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Volume 19, Issue 1: Stauron

James and Augsburg: On Fruits and Road Apples

Gary Hagen

Jesus said, "Depart from me. I never knew you." Yet they had done many `good works,' and in the name of God. God says they were evil. And so neither mighty religious works, wonderful and dramatic achievements, nor pastoral eloquence is any warrant of the Spirit's blessing. Still, the High Priest who murdered the Savior spoke by the Spirit. Even king Saul prophesied among the prophets. And moreover Balaam's ass spoke by God's miracle. Must these then mean that the ass was a born-again Christian?

This misconstruction over works and righteousness is nothing new. It's been around since the days of Cain. It persisted at the time of Christ. But somewhat more recently we find this same controversy carefully rebutted in such early Reformation documents as the Formula of Concord.1 Now the specific controversies at that time were not, as might first be supposed, between the papists of Rome and the champions of Augsburg. The controversies that precipitated the writing of the Formula had already arisen among some of the very theologians of the Augsburg Confession. In the Formula we find upwards of a dozen specific errors reviewed and rejected regarding justification, works, faith, and righteousness, including the error that stated, "That faith does not justify without good works; so that [man's] good works are necessarily required for righteousness." Rather it is there affirmed that sinful man is justified "without any preceding, present, or any subsequent works." And yet, "That good works certainly and without doubt follow true faith . . . as fruits of a good tree."
James 1:21 states, "Put away wickedness and receive the implanted word, which is able to save your souls." Here James is perfectly aligned with the Spirit's words elsewhere given through Paul2 who wrote, "In him [Christ] you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of salvation, and believed him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit . . ." and again, "Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain."
Luther contended that, "Faith and good works well agree and fit together [are inseparably connected]; but it is faith alone, without works, which lays hold of the blessing; and yet it is never and at no time alone."3 In discussing James 2, the Apology to the Augsburg Confession denies the perceived conflict of works with grace, accusing those who would muddy the pure waters of the gospel by importing their own godless opinions concerning merit. The Apology goes on to note that James points out we are born again by the Gospel, and justified by faith,4 and that James does not therefore think that we are born again by our works. Rather James is pointing out the difference between a dead faith and a living faith. But his focus is still on the faith, and more specifically, the evidences of a living faith.
James applied the same exact litmus test to living faith as Jesus did (James 1:27 cf. Matt. 25:31-46). James went on to give another example of empty words, insincere and worthless religion: If a brother or sister is in some kind of need, and you have it within your power to address that need, but instead all you do is offer empty platitudes and kind sounding words, what good is that? How does that help? James' point is that this kind of concern, this kind of talk, is cheap. And he makes this point not to say it is wrong to speak kindly or encouragingly to those in need, but that it can't stop there if it is truly godly and genuine faith at work. James makes this illustration not to disparage concern, but to show that empty words only betray an empty faith. In the same way, he says statements of faith, or recitations of creeds (Jas. 2:19), also ring hollow if they have no evidence supporting them in action.
The Scriptures do not speak of faith in esoteric and ivory tower terms, nor as a cognitive experience only. Faith is incarnational, not Gnostic. Faith is deeply tied to actions, from the time of our conception until our death. However, such actions are the results of faith, not replacements for faith. And these works are nowhere given as co-grounds for salvation, not even in the epistle of James.
And so none of this should be construed to mean "works righteousness" in any form; for how can we earn what has already been freely given? Salvation is all of mercy and grace, by faith, and that not of ourselves. And yet such faith is evidenced by its works. We clearly see this in the most famous chapter on faith in the entire Bible, Hebrews 11. Each faith example there is a vignette on the actions of faith. Such faith had traction in real-life circumstances. And elsewhere in Scripture, the book we now know as The Acts of the Apostles, could just as accurately have been titled The Actions of Faith in the Early Church.
While we must never seek to put the cart before the horse, neither should we seek to separate that which God has joined together. We must, however, seek to understand this important connection, as well as its distinctions, biblically. In the gospel account of Luke,5 Jesus ate at the house of a Pharisee named Simon. There, a woman, who was a sinner, anointed His feet with ointment and washed His feet with her tears, while wiping them with her hair. Christ pointed to the deficiency of Simon's hospitality in the light of her deeds. And yet, our Lord said to her, "Thy sins are forgiven. Thy faith hath saved thee. Go in peace."

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