Works – Trump – Faith

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This is a longer post, but I hope it doesn’t discourage you. The title is deliberately provocative, especially from a Lutheran perspective. I trust if you read till the end, it will make sense. Today’s lectionary reading  was James 2:14-26.

In the letter of James it says “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24), which seems a direct contradiction of what Paul writes in the letter to the Romans, “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law” (Romans 3:28). In fact the whole letter of James seems to be a rebuttal of the theology of St. Paul. In Romans Paul argues vehemently that it is by faith in Christ (alone) that people are saved, and he gives the example of Abraham from the Old Testament to show that even before Christ people were made righteous not by what they did but by how they believed or trusted God. “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3 / Genesis 15:8). But James says: “Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?” So it is easy to see why some scholars believe that James was responding directly to Paul. Furthermore James’ mention of the prostitute Rahab can be seen as a direct response or rebuttal against the author of another new Testament book, Hebrews. Hebrews counts Rahab among a long list of people who were saved because of their faith: “By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace” (Hebrews 11:31), to which James replies, “was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road?” (James 2:25).

So what’s going on here? What is a reader of the Bible to make of it. Is it by faith or by works? By trust in God or by obedience to God that we are saved? And why these seeming contradictions?

A pastor friend of mine likes to compare the Bible to a giant conversation, a conversation about God that occurred over many centuries. We modern readers of the Bible are listening in on this conversation, without knowing everything we need to know to understand what the partners in this conversation are saying. But by listening carefully, and by paying attention to the overall tone and direction of this conversation, we can discern themes and truths that are bigger than what any one author of the Bible could say alone. Like in most conversations, some of the biblical authors were better listeners than others, some were more systematic in their arguments than others, some said more, some said less, some were more convincing than others. And we as modern readers are, in a way, continuing the conversation, listening, weighing arguments, discussing meaning, giving considerations and offering viewpoints, sometimes getting boisterous and loud, sometimes just quietly, maybe skeptically, taking it all in.

So Paul and James indeed seem to contradict each other about the relationship of faith and works. But does James not have an argument valuable to the conversation? Paul and James seem to have different definitions of faith and works. Paul means “works prescribed by the law” which he contrasts with faith in Christ. “Works of the law” means the specific laws given by God to the Israelite community through Moses. His main concern was to say that this law, though good and holy and true, was not given as a path to salvation in the first place. It was given as a way of preparing the people of God for the coming of the Messiah Jesus. Since Christ died for all, both those who were religious followers of the Jewish law and those who were not, it is simply wrong to assume that by doing certain “religious” things, God looks with favor on us. I like to think James would have agreed with that. But while Paul was all about opening up the possibility of salvation through Christ to all people, regardless of ethnic or cultural background, James seems to be concerned about upholding ethical standards for those who belong to the Christian community.  For James, “works” have a more general ethical character. Thus he counsels the rich to share with the poor; he tells the congregation not to favor the wealthy or disrespect the poor. He warns Christians to bridle their tongue and to resist cravings for power and pleasure. He says “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (1:27)

It has been noted that many of James’ teachings closely resemble things Jesus taught. For example, James writes, “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” (James 4:4) Jesus taught, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24). James writes, “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,…”. Jesus taught, “Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is  the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool … Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No…”

Despite all this, Martin Luther sided with Saint Paul, arguing that James does not preach Christ. He called it a “straw epistle” and even thought about leaving it out of the Bible altogether. Luther wasn’t the first to find James difficult to reconcile with other parts of the New Testament. In fact, the letter of James was accepted by the Western church as ‘Scripture’ only in the fourth century, in the Syrian church not until the fifth century. But I think  James still has valuable lessons to teach us, especially with respect to wealth and power, helping the poor and the sick, and being patient and modest. I think Paul would have agreed with all these ethical teachings of James. So would Luther. Sometimes I think, with a little distance, we can hear truth, even in conversations mired in contradictions.

P.S. When I told my wife about this post, she suggested an example of how James’ emphasis on works over faith might be a necessary corrective to false notions of faith. Recently Donald Trump met with a number of evangelical Christian leaders in New York. In a follow up interview one of the leaders said that he believed Trump had recently become a “born again Christian”. Of course it is not up to him, or the press, or to anyone else to say whether Donald Trump is “saved” or not. Only God decides that. But there are yardsticks which the Christian community should use to determine whether someone’s faith is genuine or not. That’s where the letter of James comes in.

Trump seems to say whatever happens to occur to him. He insults his opponents regularly, but also women, minorities and people with disabilities. He speaks a lot about his wealth, his business acumen, his ability to “make America great again” when he becomes president, even though he has no political experience. He wants to keep refugees, particularly Muslims, out, and build a wall to keep Mexicans from entering the U.S., blaming foreigners for economic stagnation and violence, and stoking racist sentiments. Meanwhile Trump has built his “fortune” by shady dealings in real estate, for example building casinos that were never finished, contractors and workers not getting paid, Trump eventually declaring bankruptcy. Trump has refused to publically declare his taxes, which every U.S. presidential nominee, except Nixon, has done, leading many to conclude that Trump has not paid any taxes. In other words, Trump may have built his wealth on the backs of taxpayers.

James says, “Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field.” And: “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” And: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” And: “Do not speak evil against one another.” And: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there doing business and making money’. Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” (4:13-14) And: “Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you…. The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” (5:1-6)

Of course, no one knows what Donald Trump believes but he himself. And no one but God can know a person’s heart, and of course God can save Donald Trump. That’s the point Paul is making by putting faith before works. God is sovereign in God’s grace. But when someone declares their faith, or is said to be a fellow Christian, but doesn’t act in a manner consistent with the love of God and the will of God as declared in Scripture, we should with James question that person’s genuineness.