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Monday, 4 June 2012

James 2:14-26? - Sure Enough, Charles Dickens

James 2:14-26 says (NIV) -

What good is it, my brothers,if a man claims to have faith but have no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes or daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it's 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 in what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe - and shudder.

You foolish man. Do you want evidence that faith without works is useless? Was not our ancestor 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," and he was called God's friend. You see that a person is justified by what he does 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 on a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

Last week I wrote about the rich, arrogant, racist Persian Prime Minister Haman, one of the four key characters in the book of Esther. Then I quoted a portion of the second chapter of James, rebuking favouritism. In other words, Christians were cosseting up to the rich while despising the poor. Then James goes on to write that if the poor man was an unbeliever but also an interested inquirer, he would most likely to have been unimpressed with the believer's faith if he was treated badly, while at the same time, swooning at the rich. Thus, the inquirer would most likely to have remained unsaved, thinking that the Christian faith lacked any credibility for further consideration. This is the theme of the Scripture quoted above.

I imagine the apostle turning in his grave, as he has been doing for the last two millennia. If ever there was a passage in the Bible so misread and so misunderstood, it is in verses 14 to 26 of the second chapter of his letter. This misunderstanding having brought catastrophe in the history of the Roman Catholic Church and later, amongst Protestants. Its Catechism on Sotorology is faith plus works, and they will point to James 2:14-26 to prove their point. So how is this passage misunderstood?  The "him" in the emphasised "Can faith save him?" is referred by the Catholic Church to be the Christian believer, not the unbelieving inquirer, as James himself was referring to. This error had become the foundation for an edifice of doctrine which insist that faith in Christ alone is not enough for salvation - that works must accompany faith in order for one to be saved. There is a danger underlying this assumption, namely that the Crucifixion of Christ had lost much of its power to fully atone for one's sins, and the resulting gap must be filled in by the sinner himself in order to enter Heaven after death.

The Roman Catholic Church freely admits this. Since the Crucifixion does not fully atone, according to them, then come the need to confess to a priest, to undergo Penance, which is a course of special prayers and good works assigned by the priest to the penitent, the false doctrine of Purgatory, with the need for indulgences (a pass out of Purgatory for a quicker entry into Heaven) the need to pray to Mary using the Rosary, the reverence of special relics and sacred locations, the absolute need for infant baptism and membership of  "the one true Church," the partaking of the Holy Eucharist as a sacrament and the keeping of the Church's commandments - without any of these, there is no hope of salvation. Clearly, faith alone in Christ Crucified is not enough.

This edifice of faith/works for salvation had disastrous results in Church history. It made everyone - clergy and laity - to live under the Law and to be enslaved to the Law, which is in itself unable to save, only condemns. This resulted in a judgmental attitude which brought the end result of first, a rise of uncontrolled sinning, and then persecution. The Spanish Inquisition was one example, its lifelong antisemitism was another, along with the atrocious lifestyles of the majority of Popes, particularly during the Middle Ages, and many of the clergy. Even today, there is case after case of priests accused of molesting children, boys in particular. It was Hammer Horror movie director, Christopher Lee, while driving along, was passing a priest who was chatting to a young boy. Horrified, he called out, "RUN, LITTLE ONE! RUN FOR YOUR LIFE!" Such is the end result of the faith-plus-works catechism for salvation.

The Protestant churches were not free from this error of misinterpreting James 2:14-26 either. Among many, the erroneous teaching that the apostle was referring to the Christian believer instead of the inquirer, continue to endure to this day. Christians who believe that one's faith  must endure to the end, or to work to "stay saved" or else face the danger of losing one's salvation is again robbing the Cross of its atoning power. When the Atonement loses its power, human effort must fill the gap, or face eternity in Hell. The Church of England during Dickensian days (the 1800s) had a very judgemental attitude which was naturally repulsive to the interested inquirer.

Famous author Charles Dickens produced many works of literature, one of which I'm very familiar with is Oliver Twist. Many have seen the musical version, where a group of workhouse boys sing, Food! Glorious Food, in protest of the watery gruel which made up their daily diet. Along with theatrical and pantomime performances, these romanticised versions of his novel hides the real truth of what the author was trying to tell us, leaving, perhaps, the original novel as a source of study limited to literature undergraduates. In the original novel itself, we read of a discussion taking place between Charles Bates, Oliver and the Dodger about a dog owned by burglar Bill Sikes, after which the author himself gives his verdict. Here is the extract, found on pages 181-182:

"I suppose you don't even know what a prig is?" said the Dodger mournfully.
"I think I know that," replied Oliver, looking up. "It's a th-; you're one, are you not?" inquired Oliver, checking himself.
"I am," replied the Dodger. "I'd scorn to be anything else." Mr Dawkins gave his hat a ferocious cock, after delivering this sentiment, and looked at Master Bates, as if to denote that he would feel obliged by his saying anything to the contrary.
"I am," repeated the Dodger. "So's Fagin. So's Sikes. So's Nancy. So's Bet. So we all are, down to the dog. And he's the downiest one of the lot!
"And the least given to peaching," added Charley Bates.
"He wouldn't so much bark at a witness box, for fear of committing himself; no, not if you tied him up in one, and left him there without wittles for a fortnight," said the Dodger.
"Not a bit of it," observed Charley.
He's a rum dog. Don't he look fierce at any strange cove that laughs or sings when he's in company!" pursued the Dodger.
"Won't he growl at all when he hears the fiddle playing! And don't he hate other dogs as ain't of his breed! Oh no!"
"He's an out-and-out Christian." said Charley.
This was merely intended as a tribute to the animal's abilities, but it was an appropriate remark in another sense, if Master Bates had only known it; for there are a good many ladies and gentlemen, claiming to be out-and-out Christians, between whom, and Mr Sikes' dog, there exist strong and singular points of resemblance.

Cartoon depiction of the scene of above discussion, as in original novel.

Is this what Jesus meant when he instructed his disciples that all men will know that they are his when they love one another? (John 13:34-35) It is interesting that Dickens addresses these church-goers as "ladies and gentlemen" - indicating that they were middle to upper class, and considerable wealthy. But his main thrust was that they were portrayed as fiercely judgemental, and looked down on anyone who don't quite fit into their style. Dickens was not merely expressing his own opinion, but I believe, the way many perceived the churches were like in his day.

It is fortunate that at the church in which I belong to, as well as regularly attend, there is nothing like that depicted above. Rather, we at Ascot Baptist are a group of people of all walks of life, gathering together every Sunday to worship the Lord who saved us, and to have the Bible expounded, to build us up in our faith. Our motto is, everyone is welcome. No issue with race, class, occupation or level of education. For God so loved the world, without any distinction. Heaven is open for all believers, both Jews and non-Jews.

James writing that faith without works is dead had nothing to do with the believer's salvation. Instead, the letter was to rebuke snobbery, cosseting to the rich and arrogance among Christians. If one interested in the faith was to see such behaviour taken place among Christians, he would be put off straight away and walk away with a feeling of disgust. The Christian can boast as much on how close to God he is, without the love and acceptance, the other person cannot be persuaded.

Here in the UK, I have seen the "clique mentality" among younger people, especially back in the 1970s and '80s, when I was in my twenties. Often I felt left out, excluded. What was it I lacked? A high level of education and a profession to go with it, together with an inability to communicate well. To me, the "clique" mentality is wrong and does not reflect the mentality of Christ. Christians still have a long way to go, but what I can see, we are getting there! We need to let any cultural hangups melt away and let the love of Christ flow from our hearts. Then outsiders will be drawn in.

God loved the world so much that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:16).

And I guess this applied also to Mr Sike's dog.


  1. Great post Frank. I'm writing something sort of similar myself. I think that the form of Christianity we have in England is more middle class than anything and is rather cliquey, unfortunately; but when we live in a country that is insanely obsessed with class and social distinction as England is, could we expect any different?

    There's no separate Heaven for rather posh people, and another one for us plebs; these things don't matter to God so they shouldn't matter to us either; but sadly to some people social distinction is all, and it's all that matters to them.

    It is the world that should make judgements, and Christians and Christianity that should not; but sadly I think some organised Christianity is infected with worldliness and unjust divisions of all kinds.

  2. Great post, Frank! I love the Dickens' analogy. Praise God that we are saved by faith alone through grace, and that since there is nothing we can do to earn our salvation, there is nothing we can do to lose it. Born-again believers are new creations in Christ, and good works flow from the love in their hearts thanks to the indwelling Holy Spirit. That same love should see others through the eyes of Christ, as brethren and joint heirs with Him, regardless of race, nationality, or social status.
    God bless,

  3. Hi Frank,
    Yes, I do believe that James is talking about the believer here, not the outsider. If you examine the sentence 'Can such faith save him?', it is refering to the sentence preceding it where there is only one person spoken of, the believer himself. I believe this passage is questioning whether the believer ACTS on what has been spoken personally to him or her through the word of God. The example given as evidence of faith and actions working together is Abraham's obedience to God telling him to take his son to be sacrificed. In Genesis ch.22 v.1 it says that God was testing Abraham. It was Abraham's doing what God was telling him to do, knowing that absolute obedience to God does not annul His promises, regardless of what the human mind might portray will happen. I do believe that we are told to be kind to, and considerate of all people. However, I believe that this passage in James is purely to encourage christians to act on what God, through the Holy Spirit, is telling the individual to do. Even the example of faith without works is refering to 'a brother or a sister' a term used to denote fellow christians. I absolutely agree with much of what you have said about so much being wrong in the church and believe that not acting on what the Lord is trying to say to us in order to have our minds renewed in Christ is the reason for it.

  4. Sadly, our society has become obsessed with the movies about the old stories. Most of the focus in movies is about the immediate appearance or result, with little attention to the underlying attitudes and events that led to the result.

  5. Thanks for posting on this! The book of James has always thrown me for a loop esp when I compare it to what Paul teaches. I am now following you thru google reader.