what does it mean to really be a believer in Christ?

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?

James 2:1

It was said somewhere recently that many today simply call themselves Christians with little to next to no understanding of what that really means. And one well respected writer, Dallas Willard refers to “bar-code Christianity” by which he means that people say a prayer or whatever to make sure they’ll get into heaven, but their lives are essentially unchanged, or at least there’s no intent to be followers of Christ.

James implies in his words here that to “really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” means much more, and certainly includes not showing “favoritism.” To believe in Christ then is not just passive as in receiving something, but it’s also active, doing what we believe such faith calls us to do. Just as James says in this very same chapter of our Bibles, it is a faith that proves it’s alive by its works.

Faith in Christ then is looking to Christ, beginning to take in what Christ is, and being changed accordingly. Lives changed, actions impacted. So that we want to live according to God’s will in revealed in Jesus, yes, “in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.”

In and through Jesus.

faith must work to work

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.

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. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.

James 2:14-26

We can say we have faith in God, in God’s promises, and that’s all well and good. But it won’t make the needed difference unless we act on it. The difference certainly refers to others. In James’s words here, helping the sister or brother in need, or with reference to Rahab, for one’s own family as well as for Rahab herself. What I’m especially referring to here is one’s own salvation. When we experience that salvation, or in the words in this passage, justification, we naturally want to see everyone else experience the same. But when we’re struggling with a lack in being settled into that in our spirits, ourselves, then we can’t see our way to really have that same longing for others.

What is absolutely essential in a sense is being willing to burn all bridges down behind us, so that there’s no turning back, but that our faith is expressed in action. If we say we believe something, then we have to act on that, or in the words of James, our faith is barren, even dead.

Abraham is the stark case in point here. He was asked to sacrifice his son no less, Isaac, on an altar he would have to prepare himself as a whole burnt offering to God. Certainly a mind boggling, simply unfathomable thing to ask of someone, at least in our world. In Abraham’s world, from what I’ve read, it may not have been as shocking. We read elsewhere that Abraham reasoned that God could raise Isaac from the dead if need be to fulfill God’s promise that through Abraham and his seed Isaac, Abraham would become the father of many nations, heir of the world, and that all nations would be blessed through him (Hebrews 11:19; Romans 4:13, 17; Galatians 3:8). Just the same, it couldn’t have been easy.

But as we see in Genesis 22, there’s no hesitation to fulfill what God commanded. Maybe there was something in Abraham’s mind, like, “Let’s get this over with.” We don’t know what precisely was in his mind, except as mentioned above, because Scripture doesn’t tell us. But Abraham went all the way with no hesitation, hard as that had to have been. And raising the knife was stopped by the angel of the Lord before plunging the knife into his beloved son, the son who was to be heir, and through whom God’s blessing was to be extended to all.

James is telling us that we’re to have this same kind of faith. We either do it, and that includes the hard thing which maybe at the time makes no sense to us. But we do so in obedience to God, resting on God’s promise of blessing and good. In and through Jesus.

to avoid condemnation: a living, active faith

Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors!

Above all, my beloved, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “Yes” be yes and your “No” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.

James 5:9, 12

James would argue, and I believe Paul supports that if we consider every part of Paul’s writings, that it’s not enough to believe, to simply have faith in Christ to avoid condemnation. Faith apart from works certainly involves receiving forgiveness of sins and eternal life. But James points out that this faith which receives is also to be a faith which gives in response to God and God’s gift and favor given to us. Otherwise there is no true saving faith at all, and one is left condemned because of their commissions and omissions in failing to love God and love one’s neighbor as themselves. But in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ (note James 2:1; NRSV) we are called to a faith that not only rests in God’s promise in Jesus, but is also active in pursuing together God’s call for us in Christ. 

actions are more important than words

You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

James 2:24

In our Christian culture there seems to be nothing more important than expressed belief, profession of faith, or acknowledgement that at one time or another a person accepted Jesus as their personal Savior. All that is well and good in its place, but if I’m hearing James and his words here correctly, it’s not enough.

A person is justified, declared righteous, made right, considered righteous- whatever the precise meaning, James teaches us, not by a faith which is alone, but a faith which acts.

The gospel is indeed the message by which saving faith is awakened, better- created. And that is a faith apart from works. We believe in Christ, in Christ’s work for us, in the victory of God in him. But that faith inevitably results in good works.

Only God is the judge, but it seems to me that those who act well without understanding the gospel are better off than those who have some understanding of the faith, but whose actions are not in line. Of course none of us are perfectly in line with the truth of the gospel. That will only occur by God’s grace when Christ returns. And there are those who are saved, yet as escaping through the flames, their works not found to be works which come from this faith. We’re getting into a gray, even rather dark area in which we can’t see well, and even if we could, probably is still well beyond our ability to discern. Somehow though, as we read elsewhere, someday God will give us the ability to judge angels.

