I always found it revealing to read letters of application when I interviewed people for a teaching post. Some applicants were very keen to persuade me that they were excellent teachers, full of determination and with stacks of initiative. My task was to unearth the evidence for their statements – did their experience and results support the claims they were making? Did they just know about teaching or were they really skilled practitioners?
Just the same with our Christian faith. Does the evidence in our lives support the claims we make about following Jesus? That is the issue at stake in our readings this week.
v 18 Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.”
The debate was heated and lengthy; was it a matter of believing the right things, or of doing the right things, that marked a person out as a Christian?
Luther famously referred to this letter of James as an “epistle of straw,” purportedly because of its lacklustre portrayal of the gospel and the ease with which it might be used to encourage the doctrine of becoming righteous by doing good deeds. Luther, and others of his day, wanted to stress that the good news was that a person could be declared righteous in God’s eyes solely by faith in Jesus, and that no amount of good deeds could ever make a person righteous.
The reality is that James does not see the issue of salvation as an either/or matter, it is not either faith or good works. What James is saying is that real faith is evidenced by good deeds – the two things go hand-in-hand. We tend to take that for granted these days; there is an expectation that where there is genuine faith evidence of it will shine out in daily life. Paul makes exactly the same point in Titus 1:16 people claim they know God, but they deny him by the way they live. They are detestable and disobedient, worthless for doing anything good. Just as sincere faith is demonstrated by loving action, an apparent faith is denied by selfishness and unholy living. It is this wrong and unholy lifestyle portrayed by insincere faith that the world around us notices and so labels Christians as hypocrites – people with a mismatch between faith and apparent lifestyle.
Sincere faith leads to a holy and generous lifestyle. Question – Does it?