I find that I, personally, even though I've come to love this letter, I really have to bear down and think when I read James. It's as though he speaks a language foreign to me or, more accurately maybe, that he speaks a language I know but in an accent and with idioms I don't readily understand.
For Lutherans, it has often seemed that while the rest of Scripture teaches that human beings are made right with God (justified) as an act of God's grace (charity) through faith (trust) in the God definitively disclosed in Jesus, while James is saying that you need good works to be saved. It can seem when one reads James that he is salvation as a gift on the shelf in favor of salvation by works, the latter of which is heresy.
But that's not what James is saying at all. One early clue to that fact is what James writes about the Christian praying for wisdom: "But ask in faith..." (James 1:6). Faith is as much a cornerstone for James as for Paul.
Today, the assigned reading for the 5 by 5 by 5 New Testament reading plan is James 2.
In James 2:18, James writes:
"But someone will say, 'You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith."It's simple, I realize, what James is saying. If we have faith in Jesus--if, in another words, we are surrendered to Him as God and King over our lives, it will have an impact on the things we do.
If, on the other hand, we compartmentalize Jesus with a Christian compartment here, a professional compartment here, a relationship compartment there, and so on, our fragmented life will demonstrate that we have little or no faith in Christ, that we lack a saving relationship with Christ.
When Christ is Lord over us, often without our even seeing it, His presence active within us and our trust in Him, will issue in works of love and compassion.
Jesus once warned His followers against "false prophets," preachers and teachers who spoke falsely on God's behalf. (The antidote for this, of course, is for us to get to know God and His Word in Scripture for ourselves so that no wolf is ever able to pull the wool over the eyes of we sheep.) But in doing so, Jesus enunciated a principle that can clarify things as we look at our own lives: "You will know them by their fruits" (Matthew 7:16).
If we believe in Jesus Christ, it will show in acts of love and selflessness.
If we truly trust in Christ, it will be demonstrated--however imperfectly, however it may sometimes get obscured by our selfishness and shortsightedness, in the things we do. If we believe in Jesus Christ, it will show in acts of love and selflessness.
We can't be made right with God--saved from sin and death, by the good things we do. Christ on His cross has already done everything needed for us to be saved. We need only trust in Him.
But trust in Him will erase our fears over our worthiness or our capacity to help others without denigrating ourselves. We won't mind being servants of all, just as Jesus was a servant of all, even our servant when He went to the cross. We're set free "to be the people of God," free to love God completely and love others as we love ourselves. That's why James closes chapter 2, with a simple and powerful observation: "For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead" (James 2:26).
When we trust Jesus, He comes to live in us. Then He starts to do things within us we never would do apart from faith in Him:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God--not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what He has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:8-10)"Faith" that doesn't result in works of love demonstrates that there is no faith, that the confessions of compartmentalized Christians (counterfeit Christians) are so much hot air. Good works without faith are done by human effort, with no reference to God, without the hand of God, devoid of the power of God.
Good works empowered by, inspired by, directed by God demonstrates authenticity of faith in the doer and has God's power for transformational good in them.
Lord Jesus, fill me with reckless abandon. Help me to love others unstintingly, knowing that's how You love me. Help me to know that when I come to the end of me, my fears are conquered and your love can spill from me onto a thirsty world. Empower me to live the faith in You I confess in every part of my life. In Your Name I pray. Amen