could shame you, and threaten you with the loss of face if you didn’t comply. I could frighten you with stories of what will happen to our society if we don’t act quickly, knowing that fear is a very powerful motivator. Finally, I could preach at you: using words like must, should, ought. And maybe you’d seek the welfare of others for a season. Maybe if I drove you and we all drove each other we could scrape up enough willpower to make a difference. Or maybe the guilt would break you after a while. Maybe the fear would paralyze you. Maybe the moralizing would desensitize you. Maybe your willpower would dry up, and you would burn out. Maybe we’re not strong enough. And maybe its only when we realize our weakness that God can be strong in us and truly live his life through us, filling us with his power, and enabling us to do more than we ever considered possible.
4. The Confidence to Seek the Welfare of Others
The final ingredient in truly seeking the welfare of others is having the boldness and confidence – the freedom to do so. Christians can seek the welfare of others fully altruistically as we know that we have been lovingly accepted by the only person who matters and that our confidence before him is based on what he has done for us – not upon our performance. James points this out as he urges us to “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.” I remember once in university when I was having a conversation with someone who was very cynical about religion. Yet I had listened to him, allowed him to express his doubts and even anger with God and with religious people. When I did respond to him, I tried to show him the love of God in my both the content of my answers and in the manner by which I spoke to him. I remember at the end of our conversation, he thanked me and told me he’d never talked to a religious person who had really seemed like they cared about him before, rather than pressuring him to believe. I shared with him that the reason why I don’t have to pressure him to believe is that I am secure in God’s love for me and that I know I am going to be judged on the basis of Christ alone. He wasn’t a mark to check on my wall or a notch on my soul-winning belt, so that I could be more secure about my place in heaven. My place is secure – I will be judged under the law of liberty so I am free to love without pressure. I don’t have to worry about my reputation if I start hanging around those who my social group believe to be undesirable – for my reputation means nothing before God. I can give of my resources to others – because I know God will ultimately take care of me. I can freely love even those who don’t deserve love, because I’ve am loved even though I don’t deserve it.
Clear instruction, humble temperament, spiritual empowerment, and confident assurance – these are all resources that the true Christian has that others lack that enable him or her to sincerely seek the welfare of others. I believe that all other ways of life lack at least one of these resources. That’s why Tim Keller titles a subheading in his book, “Christianity Can Save the World.” Yes, you say. He’s a Christian pastor, of course he’d say that. Ok, then, listen to Matthew Paris in a piece he recently wrote for the London Times entitled, “As an Athiest, I truly believe Africa Needs Jesus”
Before Christmas I returned, after 45 years, to the country that as a boy I knew as Nyasaland. Today it's Malawi, and The Times Christmas Appeal includes a small British charity working there. Pump Aid helps rural communities to install a simple pump, letting people keep their village wells sealed and clean. I went to see this work.
It inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities. But travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I've been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I've been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.
Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.
It would suit me to believe that [the African members of the Charitable Organization Paris came to report on] their honesty, diligence and optimism in their work was unconnected with personal faith. Their work was secular, but surely affected by what they were. What they were was, in turn, influenced by a conception of man's place in the Universe that Christianity had taught.
In his piece Paris reaches the uncomfortably conclusion (for him) that if Africans are to ever really take initiative in addressing their own social problems, they must become more, and not less Christian. Only the true Christian possesses the resources to seek the welfare of others.
Each true Christian will seek the welfare of others
While the first side of my equation today will probably not win me many friends among those outside of the church, the flip side of the equation may not win many within it. If true Christians possess all of the above resources, then there will be evidence of them in your life if you are a true Christian.
Go back to what James said about receiving the implanted word which is able to save your souls. Now you can sit here and listen to the word and it falls on your ears and it never seeps into your life. James goes on to say this in the following verses: James 1:23-24 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. In the same way, Jesus spoke of seed which is sown long a rocky path. The seed never takes root, and ultimately dies. This is the key to understanding the theological controversy of James 2. Some see James as contradicting Paul’s doctrine that we are justified (made righteous before God – remember Romans) by faith alone, when James says we are “justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). Yet if we understand James analogy of the spiritual life as a seed which is received by faith, it makes sense that if no fruit has been born, then the implanted word has not truly taken root. Rather than contradicting Paul, James is here recognizing that not every type of faith saves. For example, mere intellectual assent to theological propositions does not justify us before God – for as he says in 2:19, “You say you believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe God, and shudder!” True faith that has received the implanted word is transformative faith. Remember what I said earlier – in receiving the word of Christ you receive the life of Christ – the indwelling Spirit of Christ – who begins transforming your life into Christ’s, empowering you to seek the welfare of others. These good works justify you – but not in the sense that Paul means, in making you righteous, but in a different sense. These works vindicate (another meaning of justify) your faith, demonstrating your faith to be true faith. So if someone says show me your faith, you can point to the works your faith has produced and be vindicated. James summarizes his doctrine in 2:26 “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” This is not simply a metaphor! If there is nothing in your life which demonstrates your faith, then you truly are a body who has never received the spirit of God and are still dead in your sins.
It’s important at this point that we not make the mistake of manipulating you through guilt, fear or shame to seek the benefit of others. Instead I will direct you to Christ. For if you’re dead, you don’t need works – you need Christ! Open your heart to receive him ever still more deeply as the implanted Word in your soul and that you listen to His spirit as he leads you confidently and empowers you to seek the welfare of others.