But back to the point the pastor James is trying to get through to his readers, to us: faith is not really the faith which justifies if no works follow. It is an empty profession, which sadly enough seems to have been all too common in Christendom and even in our churches today. Though again, we all need mercy. God is the judge, one who is full of mercy as well. In and through Jesus.

faith is not just what you believe, but what you do

…humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

James 1:21b-27

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless[a]? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,”[b] and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

James 2:14-26

The Protestant Reformation emphasized faith apart from works along with a creedal emphasis, stating “we believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth…” Etc. But in so doing what people could easily slip into is the notion that works didn’t matter, as long as they have faith. After all, our good works can’t save, but only Christ so that the one requirement is faith. That’s good and even vital as far as it goes. The problem as James tells us here is that it doesn’t go far enough.

Yes, faith alone saves us, but the faith that saves us is not alone. True saving faith is always accompanied with a life change evident in works of love. Our lives are summarized in love for God and for our neighbor. Unless our faith results in good works, then it’s not faith at all, not the faith which saves. If we look to Christ for salvation, we’re also looking at the Christ who bids us to come and follow. You can’t separate the two. Theology which does is destructive. Note the separate components for sure, but note too that these components end up together. In God’s saving work. In and through Jesus.

back to the basics: communication

For we do not write you anything you cannot read or understand.

2 Corinthians 1:13

Yesterday I kind of tried what amounts to a thought experiment which I felt was over my head, but shared anyway, at my wife’s insistence. But today I’m back into my comfort zone, trying to work through things which are more or less clear to me. If we would seek to be faithful in what we do understand, surely God would help us understand more.

Communication to me is so very basic, and something I want to take pains to do. What’s at stake here is my own understanding, then along with that, the understanding of others. I’m not sure if this came from years and years of listening to the New International Version of the Bible being read, or if I preferred that version because of its emphasis on clarity and accuracy. Supposedly it gives up some accuracy for clarity, and depending on how you look at that, I suppose you can say that’s so, though I might try to argue against that. It really ends up being just what you’re looking for in a translation. I hope for retaining as much of the sense of the original as possible, but communicated in the way we speak and think. After all, it seems like at least most of the Bible was written in vernacular, the spoken language of those who received it.

But more important than any of that is just the priority of simply understanding, and not letting go until one does understand. Though I have to admit that along the way sometimes I’m still a bit puzzled at what’s actually being said. I am in Proverbs right now, and that’s certainly the case with a number of sayings there. But proverbs are often intended to be somewhat of a puzzle that we’re to turn over and over again in our minds, for more reasons than simply understanding them.

Understanding itself is definitely not enough. We then need to respond in faith and act accordingly. We need to ask how it applies to ourselves, and us together as God’s people.

There is the sense of mystery that should be honored. We need to realize that we’re not going to understand everything. Even though God makes his thoughts known to us, we will never plumb the depths of them, or fully understand and know as God does. And it does seem like God wants that to be a part of our faith journey now. Like Abraham, we go on by faith, even when we don’t know where we’re going, just what the future holds. Leaning not to our own understanding, but trusting in the Lord with all our hearts, submitting to him in all our ways. So when we don’t understand, which in some respects is all the time, we bow to the Mystery, to God.

In the meantime I’ll continue to try to translate God’s directives into my life, into my involvement in the community of Jesus, and in the world. I’ll keep working at that, because I often am at a loss. For the goal of hopefully following Jesus in this world with others, and being faithful to the good news. Beginning with myself. In and through Jesus.

practicing God’s word

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

James 1:19-27

I’ve gathered a good bit of biblical theological knowledge over my life, but mostly in my head, and not so much into my heart and life, I’m afraid. Not that one can belittle what God actually has done in making us his children by faith. There certainly is a big change which accompanies that. We are turned from darkness into light. Although that’s a complete turn, it’s actually only the start.

We can say what matters most is not where we begin, but where we end. And not just what we believe, but what we practice. Not that what we believe isn’t important because after all, what we believe is what we’re to practice. Christian practice is built on Christian belief, Christian teaching, or the doctrines of the faith. But as James puts it, even the demons believe, and shudder.

So that is my intention, to begin to practice much better what I preach. Not just say something is true, but act on it. Faith is never in opposition to effort, but only in imagining that somehow we can merit or deserve God’s grace through our actions (Dallas Willard). Grace comes through Christ, not only to forgive us, but to enable us to grow through that grace. To quit doing what is not pleasing to God, but rather, what is pleasing to him. As James aptly and succinctly puts it, to not just hear God’s word, but put it into practice. In and through Jesus.

how faith is confirmed

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.

