James 2:26 and Dead Faith

2013_08_FaithI have lived in many places over the years and every once in a while I end up in a community that is adamant that Christians can’t have “works” because we are saved by faith alone.  Apparently those Christians have never read James.  It would not be surprising.  Martin Luther, that venerable reformer, wanted to remove James from the Bible (why not, he got rid of several Old Testament books!) but was prevented from doing so by others.  James didn’t fit his theology of sola fides or faith alone for salvation.  Here’s why:

As the lifeless body is dead, so faith without actions is dead.

That is pretty clear and straight to the point.  If you want to read it in context, here is a link.  In fact, the only place the phrase faith alone occur in the Bible are in James 2:24:

So you see that a person is shown to be righteous through faithful actions and not through faith alone.

Luther was fighting against a corrupted system in the Roman Catholic Church of his time in which there was no discussion of faith, but only a system in which people worked for God to work off their sins.  His message of salvation by faith alone was a radical return to the idea that God saves us by grace so that we can live a Christian life.

Christians today who say there is no place for works in their lives take Luther’s statements (consciously or unconsciously) and try to apply them to a radically different situation.  They would do well to reexamine James, because James has the antidote to much of what is wrong in many Churches in the West today.

Faith is not really faith if it is not strong enough to lead to a transformed life.  This is because faith is not an agreement to a group of ideas about God.  It is a relationship with the Living God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–that leads us to be transformed step by step, grace by grace, and glory by glory, into the likeness of Jesus Christ.  If there is no transformation, if there is no changed life, if our lives do not increasingly look like Jesus, there is no faith.

John Wesley, who founded the Methodist movement, said that we are not saved by works, but neither can we be saved without them.  If we say we believe in Jesus Christ, but our lives do not show that belief, what does it say about our profession of faith?

Does this mean that in order to say we have faith we must be perfect?  Absolutely not!  If we have faith we must struggle against sin and seek to do God’s will, obeying Christ’s commands–for if we believe in him we acknowledge him not only as our Savior, but also our Lord.  We obey our Lord or we are unfaithful.  As we try to live the life Christ calls us to live we seek his help in fulfilling his calling upon our lives.  God gives even more grace to those who pray for it so they can live the Christian life.  This transformation occurs over time, as our relationship with God grows deeper.

Do not be drawn away by the idea that we are saved by saying we have faith alone.  Faith is not faith unless it results in a transformed life.

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Hebrews 6:1-3 and Deepening Faith and Growing in Christ

Have you ever met someone who was a Christian, or at least claimed to be one, and never really changed? They never grew in their faith. They never seemed to have more love of God or neighbor in their hearts. And they always seem to talk about the same subjects when it comes to religion?

This is not what Christianity is supposed to be about. Christianity is about being recreated in the image and likeness of Jesus Christ one step at a time. It is about changing from the inside out, through the power of God, into the person we know we ought to be. It is about allowing God to live in us so that his love can be shed abroad in our lives and the world around us.

Interestingly, the Bible knows it can be difficult for people to get past the initial stages of the faith and grow in Christ. Hebrews encourages Christians:

So let’s press on to maturity, by moving on from the basics about Christ’s word. Let’s not lay a foundation of turning away from dead works, of faith in God, of teaching about ritual ways to wash with water, laying on of hands, the resurrection from the dead, and eternal judgment—all over again. We’re going to press on, if God allows it.

Faith. Not trying to earn our salvation. Arguments over baptism. Arguments over ordination. What the resurrection is. The end of the world. This is like a laundry list of topics most churches and denominations argue over and discuss. Frequently. As a matter of fact, if the majority of Christians stopped preaching, teaching, and discussing these topics, I do believe most pastors would be silent and most congregations could hear a pin drop in them.

Perhaps the reason we do not have so many more people living out the Christian faith in such obvious ways as to be considered salt of the earth people or living saints is because they are not moving past the basics about Christ’s word. Perhaps if we spent more time trying to grow deeper in our faith and less time talking or arguing about these topics, we would see more changed lives. Perhaps if we tried to seriously become disciples of Jesus and less time trying to prove why other groups of Christians are wrong, we would see the Kingdom of God come with power.

Just a thought.

Philemon and Public Honor in the Church

philemon1Jesus said his followers ought to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.  I always thought that was five parts serpent to one part dove.  The letter of Philemon is perfect proof of this concept.  Paul’s subject in this letter is a runaway slave named Onesimus.  He converted to the faith while in prison with Paul, and now has an opportunity to return to his owner, Philemon.  Philemon happens to be a Christian, converted under Paul’s ministry as well.

Paul writes this letter to try and convince Philemon to free Onesimus and treat him as a brother in Christ rather than as a slave.

