Summary: Faith isn’t just an intellectual belief, it’s a trust that shows itself in a transformed life.
Faith that works
As most of you would know, Sydney Anglicans tend to get a bit of a bad write-up in the secular press. We’re derided as being bigoted, intolerant fundamentalists, by more “progressive” (read heretical) Christians. Now I’m a Sydney Anglican, and I’m proud of it, but that doesn’t mean that the conservative evangelicals don’t have areas where we fall down as Christians. One common criticism of us is that we’re so caught up in theological head-knowledge that we don’t live out our faith. That we have faith without deeds.
Often, of course, this stems from a misunderstanding of what deeds a Christian should actually be doing, According to some liberal “Christians” this should almost entirely be limited to social justice work – working with the poor and marginalised. . This sort of philanthropy without theology, this gospel-less social action is often what the secular media wants out of Christians. Don’t get me wrong - this is certainly part of what James is talking about – “looking after widows and orphans in their distress” is true religion according to 1:27. But social action is by no means all of what James is referring to. Last weekend, Richard Glover wrote an opinion piece in the SMH about the supposed take over of US politics by evangelical Christians. Now he made some very insightful points about rewarding the wealthy which James already addressed in last week’s passage. But his basic understanding was that Christianity should be all about peace and love – and that any condemnation of sin and any insistence upon any godly ways of living is outside the bounds of what Christianity should be about. His idea of Christian values, of Christian works, of Christian deeds “was all about peace and love and helping those less fortunate than oneself” - all good things – but never about avoiding sin or standing up for the gospel.
When James refers to works or deeds he is not limiting himself to social action. He is talking about living out the Word of God, the law of Scripture which says “love your neighbour” and which also says “do not murder and do not commit adultery”. And his message is that we need to live out the whole of the Word of God, not just the bits which fit in with what we like or what the world or the secular media or Richard Glover find acceptable. There’s a few Christian leaders who are darlings of the secular media, and it’s interesting the sort of people they are – Bill Crews, Tim Costello, Father Chris Riley. They’re men who aren’t known for preaching the gospel. If they weren’t attached to a church or if they didn’t have a clergyman’s title attached to the front of their name, most people wouldn’t know they were Christians at all. They’re leaders who are known for their social work. Now looking after orphans and widows in their distress is an integral part of obeying the Word of God – but it’s not the whole lot. I recently got an ad from Chris Riley’s Youth off the Streets programme that was forwarded to me as part of my position at Peakhurst High. It was about a drug education initiative. It had pictures of Father Riley wearing his dog collar all over it. But nowhere on the ad did it mention anything about Christ. So I looked up their website and read their mission statement – it said they were a non-denominational organisation which didn’t push any particular religious viewpoint. Now I’m not knocking the work of youth off the streets – they have a very positive influence in the lives of many young people. But ultimately, by not preaching the gospel and not teaching that God’s law be lived out, they’re not obeying the whole word of God. They’re not obeying the whole world of God any more than we are if we go around proselytising but refusing people food and shelter. Yet another SMH article in the last week took on this mocking tone when talking about the “compassionate conservatism” of evangelical churches, noting how assistance like food and accomodation also came with the gospel. The media criticises when evangelicals don’t give assistance – something which I might add should be criticised – but also condemn when it is given. And what are they condemning? They are condeming the obedience to all of God’s Word. They are condemning the preaching of the gospel. The Bible tells us that anyone loved by the world is probably not preaching the whole gospel – and that is unfortunately true of Chris Riley and Tim Costello. Such people, as James goes on to say in chapter 4, are indeed double-minded adulterers.
But whether media criticisms of evangelicals are accurate or not – there is still much for believers in the whole Bible to take from James 2. And that’s because the charge is to put our whole faith into action. Theological understanding and doctrinal clarity are useless if they are not accompanied by genuine repentence, genuine trust in God, genuine obedience to his Word and genuine concern for others, especially the poor and downtrodden - just as social action is useless if it does not come from genuine submission to God and his Word. It’s a massive, whole-of-life transformation that James is insisting Christians undertake.