By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.

By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.

Hebrews 11:1-4

Frankly, as far as I’m concerned, faith is a struggle in this life. It is challenged on nearly every turn. The great passage on faith in Hebrews 11 to the beginning of Hebrews 12 begins with the confidence and blessed assurance that faith brings along with how we know by faith. But it doesn’t end there. The rest of the chapter is about how people who had such faith lived. They acted on that faith.

I think faith normally involves a process. We pray and hear, or perhaps hear and pray; we respond with some kind of inner “amen” to what we believe is from God. And then we act on that prayer in some sort of specific way, even as we see in the many instances of Hebrews 11 (click link above). Certainly a changed life is involved, and is touched on in this passage when we consider Moses by faith forsaking the treasures of Egypt for a greater reward and seeing him who is unseen. But by and large the passage is filled with acts of faith.

It does no one any good to have some sort of, shall we say, feel good experience, or sense what they should do, unless it is acted on and done. It’s not at all like we should try to do something to either prove we have faith, or even bring faith about. Not at all. We need to be those who act from faith so that there needs to be some kind of confidence, assurance, and understanding which precedes such an act.

Yes, we should not be hasty. We should have a certain firm settledness in what we’re supposed to do. But then we must follow through and do it. Confident in God’s faithfulness, that God will see us through to the very end. As we await the fulfillment of all that our faith will bring, which includes the growth of our faith in this life, as well as good outcomes in God’s blessing through it. In and through Jesus.

 

love is the true expression of faith

You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

Galatians 5

We might find ourselves in some sort of quandary, not knowing what to do. Of course as Christians we are dependent on God’s grace, and we reach out in faith, so we justifiably may be working on that. Our focus, of course, necessarily on Christ. But there’s one key thing we need to remember in it all: what is of value is faith which is worked out in love. If love for God and for our neighbor (including, even our enemies), and especially for our brothers and sisters in Christ, is not paramount in our thinking, then we’ve lost our way, and we’re into something less than the way in Jesus, something less than true Christianity.

Dallas Willard wrote and spoke of a “bar code Christianity” in which the only thing that mattered is faith and the fact that through that faith, the believer would someday go to heaven. But as he adeptly pointed out, that is not the real thing, and ends up being no faith at all, as far as the faith talked about in the Bible. It is not about us, and how we are secure so that nothing else matters. Or that the only thing that does matter is our security in this life, to go with the security we have for the next life. No. That is not the faith as given to us in Jesus, and therefore ends up falling short of true, genuine faith.

Faith, hope and love remain, the greatest of these, love (1 Corinthians 13). This might mean that we need to get creative, or wait on the Lord for a better decision or thought to come to mind when we are faced with something that seems somehow to pose some danger to us. We must always seek to act in love, so that those involved might see in our actions the love which we’ve experienced through grace, the love of the Lord.

faith because of the faithfulness of Christ

In Paul’s letters, there are a number of places in which the literal translation would be “the faithfulness of Christ” as being front and center for our salvation. Of course our faith is factored into that, but our faith is not central. Oftentimes it is translated “faith in Christ,” which still puts Christ as the object of faith, but also emphasizes our faith. And there’s no doubt that there is an emphasis on human faith, such as in the case of Abraham in Romans 4. And that our faith is contrasted to our works, and specifically to the works of the Law. So that grace is grace only if it is by faith and not by works, I think not so much with regard to human effort, but more in terms of adherence to the Law of Moses. It’s a bit complicated, but even in that case in Romans 4, I think Paul is simply trying to show that it is faith in God’s word, and specifically in the gospel which justifies or brings salvation, and to think that works of the Law enter in, is to bring in a category which is actually as foreign to the First/Old Testament, as it is to the Final/New Testament. Abraham was justified by faith apart from the works of the Law, and before he was circumcised. The boasting Paul says is to be rejected is not really about one’s own effort, and not even a smidgen about some supposed moral perfection, even if Paul uses the latter to point out that those who emphasize Law/Torah keeping must not break any of it to remain in the clear with God. The boasting by the Jew would be in the Torah itself, and the fact that they possessed and sought to live by that Torah/Law.

But to the main point of this post. The faithfulness of Christ in his coming, life, and especially in his death, followed by God’s vindication in his resurrection from the dead, then his ascension to the supreme place of authority at God’s right hand, with the promise of his return when the final judgment and salvation come and in that, the new creation, is what our focus should be on. Not our own faith, but on the faithfulness of Christ. It is far better to have a small faith in a great object, instead of a large faith in a small object. The focus must not be on our own faith, but on the faithfulness of God in Christ, yes, on the faithfulness of Christ. That is the focus in which our faith can be established and grow.