Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost based on James 2:1-10, 14-18
Dear people with faith and works: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” There is no such thing as true faith which does nothing except for sin. There is no such thing as true faith that says, “I’m going to do whatever my sinful flesh wants.” There is no such thing as true faith that does not love God and neighbour.
Faith is living, busy, active, and mighty. It is impossible for it not to be doing good works without ceasing. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such works is an unbeliever. It is impossible to separate works from faith (SD IV.10-12).
James gives us an example. If a brother in Christ is naked and lacking daily food, and one of you says to him, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving him the things needed for the body, what good is that? That’s not faith! That’s a cold, uncaring heart acting in a cold, uncaring way. It is a heart without good works and a heart without faith.
As Christians, the keeping of God’s Law must begin in us and then increase more and more. This is true both of our inner spiritual impulses and our outward good works. It is true both of our inner desires and our outward actions (cf. Ap IV.125).
Good works are not those which people invent for themselves or those which follow human traditions. Good works are those which God Himself has prescribed and commanded in His Word. They are well summarized in the Ten Commandments.
Scripture tells us that we receive the Holy Spirit through faith (Gal. 3:14). The Holy Spirit dwells within those with faith, and their bodies are His temple (I Cor. 6:19). The Holy Spirit isn’t dead. He spurs us to good works. These good works are not possible on our own. We cannot perform them out of our own natural powers, but they are performed when a person is reconciled with God through faith and renewed through the Holy Spirit, or as Saint Paul says, created anew in Christ Jesus for good works (Eph. 2:10; SD IV.7).
Many construct for themselves a dead faith or the illusion of faith which exists without repentance or good works. As if true faith and the evil intention to remain and continue in sin could exist in a single heart at the same time! That is impossible (SD IV.15).
True faith is living faith because the Holy Spirit dwells within believers, and leads us to live a life according to God’s revealed will. Thus, true faith does not fear, love, or trust in anything above God. True faith does not follow false doctrine or take God’s name in vain, but rejoices in the truth and calls upon God’s name in prayer and praise. True faith does not despise preaching and God’s Word, but holds it sacred and gladly hears and learns it. True faith does not despise God-given authorities, but honours them, and serves and obeys them. True faith does not seek hurt or harm to a neighbour, but helps and supports his every physical need. True faith does not follow the sexual morals of the world, but follows God’s will of purity and chastity. True faith does not take the money and possessions of a neighbour, but selflessly helps him protect his possessions and income. True faith does not speak evil of a neighbour, but speaks well of him and explains everything in the kindest way. True faith does not covet or scheme to get that which belongs to a neighbour, but helps him to keep what is his (these are rephrased from the meanings of the Ten Commandments from the Small Catechism).
We have thus gone through the Ten Commandments, which are the good works which the Holy Spirit within us strengthens us to do.
Does Saint James then teach something contrary to Saint Paul by saying that faith without works is dead? Not at all. James does not say we are saved by faith and works. He also holds that we are saved by faith apart from works. He is teaching that we are saved by faith alone, but faith is never alone. Your works do not help earn your salvation or pay for your sins. We are saved by faith alone. But faith is never alone. Good works are sure to follow as the fruit of faith.
This is nothing different from what Paul writes in Ephesians chapter two, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (vv. 8-10)
You are saved by faith alone. It is not your doing. It is by grace, which means it is a gift. The forgiveness of sins is a free gift from God to you, earned by the suffering and death of His only beloved Son.
Neither does James suggest that we can perfectly fulfil what God has commanded us to do. He makes it clear in saying, “Whoever keeps the whole Law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” He’s saying that if you are relying on your good works to save you, you have got to do every single good work. You have to fulfil every single Law of God in thought, word, and deed. You have to live a life as holy and perfect as Jesus. You have to gladly suffer the slander, hatred, and abuse of the world even though you only ever do good. You have to give everything and sacrifice everything for others, even your very life.
Since we have all failed miserably at all of that, do not hold to the thought that because you have lived relatively well in regards to a certain commandment, that you are doing well in regards to the Law of God. Even if you fail in one point of the Law, you are a law breaker; you are accountable for all of it. Thus, when it comes to your salvation, forget the Law. Only Jesus has fulfilled the Law.
However, since you are saved by faith alone, do not forget God’s Law in how you live your life. Remember and recite the Commandments regularly. Delight in the Law of the Lord, and meditate on it day and night (Ps. 1:2).
Since you have been bought with a price, you belong to God (I Cor. 6:20). Instead of having you follow the futile ways of sin and death, God has prepared good works for you to do. These good works do not help God or benefit Him in any way, but they do help your neighbour and they supply the proof that your faith is living. Thus, we say along with James, “I will show you may faith by my works.”
We are saved by faith alone, but faith is never alone. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
[A note to our readers: beginning in Advent, we will be following the One-Year Lectionary.]