Here is where the wise as serpents is applied to this letter.  The letter is not sent directly to Philemon.  Look at to whom this letter is addressed:

 From Paul, who is a prisoner for the cause of Christ Jesus, and our brother Timothy. To Philemon our dearly loved coworker,  Apphia our sister, Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church that meets in your house.  May the grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

This letter was sent to specific people and the entire congregation that meets in their house, of which Philemon was a member.  Paul takes this issue of a runaway slave, something that was personal property, and throws it out into the public realm of congregational life.

Now, instead of this being an issue that Philemon can decide in the privacy of his own home, this becomes a an issue of Philemon’s public honor.  Will he claim his rights under Roman Law as a dishonored owner of a slave, or will he show his honor as a Christian to the congregation?  Everyone now knows this is the choice Philemon now has.

We surmise that Philemon did free Onesimus because his name shows up in two other places.  Colossians 4:9 has Onesimus as one of the deliverers of the letter.  And in Ignatius’ letter to the Church in Ephesus in around 108 AD Onesimus is identified as the bishop of that congregation.

Paul was wise in having this become an issue for the entire congregation, not just one person.  After all, Christian behavior and ethics are not personal.  When we are Christians, we are all a part of the same body.  When one of us suffers, we all suffer.  When one of us has suffering relieved, we all rejoice.

We would do well to remember this as we look at the suffering of our brothers and sisters around the world.

1 Timothy 2:11-12 and Paul’s Opinion of Women

no-girls-allowed1Paul’s opinion of women is a difficult topic for people in the Church who do not take the time to dig into it fully. So many people get an idea or opinion on their own and then go to the Bible and find texts to support their opinion, or they read the Bible in such a way that they get passages in short snippets and out of context, which can say something completely different.

Take the passage in Romans 7, for example. There are people who read this and think that a defeated struggle against sin is what Paul experienced in his life, doing what he did not want to do. Yet that thought runs absolutely counter to everything Paul preached and taught throughout the rest of that letter, as well as everything else he taught. When we remember that Romans is a letter that was meant to be read all at once, we can see that Paul, in Romans 7, is using this language to describe someone who knows s/he needs a savior, but is not yet in Christ. The life for those who are in Christ is described both before and after this chapter. In context, Romans 7 says something completely different than what many claim it means.

The same is true for the status or allowed roles for women in the Church in 1 Timothy 2:

11 A wife should learn quietly with complete submission. 12 I don’t allow a wife to teach or to control her husband. Instead, she should be a quiet listener.

This seems fairly straightforward, yet it is completely contrary to Paul’s injunctions to women in 1 Corinthians that when they pray or prophesy in Church their heads should be covered. It also ignores the women deacons and apostles commended by Paul in Romans 16. Not to mention the fact that this flies completely in the face of the spiritual truth Paul loudly proclaimed in Galatians that in Christ there is neither male nor female.

This passage is a part of a particular letter written to a particular person in response to a particular issue. It needs to be read as a letter–all at once. When that happens, one can see this passage is linked to a larger issue throughout the letter:

(1:3-5) When I left for Macedonia, I asked you to stay behind in Ephesus so that you could instruct certain individuals not to spread wrong teaching. They shouldn’t pay attention to myths and endless genealogies. Their teaching only causes useless guessing games instead of faithfulness to God’s way of doing things. The goal of instruction is love from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith.

 

(2:11-12) 11 A wife should learn quietly with complete submission. 12 I don’t allow a wife to teach or to control her husband. Instead, she should be a quiet listener.

 

(4:6-7) If you point these things out to the believers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus who has been trained by the words of faith and the good teaching that you’ve carefully followed. But stay away from the godless myths that are passed down from the older women.

 

(6:20-21) 20 Timothy, protect what has been given to you in trust. Avoid godless and pointless discussions and the contradictory claims of so-called “knowledge.” 21 When some people adopted this false knowledge, they missed the goal of faith.

Certain women in Ephesus were teaching myths that were contrary to the faith. They were teaching these things in the Church and Paul left Timothy to put an end to it. It is these women that are forbidden to teach in the Church and are told to learn from their husbands, because they themselves do not know enough yet to be teachers. Otherwise they would not have gotten tangled up in these godless myths.

When we find a passage in Scripture that does not seem to make sense with the rest of the tone of the Bible, we must try to read it in context and see if it says what it seems to say. Many times, by reading the passage in the full context in which it was written, we will find that it agrees with everything else we read in the Bible. Paul’s opinion of women is case in point.

1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 and God’s Work in Our Lives

asburyholinessThere are many different opinions about how God works in our lives. There are many different opinions about why God works in our lives. Paul gives a wonderful summation of this idea at the end of 1 Thessalonians:

23 May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

God will sanctify us entirely and make us blameless. These two verses open a whole realm of discussion. On being sanctified entirely, you can read more here. On being blameless, you can read more here.

