What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, " Go in peace, be warmed and be filled," and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. -James 2:14-17 (New American Standard Bible)
Friends, I there are an awful lot of times when I just have no desire to “do good works”. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very concerned about my sanctification. I’m always trying to advance my walk with Christ through prayer, devotion, bible study, fellowship in the Church, and just a generally uplifting and positive demeanor. But very rarely do I do anything for the lost, the least and the left out. Honestly, there are times when I don't even think about them.
So I have to ask myself, if God was screaming to us through the prophets, that we are really only in right relationship with Him when we are loving our neighbors as ourselves by exercising works of mercy, justice and righteousness, what use is my faith without these works?
We get a very clear picture in the Gospel of Matthew that it is about what we do, not just what we have claimed to believe. To those who are to be called the blessed of God, Jesus will say “I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.” (Matthew 25:35-36)
I can’t remember the last time I feed the homeless. I give money now and then or buy a meal occasionally for a homeless person, but it’s really almost by accident; if I’m walking down the street and a homeless person cries out to me and my heart is pricked and I have the time to spare. I’ve hardly ever invited in a stranger in the whole of my life, and from the few times that I did I have horror stories and battle scars.
I’ve given clothes away to Goodwill, but that was more about getting rid of clothes I didn’t fit anymore and getting the tax write-off. If I visit the sick, and it’s not a friend or family member of mine, it is more often than not only because I happened to be with someone else who was already going. And prison visitation gives me the shudders. I do my best to try not to even think about it.
So then, when in the end Jesus sits on that throne and reveals to us the content of our characters, lives, hearts and souls, what will he say to me? Even knowing that whatever I do or don’t do to the least of these I do or don’t do to Him; even feeling I have Jesus joy in my heart; even believing I am a new creature in Christ and am being transformed by the renewing of my mind; i sometimes still don’t do these things. I at times hardly ever even consider them.
How can I truly be Christ-filled and reconciled with God if I am so oblivious to the Godly demands of good works as manifestations of love for my neighbor in my daily living? If, as the Book of James says, faith and works must go hand in hand for salvation to be truly and effectively worked in the individual, what is going on in this individual?
First Faith, Then Works What is the source of these good works that God wants us to perform? James tells us in our text that true generator of good works is faith. So it is that without the guidance, power and motivation of God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, all of our human and earthly endeavors are just a crapshoot. But, this line of thinking – which is deeply inspiring and true – can be used in a very damaging way. Confidence in God’s ability to move through me can in practice easily become complacency in my activity. If I believe God will always generate the motivation and strength within me to do as I ought, it can become all too easy not to examine my motives or myself.
If it were something I should be doing, surely God would motivate and empower me to do it, right? But good works clearly are something I should be doing, and yet I’m not doing them at times. How do I address this disconnect?
A Baptism of Good Works While it is certainly true and a cause for rejoicing that God is the one source that can guide us and empower us, it is just as real that He in no wise overpowers us. Only those parts of ourselves – body, mind and soul – that we submit to God, loving him with the totality of our being, can He transform and make new. Attitudes and behaviors, fears and blind spots that we refuse to sacrifice to God, or which function as hidden sins we are unaware of will not be involuntarily redeemed when we confess Christ.
God tries in His grace to make us aware of and convict us of the ungodliness of those unsurrendered parts of ourselves in different ways. Only when we are ready to repent of them, can they be baptized; renewed and sealed by the Holy Spirit.
Friends I know that I need to receive a baptism of good works. I have never let God transform my imagination of what God’s justice and good works on earth could look like because I have assumed the way it is is the way it will be until the end times.
I didn’t even know it was wrong to think this way. The Psalmist says, “Against you and you only Lord have I sinned.” (Psalm 51:4) While this is true, I still beat my breast to think on the damage and consequence that sin has had on the people I failed to even see, much less aid and stand in solidarity with, because of this blindness.
We may all need to repent of such a lack of imagination for what Godly justice is and how it can break forth on earth through the power of our good works. Once I get my baptism of good works, God can at last begin to reconfigure the way my mind works. When I begin to see the lack of good works in the world, things the old me used to just see as “business as usual,” I will find my imagination of what could be by the power of God will catch fire, inspiring me to work for that reality. The Holy Spirit will rejoice to at last be able to expand into those parts of me that I had been withholding.
Man’s Works Versus God’s Works Another issue is that I have effectively removed myself from the equation of how the Kingdom of God will break forth on earth to destroy injustice. When I think about Amos’ words, which I love, I so often remove any sense of personal agency from them. “Let justice roll down like waters” sounds, when taken out of context, like a magnificent instance of God’s divine intervention in the world, not something that “little old me” could do. I combine that with my understanding that the world will not be fully redeemed until the end times, and the end result is I just lean back in my recliner and wait for God to do the work.
