'We who believe that the Bible contains everything necessary for salvation don’t particularly like it when the different parts of the Bible, indeed the different part of the New Testament, seem to disagree with each other. So which is it? Faith alone saves, or faith by itself without works is dead? Sola fide: faith alone; or fide et opera: faith and works?'
The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz III
Grace and peace to you from God our
Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
If we Lutherans know anything at all,
it is that we are saved sola fide – by faith alone. There is nothing
that we can do in order to merit God’s favor – God graciously bestows his favor
upon us without our earning it by works of any kind. If we earned it, it would
not be grace! It all seems so natural to us.
We therefore are quite surprised when
we hear the words of St. James today. He asks the hearers of his letter: ‘What
good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have
works? Can faith save you?’ and, ‘So faith by itself, if it has no works, is
dead.’ He seems to say that faith is just words and what really matters is
What do we do with this seeming
conundrum? We who believe that the Bible contains everything necessary for
salvation don’t particularly like it when the different parts of the Bible,
indeed the different part of the New Testament, seem to disagree with each
other. So which is it? Faith alone saves, or faith by itself without works is
dead? Sola fide: faith alone; or fide et opera: faith and works?
Maybe I should have preached to the Gospel
lesson today – the one where Jesus initially refuses to heal a woman’s daughter
because she’s not an Israelite, saying it’s not right to throw the children’s
food to the dogs… Well, let’s go back to faith and works. Although it’s
possible that when we’ve talked about faith and works, it might shed some light
on that part of Scripture as well.
Well, so where do we begin? We begin
by asserting, in concert with our Lutheran understanding of the Gospel, that we
are indeed saved by faith – faith alone. James asks, ‘Can faith save
you?’ We answer, ‘Yes.’ Faith saves us. But then we need to ask another
question: ‘Faith in what?’ Everyone who believes that they are ‘saved’
has faith in some reason that they’re saved.
(By the way, it would also be nice to
define what being saved consists of, or what we’re being saved from. But that
might be for another day.)
So why do we believe we’re saved, on
God’s good side? Is it because we’ve done enough good deeds? Or because we’re
members of the right church? Or because God is so good that we’re saved whether
we’re good people or not? Or because we’ve lived a good life and kept our noses
relatively clean? Or because we wear the right clothes, eat certain foods and
follow certain rituals? Because we have the right beliefs in our heads? Because
of how we voted? Some of these reasons might seem crazy to you. But really,
there are people who believe they’re saved, or on God’s good side, based on one
or more of these reasons.
But none of these reasons are good
enough. We can’t put any of them forward and say, ‘this is why I’m on God’s
good side – why I’m ‘saved.’ We put our trust in one thing only – in one man
only – for God has shown his grace to us in the life, death, and resurrection
of Jesus. We trust alone – sola fide – that his life, death and
resurrection are for us.
So maybe that’s what St. James is
asking – is our faith in Jesus and what he has done, or something else? He
asks, ‘Do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our Lord
Jesus Christ?’ With their discriminatory acts the people to whom James is
writing may be showing their faith in something else than Jesus.
James seems to have a point, doesn’t
he? He says, ‘You do well if you fulfill the royal law, ‘You shall love your
neighbor as yourself… but if you show partiality… you become transgressors.’
We must be careful that we don’t put
our faith in our faith. If there’s one thing that we can say about ourselves,
it’s that we don’t have enough faith. How many of you have thought, ‘I wish I
had more faith. Other people have more faith.’ Hopefully no one has thought or
said, ‘I have enough faith.’ But perhaps some of you have thought, ‘I am
not faithful enough to be saved.’ We must move away from thinking of faith as
some substance we can have more or less of, enough or not enough of, and more
about faith as trust in what Jesus has done for us. Certainly we will not trust
perfectly. Certainly we will wish to have more trust. But part of imperfect
faith is to trust that God who is gracious will receive our imperfect faith. We
say in the Eucharistic Prayer, ‘we give thanks to you, Lord God almighty, not
as we ought, but as we are able.’
And if we do that, St. James almost
says, we will not show partiality, for we are no worse or better than anyone
else. And we will be those who welcome others in the name of Jesus, and not
because they measure up to our own standards.
When the woman comes to Jesus in the
territory of the Gentiles, she comes to him out of her need and out of her
faith that here is the one person who can help. She does not come trusting that
she is a good enough person. She does not come relying on her identity, for she
a Gentile, outside the people of God. She knows that she cannot command Jesus
to do anything for her. She only knows her need and she knows who can meet her
need and heal her daughter.
And so she is an example for us. Like
her we put our trust not in our works nor even in our own faith or
faithfulness; but in Jesus alone. And that faith, says not only James, but the
Lutheran church, produces good works. For in the Augsburg Confession, we read: It is also taught that such faith should yield good fruit and good works
and that a person must do such good works as God has commanded for God’s sake
but not put trust in them as if thereby to earn grace before God. Jesus sets us
free for a life of service. As he opened the ears of the deaf man, causing him
to speak and to hear, so he opens our lives that we may bear good fruit,
putting our faith in him alone – sola fide.