The point, though, is that this is a work that God will do in us. If we endeavor to live for Christ more every day, following his teaching and leading, God will do this. Bit by bit, step by step, grace by grace, and glory to glory we will be transformed by God in this manner.

That is Good News!

1 Thessalonians 2:15-16 and Crimes Against Humanity

P12_0Crimes against humanity are usually categorized as war crimes that targeted civilians or genocide. They can happen in a time of war or peace, and are when there is a wholesale policy of dehumanizing a certain group of people and taking action against that group. The title for the crime is because we believe, as a human race, that when one part of us suffers in this manner, it is an attack and a crime against us all.

While Paul did not have in mind the International Criminal Court, he did detail a crime against humanity:

They don’t please God, and they are hostile to the entire human race 16 when they try to stop us from speaking to the Gentiles so they can be saved.

Paul was speaking here about the non-believing Jewish people in Judea who were opposed to the Gospel. By attacking the prophets, killing Jesus, and seeking to prevent the spread of the Gospel to Jews as well as Gentiles, they were hostile to the entire human race. This is because only the Christian Gospel message can truly bring healing and wholeness to the brokenness of the world and in each one of us.

In this line of reasoning, anyone who impedes the spread of the Christian message is an enemy of humanity and has committed a crime against humanity. This is not to say that those who oppose the spread of the Christian faith would ever be brought up on charges at the Hague. Our society has decided that it can do well without any one religion being promoted. Ironically, that is a crime against humanity as well, from this biblical point of view.

Do not be complicit in this crime. Do not be a co-conspirator with those who seek to keep the Christian message marginalized. Share your faith and the reason for the hope in you with others around you. Some may think you are weird or strange. Others may think you are judgmental and self-righteous. Yet those uninformed slanders are nothing compared to the charge of being an enemy of the entire human race. Do not commit a crime against humanity. Tell people about Jesus.

Philippians 3:12-16 and Becoming a Mature Christian

ChristianPerfectionThe Methodist movement began with its goal as spreading Scriptural holiness across the land. John and Charles Wesley taught this in the form of Christian Perfection–a process of growing into the likeness of Christ. Wesley understood the term perfection as something that was ongoing, not completed, therefore his understanding was that Christian Perfection was an ongoing growth in perfecting a Christian.

When Methodism moved to America, after several years the Wesleyan understanding of perfection was lost. The process of perfecting a Christian became replaced with Entire Sanctification, a state in which the Christian had been perfected and completely (entirely) sanctified. Because this was no longer a process, people began to look for the outward signs that one was perfected–a life full of the Holy Spirit that would naturally prevent one from engaging in sinful actions. The emphasis shifted from the process of growing into the likeness of Christ and became focused on not wearing jewelry, costly clothes, not dancing, not drinking, not smoking, not going to movies, not (fill in the blank).

For the obvious reasons of both making it sound like a person who was entirely sanctified was completely perfect in every way, and the focus on a negative explanation of the faith–do not do this, do not do that–the doctrine of Entire Sanctification has all but disappeared. The original emphasis by the Wesleys on the process of perfecting a Christian is all but lost as well. Yet this does not negate the fact that it is Scriptural. Look at what Paul writes here in Philippians:

12 It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose. 13 Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. 14 The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus. 15 So all of us who are spiritually mature should think this way, and if anyone thinks differently, God will reveal it to him or her. 16 Only let’s live in a way that is consistent with whatever level we have reached.

Perhaps a better way of explaining this doctrine is to use the same language Paul uses here of being Spiritually Mature. This is essentially what Wesley meant when speaking of the process of being perfected. He was speaking of becoming a mature Christian, one who is growing into the full nature of Christ.

Ironically, because Entire Sanctification and Christian Perfection have fallen out of favor, we have tended to replace this Christian Maturity with conversion as the goal of Christianity. When we do this, the focus becomes preaching and teaching for a decision to follow Christ. When that happens, we end up making a serious mistake. Jesus said that it was the Holy Spirit’s job to convict the world of sin and it was our job to make disciples. By making conversion the goal of the faith, we take the Holy Spirit’s job on ourselves and leave our job to the Holy Spirit. I believe this is why we have an anemic Church in America today and why the criticism of being hypocrites can be spot on with us.

The goal of the Christian faith, of our relationship with Christ, is to become mature. It is to grow into the full stature of Christ. And notice what Paul says in verse 15–if anyone disagrees with this assessment of growing into mature Christians, not that their other opinion is also valid, but that God will reveal to that person that s/he is wrong and point that person towards the truth of the matter. Our goal is not the proverbial get out of hell free card. That actually makes a mockery of the biblical vision of the faith. Our goal is Christian Maturity, growing in God’s grace so that we can come to the full stature of Christ in us and experience the fullness of God’s power and presence in our lives.