What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead (James 2:14-17).
The author of the letter of James stands firm on their necessity — trying to lead us from the sin of hypocrisy.
If that became a slogan and campaign for us Lutherans, I don’t know with what image we might replace the milk mustache. Open hands? Hands feeding the hungry? Clothing the naked? Curing the sick? Building a Habitat house? A child helping a senior to their seat or someone passing out sandbags in a flood zone or knitting a prayer shawl or making a quilt or turning the page teaching someone to read? Hands with our life story written in every wrinkle, every scar, in every speck of dirt or age spot.
DID HE JUST SAY WORKS?!
Lutherans have this love-hate relationship with good works.
On the one hand, anything or anyone that touches the word “works” (short of, say, God) gets tainted by the idea of “works righteousness,” which we all know from confirmation class is a VERY BAD THING.
Worse than steamed broccoli without cheese sauce or the thing that lived under our beds as children. Mention works and people might just flash-mob confess right then and there:
I am in bondage to sin!
I cannot free myself!
Or start shouting “God’s work. Our hands.” like some eye-glazing mantra over and over and over again since if it is God’s work, we can start breathing again, everything being holy and righteous and good in the world. As long as it isn’t our works.
OK. So as long as we are breathing, let’s all just take a deep breath and let it out slowly as we turn back the pages of our own Lutheranism and realize that the very issue of good works in the decades following Luther’s death became one of a number of issues upon which Lutherans were divided and needed some clarity.
Some said that good works were necessary for salvation.
Some said that good works were necessary but not for salvation.
Some said that good works were, in fact, injurious to salvation.
Then clarity came in the form of a document called the Solid Declaration (part of the Book of Concord, into which many of you have likely wandered as it is the place where the Small Catechism dwells, among other documents of the Lutheran faith). Well, this Solid Declaration presents in 12 articles what was considered by most Lutheran pastors, theologians and assorted princes, the core doctrine of the Lutheran church, preserving unity and giving guidance on what the then new Lutheran church believed and how it understood those beliefs.
The bottom line?
Keep works away from salvation and justification and you were likely on solid ground. If works were peanut butter and salvation and justification were chocolate, do not under any circumstances invent Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, accidently or on purpose.
However, these few points are worth noting:
(1) “It is God’s will, order and command that believers should walk in good works.”
And all of us shout: God says for us to do good works!
(2) “Truly good works are done, not from our own natural powers, but in this way: when the person by faith is reconciled with God and renewed by the Holy Spirit, or, as Paul says, is created anew in Christ Jesus to good works.”
And all of us shout: Truly good works come from the Holy Spirit at work in and through us!”
(3) “Truly good works should be done willingly or from a voluntary spirit by those whom the Son of God has made free.”
And all of us shout: We do good works from a free and loving heart!
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves (James 1:22).
The author of the letter of James stands firm on their necessity.
Trying to lead us from the sin of hypocrisy.
Of a faith that finds itself turned in upon itself, rather than upon a world that needs our service. The service that Christ has freed us to give freely, by the giving of his own life. And we should give thanks for that.
Luther, writing in his preface to Romans says:
“That is why faith alone makes someone just and fulfills the law; faith it is that brings the Holy Spirit through the merits of Christ. The Spirit, in turn, renders the heart glad and free, as the law demands. Then good works proceed from faith itself.”
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 (James 2:18).
Works, good and righteous works, proceed from faith to which they then dance hand in hand.
Through faith, a person will do good to everyone without coercion, willingly and happily; he will serve everyone, suffer everything for the love and praise of God, who has shown him such grace. It is as impossible to separate works from faith as burning and shining from fire. — Luther, “Preface to the Romans”
And since that faith comes from God, won’t those good works, our good works, point others to God? And wouldn’t that be cool? And, of course, this is far too wonderful for me to have made it up:
Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16) and The Service of Holy Baptism.
The epistle of James reminds us that we need not fear good works but give thanks that our God calls us to shower the world with them.
May we all encourage one another to many and greater works in the freedom we have in Christ and to the glory of God!