The obvious reality is that, as we all know, the Church is the body of Christ until His return, so we must commit ourselves to acting in that capacity. We are his physical presence on earth, so we can’t be armchair quarterbacks in any way when it comes to engaging the oppressions at work in the world. After all, almost all of God’s miracles and blessings are worked through human beings. So me saying that I’m too insignificant and human to make a big difference in God’s establishment of a just and good society on earth ultimately rings hollow.
An Empty Pitcher Before a Full Fountain I’ll let you in on a little secret. I've made an amazing discovery; it is exhilarating to be used by God.
I have so often heard in prayers is, “Lord, I come to you an empty pitcher before a full fountain,” and it simply means that we are in need of the Living Waters that are the overflowing abundance of God. That well of salvation is satisfying, joyous, invigorating, empowering; it fills us with God’s sweet presence.
So when Amos as the mouthpiece of God says, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a never ending stream,” the motivation is not out of an unyielding and unfeeling discipline, but out of love. God is actually doing us a favor and extending to us the most fantastic advice we could ever receive! Doing justice and being wholeheartedly on the side of righteousness through our commitment to good works will unleash a torrent of Living Waters in our lives and the world the likes of which are exceeding abundantly above all we could ask or think.
Amos is imploring us to do as God would have us to do as a way to enter into our Master’s rest, where there is peace that surpasses understanding and fullness of joy. Doing good works fills, nay overflows, our empty pitchers.
Living Faith “Doing good works” means being about our father’s business. All the hallelujahs we may shout faithfully day in and day out are meaningless unless we engage the world around us. Christ never preached to someone in need of help. He helped first and then preached. That is in part what it means to say that in Christ, God reconciled the world to himself, which is to say that in Christ Godly belief and Godly action could finally be unified.
I am abiding in a dead faith until I can give these words some traction in my daily actions. If I can’t get myself out of the self-centered mindset that my Christianity is about primarily about me and my church, the dry bones of my faith will never have the breath of life reinvigorate them.
I want every part of me to be alive in Christ. For me to have a living faith, I must have living works. And when I have living faith, things get better, because the waters of justice and streams of righteousness flowing through me bring God’s presence nearer, not to only me, but also to all those I come into contact with; particularly the lost, least, and left out neighbors I am charged to love as myself.
The Journey of a Thousand Steps So how do we start on this amazing path? There are some practical steps that, once we have received our baptism of good works by the Holy Spirit, we can take to begin this transformative process.
We first must put energy behind the new imagination God has given us. When God allows us to see that things could be different than they are, that perspective could simply become an errant thought if we don’t develop it further. We must invest these God-given possibilities with a passionate belief and desire for them to become reality.
Throughout the Gospels Jesus rebukes his disciples for having “little faith.” In all of these situations, there are material threats or obstacles pressing in on them, and they fear those challenges will overwhelm them. To that fear Christ says, only believe. We need to have the same boldness to have faith that the injustices, oppressions and daily atrocities of life can be changed for the better.
Jesus called on us to have faith, proclaiming that even the faith of a tiny mustard seed could effect great change. We should similarly keep in mind that big things can come from small beginnings. Let us not overwhelm ourselves by trying to eliminate world hunger in a day, for example. We should place ourselves in an environment where God can reveal our particular talents and callings in doing justice.
You needn’t quit your job today and join the Peace Corps tomorrow. Volunteer two days a month at a soup kitchen. Open your eyes and actively look for ways to be a force for equality in your day-to-day activities. God will reward those seeds your sow by continuing to pour Himself into you, and into others through you.
The Buddy System
Christ sent out his followers into the highways and byways two-by-two, never alone. So we too, when doing good works, should be mindful that challenges are often best engaged when we have the support of someone else. When trials come, and there will be a great many trials when we seek to do Godly works in the world, having another person to encourage us can make all the difference. Partnering with one or more people can also serve as a covenant relationship where others serve as accountability partners to help each other stay faithful to their commitments to justice.
It can be all too easy to fall into thinking that good works are a purely earthly endeavor, not an effort inspired and empowered by God according to His purposes. We run and not grow weary in our efforts only if we stay mindful of the fact that when we engage in good works with our whole selves, we stand in solidarity with Christ and are living up to God’s call that we bind ourselves to justice and righteousness through faith and action. We must ever remember that we rely on God for direction and strength and that it is not we ourselves but the Christ within us that effects real change in the world.
If we keep that in mind, we will be better able to stay humble and deal with the painfully slow pace it can take for true change to come, the seemingly insignifigant fruit that our hard fought good works may bare. We are called to work, however the Holy Spirit directs us, towards the Kingdom of God.
Conclusion We Baptists put a lot of stock in the moment of our salvation, as well we should. But let us never forget that salvation is both an event and a process. We should all be continually examining the roles that engaging in good works has in our lives and how closely it is knit to and flows out of our faith in and relationship with God. Let us secure our salvation by committing to maturing it continually with the grace of Christ, the clove of God our Father, and the sweet communion of the Holy Spirit!