Guest Post: What's Faith Got to Do With It?
by Jim Reitman, aka "Agent4Him"
In reply to the question “What if faith does not guarantee works?” I would say that this in fact is the starting premise of the whole book of James! Faith was not at all producing the works that should have been evident among people of faith, and that is precisely our problem today among people of faith.
The thematic verses, 1:2-4, make it clear that the immediate objective of trials is to challenge our faith to produce works might make us “whole” and “perfect.” But “whole” and “perfect” in what measure? It is the “commodity” of the righteousness of God. The larger objective of works of faith in James is that as children of God we might vindicate our birth as His “firstfruits” (1:18)—”friends of God” who display His righteousness to the world (1:19-20, cf. 2:23).
To this end, the most exemplary works of righteousness are those that are rooted in God’s heart of compassion and longsuffering for His people (Ex 34:6). And what are the main “trials” we face that are meant to elicit these works of compassion and longsuffering? Invariably (look at the entire NT epistolary corpus), this entails the grueling challenge of loving those who are “hard-to-love” within the body of Christ. This is epitomized by the teaching on manifested righteousness in Matt 5 and 1 John 2:29-3:18, as well as Christ’s repeated injunction that others will know who we are by our love for one another (cf. John 13:35).
I contend that the “goal” of works in 2:14-26 as it relates to faith is no different than in 1:2-4: It is that “faith is perfected [or brought to completion] by works” (2:22) as we face trials. While God was among “the twelve tribes scattered” intent on purifying His people in the “commodity” of righteousness for His name’s sake, the most important works—those that display the righteousness of God—were sorely lacking, just as they were lacking among the Israelites for most of their prior history.
Thus, the message of 2:14-26 is addressed to a people who were not demonstrating the mercy and compassion to others that should be manifested among the people of God who were birthed by Him by grace through faith (1:17-18). If they claimed to have faith, they should be demonstrating their faith by “doing” the righteousness of God in their interaction with one another (1:19-20). If, as you claim “I don’t think practically we can look at anyone’s works and tell anything about their own eternal destiny,” how in the world could you see that “a man is justified by works” (2:24)??? How else could Abraham be “called a friend of God” by those who observed his works (2:23)???
Consequently, however we view the controversial 2:18, it is incongruent with James’ argument to claim that he was not advocating a disposition of “I will show you my faith by my works.” While it is ridiculous to claim from 2:14-26 that “faith guarantees works” (in fact the passage argues the converse—”works make faith visible and bring faith to completion”), I think it is a mistake to shrink from the obvious communicative intent of the passage out of fear that Lordship people will abuse it: James is clearly seeking to humiliate people who are assumed to be “family” and claim to have faith but have little or nothing to show for it! They should precisely be showing their faith by works!
Along these lines, IMO, one all-too-evident problem within the FG movement at the present time is that we, of all people in the Body, are so stuck on “protecting” faith alone in Christ alone from any “contamination” by works (lest we “facilitate” incursions by errant Reformed and Lordship theologies) that we are shooting each other over “the right formula for salvation” rather than “provoking one another to love and good works” (Heb 10:24). So, we in FG—who argue most vociferously against works as a “marker” of salvation—are the very ones to whom James’ message is most appropriately addressed.
In response to Christ’s work of atonement, we are called to be ambassadors of reconciliation precisely by becoming the (visible) righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:17-21). If we don’t make more progress in taking seriously James’ injunctions in the way we treat each other, being reconciled to one another, our only “completing” or “perfecting” will be our total marginalization from the larger Body of Christ.